Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham to Open Literature Conference
By Jan Galletta Staff Writer
Chattanooga Times Free Press
Wednesday, February 21, 2022
On the job as Newsweek editor, Jon Meacham immerses himself in breaking stories, from the point of immediate coverage to their final text-and-image presentation in the widely circulated periodical.
But at his home in New York City, it’s history that often absorbs him.
Already responsible for 2003’s “Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship” and last year’s “American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation,” the best-selling author currently is working on a biography of Andrew Jackson and his White House coterie.
Clearly, for the Chattanooga native and University of the South alum, old things are not forgotten.
“Some question the applicability of the problems of the past; they say we can’t draw too many parallels,” he said, speaking recently by phone. “I think, if you don’t use history... put it in context and learn from it, we’re unilaterally disarming.
I’m not sure what the point of history is otherwise.”
Slated to open next month’s Conference on Southern Literature by offering the Livingood Lecture, Mr. Meacham plans to speak about “how we can use the past to understand the present,” he said.
“The past is relevant to our time,” said the McCallie School graduate, who was born in 1969. He suggested, for example, that the nation might better have girded itself for war in Iraq had its government leaders taken a cue from the candor that key decision makers displayed in World War II. “Churchill and Roosevelt prepared people for the worst,” said Mr. Meacham. “President Bush didn’t prepare us for the worst (in Iraq). It snuck up on a lot of Americans.” Such perspicacity made Mr. Meacham a natural for his naming as 2007’s Livingood Award winner, said Gail Pollock, director of the Chattanooga Regional History Museum, which sponsors the award.
“Every other year since 1987, the Livingood Award has been presented to someone who has had an impact on, or an insight into, American history,” she said of the honor that’s named for James Livingood, the late University of Tennessee at Chattanooga professor and Hamilton County historian.
“Jon certainly qualifies in those lines, and his reputation will add shine to the list of distinguished Livingood lecturers that includes C. Vann Woodward, Stephen Ambrose and Wilma Dykeman.”
Mr. Meacham’s address sets the stage for the conference, slated for the Tivoli Theatre and the Chattanooga Theatre Centre March 29-31 and sponsored by the Arts & Education Council.
Held in tandem with the Fellowship of Southern Writers’ meeting and member induction, the event features panel discussions, readings and author workshops in 17 area high school classrooms, according to Laurel Eldridge, council spokeswoman.
Scheduled to join Mr.
Meacham at the biennial symposium are some 40 authors, critics and publishers. Among them are heavyweight wordsmiths Wendell Berry, Robert Hicks, Dorothy Allison, Josephine Humphreys, Catherine Landis, William Henry Lewis and Greg Williamson.
The Southern region is fertile ground for producing authors because “there’s not much else to do, so we spend a lot of time talking,” said Mr. Meacham. “Southerners are great storytellers.”
He said his own routine entails completing copious research before composing a single sentence. For the former Chattanooga Times reporter, the challenge lies in finding “how to make the complex accessible, to entertain without being didactic,” he said. “I’m not in any sense an academic.”
It’s a process that he said typically takes place in the Manhattan apartment he shares with his wife, Keith, and their two children. It rarely involves rough drafts on yellow legal pads, he said.
“I can’t compose in longhand.
I blame it on McCallie; we were encouraged to just start typing,” he said. “With the books, I’ve taken two or three weeks and locked myself up in a room to write.
“Sometimes, I’ll just throw something at the wall and see what sticks.”