Finding America’s soul

“Yankee Doodle Dandy” is one of the greatest pieces of Americana ever put to screen. From the frenetic singing and snappy-but-dated dialogue, the Michael Curtiz-helmed biopic of George M. Cohan is filled with patriotic fare. But what makes it so wonderful is that it’s deliciously subversive. See, the film stars James Cagney, who was regularly labeled a communist and the film was somewhat seen as a way to save his reputation.  And throughout the film, we see America’s warts as well as its glories. Cagney – and Curtiz – aren’t about to shy away from the issues America faces. This is typified by the final scene in which the butt of the movie’s final joke is an ignorant American soldier heading off to fight in World War II. Now, don’t get me wrong. This film doesn’t address all of America’s ills. It just doesn’t deny they exist. It also shows how we often use the arts to hide our ills. In that theme, it’s almost as good as Childish Bambino’s effervescently and brilliantly challenging “This is America.”

As I read Jon Meacham’s “The Soul of America,” I kept thinking about “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “This is America,” and the themes that it brings up: patriotism, what it means to be an American, how we struggle, generation by generation, for a “more perfect union.”

Meacham is one of America’s best historians and he wrote the book in response to the divided times we live in and how they give us a sense of hopelessness. Though it’s only 300 pages, plus 100 pages of notes, the book is incredibly thorough for a canvassing of such a wide-ranging topic.      

He takes readers on a voyage from the Civil War through the Johnson Administration, with some detours to prior eras and today, while showing us how we’ve overcome plenty of divided times. He doesn’t shy away from America’s biggest failures: slavery, Japanese internment, voting restrictions, Jim Crow, Joe McCarthy, the Red Scare. As someone who minored in American Studies and has two bookcases of already read history books, I learned new things on every page. His gift in this book is to illuminate bygone eras and bringing a needed perspective. He shows readers how those who stood up to McCarthy eventually toppled him, for example. And he doesn’t shy away from how destructive Trumpism is to the nation that progress has built.

The idea Meacham is pushing isn’t a patriotism epitomized by bluster, bumper stickers and empty recitations of anthems. It’s the patriotism of the men who sweated out hot summer days in 1780s Philadelphia, of Malcolm Jenkin’s raised fist, of the men and women who knew they would be unjustly rejected but showed up to vote anyway, of the immigrant making a place for themselves in an unknown land. Most of the time, that patriotism takes the form of the sitting president, often as a foil to the current oval office occupant. This is most evident in the depiction of Roosevelt standing up to Nazis abroad and at home as he is still guiding the nation out of the depression. But it also takes shape in the people whose daily struggles pushed our nation forward. To Meacham’s credit, we also see where great men have failed. Again, this is best seen in Roosevelt, who chose not to push as hard for civil rights as he could have, didn’t fight hard enough to save European Jews, and also interred the Japanese.

One thing you see from our best leaders, whether they occupied the oval office or not, is an immense sense of hope. You see it in FDR, in Lyndon Johnson, in Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. You see it in the suffragettes and Martin Luther King.

Meacham never outright says it, but the stories he tells and the people he shows you do. The greatest part of this country has never been it’s military winning victories in far off lands. It’s the struggle that the everyman or the president makes to build a better community.

Meacham tells us about an actor who is part of a ceremony to honor a veteran for his interred family, who said:

Blood that has soaked into the sand of a beach is all of one color. America stands unique in the world: the only country not founded on race but on a way, an ideal. Not in spite of but because of our polyglot background, we have had all the strength in the world. That is the American Way.”

That American actor, speaking the decade “Yankee Doodle Dandy” was released to honor a prior generation’s popular entertainer, would go on to be president. While holding the office, he would officially apologize for the nation’s actions interring the Japanese.

If you haven’t, pick up “Soul of America,” and cherish it.

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