Jill Lepore on History

This week in our department’s Intro to History course, we’re talking about history as a form of literature. Wanting to point students to some of my favorite writing historians, I started with Jill Lepore, the Harvard professor who also writes regular essays for The New Yorker. (“All historians are coroners,” she began a 2019 piece on inheriting a laptop from a dead friend. ” I began my inquest.”)

She came right to mind because I’ve been reading Lepore’s ambitious, single-volume history of America, These Truths, which is itself a kind of meditation on the importance of historical methods and historical thinking. It all begins with a statement of historical contingency:

The course of history is unpredictable, as irregular as the weather, as errant as affection, nations rising and falling by whim and chance, battered by violence, corrupted by greed, seized by tyrants, raided by rogues, addled by demagogues. (xi)

At the same time, Lepore argues that what we think of as our nation’s founding is rooted in a “new understanding of the past”: not the biblical one, “pregnant with mysteries… taken on faith,” but one in which the past is knowable.

The turn from reverence to inquiry, from mystery to history, was crucial to the founding of the United States. It didn’t require abdicating faith in the truths of revealed religion and it relieved no one of the obligation to judge right from wrong. But it did require subjecting the past to skepticism, to look to beginnings not to justify ends, but to question them—with evidence. (xvii)

Of course, as Christians who practice history, we need to wrestle with the tension between not “abdicating faith in the truths of revealed religion” and still “subjecting the past to skepticism.” But I can’t imagine any of us disputing Lepore’s central claim: that historians ask questions of the past… and answer them with evidence.

Lepore, These TruthsBecause we had just spent two weeks in Intro to History talking about the nature of historical evidence, I shared the Lepore quotation below with my students. It comes from early in her first chapter, which starts in 1492 (not 1776 or 1787); not with the documents we have, like the U.S. Constitution or Federalist Papers, but with one we lack: the lost diary of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the Western Hemisphere. “All of this is unfortunate,” she allows. “None of it is unusual.” For here’s the inescapably complicated truth about historical evidence:

Most of what existed is now gone. Flesh decays, wood rots, walls fall, books burn. Nature takes one toll, malice another. History is the study of what remains, what’s left behind, which can be almost anything, so long as it survives the ravages of time and war: letters, diaries, DNA, gravestones, coins, television broadcasts, paintings, DVDs, viruses, abandoned Facebook pages, the transcripts of congressional hearings, the ruins of buildings. Some of these things are saved by chance or accident, like the one house that, as if by a miracle, still stands after a hurricane razes a town. But most of what historians study survives because it was purposely kept—placed in a box and carried up to an attic, shelved in a library, stored in a museum, photographed or recorded, downloaded to a server—carefully preserved and even catalogued. All of it, together, the accidental and the intentional, this archive of the past—remains, relics, a repository of knowledge, the evidence of what came before, this inheritance—is called the historical record, and it is maddeningly uneven, asymmetrical, and unfair. (4-5)

Cross-posted at CC 4th