“In our finest hours, though, the soul of the country manifests itself in an inclination to open our arms rather than to clench our fists”

meacham.JPGThe Brown Baggers met Thursday, October 17 to discuss Jon Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. 

Prompted by his reaction to the Trump presidency and the violence that occurred here in Charlottesville in 2017, Meacham examines other critical moments in American history. A well-known presidential biographer, he charts the influence Lincoln, Roosevelt, Grant, Wilson, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson had during moments of crisis, from the military wars to the struggles to achieve rights for all Americans. He also profiles Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and John Lewis, suffragettes Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt, and Army-McCarthy hearings lawyer Joseph N. Welch. Meacham describes the way these men and women stood up to the prevailing sentiment to move our society closer to the ideals enumerated in our founding documents. 

Meacham notes that America has faced cycles of divisiveness, nationalism and racism before. His examples of anti-immigration, election interference and racial terror all have clear parallels to events in the news today. While honoring the pain individuals suffered, Meacham contends that each time, not only did leaders emerge, but individuals did what he encourages all Americans to do now: enter the arena (vote); resist tribalism, respect facts and find balance. This call to action ends the book on a cautiously hopeful note. 

Brown Baggers found the book approachable and clear and balanced. While we were familiar with most of the history highlighted, it deepened our understanding of each time period. It spurred us to talk about the current political divisiveness and dysfunction, the power of wealth redistribution and the shocking lack of agreement on facts. Meacham provides a framework for improvement, but doesn’t account for the fact that it is quicker to dismantle progress than it is to make improvements. The next generation of “angels” like the Parkland High School students and climate activists Greta Thunberg and Mari Copeny seem to affirm Meacham’s thesis that pitting hope against fear is the way to ensure justice. 

Mentioned:

Other Works

About the Author 

New York Times Review 

Fresh Air Interview

Meacham’s Time article on Charlottesville 

The Brown Baggers will discuss There There by Tommy Orange on Thursday, November 21 at noon in the Central Library and newcomers are always welcome.

About JMRL Central Reference

Librarians in the reference department at the Central Library of JMRL.

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