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The Story of America: Essays on Origins Hardcover – October 7, 2012


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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

If the definition of a good book is one that makes a reader think, then Lapore has written a good book. If the definition of a very good book is one that makes a reader question prevailing thought, then Lapore has written a very good book indeed. Her collection of essays, all but one previously published in the New Yorker, places the stories Americans tell about America under a microscope, from the conflicting stories of Jamestown to the ubiquitous presidential campaign biography, from Poor Richard’s Almanac to the surprising findings she gingerly, patiently, often humorously coaxes out of inquiries into subjects that should be but are too seldom investigated. The stories behind stories are more revelatory than the so-called facts they are ostensibly built upon. And while to have read the U.S. Constitution is one thing, to understand what it says is an altogether different matter, since its meaning seems to shift with the times and the reader’s intent. This book ought to be intentional reading for every American history wonk. --Donna Chavez

Review


Runner-up for the 2013 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, PEN American Center


"In this collection of essays (most of which previously appeared in The New Yorker), Lepore illuminates the various ways in which the story of our nation has been formulated as a narrative. From John Smith's largely fictionalized account of the founding of Jamestown, in 1607, to Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration address, these pieces comprise an examination of the nature of history and an exploration of how the way we tell our story has shaped the story itself."--NewYorker.com's Page-Turner blog



"The Story of America, like A is for American, serves up a delightful smorgasbord of synecdoches and allegories of the evolution of American democracy. . . . [A] deeply satisfying book."--Amanda Foreman, Times Literary Supplement



"Anyone who has not yet had the pleasure of reading Jill Lepore might begin with The Story of America: Essays on Origins. Ms. Lepore is a gifted historian and a contributor to the New Yorker, where most of these essays appeared. Her subjects range from John Smith and the founding of Jamestown to the murder of a Connecticut family in 2007 by a pair of drug-addled drifters. She drops in on, among others, Andrew Jackson, Noah Webster, Edgar Allen Poe and Charlie Chan (the real one). Her voice is always fresh, her prose engaging and her insights original."--Fergus M. Bordewich, Wall Street Journal



"Ranging from colonial times to the present, the essays are liberally sprinkled with fascinating facts--etymologies of 'ballot' and 'booze,' or that Davy Crockett was the first presidential candidate to write a campaign autobiography. Even the footnotes contain buried treasures; history buffs and general readers alike will savor this collection."--Publishers Weekly (starred review)


"She trains the literary equivalent of wide-angle and zoom lenses on seminal American documents, examining their subjects and their creators. . . . [E]legant . . ."--Julia M. Klein, Los Angeles Times Book Review



"Lepore, who teaches history at Harvard and writes for The New Yorker, brings to the task a keen eye for the often-competing claims of history, politics, and literature. . . . [T]errifically readable, intellectually engaging, and thoroughly entertaining. . . . Lepore's subjects mostly range from the 17th to the 19th centuries, but the essays feel remarkably relevant, grappling with ideas about race, equality, voting rights, taxes, poverty, the role of America in the world."--Kate Tuttle, Boston Globe



"In this collection of her essays from the magazine, she paints portraits of George Washington, Thomas Paine, Longfellow, and many forgotten figures in America's founding, rescuing them from dogmatic myth to show that they are as human and as able to surprise as your best friend is able to inspire and infuriate you. . . . Lepore knocks you out of your comfort zone. You thought you knew America?"--The Daily Beast



"Tackling a wide variety of subjects--e.g., the Founding Fathers, Charles Dickens, Clarence Darrow, Charlie Chan, voting regulations, the decline of inaugural speeches--the author proves to be a funny, slightly punky literary critic, reading between the lines of American history. . . . As smart, lively, and assured as modern debunker gets."--Kirkus Reviews (starred review)


"If the definition of a good book is one that makes a reader think, then Lepore has written a good book. If the definition of a very good book is one that makes a reader question prevailing thought, then Lepore has written a very good book indeed. . . . The stories behind stories are more revelatory than the so-called facts they are ostensibly built upon. And while to have read the U.S. Constitution is one thing, to understand what it says is an altogether different matter, since its meaning seems to shift with the times and the reader's intent. This book ought to be intentional reading for every American history wonk."--Booklist



"Lepore's elegant account of America's genesis is alert to discrepancies and exaggerations of all kinds. It's characteristic of her genial style that while examining the sticky history of Captain John Smith (he of Pocahontas fame), she observes that while he probably wasn't a liar, his pantaloons did on one notable occasion literally burst into flames."--Olivia Laing, Prospect



"[L]ively, funny, argumentative, and plain-spoken. . . . Lepore is trying to hear America through its stories, and there are a lot of voices in that choir."--Chris Barsanti, PopMatters



"Lepore's strength as a popular historian is her ability to make her target audience . . . take a second look at the political culture we have long taken for granted, and realize that our system was not preordained, not historically inevitable, not even, always, very well planned. . . . [S]urprising and enlightening."--Brooke Allen, WilsonQuarterly.com



"Jill Lepore's fascinating, provocative and wide-ranging essays explore the 'origin stories' Americans have told themselves, from the 17th-century English settlers in Jamestown and Plymouth to the Founding Fathers to Barack Obama's origin story today. Lepore offers at once a history of American origin stories and a meditation on storytelling."--Minneapolis Star-Tribune



"In an engaging and entertaining style, Lepore questions and exposes the political motives underlying commonly accepted versions of history. Each enlightening essay reveals that what most of us think of as history is often a tangle of prejudice, speculation, and imagination. An enjoyable and thought-provoking read for history buffs at all levels and for anyone seeking to understand how history is written."--Library Journal



"Elegant, enlightening, and engaging, [Lepore's] essays give the lie to the proposition that contemporary America lacks public intellectuals. . . . Most important, Lepore's analysis is smart, sharp, and sassy."--Tulsa World



"The appropriate audience for these stories will surely be the literate citizen, if not the student of history or American Studies. . . . Lepore's ability to bring characters and subjects to life might well persuade such readers to delve more deeply into the biographies of the famous as well as the less famous Americans she engages."--James Gilbert, H-Net Reviews



"[C]opiously researched, deftly written and anecdotally instructive."--John Cussen, Erie Times-News



"Simple, short and appealing, Jill has told the story of America well."--R. Balashankar, Organiser



"In this thoughtful and provocative book, Lepore offers at once a history of origin stories and a meditation on storytelling itself."--World Book Industry



"The Story of America is a must-read for anyone interested in American history and the history of American publishing and writing. A fascinating, engaging, and expertly written book. I cannot recommend it highly enough."--Politics Reader

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; First printing. edition (October 7, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 069115399X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691153995
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.9 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #278,344 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. She received her Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale in 1995. Her first book, "The Name of War," won the Bancroft Prize; her 2005 book, "New York Burning," was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In 2008 she published "Blindspot," a mock eighteenth-century novel, jointly written with Jane Kamensky. Lepore's most recent book, "The Whites of Their Eyes," is a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice.

Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By David P. Chandler on November 17, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is a marvelous, scholarly and completely accessible tour of American history, perceived via assorted documents, ideas and personalities. Topics, to name a few, include debtors prisons, Noah Webster, Inaugural speeches, biographies of George Washington and Charles Dickens' 1843 visit to America, The chapters are written with charm, authority and brio.The extensive endnotes are an added bonus, and every page of the book is fun to read.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By anon on December 13, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
What a delight to read! The book is worth every penny I paid. In fact, after buying the Kindle edition, I purchased a second, hard copy as a gift for a friend. I am an admirer of Lepore's scholarship and writing anyway--found her book on King Philip's War enormously useful as a teacher and scholar. These essays are less academic. They're quicker and lighter but have just enough historical heft to leave a thinking reader with something to muse on.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Jim on August 31, 2013
Format: Hardcover
This thoroughly enjoyable book is a collection of essays published previously in New Yorker magazine. It's a jumble of subjects that Lepore perhaps bumped into while professing at Harvard, then turned into articles for popular consumption in a venerable magazine. Her subjects vary widely: Edgar Allan Poe, the history of voting, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, debtor's prisons, Kit Carson, presentation of the U.S. in school plays, and others. Lepore did research on all of them and has her subjects in hand. She writes popular history drolly with a weakness for descriptive metaphors--both her own and others'. For example: In the pantheon of American "superhero" Founding Fathers, she writes, Tom Paine is a lesser demigod, made use of only occasionally, like Aquaman. Another example: she quotes farmer/ex-Revolutionary soldier William Manning in the 1790s: "It [the Constitution] was made like a Fiddle, with but few Strings, but so that the ruling Majority could play any tune upon it they please." Her book is surprisingly free of the political bias seemingly a prerequisite for a person who 1) has a Ph.D. in American Studies, and 2) chairs the history department at Harvard. I scrutinize history books assiduously, just waiting for political nonsense to appear and ruin them so I can grind my teeth. I had nary an objection to Lepore's book. Want to read a well written, entertaining collection of informative historical essays? Here is one worth the price.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Stephen Foehr on December 15, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book should be required reading in secondary and high school history classes. It gives a human perspective to our nation's historical turning points. The reader can understand the very human motives and reasons and blunders that are treated so dryly and one-dimensionally in the ordinary history textbooks.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By R. S. Wilkerson on March 8, 2013
Format: Hardcover
A delightful series of essays about the various ways we have written about and interpret our origins as a nation. I think she illustrates by means of a series of essays about significant writings in our history, and not always those one would expect, that we are what we have created from the literary imaginations of our people striving to bring the ideals of democracy, freedom, justice, and equality before the law to fruition in a rapidly changing world and a nation of changing political and social values. A very engaging study of how we have perceived ourselves and how those perceptions have passed into the public consciousness. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in American history.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By RHagan on December 13, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Lepore's book was delightful, and after reading it in my Kindle I bought a hard copy to give my teen-age granddaughter because it is not like the boring surveys of American history one gets in high school. It is a set of interesting stories that might get her into the larger subject. Some pieces are a bit wandering, but they usually made me want to read more on that period or incident.
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Format: Paperback
THE STORY OF AMERICA contains twenty essays about various people and topics from American history -- from John Smith and Jamestown, to Ben Franklin, to debtors' prisons and bankruptcy laws, to Noah Webster and "A New Merrykin Dikshunary", to Clarence Darrow, to presidential campaign biographies and presidential inaugural speeches. The essays average fifteen pages in length (excluding the copious and conscientious footnotes found at the end of the volume) and they are excellently written, especially considering that author Jill Lepore is a university professor (at Harvard, no less). For anyone with an interest in American history, reading them should be both informative and fun. In part, that is because in each Lepore takes pains to tell a story.

This makes sense in terms of finding a wider readership. It also exemplifies a meta-historical point Lepore wants to make: "History is the art of making an argument about the past by telling a story accountable to evidence. In the writing of history, a story without an argument fades into antiquarianism; an argument without a story risks pedantry. Writing history requires empathy, inquiry, and debate. It requires forswearing condescension, cant, and nostalgia." Well, in each of the essays of THE STORY OF AMERICA Lepore has a thesis or argument; she backs it up with evidence; and there is empathy but not cant.

Lepore also makes an interesting point about politics vis-à-vis history: "Politics involves elections and votes and money and power, but the heart of politics is describing how things came to be the way they are in such a way as to convince people that you know how to make things the way they ought to be.
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