The American Revolutions

Titus Kaphar/Private Collection/Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Titus Kaphar: Her Mother’s Mother’s Mother, 2014; from the exhibition ‘UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light,’ which includes work by Kaphar and Ken Gonzales-Day.It is on view at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., through January 6, 2019.

Jill Lepore has achieved singular prominence as an American historian. The David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard, she has written eleven books over the last twenty years, among them a Bancroft Prize winner and finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Since 2005, she has regularly contributed essays and reviews to The New Yorker, where she is a staff writer. More successfully than any other American historian of her generation, she has gained a wide general readership without compromising her academic standing.

Lepore’s work for The New Yorker has allowed her to develop an engaging narrative style that relies heavily on exact detail and clever metaphors. Her talents as a storyteller have been best suited to a small canvas, to the uncovering of hitherto obscure and marginal lives and the interpretation of particular episodes and arresting characters, especially if they stand at a remove from the main figures and events of American history—not the Revolution, for example, but a rumored slave uprising in New York almost three decades earlier; not Benjamin Franklin but his utterly forgotten and much distressed sister Jane; not any consequential modern bohemian writer but the Greenwich Village exhibitionist and sponger Joe Gould, who just may have actually written (or so Lepore hints) his notorious, monumental “Oral History of Our Time.”1 If, finally, much remains either insignificant or unknowable, she leaves her readers impressed with her powers of detection and her empathic imagination.

Lepore has now written her most ambitious book to date: These Truths, a one-volume national political history of the US. In 2010, shocked at the rising Tea Party movement’s grotesque abuse of the history of the American Revolution, she contributed an elegant corrective, The Whites of Their Eyes. The book presented the historian’s craft as essential to exposing facile, plausible, but finally false analogies between the past and the present.

Yet the book also alleged that professional historians had failed in recent decades to offer the general public “sweeping interpretations both of the past and of [their] own time,” an abdication that made them complicit in the flagrant debasement of the past in contemporary politics.2 These Truths may well have started out as an effort to help fill that supposed void. But if so, while she was writing the book, the ascendancy of Donald Trump turned the void into something resembling a cyclone.

Lepore begins not with a grand explanatory theory of American history but with a question, around which she develops various themes. She posits that the nation was built on three principles…

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