on November 17, 2012
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.
on December 13, 2012
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.
on August 31, 2013
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.
on December 15, 2012
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.
on March 8, 2013
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.
on December 13, 2012
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.
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. * * * Politics is a story about the relationship between the past and the future; history is a story about the relationship between the past and the present. [Both share a vantage on the past.] It's what they don't share that makes the study of history vital. Politics is accountable to opinion; history is accountable to evidence."
Politics looms large in many of these stories about American history. So, too, does historiography, as often Lepore traces how a particular "story" has evolved over the years. One of these evolutions, not surprisingly, has to do with the Constitution itself and the various approaches to constitutional interpretation over 225 years. (In the essay "We the Parchment", Lepore notes that of the 4,400 words in the Constitution, "God" is not one of them. One signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush, complained about this to another signer, John Adams, hoping that what Rush perceived to be an error might be corrected: "perhaps acknowledgement might be made of his goodness or his providence in the proposed amendments", he wrote. That, of course, did not happen. Originalism, anyone?) Besides pointing out where and how various political movements (such as the Tea Party) have gone astray, at least as regards history, Lepore also highlights where and how a few noted books of history have missed the mark, including, from recent years, Nathaniel Philbrick's "Mayflower" and Hampton Sides's "Blood and Thunder".
All but one of these essays originally was published in "The New Yorker". Not all will appeal equally to all readers. My favorites were the ones on Tom Paine, presidential campaign biographies, Charles Dickens on America, Edgar Allen Poe, "President Tom's Cabin" (Thomas Jefferson's family by his slave Sally Hemings and how for so long America preferred to ignore the evidence), and the evolution of voting procedures in the United States, particularly pre-printed ballots and secrecy.
Further evidence from the book that history is not something to be dismissed as irrelevant to the present is this remark in his Farewell Address by George Washington, who was concerned by the growing political divisiveness in the young United States: "The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissention, which in different ages & countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism."
on January 29, 2013
A joy to read. Politics and history, she tells us, work the same side of the street. “Using the past to make an argument about the future is a feature of political rhetoric....” Moreover history is a story, or many stories, the narrative knitting of past to present to future. History can be known many ways -- America did this or Virginia did that; 53% of Americans voted for X. Equally, and more interestingly, we can know history by looking at cases -- as Lepore does. What fun to read about Benjamin Franklin in his many authorial aliases talking to himself, or learning the origins of Charlie Chan (yes, she has a chapter on the real Hawaiian detective who inspired the character).
Adding to the treat, she writes beautiful long sentences, even though her editor might have taken her to task for a few of them. Her proof reader, similarly, might have stepped up in a few places (Monroe’s inaugural of 1807?) but, dear reader, take these little lapses as a treasure hunt.
on November 15, 2012
Lepore's new book is incredibly interesting using stories to convey her thesis that our nation's story isn't foreordained or even stable. The book provides the most readable historiography of some of the major time periods to be published in a long time. I will be using her essays with my students, and look forward to many more books by Professor Lepore.
on February 7, 2015
Educational as well as entertaining, Jill Lepore's collection of essays covers topics from Captain John Smith to Charlie Chan and beyond with stories that attempt to get at the truth of these historical characters. In her efforts to separate the man from the myth, she often has to delve into the questions of how history is written and how accurate it is and can we ever really know the man, e.g., George Washington who is still an enigma. In these pages you will learn how Ben Franklin has been misunderstood all this time, how mystery still surrounds the life and death of Tom Paine, how Noah Webster slaved for decades over a dictionary that nobody wanted, how Longfellow's "Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" had a connection to the slavery issue, and much, much more. This book is a wonderful antidote to that cloying, tasteless, patriotic, flag-waving pap they call American history most of us were fed in K-12.