Author and historian Jill Lepore speaks Thursday at Conn College
Jill Lepore is a Harvard professor and a staff writer for the New Yorker. You could call that the "Cliff's Notes" version of her CV, except Lepore is also the author of several highly regarded books and has built a career that should preclude any short cuts in terms of describing her accomplishments.
For instance, Lepore's actual teaching title is "the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History." Three of her 2018 luminous and creatively thoughtful essays for the New Yorker were collectively nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. And she's the author of last year's highly regarded "These Truths — A History of the United States." It's the latest of her 12 books, which also include the national bestseller "The Secret History of Wonder Women"; "New York Burning," which was nominated for the 2006 Pulitzer in History; "Book of Ages," which was nominated for the National Book Award; and one novel, "Blindspot," which she cowrote with Jane Kamensky.
On Thursday, Lepore, speaking about "These Truths," will deliver the fourth of the President's Distinguished Lecture Series at Connecticut College, followed by a book signing.
Last week, from her office at Harvard, Lepore answered questions by phone about her work. Speaking pleasantly but quickly, in the fashion of someone perfectly capable of simultaneously outlining her next book or plotting a course syllabus or two for the fall semester, Lemore was eloquent and thoughtful. Here are excerpts from that conversation, edited for space.
Q: How does one even begin to prepare to write something as ambitious as a complete history of the United States?
A: I've been teaching American history for 30 years, so a lot of the material in the book is a cumulative result of that teaching — as well as writing essays and reading other books in support of those efforts over the course of that time period. You can't really write a book like this if you don't already know a lot about it.
Q: Why write such a book — and why now?
A: I'd thought about writing an American history textbook for a while, but first I thought I'd try writing a history for a general audience rather than an academic audience. There's a gap between when the last major history of America was published and now — and a lot has happened during that time. I think there's a real cost to not having something accessible that we can think about and learn from. I liked the idea of an accessible history with literary aspirations, and I thought I'd give it a shot.
Q: You refer to the gap in information since the last history was written. How did you prioritize what to include and what, maybe, to minimize?
A: The last time someone wrote this type of book, there was frankly just a lot of information missing in terms of people of color and scientific development and changes in society and why they changed. I wanted to rebalance the information. A lot of people have simply been stripped out of American history. It's not that they weren't important or didn't play a huge role — they were just ignored.
"Rebalancing" was the key work of the book. That was the whole reason to write this. Ours has been a segregated history ... the story of Jim Crow, native peoples, the sidebar of women's rights ... It's like, here in Boston, a tourist can follow the Freedom Trail, which tells one story, or the Black Heritage Trail, which tells another. We can't have that in a healthy democracy. I thought about calling the book "We the People," because the idea is to talk about and include everybody.
Q: In "These Truths," you write about America's "long fall into an epistemological abyss." Are we faced with the possibility that concepts like "truth" or "history" are on the endangered species list? And, since you started writing, has that descent in the abyss accelerated — possibly at alarming speed?
A: Hmm. I think that's fair to say. Maybe not in the two years it took me to write the book. Maybe in 2007, with the rise of Facebook and social media. It's not totally unprecedented. In the 1930s, there was an Institute of Propaganda Analysis that was designed to help people know how to recognize propaganda. Given what was going on in the world (with the rise of Nazism, Communism and other political movements), there was a huge amount of concern about how to discern information.
Of course, the cost at that time was far more dire in terms of human suffering. Our situation today is slightly more whimsical; there's not the same scale of tragedy. But it IS troubling what's going on now. There's a boundless and automated source of information and material out there, and it's hard to imagine how to defeat it. At the moment, the damage is happening so that certain people can make a lot of money and acquire power — and not so they can commit genocide.
Q: There's an audio book version of "These Truths" — and you're the reader! Was that fun? Challenging?
A: I loved doing that. I did it for the first time with "Wonder Woman." It took me by surprise because I'd never been asked before. It was a blast. And I learned a lot about writing and the economy of words. "This sentence could be sharper." Hearing it out loud gives you a great perspective.
Q: Did you go full-out thespian in the recording sessions?
A: (Laughs) Well, I can't sound like five different people or go into in-depth characterizations, but ... if anything, I had to restrain myself because I can get pretty worked up with anger or sadness. Even telling you that gets me worked up. But I listen to audio books, and I want to feel and hear that connection to the material.
If you go
Who: Harvard history professor and Pulitzer and American Book Award nominee Jill Lepore
What: Discusses her latest book, "These Truths — A History of the United States," as the latest presentation in Connecticut College's annual President's Distinguished Lecture Series
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, book signing follows immediately
Where: Cummings Art Center, Evans Hall, Connecticut College, 270 Mohegan Ave., New London
How much: Free
For more information: (860) 447-1911, www.conncoll.edu