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Historian Jon Meacham's Search for the 'Soul' of the Country

Heidi Ross

It's unfair, to say nothing of corny, to say Jon Meacham lives in the past. But you might be forgiven for casually thinking so: the Tennessee native is well-known for his popular presidential histories and biographies. But Meacham's most recent book, The Soul of America, is all about the present.

"Faulkner was right: The past is never dead. It's not even past," Meacham said in a recent conversation with WUOT's Brandon Hollingsworth.

Meacham's research focuses on several periods of division in America's past. Those convulsions often involved racial animus, economic fears, social and cultural changes, and swells of tribalism.

"Every era is defined by the struggle between our better angels and our worst instincts," Meacham says.

And while the nation emerged from each of those instances to see another day, Meacham cautions a good outcome is never guaranteed.

"My message is not, 'We've been here before, so relax,'" Meacham says. "My message is, we've been here before, so let's learn how we got out of it...and as FDR once said, 'Try something.' Above all, try something."

A condensed version of this conversation aired on WUOT on Friday, July 6.