EssaysFeature

On These Truths

History can’t save the world. It can’t even save democracy. But it can offer hope.

This week, three historians have responded to Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States (New York: W.W. Norton, 2018). These essays originated as part of a roundtable held at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in April 2019. Monday, we heard from David Hollinger about the role of knowledge and truth in John Dewey’s Progressive vision; yesterday, Malinda Maynor Lowery discussed the importance of Native American histories to understanding an American “national history;” and yesterday  Claire Bond Potter addressed the nature of grand historical visions. Today, Jill Lepore responds.

The day I sat down to write this essay I got an email from a man in South Carolina. He’d been studying for his U.S. citizenship exam and he’d decided to read my book, These Truths: A History of The United States, to help him prepare. He’d come to the United States from Costa Rica at the age of ten, an undocumented immigrant. For most of his life, he explained, he’d been uninterested in American history, hostile to it, even, out of a feeling of not belonging. “It’s a little embarrassing to admit but I did not have any sort of framework for understanding U.S. history until your book,” he wrote me. “I frankly felt too disoriented to learn a new country’s story.” He’d written to thank me: These Truths had helped him find his bearings.

His email reminded me why I wrote this book.

I have written a lot of books, but I’ve never had an experience anything like the experience I have had since These Truths was published last fall. I get mail from readers every day, notes, cards, emails, letters, even packages. The first landed in my inbox the very day the book came out, from a reader who’d pre-ordered a copy from Amazon, to arrive on publication day. She’d sat down and read it, straight away, from beginning to end, a marathon. She’d written to tell me that she had felt, after reading the book, something that she hadn’t felt in a very long time: a love for this country.

I hear from most readers by email, but I get a lot of handwritten notes, too, especially from school children. The mothers of young girls send me copies of the book to inscribe for their daughters, a request that stops my heart, every time. On Christmas Day, I heard from families who had opened the book up that morning, and sat around the piles of empty boxes and crinkled wrapping paper and took turns reading it out loud–all day. The letters have not stopped. This spring I found in my History Department mailbox a typewritten letter from a man in his eighties, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It had taken him a very long time to read the book. “Now I have read it twice,” he wrote me. “I consider it to be a faithful and treasured companion. It has stimulated my interest in history in ways I would not have thought possible.” He keeps it by his bedside, and is reading it all over again. His letter is why I wrote this book.

I know the book has shortcomings. Every historian, every historian who ever lived, the old and the young, the living and the dead, would have written this book differently than I did. God bless them, every one. I didn’t set out to write the last book on American history; I set out to rekindle a lost tradition. I set out to write a sweeping, synthetic, narrative history, even a lyrical history, of the nation, in all its anguish and its beauty. I took as my guide W.E.B. DuBois. “Nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things,” DuBois wrote in 1935. “And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, as far as the truth is ascertainable?”

I resolved not to write an ideological history. In the public mind, the nation’s past is as divided, as polarized, as its present, a proxy war of partisan cruelties and empty pieties. I was determined not to participate in that war. I set, among my priorities, incorporating the very best scholarship on conservatism, fundamentalism, and evangelicalism, topics that for decades have been given short shrift in academic history, as the distinguished historian Alan Brinkley once so wisely observed. And I was equally determined to explain that racial and other forms of injustice and dispossession and violence and all manner of civil and political inequality have been at the very center of the history of the United States, from the start, and that no history that places injustice to one side can ever be true.

Historians have and will find faults with These Truths, and so, too, will readers. And thank goodness. History is a form of inquiry. A good history book should raise questions; a history that doesn’t is a failure. If I were reading this book, I’d ask questions and find faults, too. Also, the book is what fact checkers call “fact dense,” it’s fact thick-as-a-thicket, it’s fact thick-as-thieves, it’s fact thick-as-pea-soup. There were some errors of fact in the book’s first printing. These errors are mine. Their corrections I owe to readers. I mistook “fighter planes” for “fighter jets,” as more than a few men who flew those planes have gently let me know. I think — I hope — I’ve now got those errors all corrected, for the paperback edition, out this fall.

Then there’s the matter of omissions. I was determined, and had been required, to write a book no longer than a thousand pages; this is long for a book but short for a history that covers as much as I wanted to cover. I have been scolded, almost exclusively by historians who are men, for not including more on a thousand incidents of scant significance. As a matter of sexual politics, I find this sort of condescension (mandescension?) fascinating; as intellectual exchange, it is unedifying.

Understandably, it’s easier for people to say what they might have added to this book than to say what they might have left out. I know that I felt that way: I found making these choices, day after day, excruciating. They kept me up at night for two years straight. They still keep me up. Still, you can’t waver. You need a rule; your reader, especially, needs a rule. I explained my rule in the book’s introduction: “in deciding what to leave in and what to leave out,” I wrote, “I’ve confined myself to what, in my view, a people constituted as a nation in the early twenty-first century need to know about their own past, mainly because this book is meant to double as an old-fashioned civics book, an explanation of the origins and ends of democratic institutions.”

Here is how I came to that rule. Liberal democracy is in danger. The twenty-first century has so far seen the decay of democratic institutions; the abandonment of civic ideals; an epistemological crisis; the resurgence of nationalism, racial violence, immigration restriction, and religious intolerance; and a declining faith in the promise of equality. Meanwhile, the partisan disaster that is American politics has made it impossible for the United States to provide an adequate response — or, really, any response — to the urgent matter of global climate change, which puts the fate of humanity itself at risk. History can’t save the world. History can’t even save democracy. But in deciding what to leave in and what to leave out of this very long book, I had, always, at the front of my mind, the state of the nation and of the world.

In making these decisions, in other words, I was not driven by what most immediately fascinates academic historians or by what has most recently engaged historical scholarship or, for that matter, by what outrages the loudest activists or inspires the latest political movements. I wrote a book accountable to scholarship but I didn’t write a book addressed to scholars. I relied on the breathtakingly brilliant research and writing in American history that has been the work of generations of historians, the very best of it exemplified by the discussants who so generously participated in this forum — each a hero of mine — and for whose super-smart comments I am honored and grateful.

I am staggered by the astonishing range and sophistication of American historical scholarship of the last half century. Little was more daunting to me, or more humbling, than the experience of reading so much excellent work in order to write this book; I learned so much; there is so much more to learn. Still, it needs saying that scholars can sometimes be too close to their work, waging battles of terrifying ferocity over matters of little meaning or importance to anyone other than other scholars and, even to them, only fleetingly. In a boundless field of wildflowers and heather and grouse, beneath a sky as blue as the sea, they fall to their knees, stare at the ground, tug at crabgrass and cut it down, blade by blade, with a knife sharp enough to butcher a bison.

Provincialism and pettiness come at a cost; they carry the risk of losing sight of larger truths, of losing sight of students, of losing sight of the public. And when scholars stop looking up at the sky, enrollment in history courses plummets, the influence of the humanities declines, and public life suffers. So I set my own priorities, and tried to keep my eye on the horizon of time. I didn’t write social history or cultural history or literary history or environmental history or global history. I wrote a political, legal, and intellectual history, one that takes the history of women and people of color as essential to any meaningful understanding of any past, and to the history of politics, laws, and ideas. I also drew on fields that have not usually been at the center of national histories, or even of U.S. history textbooks, fields that I believe ought to be at the center, including constitutional history and the history of technology.

If I were writing the book all over again, I bet I’d do some things differently. When I was writing it, I asked a lot of tremendously generous and amazingly sharp-eyed colleagues to read chapters in manuscript, and I found that I almost always agreed with their suggestions, and made them. I feel the same way about the comments made by the participants in this forum. I think David Hollinger is right: I should have talked about John Dewey. I hope he’s wrong, but I fear he’s right here, too, about his other point: that Americans’ greatest strides toward political equality have come only during eras of limited immigration. I agree with Randall Kennedy, who commented on These Truths at the event where the essays in this series originated, that Reconstruction-era civil rights cases influence the Supreme Court, down to this day, and belong in this book, and its canon of case law. And I wonder, with Claire Potter, what it means to look at a panorama, too wide for the eye to see, and what it means to write history when it feels, sometimes, on darker days, like peering into an abyss.

For the paperback edition, I in fact did do some things differently. Because I share many of the concerns so astutely raised by Malinda Maynor Lowery, I added to the paperback as much material as I could on the history of native peoples after 1890 and on the ongoing struggle for native nationhood, without violating the publisher’s requirement that I not make the book any longer (which meant cutting words elsewhere, mainly by omitting what I like to think of as the Last Adverbs Left Standing). I also take up these crucial themes in a new book, This America: The Case for the Nation. That said, I haven’t written an indigenous history, and I didn’t set out to. I set out to write a national history because, as I argued in a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, writing national history creates plenty of problems, but not writing national history creates other problems, and those problems are worse: those problems include living in a nation where very few people feel a sense of belonging.

I wrote These Truths because I had to. I wrote it for students, for college students and for high school students, and even for some precocious kids. But, above all, I wrote this book for the people who’ve been sending me notes and cards and letters and emails and postcards. “I just recently became a citizen and am catching up on U.S. American history,” a woman emailed me last week. “I am learning something on every page.” I get notes from readers who write about crying, at the sad parts — the horror, the atrocity, the injustice — and I get letters from readers who write about finding, in the beautiful parts — in the courage and the resolution and the sacrifice and the love — political hope.

This book is for them, for us.

Jill Lepore is David Woods Kemper `41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. You can visit her website here.

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