The Story of America
Essays on Origins
Princeton University Press: 416 pp, $27.95
For Jill Lepore, a Harvard history professor and New Yorker staff writer, the story of America is part myth, part tall tale, and never less than engrossing.
“All nations are places,” she writes in her stylish new collection, “but they are also acts of imagination. Who has a part in a nation’s story, like who can become a citizen and who has a right to vote, isn’t foreordained, or even stable. The story’s plot, like the nation’s borders and the nature of its electorate, is always shifting.”
As if to underline that point, Lepore’s own narratives in “The Story of America: Essays on Origins” move from close-up to context and back again. She trains the literary equivalent of wide-angle and zoom lenses on seminal American documents, examining their subjects and their creators.
One of Lepore’s great themes is that “the rise of American democracy is bound up with the history of reading and writing.” For that reason, she argues, the study of our history and our literature are necessarily entangled.
In these elegant, often challenging essays, literary texts are treated, albeit skeptically, as historical evidence, and historical documents are subjected to close textual analysis. These methodologies are the hallmark of Harvard’s History and Literature Program, which Lepore now chairs (and from which I graduated many years ago).
Take, for example, her deconstruction of “Paul Revere’s Ride,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s alternately beloved and reviled historical poem. Over the years, Lepore reminds us, historians have derided its inaccuracies, and literary scholars have dismissed it as “a piece of nineteenth-century romantic nationalism.”
Lepore sweeps away both sets of objections by arguing that the poem is, in fact, “not about liberty and Paul Revere, but about slavery and John Brown.” The date of composition is telling: 1860, on the brink of the Civil War. Longfellow was close to both Charles Sumner, a leading abolitionist, and his brother George. In an 1859 diary entry reflecting on the imminent execution of John Brown after his failed raid on Harpers Ferry, Longfellow predicted “a new Revolution, — quite as needed as the old one.”
Published in the January 1861 issue of the Atlantic, “Paul Revere’s Ride” was read as a “call to arms, rousing northerners to action,” Lepore writes. But she says the poem can also be interpreted as “a fugitive slave narrative,” a tale of capture and escape whose rhetoric echoes other Longfellow poetry explicitly about slavery. The poem’s subject, she says, is “waking the dead” — not just complacent northerners, but “the enslaved, entombed in slavery.” If she doesn’t single-handedly restore “Paul Revere’s Ride” to the academic canon, Lepore certainly sends readers back for a second look.
Not every essay is quite this invigorating. But Lepore is never less than lucid in rooting out historiographical fallacies central to America’s myths about itself. Her America is flawed, but not hopeless; she embraces ambiguity and paradox.
Analyzing the travel narratives of Capt. John Smith, for example, she declines to brand him simply as a liar, and his Jamestown, Va., colony as a failure. Nor, she suggests, should they be celebrated uncritically. “Neither he nor Jamestown can bear the burden of the national need for a tidy past,” she writes.
Among Lepore’s other subjects are Benjamin Franklin’s frequently misunderstood compendium of aphorisms, “The Way to Wealth”; Tom Paine’s brilliant “Common Sense” and mostly tragic life; Noah Webster’s initially derided dictionary; Edgar Allan Poe’s unabashedly popular, self-parodying horror stories; and the art of propagandistic campaign biographies.
In “President Tom’s Cabin,” she takes on the charged debate about Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, and how legal historian Annette Gordon-Reed reset it by taking evidence of the liaison seriously. An enthusiastic ironist, Lepore contrasts William Wells Brown’s melodramatic 1853 novel, “Clotel; Or, the President’s Daughter,” in which Jefferson’s fictional African American daughter commits suicide, with Harriet Hemings’ actual life, spent passing as white in the shadow of the White House.
“To Wit,” Lepore’s closing essay, homes in on the not-entirely-distinguished tradition of presidential inaugural addresses. Her focus is on James Garfield, a scholar whose diary chronicled his study of the genre. In his own address, Garfield, though falling short of Abraham Lincoln’s eloquence, spoke movingly of the overthrow of slavery and an inevitable “final reconciliation” among the combatants. Lepore, presuming historical literacy, omits mention of another tragic parallel — that Garfield, like Lincoln, was felled by an assassin’s bullet.
Ending on this note underlines Lepore’s contention that American history is messier and more complicated than we may prefer. Following her literary journey through its byways isn’t a wild joy ride — just good, old-fashioned intellectual fun.
Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.