The Soul of America – Jon Meacham

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"The past is never dead; it is not even past."-William Faulkner

In August of 2017, after the deadly alt-right march in Charlottesville, Virginia, Time's editor Nancy Gates called up Jon Meacham and asked him if he had any thoughts on the subject. The Pulitzer prize-winning historian-and a son of the South who literally grew up on the Missionary Ridge battlefield-began to reflect on the words of Faulkner quoted above, and how the "American battles over power and race and history" have, "with astonishing regularity," proven the truth of those words. The initial result of his reflection was "American Hate, a History" (Time, August 17 2017), an exploration of "several different eras" of American history "in which a politics of fear seemed to triumph, at least temporarily, over hope." Meacham continued to reflect, and "American Hate, a History" became the seed that gave birth to his book The Soul of America.

It has also been said of the past (in a quote attributed to Twain) that history does not repeat itself but it rhymes, and I have never read a book which summons the echos of those rhymes more expertly-and more ominously-than The Soul of America. Meacham is a master of his subject, and if the ground he covers seems familiar (it is), if some chapters seem like reworked essays on individual episodes (they are), and if the extensive use of quotations at times almost overwhelms the author's clear and elegant prose, then such factors should be seen as only minor faults-if seen as faults at all-for they too contribute to the design of the whole. For Meacham discovers the marvelous rhymes of our history in the familiar stories we (only think we) know, often in apparently unrelated episodes, their connections hidden in the testimony of the people who lived them.

Here are two examples which demonstrate how adept Meacham can be at choosing instances which reveal the rhyming of history.

Joe McCarthy and the press: When he read coverage he disliked, McCarthy did not keep quiet-he went on the offenseive, singling out specific publications and particular journalists, sometimes at rallies. He particularly hated "The Milwaukee Journal." . . . To a "Journal" reporter, McCarthy confided: "Off the record, I don't know that I can cut [the "Journal"'s] profits at all . . . . But if you show a newspaper as unfriendly and having a reason for being antagonistic, you can take the sting out of what it says about you. I think I can convince a lot of people that they can't believe what they read in the "Journal." George Wallace and his crowds: Wallace brought something intriguing to the modern politics of fear in America: a visceral connection to his crowds, an appeal that confounded elites but gave him a durable base. [He] was "simply more alive than all the others," a female journalist told the writer Marshall Frady. . . . "You saw those people in that auditorium when he was speaking-you saw their eyes. He made those people feel something real for once in their lives. . . . I couldn't take my eyes off him, there were all those people screaming. You almost love him, though you know what a little gremlin he actually is." Perhaps the best thing about The Soul of America is the way it communicates the character of the person who wrote it, for Jon Meacham himself is an inspiration. Although he is a scholar and a citizen dismayed by recent events, he is also a resilient man who chooses to hope and to act. And because he is a scholar, he finds ample evidence for his hope in the deeds of brave Americans, both in its leaders-Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, FDR, Truman, LBJ-and in the gadflies and agitators who kept those leaders honest: Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois, Alice Paul, Eugene Debs, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Chase Smith, John Lewis, Martin Luther King. Meacham sums it up best himself: For all of our darker impulses, for all of our shortcomings, and for all of the dreams denied and deferred, the experiment begun so long ago, carried out so imperfectly, is worth the fight. There is, in fact, no struggle more important, and none nobler, than the one we wage in the service of those better angels who, however besieged, are always ready for battle.


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