Luther Spoehr: Review of Jill Lepore’s “The Story of America: Essays on Origins” (Princeton, 2012)

tags: books, Jill Lepore, book reviews, The Story of America, Luther Spoehr

Luther Spoehr is an HNN book editor and a senior lecturer at Brown University.

Early in the summer of 1963, I opened the paperback book assigned as summer reading for the AP American History course I would be taking in the coming academic year:  Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition (1948).  The book-opening was eye-opening, a revelatory  experience for a student inclined to irreverence, at a time in America when all sorts of national icons were beginning to wobble on their pedestals.  Although I can hardly claim to have grasped Hofstadter’s historiographical importance (his formulation of the “common climate of American opinion” shaped a generation’s debates about the “American consensus”), his unorthodox and vivid portrayals of leading figures in the American political pantheon captured my imagination and probably helped to steer me toward a lifetime in the history business.  I had a hunch that reading law books wouldn’t be as much fun. 

Hofstadter’s ability to engage and sometimes provoke everyone—not just the proverbial “general reader,” but historical novices and experts alike—was unusual, even unique.  For those uninterested in the “inside baseball” played within the historical profession, there were memorable, contrarian portraits of politicians who most reasonably educated Americans thought they already knew:  Abraham Lincoln was presented not as Honest Abe, the simple Rail-Splitter, but, in a chapter called “Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth,” as an ambitious corporate lawyer; trust-buster Teddy Roosevelt was “The Conservative as Progressive,” while his cousin Franklin, hero of the New Deal and the recently-concluded World War II, was “The Patrician as Opportunist.”  Familiar documents—or documents we thought were familiar—were given a different, often sardonic, spin:  Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation “had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” (Read it: he’s right.)  It would have been easy for Hofstadter to say that dour John Calhoun, spokesman for the South, had no poetry in his soul, but Hofstadter made the point by recalling the “gibe to the effect that he once began a poem with ‘Whereas,’ and stopped.”  Barbed, and memorable.  Even though Hofstadter’s interpretations have not necessarily withstood the test of time (what historian today really finds it useful to think of Calhoun as “The Marx of the Master Class”?), American Political Tradition is still in print, 65 years (!) after its publication, testimony to the power of its prose and its enduring appeal to an extraordinarily broad spectrum of readers.

What, I hear you wondering, does all this have to do with Jill Lepore’s The Story of America:  Essays on Origins?  Well, Lepore, Harvard history professor and author of The Nature of War (about King Philip’s War) and other books, gives The American Political Tradition pride of place when recounting the long line of histories that she wants her book to join in telling “the story of America.”  After quoting Hofstadter approvingly when he said, “I have no desire to add to a literature of hero worship and national self-congratulation which is already large,” she adds, “Neither do I.”  Instead, she says, she has “tried to cherish ideas worth cherishing and to question ideas that need questioning…by studying stories, and by telling them.”

Like Hofstadter, Lepore strings her chapters chronologically, although while he ranged from the Founders to FDR, she goes from the earliest English settlements to the present.  And where he used only 12 chapters to make his points, she takes 20—but given the scope of historical study today and the enormously varied sources available under the umbrella of “political culture,” hers is arguably the braver undertaking.  “Within the academic world,” she says, over the years “the study of American origins has become remarkably unfashionable.  Haunted by the knowledge of all that any single study leaves out—all the people, the conflict, the messiness, the obeisance to all the other scholarship—intimidated by ideological attacks, eager to disavow origins stories, and profoundly suspicious, as a matter of critical intelligence, of the rhetorical power of the storyteller, the ambit of academic writing kept getting smaller.  So did its readership.”

The first readers for all but one of these stories, all published since 2005, were subscribers to the New Yorker, not readers of peer-reviewed journals.  So like The American Political Tradition, The American Story can be read with profit by virtually everyone.  (While surveying the quality of the prose in presidential inaugural addresses, she notes wryly that on the Flesch Readability Scale her own essay is written at the eleventh grade level.  Hello, AP History students.)  On the newly-created, 10-point, Spoehr Readability Scale, which values insight, precision, and wit, her essays score a 10.  Like Hofstadter, she has a gift for the well-turned phrase and the quick, illuminating anecdote.  The essays grab your attention from the opening lines and make you want to read on.  (“Samuel Eliot Morison, the last Harvard historian to ride his horse to work, liked to canter to Cambridge on his gray gelding, tie it to a tree in the Yard, stuff his saddlebags with papers to grade, and trot back home to his four-story brick house at the foot of Beacon Hill.”)

Truth to tell, the only imprecise things in the book may be the title and subtitle.  Then again, when a book’s focus ranges from Captain John Smith (was he a liar?), to Noah Webster (and his “Nue Merrykin Dikshunary”), to Kit Carson (dime novel hero), to the real-life and reel-life Charlie Chans; from imprisonment for debt, to “Paul Revere’s Ride,” to all those presidential inaugurals (James Garfield is a dark horse winner), it’s difficult to find a titular tent big enough to contain everything.  (And there is an implicit message in choosing to call the book “the” story of America, rather than “a” story of America or “stories” of America.)

That story, as Lepore both notes and proves, is contested and multifarious.  As a portrait of the past, the book is a pointillist painting, making distinct impressions rather than attempting to sustain a single, unified interpretation.  Lepore makes her case for this approach, saying that her essays, “taken together…do make an argument [that] the rise of American democracy is bound up with the history of reading and writing, which is one of the reasons the study of American history is inseparable from the study of American literature.”  When Hofstadter wrote, political history was riding high; for contemporary historians such as Lepore, the dominant approach is cultural history, which refers to…well, whaddaya got?

So here’s to Jill Lepore and her 20 finely crafted stories.  There’s no guarantee that her book will, like Hofstadter’s, still be in print 65 years after publication (whatever “print” might mean in 2078).  But it’s here now, and that’s good reason for all kinds of readers to fire up their Kindles.  Let’s hope there are many more to come.

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