The Story of America: Essays on Origins
by Jill Lepore
Princeton University Press, 448 pp., $27.95
The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death
by Jill Lepore
Knopf, 282 pp., $27.95
Jill Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard and a staff writer on The New Yorker, has been astonishingly productive. In 1999, not long out of graduate school, she won the Bancroft Prize for The Name of War, an account of the hideous King Philip’s War of 1675–1676 between the Narragansett Indians and the Puritan settlers with whom they had lived at peace for many years, as well as a reflection on war and writing about war, and on the impact of the war and histories of it on American identity.1 In the past seven years, she has published not only the two books reviewed here, but New York Burning (2005), about a panic over an imagined slave revolt in New York City in 1741, which was a Pulitzer finalist; a novel, Blindspot (2008), written jointly with her colleague Jane Kamensky; and The Whites of Their Eyes (2010), a critical account of the Tea Party movement that was widely praised, and sometimes criticized quite sharply by readers other than Tea Party supporters.2 Who, needless to say, just hated it. Next year she will be publishing a biography of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister.
Both of Lepore’s new books follow a pattern that suits this talented essayist’s strengths. The Story of America consists of twenty pieces on topics from King Philip’s War to the abuse of the Constitution in contemporary politics, and from Cotton Mather by way of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Noah Webster to Chang Apana, the Hawaiian Chinese detective who provided the model for Hollywood’s Charlie Chan.
The subtitle Essays on Origins hardly does justice to their range; they include a not wholly persuasive essay arguing that Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” is an antislavery ballad—Longfellow himself never explicitly said it was—and an entirely persuasive essay on the impossibility of writing a biography of George Washington. What ties the essays together is the thought that the United States itself is a series of stories; they focus on stories and storytellers, from historians to poets to publicists and fabulists.
The Mansion of Happiness is described as “a history of life and death,” but as Lepore notes, its individual chapters, too, can stand alone as commentaries on the fads and follies, utopian hopes and frustrated ambitions of the advocates of birth control, marriage counseling, breast-feeding, having ourselves stored postmortem in a deep freeze in Michigan in the hope of making death obsolete, and a good deal more. Like the essays that make up The Story of America, they began life in The New Yorker. The chapters begin with embryology and end on the quest for cryonic immortality. The extensive endnotes offer insights into the frustrating business of tracking down sources, which, as Lepore observes in The Story of America, is still central to the work of real historians. Internet searches can work only …