Note: This review is by my husband Jim.
Jon Meacham is a respected historian and author. He wrote American Lion (about Andrew Jackson); Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power; Destiny and Power (about George H. W. Bush); and many historical monographs. He appears regularly on CNN television to instruct Americans about the ways in which Donald J. Trump is a really bad president. His latest book, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, tells the story of other historical moments in which vicious, hateful forces (like the Ku Klux Klan) have contended with inclusive, liberal movements (such as for civil rights) and leaders (FDR, Truman, and Lyndon Johnson) for defining what America is and should be.
The “Better Angels” of the title were first identified by Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address, when he pleaded with southern whites to listen to those angels. They didn’t. After the ensuing Civil War, a decade of “Reconstruction” featured a backlash in the South that involved horrifying incidents of beatings, rape and murder both of blacks and of the whites who sympathized with them. This period was followed by a century of “Jim Crow” laws and practices that took rights away from blacks.
Meacham sees American history as moving in cycles from the truly awful to the more uplifting. He retells some of the worst parts of American history, showing how attitudes toward race allowed unscrupulous politicians to incite fear and prejudice – a practice that sadly continues to this day. He tempers the tales of domestic violence with accounts of better men like W. E. B. DuBois and Harry Truman. The passages about the civil rights movement of the 1960s, with Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King as its heroes, are quite moving.
The book jumps from the 1960s to the present day. Although the author is appalled by Trumpism, he does not try to explain how we got here, nor offer an analysis of whether this dark period is any different than those preceding it. Thus it is hard to understand Meacham’s optimism that a kindler, gentler America will prevail. In some ways, it could be argued that the anger and divisions over race that have characterized our country from the beginning have always been roiling around just under the surface, waiting for opportunistic politicians to provide an imprimatur for their expression. But in the current era, the ability of both social and visual media to promulgate as the truth a “menacing, overarching narrative” that identifies not only fellow citizens as enemies but parts of the government itself, is unparalleled in American history. Moreover, these efforts are egged on by two important loci of power: a foreign country as well as by the President of the United States himself. These are indeed scary times, with the advice of “better angels” being drowned out by the broadcasts of hate-mongers.
Evaluation: This book is best regarded as a historical narrative of the period between the time of Lincoln and the Civil War, and the apotheosis of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1960s. As such, it is not necessarily “timely,” but I feel history is always good to know. If only the current leadership felt the same….
Published in hardcover by Random House, 2018
A Few Notes on the Audio Production:
The narrator, Fred Sanders, did an excellent job, imbuing his reading with passion at the appropriate moments.
Published unabridged on 9 CDs (approximately 11 listening hours) by Random House Audio, 2018