- New Yorker Nation
Jill Lepore is a Harvard professor, a prolific and award-winning historian, and a writer for The New Yorker. Given the many roles she plays, reviewing her new book, These Truths: A History of the United States, for an academic journal may be a fool's errand. She is not writing for academics. Although These Truths documents how gender and race have distorted the universal claims of American democracy, a central theme of a generation of historians, Lepore embeds her analysis in an old-fashioned political narrative that begins in 1492 and stretches down to Donald Trump. This will probably appeal to the political class and journalists and just as probably dismay those historians who are not presidential biographers. The division will be over what counts as a history of the United States.
Any author operating on the scale of These Truths is going to produce a selective American history. Lepore artfully distinguishes between American history and the story of American history. American history contains far more than the story she tells, but that is the point of telling a story. Historians make stories by excluding. We prune away the wild and exuberant growth of the past until a form emerges.
Lepore takes the vast branchings of the American past and cuts them down to a political trunk and a few stout ideological limbs. In crafting her America, Lepore lops off entire regions and important topics or reduces them to nubbins. Most readers see only the finished form, but other historians recognize what has been cut away. Mere lists of what she omits do not add up to valid criticisms of what she has written. They are only demands that she write a different book. A history only faces a telling critique when something essential to the themes that an author has chosen is eliminated. Evidence counts as essential when restoring it discredits the story that the author tells. A Turnerian account of the settlement of an empty continent, for example, crumbles when Indians appear.
Lepore bets that a set of foundational political ideas and the government and politics they produce are adequate to convey the contours of American [End Page 159] history. And Lepore's limbs—political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people—are broad and sturdy. The particular foliage they yield will determine whether her book will be recognizable as a "A History of the United States" rather than just a history of political ideas, political thinkers, and politicians.
In deciding what counts as government and politics, Lepore favors partisan politics, election campaigns, court decisions, the shaping of public opinion, the evolution of journalism and media, broad-brush renditions of ideology, and the fate of politicians. Her decisions contain real sins of omission. She pays little attention to actual governance. Major structural changes such as the privatization of government through fee-based governance or the regulatory bureaucracies that arose in response get no attention. A politician like Wendell Willkie looms large while the important structural change, such as the rise of a limited Indian sovereignty that makes the U.S. unique in the hemisphere, virtually vanishes.
In looking at politics, the book is unabashedly presentist to the point of being Whiggish, but presentism does not really explain the book's criteria for what counts as American history. These Truths has little to say about the history of some of the most pressing political concerns of the early twenty-first century: capitalism, immigration, corporations, and the environment. They are just background noise, a paragraph here and there.
Lepore tends to equate democracy with suffrage, while portraying voters as dangerously susceptible to manipulation. Intended as a brief for democracy, such an interpretation can instead leave readers wondering why voters should be trusted with anything. Democratic politics often becomes a discussion of those who produce, measure, and manipulate public opinion rather than mass movements. Rarely, except among African Americans, does change bubble up from below. The broader demands of nineteenth-century antimonopolists and twentieth-century American...