Jill Lepore Talks “These Truths”

These TruthsThis is a great interview with Jill Lepore, author of These Truths: A History of the United States.  I am really looking forward to reading this book.  I hope to find a copy in my mailbox when I return to the office today.

Here is a taste of Sean Woods’s interview with Lepore at Rolling Stone:

Are there dangers for the historian when you’re trying to make the past relevant to the present?
Yeah. Absolutely. Historians talk about the fallacy of presentism, that is, if you’re too interested in what’s going on in the present, you will adjust your past to justify your preferences about the future. That is a sound caution. On the other hand, if people who are cautious and careful and concerned about evidence and argument and method refuse to talk about the relationship between the past and the present, then the only people who will be doing that will be Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly.

So much of popular American history is about the Battle of Saratoga or the Battle of Brooklyn or World War II. And I wonder if that’s because so many of the historical books have been written by men and military history is something men get very jazzed about.
Most popular history is either military or presidential and has little sense of the incredible force and political power of social movements and protest movements, and doesn’t have any way of understanding a politics that doesn’t involve the White House. You wouldn’t write a history of this era and say everything was Trump, although that is what everybody thinks in the moment. Everybody’s fallen into the Trump vortex. But if you pull back, you go like, “OK, well actually there’s a lot of things going on.” And among them we get Me Too and Black Lives Matter. These are a really important part of realignments. Nor would you write a history of the Me Too movement without talking about Trump. Because a lot of Me Too is the proxy war on Trump. And a lot of Trump’s followers are actually engaged in a proxy war on Me Too. They’re inseparable analytically in the world that we live in. So why do we accept a public history that imagines that there’s presidential history and then there’s also a history of political movements. You have to look at them together. And you know, it’s hard and it’s a mess, but it’s also really illuminating.

Read the entire interview here.

3 thoughts on “Jill Lepore Talks “These Truths”

  1. She did a very good job of providing criticism for both conservative and liberal policies. I do think she spent more time on events from the 1920s onward and really exposes why we have the partisanship in the US like we do right now. She was not kind at all to Bill Clinton or Hilary Clinton through the Clinton Administration. She wasn’t wrong either regarding them. So I wouldn’t say this is pro-liberal book by any stretch.

    That said, I think she did her homework using primary sources, but she did generalize some in areas. I don’t see any way around that due to the scope of the subject matter unless she wanted to turn out ten volumes. This book is really more of a political history of the United States that is aimed at explaining why we have the divisions we have today. In that respect it is a very interesting critique on our political system as seen through the lens of a historian. How did we get to the point where we are now politically?

    Unfortunately, she will be attacked by critics on all sides for not presenting an interpretation favorable to their beliefs. However, she did what a historian is supposed to do, which is to present factual information supported by evidence which makes up her interpretation. I do like how the book makes me explore sources and think about her interpretation. I have read portions where I am not happy with her interpretation, but after some reflection it is not her interpretation I disagree with, but rather my understanding of the subject matter being reflected upon.

    In the end, any book that makes me explore what I’ve read, makes me examine sources, and makes me reflect upon what I think I know is worth reading. This book meets that criteria.


  2. John: does it give you pause — given that this book is self-billed as a History of the U.S. — that Rolling Stone (approvingly, of course) describes it as a “liberal cri de coeur”?

    That doesn’t sound like your approach to history; it sounds far more like the Howard Zinn method. That doesn’t mean it won’t be an excellent, insightful book. But, given that perhaps unwitting gloss, I wonder: is this primarily a book of historical scholarship, or — as I believe you described your own book about Trump — social/political commentary with a historical inflection?


  3. Lepore’s book is my lunchtime reading. I’ve got about 1/4 left to go. It is engaging to read, and given her purposes in the book, well done. I wouldn’t mind seeing a bit more on regions and regionalism and more on Native Americans, but that is largely quibbling on my part.


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