Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Story of America: Essays on Origins by Jill Lepore

The Story of America: Essays on origins is an excellent collection of narrative essays about American history that add up to a history of the way Americans have thought about their history over the years. Over a broad range of topics (essays on the history of presidential campaign biographies, on the history of murder, biographical sketches of Washington, Franklin and Poe, among others) she tells very good stories based on documentable records with great wit and prose. Like a story suite in fiction (say City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff Vandermeer or A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan) each essay stands on its own, yet contributes to an overall understanding.

From this book, and from a couple of interviews with her I’ve heard/read/watched I get the sense that part of her project as an historian is to take narrative history back from journalists and/or bring narrative back to academic history. It’s easy to take the record and impose a narrative on it. As she says in her essay on the history of murder in America: “It’s hard to say, because Roth had wandered into a no-man’s land between the social sciences and the humanities. After a while, arguments made in that no-man’s land tend to devolve into meaninglessness: good government is good, bad government is bad, and everything’s better when everything’s better. Correlating murder with a lack of faith and hope may contain its horror, but only because, in a bar graph, atrocity yields to banality.” Into that no man’s land many biographers have strayed and overstated themselves. In her essay on Washington, she points out how little can be determined about him as a person based on the record, particularly about the state of his emotions and his relationship with his mother, and yet how biographers consistently make strong statements about both. She calls Ron Chernow to task for this (I’ve read his Washington with great enjoyment, but she’s right that he essentially made up what he put into his book about Washington’s emotions. He’s too thorough for me to not recommend Washington, A Life, but if you do read it take those portions with a grain of salt). In her essay on Kit Carson and the West and dime western novels, she takes Hampton Sides similarly to task for inventing wholesale (with good motives) the internal monologue of the Native Americans in his story (I haven’t read Sides’ book and therefore can’t speak to it). The task she’s set herself is to construct narratives that can actually fit the historical record while maintaining the driving readability of the big popular narrative histories that populate the bestseller list. She accomplished that in these essays. The next book of hers I intend to read is her biography of Jane Franklin, sister of Ben. I will be paying attention to how well she rides that line in a longer form.

The essays on the history of presidential campaign biographies and of presidential inaugural addresses are fantastic. She described the typical plot of the former: “Parties rise and fall. Wars begin and end. The world turns. But American campaign biographies have been following the same script for two centuries. East of piffle, west of hokum, the Boy from Hope always grows up to be the Man of the People.” She is witty and incisive. The book is made of great parts that add up to an even greater whole.

This is a Canon-Worthy book. I have only read it once, and I have a rule that books only go in my canon if I’ve read them at least twice. I am highly likely to read this again, and when I do I will be surprised if it doesn’t go into the Canon.

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