Through the three books I’ve read by her, the most prominent common theme that I’ve seen is narrative. She’s very concerned about the stories we Americans tell ourselves about our history. In the 60’s and 70’s, historians very rightly started to shift focus away from the great men and onto the more marginalized groups in history. This is necessary work. On the part of academics there was an accompanying, less healthy, move away from trying to write for the public at large. This was evident as the nation prepared to celebrate the Bicentennial:
“Historians mockes the Bicentennial as schlock and ts protests as contrived but didn’t offer an answer, a story, to a country that needed one. That left plenty of room for a lot of other people to get into the history business.”
This book deals with the the ways people over the past two and a half centuries have used the Founding Fathers (a term coined by Warren G. Harding in 1916) to bolster their politics. The tactic was first used before all the founders had even died, and has since been used by people across the political spectrum. Around the Bicentennial many leftists used the Boston Tea Party metaphor to protest Nixon. More recently, of course, the contemporary Tea Party has been a prime group of other people that had room to get into the history business by virtue of academics abandoning the field. Their version of what the founders wanted is often at odds with the record. Lepore argues, convincingly to my mind, that their form of originalism is much closer to fundamentalism than an attempt to actually study, understand and learn from history; it is, in fact, anti-historical.
The next Lepore book I intend to read is These Truths, which I understand to be her attempt to write a narrative history of the US that is more bound by the historical record, that, while acknowledging the atrocities in our history, does not frame US history as a mere parade of wrongdoing. This, according to a colleague in the History department, has been controversial. But a key part of Lepore’s argument is that History is, and will always be, an argument. The record is often too sparse to fully understand the motivations of a single historical personage, let alone a group with viewpoints as divergent as the founders. Whether she ultimately convinces me that the narrative she offers is the answer, I am very grateful that she makes the attempt. Over the course of three books, she’s already shifted my opinions on other books I’ve read (Ron Chernow’s Washington is exhibit A). She’s changed the way I think about narrative history. Like she said, there’s plenty of room for almost anyone to make any historical claims. Anyone trying to push back against that tendency, or at least pushing people to think more critically about it, is well worth reading. And if they have the style and wit of Jill Lepore, all the better.
Recommended. (Though I would recommend The Story of America: Essays on Origins more highly. It brings up many of the same themes, but covers more territory.)