Jill Lepore is one of our era’s most important historians. It is by now conventional to say this; it’s also true. But saying such a thing forces us to think about what it means to be an important historian.
She is the author of twelve books, including one co-authored work of historical fiction. I have read several of them but not all of them, nor can I keep up with her many essays in the New Yorker and elsewhere. I won’t apologize for that because she writes faster than most people read. Luckily we’ll talk about only one book tonight, These Truths: A History of the United States. It is remarkable that into the great sucking vacuum of our political moment there would come a book like this. It is her broadest in scope, yet it is also a throwback to a dusty genre: the national history. Lepore has blown the dust and cobwebs off of that genre and given it new life, approaching her subject like a narrator of literature. The book has four parts, each with a grand arc—a Romance, a Tragedy, a Comedy, and a Satire—and this ingenious narrative architecture is marshaled to the task of re-animating the civic purpose of national history.
Writing an inspiriting national history is no easy task, not least because every American historian will find something to disagree with you about. There are aspects of this book that I would challenge—yet even when vexed by it, I continued to marvel at its narrative design. It is a powerful book to grapple with. That may sound like a criticism but I do not mean it to be.
These Truths is, at times explicitly, a sentimental work. That, too, may sound like a criticism but I do not mean it to be. The book deserves a spot on the formidable shelf of earlier epochal national histories. Lepore’s company includes Carl Degler, Charles and Mary Beard, Frederick Jackson Turner, and George Bancroft. Those historians of American political culture make cameos in her narrative, and the reader feels them to be prototypes of Lepore herself: historians who participated in the drama.
Another prototype is Virgil. The Aeneid tells of the Trojan king Aeneas’ escape from the destruction of Troy by Greece, setting off with divine sanction to found Rome. These Truths abounds with epic flourishes—from “white-bearded Henry Wadsworth Longfellow” to Billy Graham, “broad-shouldered and brylcremed.” Lepore’s book never descends into crude boosterism. Leave its civic purpose aside and it emerges as an ambivalent epic. As in the Aeneid, one feels the author’s sadness about war and rage, a melancholy apprehension of a warring world even as we track the ascendancy of the author’s own civilization. Perhaps Virgil is the prototype for all national historians writing from within the nation.
A historian can also be a custodian. In the nineteenth century Jules Michelet made himself the custodian of the French Revolution. His histories were also, like Lepore’s, vivid. They were romantic quests in their own right. Lepore, in this book, is the custodian of a capacious American IDEA: what it was, what it could have been, what it might be. It might be disconcerting for a historian to hear this, but These Truths is a book that historians in the future, assuming there is a future, will read as a primary source. What they will find is the pinnacle of liberal nationalist historiography.