- The Story of America: Essays on Origins by Jill Lepore
By the time I had finished the first fifty pages of this collection of essays, I was filled with the four reactions that pulled me though every single page of the remainder:
2. Temptation—to imitate her style.
3. Pleasure—in how she conveys the nubbliness of the past, with its rag paper, real-life eccentrics, and better-than-fiction facts (such as when the real-life Charlie Chan, a Honolulu police detective, met the white actor who portrayed him onscreen).
4. Trust (irrational?)—if these essays are any indication, Jill Lepore is a delightful human being indeed.
Nor can I be the only regular reader of the New Yorker, where all but one of these essays originally appeared, who is accustomed to reading Lepore’s work with pleasure—as well as a pronounced sense of personal failure.
Most of us do not write essays like these because academia offers virtually no space (or time) for them. The genres of writing we learned to master for academic readers (articles, book reviews, grant applications, letters of recommendation, monographs, and so on) have comparatively rigid rules that structure argument and tone. Each of us may possess varying skills in writing, but the difference we might see from one journal article to the next does not reveal an essential capaciousness in academic publications more broadly. Those of us who do find outlets for our writing beyond academia—blogs, editorials, and other print formats—find that our universities offer little incentive. The online magazine Common-Place (http://www.common-place.org, cofounder: Jill Lepore) is one of those rare forums where academics use readable prose in discussing early American studies, but many universities will not recognize such a publication as useful for our careers or a guarantor of their glory. No wonder so many of us have learned to sniff at publications that smell “popular.”
“I wrote [these essays] because I wanted to learn how to tell stories [End Page 796] better,” Lepore tells us here—thus, with a wave of her simple, declarative sentences, brushing aside all your rationales for avoiding such writing (14). As far as I can tell, her New Yorker essays focus on whatever she wants to write about. (See #1, “Envy,” above.) She might anticipate the upcoming presidential election by writing an inquiry into the history of voting and the very slow adoption of the secret ballot; or, a few months later, produce a thoughtful piece on the hoary tradition of the inaugural address. Sometimes she writes about a new book on American history, but these usually appear less as reviews than teaser-trailers that give you fifteen minutes’ worth of absorbing reading. She tends to prefer early American topics—only about a quarter of the essays treat histories that occurred after the Civil War—but her subjects run the gamut of politics, literature, culture, race, language, and Kit Carson.
The only implausible aspect of The Story of America might be the grandiosity of its title, but Lepore neatly sidesteps overblown claims about the grand sum of her essays. No one, she assures us, can tell the story of America. Rather, she concerns herself with the storytelling itself, the “study of the story” of America. “It strikes me that, taken together, [these essays] do make an argument, and it is this: 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,” she asserts (15–16). One could quibble about whether that argument carries through the full volume, but that would miss the p oint. In stitching together twenty great tales—for Lep ore is nothing if not a dyed-in-the-wool narrative historian—she ultimately brings us scholars together with a wide group of nonacademic readers under the umbrella of good stories.
The rest of us can learn from her experiment in storytelling. Only along the way do these essays reveal...