Jill Lepore | A Writer and Historian on Why the Study of Our Nation’s History Is So Important

Acclaimed Massachusetts writer and historian Jill Lepore explains why the study of our nation’s history is so important—and why it’s such hard work.

By Yankee Magazine

Oct 28 2021


Jill Lepore

Photo Credit : Illustration by Dan Williams

Interview by Joe Keohane

Jill Lepore is a native New Englander, born in West Boylston, Massachusetts, and descended from immigrants. Her grandparents came to the country from Italy, fleeing poverty. In 1924—the same year Congress passed legislation banning immigrants like them—they gave birth to a son, whom they named Amerigo. He would become a school principal. And his youngest child, Jill, would become one of this country’s foremost historians. Theirs is an American story. One of many.

Jill Lepore
Photo Credit : Illustration by Dan Williams

A Harvard professor, author, and longtime staff writer at The New Yorker, Lepore is a leading proponent for the idea of studying national history. To her, that doesn’t mean studying only select events or the lives of individual figures.And it certainly doesn’t mean just highlighting parts of history that support one partisan ideology or another. Instead, it calls for reckoning with the entirety of the thing to tell a national story that is both true and binding in this country of immigrants, “a composite nation,” as Frederick Douglass called it. And this is no mere academic concern: As Lepore writes in These Truths, her 2018 massive, acclaimed history of the United States, “Nations, to make sense of themselves, need a kind of agreed-upon past. They can get it from scholars or they can get it from demagogues, but get it they will.”

The sort of national history Lepore practices doesn’t dodge hard questions, doesn’t turn away from atrocities and hypocrisies. But nor does it dismiss the beauty and brilliance and vision of America’s founding ideals. The story of America is, for her, its struggle to meet the lofty promise laid out in the Declaration of Independence. In her book This America: The Case for the Nation, she writes, “A nation founded on ideals, universal truths, also opens itself up to charges of hypocrisy at every turn. Those charges do not lie outside the plot of the story of America, or underneath it. They are its plot, the history on which any 21st-century case for the American nation has to rest, a history of struggle and agony and courage and progress.”

We spoke by phone earlier this year, a few months after the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Joe Keohane: So, Jill, how did you spend Inauguration Day?

Jill Lepore:I watched it on TV, live, with my family—just like we watched the insurrection at the Capitol, live.

J.K.: I spent the day holding my breath, and then poured a gigantic bourbon when it was over. That’s my usual tradition. Do you have any personal traditions or practices for inauguration days?

J.L.: I don’t have any traditions. I’m not a great lover of pomp. I get it—the work it does—but it’s not for me. Usually I don’t watch. I’ve only been to one: Obama’s second. I do like reading the inaugural addresses, though, and I try to read my favorites every once in a while. I’ve often asked students to write them, for an assignment.

J.K.: What did you think of Biden’s speech?

J.L: I actually found the Biden address really moving. It made me think a lot about Lincoln’s first: “Before entering upon so grave a matter as the destruction of our national fabric, with all its benefits, its memories, and its hopes, would it not be wise to ascertain precisely why we do it?” And seeing the Capitol, two weeks after the insurrection, in this beautiful way. Plus, Amanda Gorman. Our TV room was hushed.

J.K.: What’s it been like to experience the past few years in American politics? Do you as a historian process it differently than other people might?

J.L: Even in boring times, I have the sense of living on a timeline: knowing where we are relative to events of the past, and constantly reorienting myself along that sense of chronology and change over time. That’s just a professional hazard. But this last year and a half—even the past few years, arguably—have been so topsy-turvy, and so cluttered with experiences that most of us have not had before, that I think everyone now, not just historians, has that sense of living in a moment in historical time, and being keenly, acutely, and I think quite painfully aware of the strangeness of change over time.

J.K.: You say it’s a “professional hazard,” having this sense of living on a timeline. What do you mean by that?

J.L:I say in the beginning of my book These Truths that the past is a burden and you carry it with you everywhere, even if you don’t know that you’re carrying it. And I think one of the pieces of business—essential and urgent pieces of moral work—of the Black Lives Matter movement has been more people realizing how heavy that burden is, and more of a sense of the shared burden.

But if you’re an American political historian, there’s that sense that we haven’t escaped the past, we cannot escape the past, we have to reckon with the past. That’s the work of teaching, and that’s the work of writing. And if that now seems like more of an urgent public project to more people who haven’t been paying attention, that’s a good thing. But it’s also hard. It’s difficult.

Jill Lepore
Photo Credit : Kayana Szymczak

J.K.: You’ve been teaching since the mid-’90s. Have you seen a shift in your students’ attitudes? Especially over the past few years, with the rise of the post-fact media ecosystem and the hardening of ideological lines—the idea that something is true because it lines up with what one believes?

J.L.: So, I teach this course on the history of evidence at Harvard Law School that involves law school students, and students from the college, and some graduate students in the history program. The first time I taught it was maybe eight years ago. As an icebreaker, I asked everyone to describe a body of evidence that they really wished they had in front of them, and why. And it was fascinating because the law school students all came up with bodies of evidence that could be useful to them in a piece of advocacy that they were engaged with. For instance, there was a student who was interested in private prisons, and he wished that he had the interoffice memos of this big corporation that owns a ton of prisons about the decisions it made about punishments within those prisons. But all the students from the humanities said, like, “I wish that Emily Dickinson had kept a diary so that I could find out what she was really thinking.”

J.K.: It feels like the difference between advocacy and curiosity. The latter requires a certain openness.

J.L.: Right. And it was a great way to kind of talk about what the rules of evidence are in different realms of knowledge. As an epidemiologist, you don’t frame an experiment to prove that the vaccine that you want to sell works, right? You frame an experiment to find out whether it works or doesn’t work. There is a method. Evidence is not something that you go to seek out to prove what you already believe. It’s something that you collect and inspect in order to find out what’s true.

J.K.: How do you get young historians to cultivate the proper mind-set at a time like this?

J.L: Just to kind of push back a little on your question, I don’t think that our students have changed, that they are coming into every position that they hold closed to counterevidence and raring for a fight or not believing that anything can be true. I think there are certain tics they have that maybe are problems for historical thinking, but they’re not worse tics than other generations would have had. They’re just different tics.

One of them is what I call playing the game of “spot the bias.” A lot of young people are instructed in high school—across disciplines, across the curriculum—that their objective when they read something is to spot the bias in it, and that that’s all they have to do. So you give them something to read, and their critique is how it’s biased. But that’s just the beginning of examining it, right? You also have to figure out, What did I learn from this that I didn’t know? What do I know now that I didn’t know before? How is this person arguing? Is there beauty to be found here?[Young people] have been taught that the big sophisticated intellectual move is to spot the bias of something, but it’s like you’ve just put the key in the ignition. Of course, you have to put the key in the ignition to go somewhere, but we’re not done with the journey yet. [Laughs.] We haven’t even left the driveway!

J.K.: This sort of thinking is obviously a much broader social issue—I don’t mean to just pick on students.

J.L.: It’s a failure of the grown-ups if this is how young people think they should approach the world of knowledge.

J.K.: You’ve written repeatedly about the need for nations to have an agreed-upon past. But you also wrote this: “A nation born in revolution will forever struggle against chaos. A nation founded on universal rights will wrestle against the forces of particularism. A nation that toppled a hierarchy of birth only to erect a hierarchy of wealth will never know tranquility. A nation of immigrants cannot close its borders. And a nation born in contradiction, liberty in a land of slavery, sovereignty in a land of conquest, will fight, forever, over the meaning of its history.”

What’s a more productive way to have that fight? Especially in the case of our own nation, when the right seems so motivated by nostalgia about the past, and the left feels total pessimism toward it.

J.L.: I think that’s a weird false dualism, to say either Things were always perfect or The whole story of the country is an atrocity. That can’t be the answer. That’s why we keep going through these crazy cycles of No, you’re wrong, Mayberry was a racist hellhole! and No, you’re wrong, Mayberry was full of good people who loved puppies and God’s daisy chains! There’s just no way that you would think about any human being that way. You might have a brother who you deeply love, but you also think he is often a complete ass. And yet he’s also wonderfully generous in some contexts. History is not less complicated than humans are. It’s way more complicated, because it’s a whole aggregation of humans.

J.K.: Why do people want the past to be simple? Why does America have to be either an immaculate conception or a racist hellhole?

J.L.: I’m not sure I know. And I think the answer is different for different people. I do think the sort of triumphalist narrative does such incredible violence to the suffering of so many people that it’s very easy to get outraged by it. It’s very easy to say, How can you swoon at the American flag when you think about the scale of the genocide of indigenous peoples, and the continued struggles of native nations for sovereignty, and the continued health outcome inequalities? I totally get being really furious about that.

J.K.: So, what do we need to get us away from that endless tug-of-war between pessimism and triumphalism?

J.L.:We need a better history, and we need a fuller history, and we need a harder history. It needs to be hard. It needs to be hard to think about, because it is hard to think about. I think we call a lot of things “history” that aren’t history. A lot of stuff that we call “history” is really folklore, myth, or tourism. History is a humanistic discipline that requires an extraordinary amount of intellectual exertion and accumulation of knowledge. And it’s important, even though it’s been packaged as something that you could just pick up at the store, buying a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence or a tricornered hat. That’s not history; that’s just tourism. I think we confuse the two. But the study of history is hard, and it can often be painful.

J.K.: You had a quote in These Truths from Archibald MacLeish:“Democracy is never a thing done. Democracy is always something a nation should be doing.” I think the idea that America was near perfect when it was founded really undersells the amount of work citizens need to do to hold it together.

J.L.: Yeah. Yeah.

J.K. Knowing what you know, and having studied what you’ve studied, how sound is the foundation of this country?

J.L.: I sometimes tell the story about how in 1987 Thurgood Marshall spoke on the occasion of the bicentennial of the Constitution. And he basically said, Look, I’m just going to refuse to celebrate that moment in 1787. I can’t celebrate the founding moment as if there’s some kind of frozen time there that we should venerate. Veneration is, first of all, bad for democracy. But also this is the Constitution that implicitly sanctioned slavery through the three-fifths clause, and failed to abolish the slave trade. So what I’m going to celebrate, Marshall said, is the 200 years that have happened since—and all of the struggle to realize the promise of that Constitution.

That’s how I feel when asked questions about the foundation. It’s not that there’s nothing there, but the strength lies in the whole frame, which is still being built. It’s not unassailable. I think there’s a great deal of weakness and fragility, frankly, in the structure at the moment. But I certainly don’t think it’s beyond repair.