Sometimes knowing where you’ve been helps you know where you are going.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham believes that digging into history through an examination of the lives of this country’s leaders gives guidance for the future.
“We are in a golden age of biography,” said Meacham, who was the featured guest on the Feb. 20 edition of now that you ask … A Conversation Series hosted by Tom Ingram. “I think there are a lot of people who, because of a feeling that the current political climate isn’t commensurate to our current situation, are hungry to see what happened in the past and what solutions that might offer for now and in the future. There are a lot of folks who care deeply about the present and feel that there’s not an easy way to look forward. So the one thing you can do is look back.”
Meacham’s most recent book, “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” is a No. 1 New York Times bestseller that has been named one of the best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, The Seattle Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Nashville resident Meacham received the Pulitzer Prize for “American Lion,” his bestselling 2008 biography of Andrew Jackson. Executive editor and executive vice president of Random House, Meacham is a contributing editor to Time Magazine, a former editor of Newsweek, and has written for The New York Times and The Washington Post, among other publications. He began his career as a reporter at The Chattanooga Times.
His other New York Times bestsellers include “Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship,” exploring the relationship between the two great leaders who piloted the free world to victory in World War II, and “American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation.” He is currently at work on a biography of President George H.W. Bush.
Meacham said his passion for writing comes from his grandfather, a city judge in his native Chattanooga who developed a love for writing late in his life. His grandfather developed a character, Percival Meriwether, a captain with the East India Trading Company, who became the central character in three novels that he published.
“I grew up around my grandfather and around politicians telling stories. I grew up going to court with my grandfather,” Meacham told a packed Shamblin Theatre crowd. “The combination of being around this as a very young boy and his historical interests. All of those tributaries came together for me.”
Meacham said when he was about six-years-old he developed his love of history and politics. He said that growing up on Missionary Ridge, site of a Civil War battle in Chattanooga on Nov. 25, 1863, and, as a young child, finding artifacts of the skirmish, also inspired his affinity for history.
“For me history was always a tactile matter. It was always right there,” he said. “You stand on Missionary Ridge and you see where General Grant was on Orchard Knob and you saw where Arthur MacArthur, Jr.broke the line. To some extent Missionary Ridge encompasses two of the great sins of life—slavery and the removal of Native Americans. It’s all right there. It was always very real to me.”
Writers have an obligation to keep readers interested, Meacham said.
“I feel a covenant with the reader that I have to keep them entertained,” said Meacham, a graduate of The University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee. “Readers have so many other things to do. I don’t mean to guild the facts. But, I think it’s crucial that authors paint the scenery in their stories as vividly as possible.”
In addition to writing, Meacham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and of the executive board of the Society of American Historians. He is a regular guest on “Morning Joe” and also occasionally appears on “Meet the Press,” “Charlie Rose” and other broadcasts. He is editor-at-large of WNET Public Media, New York’s public television station.
Meacham said he greatly enjoys his career.
“I’m very lucky and feel incredibly blessed to be able to make a living doing what I’m doing,” he said.
now that you ask… A Conversation Series is hosted by Tom Ingram, a leader-in-residence at the Nelson and Sue Andrews Institute for Civic Leadership, the founder of The Ingram Group and a longtime political consultant in Tennessee politics. The next guest in the series is former Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen who will be on stage Tuesday, March 4. The free program begins at 6:30 p.m. in Lipscomb’s Shamblin Theatre.