When in doubt about your thesis, cover the spread and present everything as a variegated tapestry of humanity. Sometimes this can serve as a neat dodge for a potentially failed project, better than trying to shoehorn everything into an explanation that doesn’t quite hold water. Depending on the richness of your material, this can be either a rag-and-bone shop of leavings (usually subtitled “sketches” or “impressions”), or a rich panoply of story that rattles and bursts with humanity. Even though it should fall in the former category, being mostly a collection of New Yorker articles, Jill Lepore’s wonderful The Story of America fits snugly into the latter.
In her introduction to this collection of 20 “essays on origins,” Lepore states that she has no agenda to push: “I didn’t write the essays in this book with an eye toward offering a novel interpretation of American history.” Normally, this would serve as a blinking warning sign, along the lines of the old truism which holds that when somebody says it isn’t about the money, be assured that it’s about the money.
But Lepore draws from such a rich background of sources and interests that it would be difficult to sketch out much of a theme, here. That is, unless one counts believing that the United States of America is an infinitely more complicated, mysterious, indefinable, and chaotic collection of people and ideas than we are normally taught, as an ideological agenda. If somebody can, though, find a linkage between the unique propensity of Americans (among advanced democracies, at least) towards homicide, the peculiarly enervating nature of inaugural addresses, what Charles Dickens hated so much about America, and the glorious weirdness of Charlie Chan, then more power to them.
Lepore is most fascinated by the tall tale, which she doesn’t categorize as a lie. Though writing with a gimlet eye towards the fakery and bunkum that afflicts all nations’ histories of themselves, she is interested more in what the falsehoods reveal than in simply uncovering them:
“The past isn’t quaint. Much of it, in fact, is bleak. Also, what people will tell you about the past is very often malarkey… One way to read this book, then, is as a study of the American tall tale. My advice is to keep one eyebrow cocked and watch out for shifty-looking characters with ink-stained hands and narrators who keep ducking into doorways, especially when reading about The Life of Jackson, the wildly fictitious campaign biography of Andrew Jackson; Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Philosophy of Composition,’ a pack of lies; and the hopelessly hyperbolic Life and Adventures of Kit Carson… from Facts Narrated by Himself.”
Some of the best tall tales that Lepore writes about are ones that the nation invented for itself, against all evidence. Case in point, her look at Ben Franklin and Poor Richard’s Almanac. Americans have long been taught to believe that Franklin was not just a polymath who was wildly skilled in disciplines ranging from diplomacy to science and journalism; this is all true. But what Lepore is baffled by is how practically all of Franklin’s body of work (much of which is indeed quite serious) is taken at face value, when clearly he was having a laugh. His almanac was an elaborate (and he would have thought, obvious) joke.
Lepore notes that printers of the day filled their blank spaces with “poems, jokes, prophecies, and proverbs, which were, alas, almost never beautiful, funny, true, or wise.” Franklin invents another pen-name (he had dozens, including one specializing in low humor: “Fart-hing”), “Poor Richard”, which followed the tradition of printing mockery and satire under pseudonyms starting with “Poor”, and churns out bad advice and weather forecasts that couldn’t possibly be true. It wasn’t the only time he did it. Lepore describes Franklin’s Way to Wealth as “a parody stitched and bound between the covers of a sham.” It’s not Franklin’s fault if latter-day audiences didn’t get the joke.
Another early American figure highly misunderstood by the founding-father historical complex, according to Lepore, is Thomas Paine. Even though his pamphlet Common Sense was very possibly the true spark that ignited the Revolution, Paine has always had to play third fiddle to the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Part of this is due to Paine’s own obduracy (he never seemed able to forego an argument), but there was also a sense of cliquishness about his historical profile; his plain-spokenness and the radical fire of his writing doesn’t appear a virtue in retrospect. Lepore defines his legacy this way:
“In the comic book version of history that serves as America’s national heritage, where the Founding Fathers are like the Hanna Barbera SuperFriends, Paine is Aquaman to Washington’s Superman or Jefferson’s Batman; we never find out how he got his super powers and he only shows up when they need someone who can swim.”
If one needed to find a theme in Lepore’s book, beyond that of the good story ably told, it could be the recurrence of people simply getting things wrong. Even in a nation with as comparatively short a history as America, there seems to be no incident so large and thoroughly reported that it cannot be wildly misinterpreted not long after it occurred. Or simply forgotten.
There will be no shortage of readers, even students of American history, who will be surprised to discover that the modern style of voting, in which local governments provide paper ballots to citizens who are then allowed to vote secretly behind a curtain or partition, didn’t come about until the 1890s, when the idea was imported from Australia. Prior to that, people had to get their own ballots and cross a sometimes dangerous gauntlet of partisans.
Between 1828 and 1861, 59 Americans were killed at the polls on Election Day. This was seen as normal. Lepore tells the story of a bloody and contested 1859 election in Baltimore (muskets, pistols and cinder blocks were wielded) where the winner’s victory was upheld by Congress, which held that any “man of ordinary courage” could have found a way to vote. (Lepore doesn’t draw this connection, but it’s hard not to see an echo of that bloody-minded frontier attitude in statements made by modern-day proponents of enacting ever-tougher identification restrictions on election day.)
On occasion, Lepore takes her investigations into biography and the truth of the matter toward reinterpreting cultural matters. In one of the richest and most satisfying pieces, she looks at Longfellow’s poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride”. Longfellow’s work has long been dismissed by the literary establishment as hokey cornpone. But instead of trying to revive his critical reputation, which she might have succeeded at, Lepore focuses instead on this most famous poem, which was memorized by millions of American schoolchildren back when they were still made to do such things.
She comes to the conclusion that not only is this not a half-bad poem, it also has essentially nothing to do with Paul Revere or his ride, which was of negligible historical import, anyway. To Lepore, it was actually a stirring abolitionist call to arms in the wake of the execution of John Brown. Relying as it must on a mix of literary analysis and biographical research, this essay has a more difficult argument to make than her other pieces.
But it’s a great story that tells us something about it at both the time and in generations since, and that is the point. The last line of Lepore’s Longfellow essay is “Listen, and you shall hear”; the same could be said for the rest of this lively, funny, argumentative, and plain-spoken book. Lepore is trying to hear America through its stories, and there are a lot of voices in that choir.
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