The Professor: Jill Lepore's Fatal Flaw

by Rachel Shteir | November 4, 2012

ASKED ABOUT HER busy career, Harvard professor and frequent New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore recently said, “Either you’re going to run out of breath or you’re going to trip.” (She also has a family and has written six books.) In her latest offering, The Story of America, a collection of essays mostly published in The New Yorker, the history professor has tripped. 

Lepore started writing for The New Yorker in 2005 and since then has filed 86 pieces—blogs, comments, essays, reviews—for the magazine. That is impressive, at least quantitatively speaking. The leap from scholarly writing to magazine deadlines is sort of like the leap from cross-country skiing to downhill. In the former, you can see the countryside at your leisure. It’s pretty but often a slog. In the latter, the rush is exciting. It is also possible to carom off the mountain and break your leg. What can prevent such mishaps—and the strain that disparate essays collected between a single book’s covers can sometimes impart—is the writer’s sensibility, uniting pieces written in different styles for different reasons. But I regret to report that here the sensibility is myopic, and too professorial.

Lepore starts out with a good subject. The Story of America is subtitled “essays on origins,” and most of these essays contain fascinating facts about some aspect of our country’s beginnings. From Edgar Allan Poe to Longfellow, from Captain John Smith to Thomas Jefferson, Lepore traces how writers, institutions, and ideas vie to be the first of their kind—and, if they cannot come by that status honorably, lie about it. Her persona in these pages is the schoolmistress, instructing readers as to how sometimes—hold your surprise—some people deceive other people about where the beginnings begin.

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This scolding skepticism occasionally works. Lepore has addressed the fascination with beginnings in earlier books on King Philip’s War, The Tea Party and the American Revolution, and on how language defines us. As in these books, in The Story of America, Lepore is best when she uses her vast knowledge of her subject to trace some ordinary thing’s history, such as the voting booth. Or, in an essay on The Constitution, when she movingly describes its physical attributes:

It is written in elegant, clerical hand, on four sheets of parchment, each two feet wide and a bit more than two feet high, about the size of an eighteenth-century newspaper but finer, and made not from the pulp of plants but from the hide of an animal.

Lepore also can be scholarly in a good way when she reminds readers that Colonial Americans are not just twenty-first century ones wearing funny hats. Less frequently, she can also conjure empathy, which she claims is one of the responsibilities of history. Americans, she writes in an essay on debtors, were unique in coming to understand debt as a product of “the business cycle” as opposed to providence.

But the virtues of this collection are overshadowed by Lepore’s campaign against popular historians. This is not in and of itself objectionable, since the popular does not always equal the good. (Although, since she now aspires to be a popular historian, she might want to reconsider the strategy.) But her objections are boilerplate. Grievance number one: they use psychology to explain historical figures before psychology existed. Grievance number two: they are not tough enough on their sources (Nathaniel Philbrick). Grievance number three: they write hagiographies (Ron Chernow).

Here is how Lepore dismisses the reasons for the success of Chernow’s acclaimed biography of George Washington: “We want to be nearer the great. It sells like flax seed.” Her main objection is not so much the flax seed as the intimacy: “The great used to be revered from afar; lately, they’re revered up close.” This is so generic as to be irrelevant. Chernow’s book succeeded because he drew from the University of Virginia’s 60-volume The Papers of George Washington and knows remarkably well how to tell a story—a skill Lepore admits does not greatly interest her. “I wrote [these essays] because I wanted to learn how to tell stories better. But mostly I wrote them because I wanted to try to explain how history works.”

Of course, animosity between the academy and journalism is hardly new. Academic historians have long attacked journalists for misunderstanding facts and over-psychologizing historical figures. Journalists, for their part, tend to dismiss academics’ insistence on context over story and character. But there is a need, quite obviously, for both academic and journalistic accounts of history—first and second drafts of it, if you will. There are many excellent histories by professional historians, such as Robert Caro’s work about Lyndon Johnson, Sean Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy, and Timothy Gilfoyle’s City of Eros; and there are also excellent, well-researched histories by journalists, like Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, which Lepore writes about in this collection. There are also silly books by writers in both camps—books that invent interior monologues or speculate about characters’ motives (the journalists), or those that ignore character and story for minutiae, theory, and context (the academics).

I have no problem with professional historians seeking, and finding, many readers, and I have no problem with journalists writing erudite history. But here is a book that seems to imply that that only Ivy League professors of history should control the stories. Why do I think this is Lepore’s point of view? The word Harvard appears 36 times in a 300-plus page book (I’m including the notes but not the index.)

Some of these references seem necessary; Lepore is interested in the history of the teaching of history at Ivy League institutions. “In 1937,” she writes, “the year Casner and Gabriel finished writing The Rise of American Democracy, Harvard founded a graduate program called the ‘History of American Civilization.’” And of course, she has to use the word to tell her own history: “I began writing the essays in this book in 2005, not long after I started teaching at Harvard.” But a number of references seem gratuitous, and function as a kind of rope line. I am not convinced that in a magazine essay on Benjamin Franklin, the reader needs to know that he found Harvard undergraduates ridiculous. Nor am I persuaded that in a magazine essay about Charles Dickens in America is it essential to mention both Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Charles Sumner “were both teaching at Harvard at the [same] time.”

This Harvardolatry has the unfortunate effect of making it appear as if Lepore is giving in to hagiography, in this case of an institution—which is one of the sharpest criticisms that she levels at popular historians. This tendency also reveals some of her most unexamined judgments. “Maybe if Nathaniel Philbrick had had to answer to freshmen,” she writes, “he would have learned to be a little bit more skeptical of his sources.” To borrow Lepore’s own skeptical locution: huh? Sorry, professor. Learning to “answer to” freshmen does not enhance one’s scholarly methods. (Philbrick has responded to her criticism by saying that he did not draw merely from the source Lepore questions, and that it was not as illegitimate as she claims.)

The essays dealing with literary subjects lack subtlety. In Lepore’s essay on Poe, one of the slighter ones in this volume, she strangely writes that “you either love Poe or you don’t but, either way, unless you happen to be, say, Coleridge, Poe doesn’t love you.” She seems to be irritated by what she claims is Poe’s “contempt”—her word—for his readers. She is equally unsatisfying on Dickens. “Dickens in America is a story of the limits of literary criticism in a democratizing print culture.” That was one story, sure, but there are also other stories, more interesting stories, including that of Dickens the celebrity, roughing it in the wilds of nineteenth-century America. The responsibility of the writer is to give the reader something new about an iconic literary figure such as Dickens or Poe. Lepore, instead, uses the writers as symbols—cardboard cut-outs to illustrate a point. About Dickens’ understandable rage at not getting paid, for example, she writes unsympathetically: “It was Dickens’ vanity that knew no shore.”

Lepore’s insensitivity reappears when she turns to recent history. In her part-historical, part-reported book about the Tea Party and its claims to the American Revolution, The Whites of Their Eyes, and in the essay that was its seed (included in this collection), Lepore quotes scholars from Yale, Stanford, Cornell, and Columbia to show that the Tea Partiers are wrong about originalism, which she compares to “heritage tourism.” This is an old point, even though it is correct. But the more interesting point is that whereas the Tea Partiers may be wrong about the Constitution, they are not wrong about their own rage. Perhaps Lepore would not advance such obvious arguments if she did not have to answer to freshmen.

The Whites of Their Eyes inspired the only negative review I have read of any of Lepore’s books. Writing in The New York Review of Books, the historian Gordon Wood accused Lepore of harboring contempt for ordinary people, who try to find meaning in myths. “It is very easy for academic historians to mock this special need, and Harvard historian Jill Lepore, as a staff writer for The New Yorker, is an expert at mocking.” What struck me about this review was not only its harshness but rather the speed with which the rest of the history community piled on to defend Lepore, as if the harshness crossed a line in the country club atmosphere of the academy. Who is going to tell that story—of how some opinions are simply not acceptable in university life?

By the end of this collection, Lepore has committed every sin she criticizes the popular historians for. She generalizes about human nature: she calls Longfellow “motherly.” She uses psychology to explain Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic turn before Freud’s work even existed: “that’s probably why he worked so hard at appearing so … Romantic.” She wages personal attacks: she dismisses Philbrick as a “former all-American sailor and Sunfish-racing champion.” And “waves sloshed through all his earlier books.”

Lepore ends her introduction by saying: “I have tried to cherish ideas worth cherishing and to question ideas that need questioning.” It is an unwittingly damning premise for her book.

Rachel Shteir is the author of three books, most recently, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting.

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