A Conversation with Jill Lepore
Soon after earning her bachelor’s degree in English from Tufts, Jill Lepore started working at Harvard, but not as a member of the faculty. The future David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History was clocking hours as a secretary on temporary assignment. But she was also writing up a storm, auditing courses, and thinking about attending grad school.
In a conversation that opens with high-school recollections before venturing into seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America, Lepore describes how she became the person she is today: a well-known scholar of early American history, a winner of the Bancroft Prize, a former NEH research fellow, and the author of numerous essays and several distinguished books. She is also a staff writer at the New Yorker and, with fellow historian Jane Kamensky, the coauthor of Blindspot, a work of historical fiction set in Revolution-era Boston.
HUMANITIES: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
JILL LEPORE: I was born outside of Worcester, Massachusetts, and grew up there.
HUMANITIES: Where did you go for undergrad?
LEPORE: I went to Tufts.
HUMANITIES: And when did you decide to become a historian? Don’t worry, the high school newspaper-style questions will stop soon after this one.
LEPORE: It’s funny you should ask that. I had to give a talk at my high school last year, and the high school newspaper-style question they wanted me to answer was just like that: How did the person that you were in high school become the person that you are now?
I had no idea. I have a terrible memory. But this talk was for kids who were trying to imagine who they might become, and it seemed like a good question. So, I did some research to try to find an answer. I went through the archive of my high school life, which was this diary that I kept, this immensely ponderous and agonized, horrible diary. And my mother had kept my report cards and every letter I ever wrote home, and my varsity letters, too, in a box in her attic. I opened it up and I read through everything. It was hilarious or, at least, my mother thought it was funny, in the way that your mother finds something funny that you find mortifying.
There was a public record and a private record; that’s how history always works. In the public record I was a total jock. There were all these newspaper clippings because I played sports. And the report cards: Well, I was not an especially excellent student. And then there was a private record, letters to my best friend and the diary, oh, the dreadful, endless diary, and the me that’s in the diary is a compulsive, nonstop reader and a manic writer and all I do is read and write about what I’m reading. I hadn’t remembered it that way, but I guess that’s what high school is like—floating in the uncomfortable space between the public you and the private you—and why it stinks. Anyway, I did find a story, a story to tell about how I decided to become a historian.
I went to college, but I didn’t want to go; I wasn’t sure what college was for, and we didn’t have any money. I went because I won an ROTC scholarship—and I really liked ROTC, actually, except I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in the military. Loved boot camp; hated SDI, the Strategic Defense Initiative. So, freshman year, there I was, in ROTC, playing sports, failing all my classes, when I got a letter in the mail. Or, well, my mother got it, and she forwarded it to me. It was from me.
In high school, I had an English teacher who was that once-in-a-lifetime teacher who shapes everything that ever happens to you. He had given us an assignment to write a letter to ourselves five years in the future, or four years into the future, whatever it was. And he was not going to read it. We had to give him money for stamps, adjusted, I thought somewhat suspiciously, for inflation. I mean, good for him, but he charged us like fifty cents. Anyway, we addressed the letters to our parents’ houses. I had completely forgotten about that letter because—did I mention?—I have a terrible memory.
Turns out, it was a very scary letter. It said, more or less, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ and it went on like that, scolding, berating: ‘If you’re not actually doing what you’re supposed to be doing, quit everything and figure out your life for God’s sake. Get on with it!’ Apparently, I was a very difficult fourteen-year-old, but not altogether lacking in foresight. It was as if I had known that I would still be the jock who was reading in the dark. So I quit. I quit ROTC. I quit sports. I had been a math major; I switched to English.
This didn’t make me ‘become a historian.’ But later, when I thought about what I did want to do, I remembered that letter, that time capsule, and I wondered what it would be like to read old letters all day, other people’s letters, to listen to the past, and I knew I wanted to do that.
HUMANITIES: Was there maybe a history class project that gave this new pro-intellectual direction some specificity?
LEPORE: No. I never had a grand ambition to become a historian. But I did always want to be a writer. I wanted to be a writer when I was six years old. When I was a little kid, all I did was write stories, and hide them. That letter didn’t turn me into a historian; it turned me into a secretary. Quitting ROTC meant that I had to graduate from college early because there wasn’t any money, and I worked and worked, to pay that tuition. And then I worked as a secretary for a while. I worked here, in fact, as a secretary at Harvard.
LEPORE: Yeah, really. But what I actually did all day was write really bad stories, essays, plays, anything, when no one was looking. That was fun, until one day. I was working as a secretary at the Harvard Business School, a truly horrible job, as a long-term temp, although, to be fair, I’ve had far worse jobs. Anyway, there was really very little to do, except answer the phone and pay this guy’s Visa bill. So one day I was sitting there writing some crap piece of fiction in between paying this guy’s $18,000 Visa bill, when the Manpower people show up with flowers in a vase of crystal because I’ve won the Tiffany Award for best secretary.
And I just was, like, ‘Oh. No. I must quit.’ Like, ‘This is not okay. What am I doing?’
HUMANITIES: It’s like another letter.
LEPORE: Yes! It was like another letter saying, ‘Hold on. This is the wrong life.’ So, I decided I would go to graduate school, because I couldn’t figure out how to become a writer but, graduate school, there are forms to fill out; I could do that. I didn’t know anybody who was a writer. I didn’t have any social capital whatsoever. So, I went to graduate school, not in history because I didn’t have a degree in history. I don’t have any degrees in history. I went to graduate school in American studies because I had a degree in English, and I could conceivably get in, could write a persuasive essay about the study of the past, because, while I was a secretary at Harvard, I took a lot of books out of the library, and sat in on a lot of classes, in this history department and in the Harvard Extension School. I’m quite sure no one here knows I was ever in those classes; I was just some secretary, auditing a course. I very much doubt that I ever spoke in class. But, by then, I had become entirely fascinated by the past.
HUMANITIES: Let’s talk about your first book, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origin of American Identity. Twice this week I’ve mentioned King Philip’s War to people I consider well educated, and both said, ‘King Philip of Spain?’ Maybe we can start by having you explain who King Philip was.
LEPORE: Yeah, I can see my book about him really made a dent. Well, King Philip is referred to by many names in the course of his short lifetime. But his Algonquian or Wampanoag name is Metacom, or that’s the name he is using at the time he is killed in 1676. He’s a sachem of the Wampanoag Indians, who are also known as the Pokanoket in New England in the seventeenth century. He’s the son of Massasoit, who people have heard of because he’s the Indian at the first Thanksgiving in 1621 with William Bradford.
HUMANITIES: And what about the war part?
LEPORE: In 1675 Philip decides to wage war against the English, in a concerted attempt to oust the English from New England and take back his land. And he formed some fairly effective strategic alliances with the Narragansett and some other Indian groups. The war is about fourteen months long, and it ends with his death. He’s decapitated, and his head is staked on a pole and brought to Plymouth, where it becomes a site of pilgrimage for decades.
King Philip’s War is the gory, scary sequel to the first Thanksgiving. And it’s an early instance of what comes to be called the frontier experience—though it’s very unfashionable to call it the frontier anymore. The war starts because the English and the Indians have become almost too close. There’s been a blurring of the cultural lines between them. Philip in particular is quite outraged that many of his people have become Christians, and he wants that to stop. And the English are quite happy to take advantage of the opportunity to rid themselves of their Indian neighbors and wage a fierce and vengeful campaign to eradicate the Indians. In some ways it’s precedent-setting. You can see that cycle of closeness and distance and closeness and distance all across the West.
HUMANITIES: And part of the subtitle for the book is, “Origins of American Identity.”
LEPORE: I was challenging an old argument, that the English settlers defined themselves against the English in England, which is the Perry Miller and Sacvan Bercovitch interpretation of how the origins of the American self lie in the Puritan experience. I was attempting to document a more triangulated process by which the English positioned themselves against the English and against the Indians, and actually also against the Spanish, who they saw as crueler versions of themselves. The English believed themselves to be merciful, more merciful than anyone else—until that war. I wanted to make that sense of self more contingent while holding on to what was, at the time, and since, another unfashionable notion: that there is such a thing as an American identity.
HUMANITIES: You also seem to argue that it’s here that we see the beginnings of what later becomes the Indian removal policy of Andrew Jackson.
LEPORE: Yes. I am really interested in antecedents of later problems. And one thing that was interesting to me about King Philip’s War was how forgotten it was compared to nineteenth-century Indian-American conflicts, and how those conflicts were experienced through the memory of King Philip’s War. In the early part of the nineteenth century, Philip was as well known as Pocahontas, on the stage and in music and in plays and picture books and children’s rhymes. That has fallen away since, and for an interesting reason. To claim Massasoit is to claim a story about early America as a peaceful, multicultural picnic; for that story to have a happy ending, there can be no Philip. He all but disappears, even from history books. But in the early part of the nineteenth century he was what Van Wyck Brooks called “a usable past.” How that happens, what’s remembered and what’s forgotten, fascinates me no end.
HUMANITIES: After winning a Bancroft Prize you co-founded a magazine with Jane Kamensky, an online history journal called Common-place—with a little hyphen in the middle. What was the thinking that led to Common-place?
LEPORE: It was largely civic-minded. It’s always striking to see the gap between what scholars think and know about the early American past and what the public cherishes about American national heritage. There was a great deal of foment in the 1990s over the national history standards, a battle in the culture wars, over what story to tell about early America. I mean, not just about slavery and whether we should teach Harriet Tubman or spend more time on Lincoln. It was a mess, but the debate is important. Then, as now, it is hard for me to sit by and watch a past in which I spend a great deal of time every day, a past I care about, batted back and forth like a toy. I find that quite painful.
Jane would likely have a very different explanation for why we founded Common-place. But part of the idea was that it would be free. So schoolteachers, for instance, could use it. And museum curators. We’d ask scholars who were working intensely in archives and making wonderful discoveries to bring those stories to a larger audience and to write in a way that would reach a larger audience. And we’d also be able to promote a more generous kind of writing, more generous to a reader.
HUMANITIES: There’s a large difference in tone between Common-place and other journals that have professional historians writing in them. Was that part of the manifesto?
LEPORE: Yes, it was. We didn’t want to edit another scholarly journal. We wanted to edit something that was more like a magazine. But more scholarly than American Heritage. Of course, there’s a place for magazines like that, and for academic journals, too. But we wanted to find a place in between the two, in between the popular and the scholarly.
HUMANITIES: You are deeply interested in characters: Noah Webster, John Smith, Edgar Allan Poe. Do these people have something in common with each other?
LEPORE: Other than that I’m obsessed with them? No. Interest in character is to some degree unusual among scholarly historians. It is something I resisted because I was trained to believe that character does not contain explanations; character is incidental. There are large historical forces and structures; there are ideas; there are economic circumstances; there are theories of knowing, materiality, ideology, epistemology, economy. With these, you can analyze the past and understand it, but the very last approach you would ever resort to as an academically trained historian would be biographical. Unfortunately, all I ever really wanted to do was figure people out. In graduate school, that looked like a liability, and I took note. Meanwhile, I also always wanted to figure out what actually happened, like a detective, like a Chandler gumshoe, but I was trained in the early ’90s in a post-structuralist American studies department where we read a lot of Derrida and Foucault, and nothing ever happened; it merely signified. I’m glad I read that stuff; I had unbelievably smart and generous professors at Yale, and I loved it there. But I got to be very uncomfortable with what I was trained to study versus how I wanted to write.
So, I wrote my second book, a book of character sketches, and it felt like an apostasy. And I wrote an essay about why historians don’t write about character and why historians disdain biographers, and what’s at stake in the family feud between them. The essay is called “Historians Who Love Too Much,” and all I would say about it is, at least it was profitable to struggle with.
HUMANITIES: In New York Burning, you wrote about another episode from America’s colonial past, the fires that swept through Manhattan in 1741.
LEPORE: And I bet you couldn’t find anyone who’d ever heard of that, either. Another long-forgotten episode in early American history. It’s a little like Salem witchcraft, which everyone knows about, the 1692 witchcraft trials in which twenty people died, except that what happened in New York was a lot worse. Thirteen black men were burned at the stake; seventeen more were hanged. No one was burned at the stake in Salem. That’s just a figment of our collective imagination. What happened in New York was also, historically, far more significant. It played a role in how slavery evolved in the North. And it played a role, I think, in how American politics evolved and how Americans came to tolerate partisanship and the two-party system.
I had wanted to write about this episode for my dissertation but decided against it because, while the prosecutors left behind a rich documentary trail (nearly two hundred black men were arrested and interrogated and many of them were brought to trial), the confessions aren’t admissible as historical evidence, since they were confessing to avoid being burned to death and, under those circumstances, who wouldn’t lie? I couldn’t quite figure out how to deal with that evidentiary problem.
Then, in 1991, workers excavating the foundation for a new federal office building in Manhattan came across the African burial ground from the colonial period. And I thought, ‘Oh, this will be incredibly loud, noisy, great historical evidence.’ Except it wasn’t. The burials and the remains were highly controversial, and the reports were not altogether forthcoming about what scholars ought to conclude from the analysis of those remains. But I wrote the book anyway.
HUMANITIES: In The Name of War you showed how New Englanders described their humiliation and their suffering in language identical to how they described the Indians. In this book you showed pre-Revolutionary Americans describing the restraints on their political liberties in terms so drastic that they actually better describe the bondage in which they keep African slaves and the slaves then referred to as Spanish Negroes. There seems to be this kind of very careful, subtle argument about how we take our enemy’s attributes and apply them to ourselves when we think we’re in a really bad place.
LEPORE: I’m interested in our capacity to justify acts of tremendous, unspeakable cruelty. It’s not obvious, at least not to me. And the way I have always tried to puzzle it out is by thinking mainly about language. What, literally, is the vocabulary of justification?
In eighteenth-century New York, a lot of people want to depose the governor. He is a tyrant. What they write about him, what they write about their right to get rid of him, is, to me, as a citizen, quite moving and inspiring. And yet those same people deploy that very same rhetoric to justify enslaving Africans. How do they manage that? How, honestly, is that possible? I don’t know that we have ever really reckoned with that, with what Edmund Morgan called the “American paradox,” that our democracy rests, at some level, on the idea of enslavement. It doesn’t anymore. But that history matters. And I think we’d be stronger for seeing it more clearly.
HUMANITIES: You also make the argument that slavery is somehow crucial to understanding the development of political parties in America. How does slavery help illuminate the development of political parties?
LEPORE: I tried to make that argument, but I’m not sure it worked. The day that New York Burning was published, Hurricane Katrina touched down in New Orleans. I had a new baby, and I was home with him, and found myself glued to the television. Talking heads would come on—news anchors, commentators—and say, while looking at the footage of nobody but black people on the roofs of those houses, as if shocked, as if this had never occurred to them, ‘Oh, my God. Race still exists in this country. There still is racism. Oh, my God. New Orleans is segregated!’
I’m trying to convince people that it matters that black men were burned at the stake in New York City in 1741, and people are surprised that black people are marooned on the roofs of New Orleans in 2005? Here I am, trying to make an argument about eighteenth-century politics, attempting to illustrate, with all manner of exhaustive archival research—charts about the census and the tax lists—and close readings of Blackstone’s Commentaries and Restoration drama, trying to argue that the constant, ever-present threat of black conspiracy made white political pluralism possible. Because compared to that, having a two-party system was a piece of cake. And I had to go give some goofy book talks, and I’m thinking, at these bookstores, Sheesh, there’s just this huge gap between what I’m trying to say and what people kind of need to know or where we can enter the conversation together, and that’s my fault, all mine. What am I doing here in 1741? At the level of imagining our national past and wrestling with the consequences of slavery, the wages of slavery, well, that didn’t even begin to happen until the last election where there was a genuine national conversation about what slavery has done to American politics.
HUMANITIES: To go back to the eighteenth century for just a second: So the threat or the partly imagined threat of a slave rebellion, it encouraged people to find a more friendly system of opposition, which was the beginnings of the party system?
LEPORE: History doesn’t always work that way, neatly. And when it seems like it works that way, usually someone is being facile. But here’s what I argued: In New York in the 1730s there was an extraordinary and unprecedented amount of political opposition, including the founding of an opposition political party. In 1735, a printer named John Peter Zenger was tried for sedition, for publishing a newspaper that opposed the policies of the royally appointed governor. Zenger’s trial is one of the most thrilling episodes in early American political history, and it nearly tears the colony apart.
Six years later, an alleged slave conspiracy brings together these two political parties, who, I argue, heal the political divisions between them by burning black men at the stake. And, I think, like decapitating Philip and putting his head on a pike, this is a constitutive moment for a pluralistic politics. It’s as if those executions say, ‘You and I, we can disagree. We can disagree—a lot—because we are not beyond the limits of our own politics, we are not Indians on the warpath, we are not black men talking about burning the city down.’ It’s a dark story, I don’t like that story, I sometimes wish the past were prettier, but it’s how I read the evidence.
HUMANITIES: Now, you started out wanting to write novels. Then you became a historian, trained in the latest methods, but you’re sort of drawn to characters. Then finally you do produce a novel, or rather coproduce one. Tell me about the circumstances that gave rise to Blindspot. The basic conceit seemed so lighthearted I wondered if it wasn’t born over drinks.
LEPORE: Oh, I’m a teetotaler, so absolutely not. The part of the novel that I wrote, this picaresque first-person narrative of a painter named Stewart Jameson, who is a total sot, was a pretty big stretch for me since I have never been drunk. Then, too, he’s also a man, and six feet tall, and Scottish, and a portrait painter, so, arguably, the drinking is the least of it. But Jameson is my grandmother’s maiden name, and she did like to paint.
So, no. Not drinks. Also, I wouldn’t say I started out wanting to write novels. I wanted to write, is all. Anything. Anyway, a couple of years ago, Jane and I were planning a seventieth birthday party for our Yale mentor, John Demos. We had this idea that we would get together all of his former students and everybody would write a fake document that solved a mystery that John couldn’t solve in his own work, for lack of evidence. He had written a book called The Unredeemed Captive about a little girl, Eunice Williams, who is taken captive by Indians in 1704, when she’s around six years old, and she marries an Indian and her father could never get her to come back even though he finds her, decades later. She’s forgotten how to speak English. John was desperate to know what she was thinking, but he could never find out. The evidence just doesn’t exist. So, one document could have been a diary of Eunice Williams. And we’d, you know, fourth grade art project-wise, pour tea on the documents and burn the edges and put them in a box to make them look like old documents, and we’d create the John Demos Archive. I thought this sounded really cool. If you’re wondering, ‘Who besides you would think that’s cool?’ it’s a good question. I sent an e-mail out to all of John’s prior students, these distinguished scholars, explaining the idea. And everyone wrote back, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ Like, ‘Dear Jill, We are historians. We are not craft people.’
So, Jane and I said, ‘Okay. We’ll have a scholarly conference. That’ll be good.’ And it was; it was lovely. But Jane and I decided we would do it anyway, the crafty document thing, as a gift, just from us, because it’s exactly the kind of thing John, who collects antiques, would adore. And Jane said, ‘I know. We’ll do it together. We’ll have two narrators and we’ll take turns.’ Jane wanted to be a fallen woman and, at first, I wanted to be an itinerant doctor, but Jane had just started working on a biography of Gilbert Stuart, the American portrait painter. And she said, ‘No, it’s way better if your guy is a portrait painter because portrait painters can get in everywhere. They can see everything.’ Six months later, we had a novel. I’m a huge fan of eighteenth-century novels, and I had just been working on Noah Webster’s dictionary, and it was incredibly fun to try to write in that idiom.
HUMANITIES: The vocabulary in it is very impressive: nice obsolete words like flummery.
LEPORE: After the book came out, I received queries from the OED asking, ‘So where did you find this word and what is the first use of that?’ The novel’s a loving imitation of eighteenth-century fiction, and we tried to stay very close, not just to the vocabulary, but to the sensibility; we were trying, quite literally, to write a novel that could plausibly have been written in 1764. Jane’s first book, Governing the Tongue, is about gossip, very close work on seventeenth-century court records of trials for scandal and slander. A lot of things that people say to one another in Blindspot are from court transcripts. And there’s a big murder trial in the middle, most of which is taken straight out of trials from Boston and New York. I desperately wanted to put in footnotes but everyone said, ‘Um, Lepore, it’s a novel.’ But in the paperback, we get to write about our sources in an afterword. Some readers find the novel’s language overwrought, or think it reads like a Harlequin or something, which is frustrating except that, in a way, I guess that’s a trenchant observation, because a Harlequin is the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. And we were actually trying to be that thing, to be Richardson, and also Sterne, and Fielding. And Richardson, when you read him today, he is overwrought. I love that. And Fielding, and Sterne, those guys are campy as hell.
HUMANITIES: On your faculty web page it says you’ve consulted for the Park Service. Where and when?
LEPORE: I was principal investigator once for a study of Deer Island, which is part of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area. It’s where Christian Indians were confined for the duration of King Philip’s War. I also used to teach an undergraduate course on the Boston Harbor Islands. We’d take water taxis out there, and do research, and design museum exhibits for museums that don’t exist.
I’ve also done a lot of consulting for the Old State House in Boston, which is the setting for the central scenes in Blindspot. It’s the oldest public building in America, built in 1713. Part of the point of the novel was to embrace the public history of the city of Boston and to offer a different interpretation of the sites on the Freedom Trail.
HUMANITIES: When did you start writing for the New Yorker?
HUMANITIES: How often do you write for them? You seem to be in there almost as much as the movie reviewers.
LEPORE: It ebbs and flows depending on my teaching. Last year I was on leave. I don’t know, once a month, something like that.
HUMANITIES: And are you a daily writer? Do you have a committed number of hours?
LEPORE: [Laughter] It’s just, I don’t like to take myself seriously in that way. Like, are you going to ask what kind of pen do I use? Whatever’s handy, whatever’s handy. I am very unhappy if I’m not writing. One of my kids is the same way; he just needs to be completely immersed and concentrating on something for a certain number of hours a day to really have equilibrium the rest of the day. When he was little, he would go to day-care where there would be a lot of socializing and fun, but when he would come home he would get out his legos and just sit for forty-five minutes. And this was when he was, like, two years old, and you could just see, all over his face, it was like, ‘I’m doing my legos. I’m really happy now.’ He had had a perfectly fine day at school; he just needed those legos. When he got a little older I could talk to him about it, and, when I got home after a perfectly fine day of teaching and meetings, I could say, ‘You know how there are times you just really need the legos? That’s how I feel right now. I’ve got to go write. It’s going to just be a few minutes.’ People always say, ‘Oh, my God. You must work so hard.’ And I can only say, ‘No, no, it’s a need.’ It’s not a virtue. As vices go, it’s a good one to have. But it’s a need.
HUMANITIES: I noticed in your most recent article for the New Yorker that you were writing about motherhood with a historical perspective of the early twentieth century. Is this the future for you, writing about the present?
LEPORE: I don’t know. I think, as a person, I have an early modern sensibility, which is why I have always been quite averse to writing about the more recent past. There was something great about working on the novel because it felt like everything I ever knew could be used on the page, somehow, in a phrase, a building, a glance, but then I felt emptied out by it, like I had written my way right into, and then right out of, the eighteenth century. The novel makes a fairly ambitious argument about the relationship between the American Revolution and the Enlightenment, and the Scottish Enlightenment in particular. At the time we were writing it, I was also working on a book about the American Revolution in Boston, a history book, but then it felt to me like I had already said everything I wanted to say. You know, if you’ve been to Paris, it would be nice to go back, but if you’ve never been to Rome wouldn’t you just go to Rome the next time?
And so the delight, the total, unmitigated delight of the New Yorker stuff is the chance to write about something else. Shocking but true: Most people don’t actually care about the eighteenth century. So, to be asked to write about something else has been just a kind of bliss, a blessing.
HUMANITIES: How did you come to the notice of David Remnick and the magazine?
LEPORE: I have no idea. It mystifies me, but I’m awfully grateful.
HUMANITIES: Who are you reading? Do you just read history, or do you read more widely than that?
LEPORE: I mainly read about what I’m writing about. I spend a lot of time in archives. So, I read a lot of people’s papers. I read a lot of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fiction. I have been attempting to read more twentieth-century fiction. The twenty-first century, plainly, is out of the question.
HUMANITIES: Where do you think you fit along the intellectual spectrum of scholar to public intellectual to popular author? I mean, you’re definitely a scholar but you’re also writing regularly for a large public. Yet I don’t see you jumping into the middle of contemporary debates. Do you have some intention or interest in doing that at some point, or will you always prefer a more Common-place-type strategy?
LEPORE: I think the categories are a little complicated. I say no to very many things. There are a lot of things I don’t want to do, that don’t, frankly, comport well with my domestic life. If it means missing dinner, I usually say no. Also there are certain things that I don’t think make good use of people, and certainly not of me.
I am not a pundit, and I don’t want to be a pundit. I’m not so sure punditry adds much to American life. I have loved, totally loved, writing about politics, but I have really not wanted to be swept into the world of punditry.
HUMANITIES: So, you don’t have some itch to be writing op-eds or duking it out with Bill O’Reilly?
LEPORE: No, I don’t have that itch. Among the many things I cherish about the chance to write for the New Yorker is feeling like I can offer some historical perspective on a contemporary problem. It’s striking to me as an obsessive reader of newspapers and watcher of news how impoverished our historical perspective is on most contemporary problems. Just looking at the coverage of the current economic situation, you know, it’s really not all about the Great Depression. It’s just not. And people who are trying to draw false analogies with different earlier economic crises generally don’t really have the perspective to make those comparisons; they’re facile at best, and, at worst, decidedly unhelpful.
So, it’s fun to be able to say, ‘You know what? From where I sit this reminds me more of something else.’ Please, take a minute, consider this and, even if I’m wrong, and it’s not as relevant as I think, maybe it’s an interesting story anyway. And that’s something that most academic historians don’t do—and, in fact, are opposed to doing—so it’s mainly journalists who are trying to use the past to cast light on the present, because journalists have an obligation to explain. And yet they have very little space with which to do it--no time and no column inches.
One piece I wrote for the New Yorker recently was basically about swine flu. Everybody who was trying to find a historical angle on the swine flu panic was writing about the influenza epidemic of 1918, but that epidemic seemed to me remarkably unlike the swine flu panic. To be perfectly honest, I thought 1918 was a total bum steer. So, I wrote a piece about a parrot flu panic, in 1930, which, to me, was a much closer analog to the swine flu thing or, at least, a more useful comparison. I thought it might make people say, ‘Huh. Wait a minute.’
There’s this lovely Carl Becker essay, it was his presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1931, “Everyman His Own Historian.” People often misunderstand that speech and, based on its title alone, say, ‘Oh, it’s about how everybody is his own historian. Like, you don’t need a professional historian because everybody is a historian.’ And while that was part of Becker’s argument, the other part was actually ‘Yes, everyman is his own historian. And then there are historians for everybody, people who do it for a living.’ Here’s what he said: “We are Mr. Everybody’s historian as well as our own, since our histories serve the double purpose, which written histories have always served, of keeping alive the recollection of memorable men and events. We are thus of that ancient and honorable company of wise men of the tribe, of bards and story-tellers and minstrels, of soothsayers and priests, to whom in successive ages has been entrusted the keeping of the useful myths.”
Okay, on a re-read, it gets a little puffy, but, still, I love that. Our obligation is to remember, or to find out, what happened a long time ago and remind people about it because no one can remember everything. Most people can barely remember their own childhood. I can hardly remember yesterday. Becker believed that’s why we need historians. To be a public historian, not a public intellectual, not a popular historian, not a pundit, but a public historian, is to be a keeper of our memory as a people. And that, if I had my druthers, and the capacity, is what I would want to be.