Jon Meacham is an author, historian, professor, and commentator. He has the long view on the politics of today’s world. And he explains what that means in his latest book, The Soul of America.
His premise is that our country has had many previous bouts of unrest, with politicians making unpopular decisions. There’ve been many previous movements to topple legislators and other leaders with discriminatory policies. And, quoting Abraham Lincoln, “the better angels of our nature” win out.
So, fundamentally, The Soul of America is meant to be optimistic rather than depressing. But let’s be honest, Meacham moves through some of the most conflict-ridden parts of United States history. Even though good wins out in those eras, and the country remains a democracy, he reminds us of how many times we the people have had to fight for it. Obviously, the fight continues today.
For example, he tells the story of the Klu Klux Klan just following the Civil War. He reminds us of the disenfranchisement of women, and their long fight for voting rights. And the Red Scare of Senator Joe McCarthy’s time. Then he moves on to the Jim Crow laws and the fight for civil rights during the 1960s. Also the internment of Japanese Americans in 1941, for which reparations were offered in the 1980s. That’s not even a complete list.
Ultimately, I think Meacham wants his readers to know that what brings our country back from the brink is always (always, always) the actions of its citizens. That this is a time for action, not unlike so many others. And that’s advice I can accept and put into action. Perhaps you can also!
Meacham is first and foremost an historian. This is a scholarly work—you’ll find nearly as many pages of notes as of text. And he loads it up with direct quotes from historical figures. So, if that’s what you love, you’ll be in heaven.
If you’re more of a casual political and current events observer, this may feel exceedingly heavy to you. It did to me. That’s not a criticism, because I still found the book fascinating. And I was glad to have some lighter reads going at the same time. I just wonder if I absorbed everything when listening by audio. Thankfully, I have a digital version to revisit in the future as well.
For me, Meacham’s writing style isn’t overly dry given the topic. He keeps the pace moving from event to event. His sentences are shorter and less convoluted than some historians. The book feels more like a talk or a TV show than a dissertation.
This is a perspective worth investigating. I hope you’ll give it a go!
Thanks to NetGalley, Random House Publishing Group – Random House, and the author for the digital ARC in exchange for this honest review.
If you’d like to hear more, check out this author talk Meacham gave at The Free Library of Philadelphia around the time this book launched.