The executive editor and vice president of Random House and former editor-in-chief of Newsweek graduated from Sewanee in 1991 with a degree in English. Along with editing, he has written multiple works on American history, including American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in the Biography category. According to Meacham, he has spent the last quarter-century exploring the art of biographies. Hours of Crisis in U.S. History, then, is a culmination of what he has learned from his studies of American history, especially the presidents and the choices that they made.
“I’m fascinated with the interplay between human and historical forces and how individual human actions shape the futures of other people. The course climbs back inside of the past to look at how people act under moments of stress and how things could have gone a different way,” Meacham says. The class has a mix of juniors and seniors as well as an interesting array of majors ranging from Art History to Biology.
Each Monday, Meacham travels from Nashville, where he lives with his wife and two kids, to teach the class. “Vice-Chancellor McCardell and the History department were very generous to allow my return,” Meacham comments. He recounts how he was personally asked by the Vice-Chancellor to join the History department as a visiting professor. Though he was away for some time, his fond memories of his undergraduate education fueled his motivation to return.
“I believe being an English major prepares you for so many aspects of life, and the small liberal arts environment introduces you to so many different characters. I can honestly say that there is not one situation I was unable to handle after coming to Sewanee.” His return has been highly rewarding, exciting students who wrote friendly but competitive statuses on Facebook while registering for classes. For some students, Meacham’s course was the best and first option. The opportunity to hear him speak is not lost to those who did not quite make the cut, however.
On President’s Day, February 17, Meacham will examine what presidents had to say about their predecessors. Set in Guerry at noon, the event will celebrate the relationships between the American presidents and how their commentary regarding those before them was, in reality, commentary on themselves. While his current course investigates humans’ reactions to times of stress since American independence, his President’s Day speech, “The Presidents on the Presidents: How They Judge One Another,” will look into times of triumph, failure, and ultimate criticism.
Meacham’s place on campus has transformed him from student to professor. A distinguished alum, he took his Sewanee experience into the real world and back. Despite this fact, he remains humble and extremely passionate about sharing his knowledge with his current students. “We’ll see if they run screaming,” he jokes. To most people, however, Jon Meacham’s speeches, articles, and presence are far from provoking hours of crisis.