The Soul of America

“What has happened will happen again, and what has been done will be done again, and there is nothing new under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9-10

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

“History repeats itself.  So you might wanna pay attention.” Quavo

In an address to the Harvard University Class Day a few weeks ago, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie urged the Harvard Class of ’18, whether they were the leader or the one being led” to err on the side of truth,” and to “make literature their religion,” not just poetry and fiction but “narrative nonfiction as well.”  Sound advice, to my mind, despite the fact that elements of this ancient verity are, when brought to light, not always reassuring or uplifting.

However, to be provided detailed evidence that the depressing madness afoot in America today is nothing new, but simply history repeating itself, could be perceived as reassuring.  Racism, hatred of immigrants, and threats of tyranny have been with us since the origins of the nation itself.  But, so far, we have survived.

For me, the brilliance of The Soul of America, biographer-historian Jon Meacham’s most recent work, lies in his willingness, for the most part,  to set aside his personal assessment of the tragic crisis facing this country at the moment,  in order to allow its history to be brought to light for what it’s worth to anyone willing simply to read it.  This is evidenced by the divisions of the text. Between its Introduction of twenty pages or so,  and a “Conclusion” of about the same length, the author’s subjective assertions in the core two hundred pages or so, are scant, often only a sentence of transition or clarification.  The subtitle  “The Battle for Our Better Angels” comes from a passage in Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, in 1861.  Meacham generally steps aside and lets the facts speak for themselves.

As a teacher as well as a reasonably literate human being, I find the ability to think seriously about what is going on in the world around me a natural gift,  to be free to assess my role or contribution to that world, and what that means. My metaphysical dilemma!   So, it’s fair to say, by its subjects and organization, The Soul of America has relieved to a considerable degree my severe anxiety  and despair regarding my daily existence, as an American, over the past week or so.  A circumstance,  I am confident in asserting, shared by millions of other Americans these days.

Furthermore, one of the great joys of this world is finding a book that I have to put down in order to get some sleep, but can’t wait for the next span of time to return to it.

“Jon Meacham has done it again,” notes Tom Brokaw on a back cover note, “this time with a historically rich and gracefully written account of America’s long struggle with division in our immigrant nation and the heroic efforts to heal the wounds. It should be in every home and on every student’s desk.”

I have come away from it with the realization of how generally useless, as well as misleading, are most “politically correct”  history texts, particularly those designed for high school students.   Meacham has it all here – the characters, the major incidents, the issues, the seemingly eternal conflicts – without any sugar coating.

My admiration for Abigail Adams, introduced to me by David McCullough’s John Adams, is reaffirmed here, as is that of FDR and Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman.  However, I’ll never think of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in the same positive light as before.   Facts and the truths they reveal have their eternal merit, and I appreciate Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for emphasizing the point, even to those new Harvard graduates.


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