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Karl Rove (left) and Jon Meacham share a laugh during their discussion of Meacham’s book.

JACK WEATHERLY — Book festival: the written word, things left unsaid and mysteries

JACK WEATHERLY

It’s probably safe to say that the sanctuary of the Galloway Memorial United Methodist Church hadn’t seen such a crowd since a revival service back in the old days.

The gathering Saturday at the 102-year-old building in downtown Jackson was overflowing on both levels.

It was just one session of more than 40 with over 160 authors holding forth, not including 80 more writers in the authors tent trying to rise to the next level –- the rooms of the state Capitol and the church at the fourth annual Mississippi Book Festival, which drew a record crowd of 7,600.

It’s also probably safe to say that some of the crowd at the Galloway sanctuary came expecting a fiery secular sermon.

After all, the speaker had just published a book called “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.”

But if they came expecting damnation from Jon Meacham with regard to the current occupant of the White House, they were disappointed.

Or if they expected Meacham to give the devil his due by defending the 45th president, they were disappointed.

That name – Donald Trump – wasn’t even mentioned, save for in the punchline in a closing joke.

Who did they think Meacham was? A historian?

Well, yes, indeed. Meacham is just that. Among his best-selling presidential biographies is the Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.”

Karl Rove, who, the consensus view holds, was the mastermind of the George W. Bush administration, noted at the outset that “I am in charge here” a double-edged play on a statement by then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig trying to assuage fears from the White House, when Ronald Reagan had been shot and his condition was not known.

Rove, a Republican strategist who has seemingly only been critical of Trump on style points, said he was the “interviewer or interrogator,” to the amusement of Meacham and the audience.

Meacham more than held his own with his needler in chief in the frequently light-hearted exchanges between the two, twice invoking Whitfield, the state mental hospital, when he thought Rove was pushing the bounds of credulity. What made that even better was that Rove evidently did not know what the reference was.

There was no question-and-answer period for the audience, but I was at the Lemuria bookseller tent and caught Meacham out of the corner of my eye and got him to sign his latest book.

As he was signing it, manipulating a small cigar, I said, “You didn’t even mention Trump.”

Without looking up, he said: “And that was a good thing.”

Meacham has taken some shots at Trump in the print and electronic media, but not this day. Using his Southern manners? Playing to his audience? Or collusion with his inquisitor?

There are scant mentions of Trump in “The Soul of America,” though clearly the book was written for that reason.

The formation of the soul of what was to become the United States started in the 16th and 17th centuries, first by the settlers of the Colony of Roanoke and then, farther north, the Pilgrims of what became Massachusetts.

The colonists of Roanoke Island disappeared and to this day their fate remains a mystery.

Andrew Lawler, whose recent book, “The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke,” was a member the American History panel at the festival.

Lawler said that by the early 19th century the mystery had morphed into a view that played a role in the idea of white supremacy, especially in the South.

Virginia Dare, the first English child born in North America, is the presumably tragic heroine of the Roanoke tale. It is believed that she may have lived only a few years after she was christened.

That assumes that she and the 117 colonists all died after being left while the ship that brought them in 1587 returned to England for supplies but whose return was delayed three years. Evidence suggests that they may have taken in by a friendly tribe, the Croatans.

But her name and likeness lived on in tales and the consciousness of the South and beyond.

It is still used as a trademark for an extract company.

Early in the 20th century it was adopted as the name for a company to advertise wine made from native grapes, muscadines.

To publicize the wine, a poem was created in which the girl lived on as a white doe, only to be slain by two Indians who had been rivals for her affection.

Her name and likeness were even stamped on the back of a U.S. half-dollar minted in 1937.

Indeed, her name has been used as a symbol of Anglo-American purity.

Note: My mother’s Christian name is Virginia Dare as a member of the Burt family. My niece and goddaughter’s middle name is Dare.

So this gets personal.

Certain ethnic traits can be reduced to a single idea, rightly or wrongly.

In another session called “Rough South” about contemporary Southern fiction, a singular trait for the region may have been captured by a panelist in a word, “stubbornness.”

That was offered by Michael Farris Smith, a Mississippi novelist whose books have received considerable acclaim.

And he might have added, if he had been asked, that has never been in short supply in the American South from its very beginnings to today.

“Courage,” a rare and selectively used word these days, would fit my mother and others who were named for the girl and other pioneers.

» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1016.

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