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Jill Lepore is restless.

The Harvard historian prefers to walk while she thinks, and stand when she talks.  And so she stood before perhaps 800 guests gathered in Cleveland to hear her ponder whether a divided nation can own a shared past.

“A nation born in contradiction, liberty in a land of slavery, will fight forever over the meaning of its history,” she writes in These Truths: A History of the United States, a 1,000-page civics lesson that W.W. Norton will publish in September.

Sweeping American histories were once common, particularly in the 1930s, Lepore said. They mustered an argument for American democracy, a rebuttal in the teeth of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and their ilk. Now the nation is divided down the middle, she observed, with the hero of one half – Barack Obama or Donald Trump – serving as the villain of the other.

Asked about economic inequality, Lepore acknowledged its rise since 1968. But it is race, not class, in her estimation, that undergirds our systems: “Race is the foundation of our politics in a way that is mainly horrifying,” she said. “I put race squarely at the center of the history of the United States – it really is the driver of our political change.”

With her third history, New York Burning, Lepore won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2006. It explores 18th-century, pre-Revolutionary War Manhattan, specifically the winter of 1741, when ten fires beset the seaport village. With each blaze, panicked whites saw more evidence of a slave uprising. In the end, 13 black men were burned at the stake, 17 hanged, and more than 100 black women and men were thrown into a dungeon beneath City Hall.

In her Cleveland presentation, Lepore, 51, started earlier still, noting that the very decision of where to begin a history is political. She flashed up an image on the multiple screens of the Maltz Performing Arts Center. Called the T-O Map (left), it dates to Medieval Spain and is considered the first conceptual map Westerners made of the world.

Next came the 1507 Waldseemuller map, made by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemuller. Its enormous popularity helped cement the name “America” for the new lands. “Like much of history, the naming was a crapshoot,” Lepore said.

She flashed up a painted portrait with a globe meant to cement Queen Elizabeth’s dominance over the new world (1588) as well as Powhatan’s Mantle (1607), meant to illustrate something similar about the regency of a Chesapeake chief.

The physical Constitution itself, widely printed and distributed in 1787, is a kind of map that argues “the people are sovereign by virtue of reading, a wholly new idea that sticks,” Lepore said. “The debate over the Constitution was really a strong one with Alexander Hamilton asking if people can rule themselves by coming up with a set of laws that govern by reason and choice instead of accident and force.”

One of the scholar’s favorite images portrays Sojourner Truth, abolitionist and feminist, knitting the nation – made in 1864, a year after the Emancipation Proclamation. The outline of the United States lies in yarn on her lap.

Eight years earlier came a depiction that embraces the “technological sublime,” the idea that a technological fix could bind up the nation. In 1856 that was the transcontinental railroad. In 2000, it was an issue of Wired Magazine arguing that the internet would heal the nation’s political divisions in ten years.

As for the present, “historians make terrible prophets,” Lepore declared.

She noted that guns and abortion were apolitical topics a half-century ago. Now they serve as mirrored partisan gold-standards: Conservatives see guns as freedom and abortion as murder and liberals see guns as murder and abortion as freedom.

Lepore preferred, in writing the nation’s history, to dwell on a conversation between Henry Longfellow and his close friend Charles Sumner, during the perilous year 1848.  The poet shared his new work, “The Building of the Ship of State,” in which the country is wrecked and sinks. Sumner implored Longfellow to give it a more optimistic cast. And when the poet did, it contained the famous lines: “Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!/Sail on, O Union, strong and great!”

Abraham Lincoln read these lines and wept. Sumner’s argument for optimism spoke deeply to Lepore. She deplores the fashionable radical pessimism – right or left – that characterizes our day, calling it “a kind of political cowardice.”

She cited a survey indicating that in the last year, only one in four Americans has had a political conversation with someone with whom they disagree – a perilous fact in itself.

Ever the historian, she suggested that citizens “wrestle with the facts, presume good will, use debate, examine the materials and make some arguments about the evidence.”

AForceLarge-674x1024Did Marvel get it right with A-Force, its latest contribution to the world of female superheroes? Not if you ask Jill Lepore, Harvard University history professor and author of last year’s well-reviewed The Secret History of Wonder Woman. In a recent op-ed for The New Yorker, Lepore called the Avenger-type squad “porn stars.”

“Maybe it’s not possible to create reasonable female comic-book superheroes, since their origins are so tangled up with magazines for men,” writes Lepore, who won a 2006 Anisfield-Wolf prize for New York Burning. “True, they’re not much more ridiculous than male superheroes. But they’re all ridiculous in the same way.”

G. Willow Wilson, one of the creators of A-Force, responded on her Tumblr: “I imagine Dr. Lepore and I want the same thing: better, more nuanced portrayals of women in pop culture. What I don’t understand is why someone in her position would, from her perch a thousand feet up in the ivory tower, take pot shots at those of us who are in the trenches, doing exactly that.”

Wilson is a writer for the best-selling comic Ms. Marvel, which features a Muslim teen with shape-shifting powers, and she objected to the porn-star characterization head-on: “None of them are in the sexually objectified contortions that have become standard issue in recent decades. They are, in other words, posed the way their male colleagues are typically posed. They are posed as heroes.”

Read Lepore’s original cultural criticism in full here and see Wilson’s entire rebuttal.


With a new year comes new reading lists. We at Anisfield-Wolf rounded up some of the new and not-so-new books we’d like to read over the next few weeks. If this proves popular, we’ll keep adding books here as suggestions and have a discussion about what we’ve enjoyed over on our Facebook page

Ayaan Hirsi AliInfidel

Stephen L. CarterThe Emperor of Ocean Park

Jill LeporeThe Mansion of Happiness

August Wilson Fences 

Esi EdugyanThe Second Life of Samuel Tyne 






In an extremely heated election season, sometimes it’s worth taking a moment to breathe. With millions being spent in ads on both sides, it’s clear that messaging is powerful in terms of getting people to vote for your side. But has the rhetoric gotten nastier? Are we seeing a new “low” in campaign ads or is this just the nature of politics?

Historian Jill Lepore (2006 Anisfield-Wolf award winner) explored the history of presidential campaigns at the 2012 New Yorker festival. In the short clip, she compares an ad from the 2008 election to a campaign ad from 1800. Can you name a few differences? Watch the clip and see. 

Our “New On The Bookshelf” series highlights new works from past Anisfield-Wolf authors. 

It’s a question many of us don’t like to think about that often: What happens when we die? But 2006 nonfiction winner Jill Lepore’s new book takes it a step further, analyzing our role in creating life—and death. In her new book, The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death, Lepore takes what could be an austere topic and infuses it with lots of surprises along the way. Lepore’s book couldn’t be more timely, particularly in today’s political climate, where debates over health care, birth control and abortion often take center stage.

In an interview with Newsday, Lepore discusses why this type of book is important:

There’s been a massive change in our orientation from looking for answers in the past to looking for answers in the future. We subscribe to this scientific, linear narrative of progress: Whatever is difficult about growing older, or dying, or raising children, will be solved at some future point. We subscribe to this notion so wholly that we forget this way of thinking is new. I try to pull back and show what’s lost when we don’t look backward; I think there is wisdom to be found in the study of how people long before us wrestled with these questions.

Read the rest of the interview here.

In the video above, Jill Lepore tackles the meaning of life (a modest topic, she says dryly) in a recent talk at Harvard. “Most questions about life and death have no answers, including notably these three: How does life begin? What does it mean? What happens when we die? No one has ever answered these questions and no one ever will. But everyone tries. Trying is the human condition. And history is the chronicle of the asking.”

Jill Lepore doesn’t think so. As part of a series of discussions sponsored by the Center for Civil Discourse at the University of Massachusetts, the 2006 Anisfield-Wolf winner shares her thoughts on whether our society is more or less civil than any other period in society.