Robert Westbrook Reviews Jill Lepore, *These Truths*

These TruthsOver at The Christian Century,  University of Rochester intellectual historian Robert Westbrook reviews Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States.  Here is a taste:

Even if Lepore in some respects falls short on her own terms, it would be churlish in the end not to salute her for realizing her ambitions as fully as she does. She has laid down a marker for anyone who would try to contain the history of the United States within a single volume. She says that “the work of the historian is not the work of the critic or of the moralist.” I find it hard to believe that she really believes this assertion. In any case, she has fashioned a work of history that is at the same time a telling work of social criticism and of expansive moral imagination.

She also says that her book “is meant to double as an old-fashioned civics book.” It does. This is not a particularly distinguished genre, but her contribution to it is among the best ever published, despite its shortcomings. She is right to say that “the past is an inheritance, a gift and a burden. It can’t be shirked. You carry it everywhere. There’s nothing for it but to get to know it.” We Americans might all profitably include her effort to get to know our past among the books we stuff in our backpacks to read by flashlight as we try to ascend from the deep, dark hole into which our republic has fallen.

Read the entire review here.

Debs: Socialism is “merely Christianity in action”

Debs

Jill Lepore, in a piece at The New Yorker, argues that Eugene Debs‘s socialism was deeply rooted in values that were both American and Christian.  God and country!

Here is a taste:

But Debs’s socialism, which was so starry-eyed that his critics called it “impossibilism,” was decidedly American, and had less to do with Karl Marx and Communism than with Walt Whitman and Protestantism. “What is Socialism?” he asked. “Merely Christianity in action. It recognizes the equality in men.”

The myth of Debs’s Christlike suffering and socialist conversion in the county jail dates to 1900; it was a campaign strategy. At the Social Democratic Party convention that March, a Massachusetts delegate nominated Debs as the Party’s Presidential candidate and, in his nominating speech, likened Debs’s time in Woodstock to the Resurrection: “When he came forth from that tomb it was to a resurrection of life and the first message that he gave to his class as he came from his darkened cell was a message of liberty.” Debs earned nearly ninety thousand votes in that year’s election, and more than four times as many when he ran again in 1904. In 1908, he campaigned in thirty-three states, travelling on a custom train called the Red Special. As one story has it, a woman waiting for Debs at a station in Illinois asked, “Is that Debs?” to which another woman replied, “Oh, no, that ain’t Debs—when Debs comes out you’ll think it’s Jesus Christ.”

Read the entire piece here.

My favorite biography of Debs remains Nick Salvatore’s Eugene Debs: Citizen and Socialist.  It is worth your time.

Jill Lepore’s “New Americanism”

These TruthsHarvard’s Jill Lepore is calling for a new national history in a piece at Foreign Affairs.  I am assuming much of this piece draws from her most recent book These Truths: A History of the United States.

Here is a taste of “A New Americanism: Why a Nation Needs a National Story:

In 1986, the Pulitzer Prize–winning, bowtie-wearing Stanford historian Carl Degler delivered something other than the usual pipe-smoking, scotch-on-the-rocks, after-dinner disquisition that had plagued the evening program of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association for nearly all of its centurylong history. Instead, Degler, a gentle and quietly heroic man, accused his colleagues of nothing short of dereliction of duty: appalled by nationalism, they had abandoned the study of the nation…. 

“We can write history that implicitly denies or ignores the nation-state, but it would be a history that flew in the face of what people who live in a nation-state require and demand,” Degler said that night in Chicago. He issued a warning: “If we historians fail to provide a nationally defined history, others less critical and less informed will take over the job for us.”

But in the 1970s, studying the nation fell out of favor in the American historical profession. Most historians started looking at either smaller or bigger things, investigating the experiences and cultures of social groups or taking the broad vantage promised by global history. This turn produced excellent scholarship. But meanwhile, who was doing the work of providing a legible past and a plausible future—a nation—to the people who lived in the United States? Charlatans, stooges, and tyrants. The endurance of nationalism proves that there’s never any shortage of blackguards willing to prop up people’s sense of themselves and their destiny with a tissue of myths and prophecies, prejudices and hatreds, or to empty out old rubbish bags full of festering resentments and calls to violence. When historians abandon the study of the nation, when scholars stop trying to write a common history for a people, nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism. 

Maybe it’s too late to restore a common history, too late for historians to make a difference. But is there any option other than to try to craft a new American history—one that could foster a new Americanism?…

“The history of the United States at the present time does not seek to answer any significant questions,” Degler told his audience some three decades ago. If American historians don’t start asking and answering those sorts of questions, other people will, he warned. They’ll echo Calhoun and Douglas and Father Coughlin. They’ll lament “American carnage.” They’ll call immigrants “animals” and other states “shithole countries.” They’ll adopt the slogan “America first.” They’ll say they can “make America great again.” They’ll call themselves “nationalists.” Their history will be a fiction. They will say that they alone love this country. They will be wrong.

Read the entire piece here.  I find myself largely in agreement with Lepore, although I still need to read her book.  (It’s sitting on my nightstand as I type!)

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.

On Historians, Public Debate, and Journalists

hofstadter

The days of Richard Hofstadter are over

Last week The Chronicle of Higher Education published an interview with Harvard University historian Jill Lepore. We posted about it here.  During the course of the interview, Lepore said:

The academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril. The retreat of humanists from public life has had enormous consequences for the prestige of humanistic ways of knowing and understanding the world.

Universities have also been complicit in letting sources of federal government funding set the intellectual agenda. The size and growth of majors follows the size of budgets, and unsurprisingly so. After World War II, the demands of the national security state greatly influenced the exciting fields of study. Federal-government funding is still crucial, but now there’s a lot of corporate money. Whole realms of knowing are being brought to the university through commerce.

I don’t expect the university to be a pure place, but there are questions that need to be asked. If we have a public culture that suffers for lack of ability to comprehend other human beings, we shouldn’t be surprised. The resources of institutions of higher learning have gone to teaching students how to engineer problems rather than speak to people.

When Lepore laments the lack of public engagement among historians, I imagine that she wants historians to write for popular publications such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, or The New York Review of Books  Or perhaps she means writing books with trade presses.

Thomas Sugrue, a Professor of History and the Director of the New York University Collaborative on Global Urbanism, whipped-off a series of tweets in response to Lepore’s article.  I have included these tweets below.  Since I have mixed feelings about these tweets, I have decided to comment on some of them.

I don’t hold an academic appointment that most in the academy would consider prestigious, so I am not sure how many folks listen to me or take me seriously, but I have been preaching about the need for historians to engage the public for more than a decade.

I think Sugrue is correct.  Lepore’s criticism of historians staying in the ivory tower and not writing for the public is not as strong as it was a decade ago.  But what counts as public engagement?  It seems that Lepore and Sugrue are in general agreement that public engagement is primarily about writing in magazines that have very little readership beyond a well-educated, urban class that either live in blue states or aspire to live in blue states.

Moreover, those who publish pieces in The Washington Post and New York Times usually write for online audiences.  Most Americans do not search for these kinds of pieces in the online versions of national newspapers.  The thinking classes usually learn about these pieces through social media–usually Facebook and Twitter.  As a result, pieces in the Post or the Times circulate among the proverbial choir.  Is this really shaping public debate?

I agree.  The Internet has enabled this.

Yes.  I appreciate Zelizer on this front.  He is engaging a much wider audience every Saturday on CNN.

This is all well and good, but all of Sugrue’s examples here are historians shaping public debate by, for the most part, preaching to the choir.  I don’t want to be unfair to Sugrue because I largely agree with him on most of these tweets, but some of us do not live in a world where a well-targeted op-ed or a review in the LA Review of Books is going to be read.  The people I encounter every day in American evangelicalism or in south-central Pennsylvania do not usually read The Atlantic or The New Yorker.  They don’t see these magazines shaping public debate in their neighborhoods and towns.

I live in a world where we need to defend the very idea that historians have something to offer public life.  The people I know need to be convinced that history is important.  They do not breathe the rarefied intellectual air that Sugrue and Lepore breathe.

While I have published pieces in The AtlanticThe Washington Post, and other places that Sugrue or Lepore might deem worthy of a historian-public intellectual, I am convinced that we need more than this. I want to push for a deeper, even more engaged, public witness.  We need public historians laboring tirelessly to present the past to visitors in small museums. We need historians making cases, in their own backyards, for why these small museums need funding.  We need historians to earn trust among audiences through public lectures (reading papers in public venues are not public lectures) and face-to-face conversations about their books.  We need historians willing to educate college presidents and boards on the importance of the humanities. We need historians to build communities through blogs and social media. (Kevin Kruse is a great example here, but most of his audience represent one political/ideological perspective).  We need to work with teachers and make connections with local school districts.  We need historians teaching Sunday School.  We need to embrace the opportunity to teach large survey classes that put us in front of young men and women who need to see the importance of the past for their work in the worlds of business, engineering, and health care.  We need to stop thinking about our own ambitions and start using our skills to serve the common good in the places where we live and work.  The age of the superstar historian who speaks to mass culture is over.  Mass culture no longer exists.  We now live in what Daniel Rodgers has called “the age of fracture.”

Finally, we need to abandon the term “public intellectual.”  The only people who care about this moniker are other “public intellectuals” or scholars who aspire to a life as a “public intellectual.”  The phrase invokes a bunch of elite white men sitting around in Greenwich Village writing pieces that the overwhelming majority of Americans do not read.

Instead, perhaps we need to reclaim the public dimension of the term “historian.”

I don’t think Sugrue would disagree with any of this, but if we really want to reach as many people as possible in the age of Trump, we need to have a much more expansive view of public culture.

Lepore: “Anyone who makes an identity-based claim for a political position has to reckon with the unfortunate fact that Stephen Douglas is their forebear, not Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass”

These TruthsEvan Goldstein of The Chronicle of Higher Education recently interviewed Jill Lepore about her new book, the academy, identity politics, and writing.

Here is a taste:

Q. How is the academy implicated in or imperiled by this moment of epistemological crisis?

A. The academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril. The retreat of humanists from public life has had enormous consequences for the prestige of humanistic ways of knowing and understanding the world.

Universities have also been complicit in letting sources of federal government funding set the intellectual agenda. The size and growth of majors follows the size of budgets, and unsurprisingly so. After World War II, the demands of the national security state greatly influenced the exciting fields of study. Federal-government funding is still crucial, but now there’s a lot of corporate money. Whole realms of knowing are being brought to the university through commerce.

I don’t expect the university to be a pure place, but there are questions that need to be asked. If we have a public culture that suffers for lack of ability to comprehend other human beings, we shouldn’t be surprised. The resources of institutions of higher learning have gone to teaching students how to engineer problems rather than speak to people.

Q. The university has been convulsed by debates around identity politics. You point out that identity politics, by other names, has always played a role in American life.

A. It’s impossible to talk about without pissing off a whole bunch of people no matter what you say, which is a flag that something is terribly wrong about the framing of the conversation.

Making political claims that are based on identity is what white supremacy is. To the degree that we can find that in the early decades of the country, it’s the position taken by, say, John C. Calhoun or Stephen Douglas arguing against Abraham Lincoln. The whole Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858 comes down to Douglas saying, Our forefathers founded this country for white men and their posterity forever. And Lincoln, following on the writings of black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and David Walker and Maria Stewart, says, No, that’s just not true! Lincoln read in the founding documents a universal claim of political equality and natural rights, the universality of the sovereignty of the people, not the particularity. Anyone who makes an identity-based claim for a political position has to reckon with the unfortunate fact that Stephen Douglas is their forebear, not Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass.

Q. You get asked about your productivity a lot. I gather it’s a question you don’t like.

A. I sometimes say to people — this is like a 1930s thing to say, you can picture Barbara Stanwyck saying it in a noir film — it’s like complimenting a girl on her personality. It’s not about “You do good work,” it’s about “You do a lot of work.”

For a lot of people writing is an agony; it’s a part of what we do as scholars that they least enjoy. For me writing is a complete and total joy, and if I’m not writing I’m miserable. I have always written a lot. For years, before I wrote for The New Yorker, I wrote an op-ed every day as practice and shoved it in a drawer. It’s not about being published, it’s about the desire to constantly be writing. It’s such a strongly felt need that if it was something socially maladaptive it would be considered a vice.

Read the entire interview here.

Michael Kazin Reviews Jill Lepore’s New History of the United States

These TruthsI love seeing two prolific historians engage one another.  Over at The New Republic, Michael Kazin (Georgetown) reviews Jill Lepore’s (Harvard) new book These Truths: A History of the United States.

Here is a taste:

Lepore…in her new book, These Truths, declines the temptation either to condemn the national project or to celebrate it. For her, the United States has always been a nation wrestling with a paradox, caught between its sunny ideals and its darker realities. “Between reverence and worship, on the one side, and irreverence and contempt, on the other,” she writes, “lies an uneasy path.” The American Revolution was far more than a mere change of power from one group of well-to-do white men to another. “The United States,” writes Lepore, “rests on a dedication to equality.” Yet throughout her deftly crafted survey, she also makes clear how often citizens and their leaders failed to implement this ideal or actively betrayed it. She borrows her title from the Declaration of Independence, to signal both the standard of reason and equality that Americans profess and how their deeds have fallen short of it.

Read the entire review here.

“One Nation, Under the Gun”

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The good folks at the Duke Divinity School blog Faith & Leadership reminded me of this 2012 New Yorker piece by historian Jill Lepore.  Here is a taste of “Battleground America“:

The Second Amendment reads, “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Arms are military weapons. A firearm is a cannon that you can carry, as opposed to artillery so big and heavy that you need wheels to move it, or people to help you. Cannons that you can carry around didn’t exist until the Middle Ages. The first European firearms—essentially, tubes mounted on a pole—date to the end of the fourteenth century and are known as “hand cannons.” Then came shoulder arms (that is, guns you can shoulder): muskets, rifles, and shotguns. A pistol is a gun that can be held in one hand. A revolver holds a number of bullets in a revolving chamber, but didn’t become common until Samuel Colt patented his model in 1836. The firearms used by a well-regulated militia, at the time the Second Amendment was written, were mostly long arms that, like a smaller stockpile of pistols, could discharge only once before they had to be reloaded. In size, speed, efficiency, capacity, and sleekness, the difference between an eighteenth-century musket and the gun that George Zimmerman was carrying is roughly the difference between the first laptop computer—which, not counting the external modem and the battery pack, weighed twenty-four pounds—and an iPhone.

A gun is a machine made to fire a missile that can bore through flesh. It can be used to hunt an animal or to commit or prevent a crime. Enough people carrying enough guns, and with the will and the training to use them, can defend a government, or topple one. For centuries before the first English colonists travelled to the New World, Parliament had been regulating the private ownership of firearms. (Generally, ownership was restricted to the wealthy; the principle was that anyone below the rank of gentleman found with a gun was a poacher.) England’s 1689 Declaration of Rights made a provision that “subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their condition and as allowed by law”; the Declaration was an attempt to resolve a struggle between Parliament and the Crown, in which Parliament wrested control of the militia from the Crown.

In the United States, Article VI of the Articles of Confederation, drafted in 1776 and ratified in 1781, required that “every state shall always keep up a well regulated and disciplined militia, sufficiently armed and accoutred, and shall provide and constantly have ready for use, in public stores, a due number of field pieces and tents, and a proper quantity of arms, ammunition and camp equipage.” In early America, firearms and ammunition were often kept in public arsenals. In 1775, the British Army marched to Concord with the idea of seizing the arsenal where the Colonial militia stored its weapons. In January of 1787, a Massachusetts resident named Daniel Shays led eleven hundred men, many of them disaffected Revolutionary War veterans, in an attempt to capture an arsenal in Springfield; they had been protesting taxes, but they needed guns and ammunition. Springfield had been an arsenal since 1774. In 1777, George Washington, at the urging of Henry Knox, made it his chief northern arsenal. By 1786, Springfield housed the largest collection of weapons in the United States. In the winter of 1787, the governor of Massachusetts sent the militia to suppress the rebellion; the Springfield arsenal was defended. That spring, the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia. Among the matters the delegates were to take up was granting to the federal government the power to suppress insurgencies like Shays’ Rebellion. From Boston, Benjamin Franklin’s sister Jane wrote to him with some advice for “such a Number of wise men as you are connected with in the Convention”: no more weapons, no more war. “I had Rather hear of the Swords being beat into Plow-shares, and the Halters used for Cart Roops, if by that means we may be brought to live Peaceably with won a nother.”

Read the entire piece here.

Yet Another Jill Lepore Interview

2116c-leporestoryYou may recall this post from yesterday.

Today we offer a new Jill Lepore interview post.

B.R. Cohen of Public Books interviews Lepore about “the challenge of explaining things.”

Here is a taste:

BRC: As we talk about the historical trajectory of such things, of how things change and develop, I have a corollary question. How can we write about history in ways that don’t come off sounding like what I think of as a tired mode: the academic translating obscure scholarship in smaller words and shorter sentences and calling that “writing for a broader audience.” You don’t take that approach. Did you evolve away from it early in your career? Or did you always know you would produce public (not just academic) commentary?

JL: I only ever wanted to be a writer. I love history, and I especially love teaching history, but I never intended to become an academic, and I’m baffled by the idea that reaching a wider audience involves using smaller words, as if there’s some inverse correlation between the size of your audience and of your vocabulary. You don’t talk about, say, technological determinism to a freshman the same way you talk about it to a colleague, right? Is it easier to talk to a freshman? No, it’s harder. Is it more important to give that student a clear explanation of the concept than it is to chat with your colleague about it? I think so, though I suppose that’s debatable. I love the challenge of explaining things to other people, in the same way that I love other people explaining things to me. I love being a student. Nothing is so thrilling as diving into scholarship I’ve never encountered before and trying to get my bearings, learning what so many scholars have been piecing together over a very long period of time, and trying to figure out how to bring that learning to bear on a problem that I, like a lot of people both inside and outside the academy, happen to be struggling with. The hitch is getting the scholarship right. I always worry I’ve missed something, or distorted something, or failed to understand the big picture. That’s the downside: missing something crucial. Nothing is more concerning, or more discouraging, than getting something wrong; there’s no real way to right it. It’s horrible; it kills me.

Read the entire interview here.

Jill Lepore on Presidential Debating

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Check out Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s long-form piece in The New Yorker.  Here are the money paragraphs:

The real trouble is deeper and wider. Political argument has been having a terrible century. Instead of arguing, everyone from next-door neighbors to members of Congress has got used to doing the I.R.L. equivalent of posting to the comments section: serially fulminating. The U.S. Supreme Court is one Justice short of a full bench, limiting its ability to deliberate, because Senate Republicans refused to hold the hearings required in order to fill that seat. They’d rather do battle on Twitter. Democratic members of Congress, unable to get the House of Representatives to debate gun-control measures, held a sit-in, live-streamed on Periscope. At campaign events, and even at the nominating Conventions, protesters have tried to silence other people’s speech in the name of the First Amendment. On college campuses, administrators, faculty, and students who express unwelcome political views have been fired and expelled. Even high-school debate has come under sustained attack from students who, refusing to argue the assigned political topic, contest the rules. One in three Americans declines to discuss politics except in private; fewer than one in four ever talk with someone with whom they disagree politically; fewer than one in five have ever attended a problem-solving meeting, even online, with people holding views different from their own. What kind of democracy is that?

And this:

How to argue is something people are taught. You learn it by watching other people, at the breakfast table, or in school, or on TV, or, lately, online. It’s something you can get better at, with practice, or worse at, by imitating people who do it badly. More formal debate follows established rules and standards of evidence. For centuries, learning how to argue was the centerpiece of a liberal-arts education. (Malcolm X studied that kind of debate while he was in prison. “Once my feet got wet,” he said, “I was gone on debating.”) Etymologically and historically, the artes liberales are the arts acquired by people who are free, or liber. Debating, like voting, is a way for people to disagree without hitting one another or going to war: it’s the key to every institution that makes civic life possible, from courts to legislatures. Without debate, there can be no self-government. The United States is the product of debate. In 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention agreed “to argue without asperity, and to endeavor to convince the judgment without hurting the feelings of each other.” The next year, James Madison debated James Monroe for a congressional seat in Virginia. By the eighteen-thirties, debating classes were being offered as a form of civic education.

Read the entire piece here.

Riffing on a Few Tweets From the "Historians and Their Publics" Plenary Session

Salon D was packed out yesterday afternoon for the plenary session of the Organization of American Historians: “Historians and Their Publics.”  OAH president Alan Kraut moderated a session that included  Spencer Crew, Sean Wilentz, Jill Lepore, and Shola Lynch.  Rather than write a report of the panel, I thought I would use a few of my tweets to frame some thoughts.  Here goes:


TWEET: “Live tweeting plenary session ‘Historians and Their Publics.’ Kristof op-ed framing the discussion so far.”
As might be expected, Kristof’s New York Times op-ed “Professors, We Need You” was on everyone’s mind. Kraut used the piece to frame the conversation. I am on record saying that Kristof’s piece is on the mark, but I would really like to know what Lepore thought about it. (She is mentioned in the piece as someone who is connecting with public audiences). At one point during the session she said that scholars have retreated into the ivory tower, suggesting that she might believe that Kristof has identified a problem.

TWEET: “Lepore sees her writing as extension of her teaching. Developing students in skills of historcial thinking.”
Wilentz also affirmed this. I am not sure how often Lepore and Wilentz teach, but those scholars in the proverbial “trenches” who teach 4-4 loads (or more) are our most important public historians. K-12 teachers as well.

TWEET: “Lepore: So many historians think that to do public history is to somehow to engage in politics. More to this than just punditry”
This led to an interesting conversation. Lepore tried to separate what she does in The New Yorker and elsewhere from political punditry (although a lot of her public writing has an obvious political edge). Wilentz saw no need to do so. As someone who writes the occasional op-ed or politically-charged blog post, I often struggle with this issue. Do I have to take off my “historian” hat and put on my “pundit” hat whenever I write an op-ed piece? Wilentz admitted that there was a fundamental difference between writing scholarly essays/books and writing opinion pieces, but he did not think the difference was very great. He argued for what might be called a “historically informed punditry.” (This is not unlike what the History News Service has been trying to do).

TWEET: “Wilentz describes old magazines like the New Republic as “gladiatorial.” Extolls these kinds of mags as way to reach the public.”
Wilentz likes to write for the magazines read by America’s educated class. So does Lepore. She extolled the essay as the best way to reach public audiences. While both of these excellent public scholars reach a much larger audience than most historians (and should be commended for doing so), their understanding of “the public” is very narrow. It struck me that no one in the room acknowledged the assumptions about social class (and I am talking here about “class” as more of a cultural phenomenon than an economic one) that pervaded much of what Lepore and Wilentz had to say. For example, most Americans do not read The New Republic or The New Yorker. The overwhelming majority of the American public might ask “Who is Jill Lepore?” or “Who is Sean Wilentz?” How does one reach people like my Dad–a man without a post-secondary education who gets most of his history from Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh? What about the millions of evangelical Christians who get their history from David Barton? Reaching these Americans requires a very different approach to what it means to be a “public intellectual.” Spencer Crew (museum educator) and Shola Lynch (documentary film maker) seemed to have a much more expansive view of “the public.”

TWEET: “Lepore talks about her tea party book. Says she felt a ‘chill’ from the historical profession. She was told it was a waste of time.”
I really liked The Whites of Their Eyes and gave it a lot of attention here at the blog.  I think it is unfortunate that so many historians blasted the book.  It was a great attempt to address the way history is being used (and abused) in the public.  Did Lepore waste her time writing about the Tea Party’s use and abuse of history?  Absolutely not.  The criticism she received by some members of the historical profession reveal an unwillingness to engage with cultural or political movements that are perceived to be anti-intellectual or not worthy of their time.  This is unfortunate.

My critique of The Whites of Their Eyes is different than the criticism offered by others in the historical profession.  Lepore’s book is a good start, but it did very little to help the Tea Party develop a more nuanced interpretation of American history.  I am not sure that many rank and file Tea Partiers read the book (but I could be wrong).  Few of them would listen to a Harvard history professor anyway.  So who did read The Whites of Their Eyes?  I am guessing that the readers of the book were people who already agree with Lepore about the Tea Party’s misuse of history.  It is likely that these readers might use the book for further ammunition in attacking the anti-intellectualism of the Tea Party. 

In other words, Lepore was using her Princeton University Press book to preach to the choir.  Did it really change hearts and minds?  If not, what might it take to do so?  These are the questions we should be asking. Rather than using our “superior” intellectual to savage those who may not see the power of a well-crafted historical argument, we should be thinking about the most effective ways of teaching those outside of our classrooms how to make such an argument.  In the process we might succeed in winning some of them over.

Jill Lepore: Microhistorian

Over at Dissent, Francesca Mari (associate editor of Texas Monthly) reviews two collections of essays by Harvard history professor Jill Lepore: The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death and The Story of America: Essays on Origins.  (The essays in these volumes originally appeared in The New Yorker). Mari uses the review to reflect on the genre of microhistory, a style of history writing that Lepore has raised to an art form. 

Here is a taste:

In The Story of America’s introduction, Lepore says that she joined The New Yorker because she “wanted to learn how to tell stories better,” which is sort of like saying one wanted to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro to learn how to walk. But, indeed, the success of a microhistory is very much about storytelling, and rests on strengths not always prioritized in academia—a sensitivity to character and idiosyncratic detail, an ability to amplify the plot turns in a life or an idea while letting go of those that are unimportant. To wit, Lepore writes a whole essay about Samuel Eliot Morison, “the last Harvard historian to ride a horse to work,” who, “once interrupted at his desk by the incessant barking of a neighbor’s dog, went outside and shot it.” While some academics might think such a detail a barking distraction from their larger argument, Lepore recognizes that it is often the detail that pegs a person’s character but also that triggers an epiphany.

Lepore: "How to Write a Paper For This Class"

Harvard history professor Jill Lepore offers some “fishy” advice on how to write a history paper. Read her instructions (for the fish stuff) or read my synopsis below:

1.  Ask a good question.  (i.e. “What does the Revolution look like from a losers’ point of view?”)

2. You can change your question based on what you discover in the process of doing your research.

3. Start analyzing your evidence when you have enough of it (in the primary and secondary source variety) to answer your question.

4.  When you come up with a good title, start writing.

5. Make sure to balance argument and story throughout the paper

6.  Make an outline

7.  Think hard about what will appear on the page and what will appear in a footnote.

8.  Your paper is finished when you have stated your case and finished your story.

Jill Lepore’s Story of America

Over at History News Network, Robin Lindley interviews Jill Lepore about her new book The Story of America.  I have not read Lepore’s book, but I have read some of the essays that have been republished in it.  I was very struck by a quote Lindley chose from the introduction:

Writing history requires empathy, inquiry, and debate. It requires forswearing condescension, cant, and nostalgia. The past isn’t quaint. Much of it, in fact, is bleak.

Here is a taste of the interview:

A goal of your essays is “to explain how history works.” Can you give a couple of examples of how your essays reveal the historian’s work? 

Nearly every essay in the collection originally appeared in The New Yorker. A few began as book reviews. That’s true of the essay about Plymouth and the Pilgrims, which started out as a review of Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2006 book, Mayflower but became a reflection on the work of Samuel Eliot Morison, the American historian who edited William Bradford’s journal. “Let the facts speak!” was Morison’s motto. He never met a footnote he didn’t like. Philbrick, like many popular historians who work outside the academy, dispenses with footnotes and is interested, above all, in letting his story speak. The difference between Morison and Philbrick — their methods and arguments and especially their standards of evidence — reveals a great deal, I think, about how historians work.

History, as I write in the book’s introduction, is the art of making an argument by telling a story. A story without an argument fades into antiquarianism; an argument without a story risks pedantry. But, in the end, evidence is everything. One of the many essays in the book that didn’t start out as a book review is the essay about the Constitution. Instead, it’s a history of how the Constitution has been read over the centuries, not by lawyers or jurists or politicians but by everyone else. I wanted to explain the rise of what legal scholars call “popular constitutionalism.” I began with a question: when and why did “Read the Constitution” become a bumper sticker? I went to the archives to find out. Then I wrote an essay in which I tried to make an argument by telling a story about what I’d discovered. That might not be “how historians work,” but it’s how I work.