These Truths (Lepore)

These Truths: A History of the United States
Jill Lepore, 2018
W.W. Norton
900 pp. (seriously)

In the most ambitious one-volume American history in decades, award-winning historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore offers a magisterial account of the origins and rise of a divided nation, an urgently needed reckoning with the beauty and tragedy of American history.

Written in elegiac prose, Lepore’s groundbreaking investigation places truth itself—a devotion to facts, proof, and evidence—at the center of the nation’s history.

The American experiment rests on three ideas—"these truths," Jefferson called them—political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people.

And it rests, too, on a fearless dedication to inquiry, Lepore argues, because self-government depends on it. But has the nation, and democracy itself, delivered on that promise?

These Truths tells this uniquely American story, beginning in 1492, asking whether the course of events over more than five centuries has proven the nation’s truths, or belied them.

To answer that question, Lepore traces the intertwined histories of American politics, law, journalism, and technology, from the colonial town meeting to the nineteenth-century party machine, from talk radio to twenty-first-century Internet polls, from Magna Carta to the Patriot Act, from the printing press to Facebook News.

Along the way, Lepore’s sovereign chronicle is filled with arresting sketches of both well-known and lesser-known Americans, from a parade of presidents and a rogues’ gallery of political mischief makers to the intrepid leaders of protest movements, including Frederick Douglass, the famed abolitionist orator; William Jennings Bryan, the three-time presidential candidate and ultimately tragic populist; Pauli Murray, the visionary civil rights strategist; and Phyllis Schlafly, the uncredited architect of modern conservatism.

Americans are descended from slaves and slave owners, from conquerors and the conquered, from immigrants and from people who have fought to end immigration.

"A nation born in contradiction will fight forever over the meaning of its history," Lepore writes, but engaging in that struggle by studying the past is part of the work of citizenship. "The past is an inheritance, a gift and a burden," These Truths observes. "It can’t be shirked. There’s nothing for it but to get to know it." (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—August 27, 1966
Where—Worcester, Massachusetts, USA
Education—B.A., Tufts University; M.A., University of Michigan; Ph.D., Yale University
Awards—Bancroft Prize (more below)
Currently—lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Jill Lepore is an American historian. She is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and author of These Truths: A History of the United States (2018). She is also a staff writer at The New Yorker, where she has contributed since 2005. She writes about American history, law, literature, and politics.

Early life
Lepore was born and grew up in West Boylston, a small town outside Worcester, Massachusetts, the daughter of a junior high school principal and an art teacher. Lepore had no early desire to become a historian, but claims to have wanted to be a writer from the age of six. She entered college with a Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship, starting as a math major. Eventually she left ROTC and changed her major to English.

Lepore earned her B.A. in English from Tufts University in 1987, an M.A. in American Culture from the University of Michigan in 1990, and a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University in 1995, where she specialized in the history of early America.[4]

Lepore taught at the University of California-San Diego from 1995 to 1996 and at Boston University from 1996 before starting her Ph.D. at Harvard in 2003. She now teaches American political history, focusing on missing evidence in historical records and articles.

Lepore has defined history as "the art of making an argument about the past by telling a story accountable to evidence." To that end, she gathers historical evidence that allows scholars to study and analyze political processes and behaviors.

Non-academic writings
Her essays and reviews have also appeared in the New York Times, Times Literary Supplement, Th Journal of American History, Foreign Affairs, Yale Law Journal, American Scholar, and American Quarterly.

Three of her books derive from her New Yorker essays: The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death (2012), a finalist for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction; The Story of America: Essays on Origins (2012), shortlisted for the PEN Literary Award for the Art of the Essay; and The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle for American History (2010). The Secret History of Wonder Woman (2014) is a winner of the 2015 American History Book Prize.

Awards and honors
1999 Bancroft Prize for The Name of War
1999 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award of the Phi Beta Kappa Society for The Name of War
1999 Berkshire Prize for The Name of War
2006 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award (nonfiction) for New York Burning
2006 Pulitzer Prize for History finalist for New York Burning
2012 Sarah Josepha Hale Award
2013 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay runner-up
2013 National Book Award for Nonfiction finalist for Book of Ages
2013 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction finalist for The Mansion of Happiness
2014 Elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
2014 Mark Lynton History Prize for Book of Ages
2015 American History Book Prize for The Secret History of Wonder Woman
2016 John P. McGovern Award, Cosmos Club Foundation
(Author bio adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 1/4/2019.)

Book Reviews

[Lepore's] one-volume history is elegant, readable, sobering…The size of the project is liberating and constraining at once. A book like this is both very long and very short…Keeping everything contained between two covers risks compressing the historical sprawl into one of those dense slabs more suitable for gift-giving than reading—the print equivalent of a holiday fruitcake. But in Lepore's hands, the history gets some room to breathe. She begins in 1492, with Columbus's arrival, wending her way through the next five centuries…leavening some of the essential textbook material with stories that are lesser known…Which isn't to say These Truths is an update of A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn's radically revisionist book from 1980. Yes, Lepore pays heed to Frederick Douglass and Cesar Chavez and the African-American lawyer and civil rights activist Pauli Murray, among others. But her book is less about a struggle between heroes and villains than it is about the country's often tortured approach to political equality and natural rights—truths that were supposed to be self-evident but have been treated as if they were anything but.
Jennifer Szalai - New York Times

It isn't until you start reading it that you realize how much we need a book like this one at this particular moment. These Truths…tries to take in almost everything, an impossible task, but I'd be hard-pressed to think [Lepore] could have crammed more into these 932 highly readable pages. It covers the history of political thought, the fabric of American social life over the centuries, classic "great man" accounts of contingencies, surprises, decisions, ironies and character, and the vivid experiences of those previously marginalized: women, African-Americans, Native Americans, homosexuals. It encompasses interesting takes on democracy and technology, shifts in demographics, revolutions in economics and the very nature of modernity. It's a big sweeping book, a way for us to take stock at this point in the journey, to look back, to remind us who we are and to point to where we're headed…There wasn't a moment when I struggled to keep reading…We need this book. Its reach is long, its narrative fresh and the arc of its account sobering to say the least.
Andrew Sullivan - New York Times Book Review

Gutsy, lyrical, and expressive…[These Truths] is a perceptive and necessary contribution to understanding the American condition of late.…It captures the fullness of the past, where hope rises out of despair, renewal out of destruction, and forward momentum out of setbacks.
Jack E. Davis - Chicago Tribune

ill Lepore is an extraordinarily gifted writer, and These Truths is nothing short of a masterpiece of American history. By engaging with our country's painful past (and present) in an intellectually honest way, she has created a book that truly does encapsulate the American story in all its pain and all its triumph.
Michael Schaub - NPR

In her epic new work, Jill Lepore helps us learn from whence we came.
Oprah Magazine

"An old-fashioned civics book," Harvard historian and New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore calls it, a glint in her eye. This fat, ludicrously ambitious one-volume history is a lot more than that. In its spirit of inquiry, in its eager iconoclasms, These Truths enacts the founding ideals of the country it describes.
Huffington Post

The principles of the Declaration of Independence get betrayed, fought over, and sometimes fulfilled in this probing political history.… [Lepore] unifies a complex and conflicted history into [an]…engrossing narrative with insights that resonate for modern readers.
Publishers Weekly

[As] Harvard historian …Lepore notes, "A nation born in contradiction, liberty in a land of slavery, sovereignty in a land of conquest, will fight, forever, over the meaning of its history." [Lepore] finds meaning in the contradictions.
Library Journal

(Starred Review) An ambitious and provocative attempt to interpret American history as an effort to fulfill and maintain certain fundamental principles…. Lepore is a historian with wide popular appeal, [who poses] questions about who we are as a nation.

(Starred Review) [A] mammoth, wonderfully readable history of the United States from Columbus to Trump…. A splendid rendering—filled with triumph, tragedy, and hope—that will please Lepore's readers immensely and win her many new ones.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, use our LitLovers Talking Points to help start a discussion for THESE TRUTHS … then take off on your own:

1. In a New York Times review, Jill Lepore said she wanted to write this lengthy volume of U.S. history because "it hasn't been attempted in a long time, and it's important, and it seemed worth a try." Do you think it's important, and if so why? What light does today's political climate shed on this book's importance or relevance?

2. The thrust of much of the book is about the country's struggle with political equality and natural rights. What are "natural rights." And why has the struggle been so long and so hard-fought?

3. Talk about the way in which women and people of color were excluded from the Constitution. How did the founders' own lives reflect the jarring discrepancies between their exalted language in favor of rights-for-all but ultimately settling for rights-for-some?

4. Talk about the various politicians/statesmen Lepore includes in her telling. On whom in particular does she turn a sharp eye (and pen)? Whom does she admire?

5. In what way has Jill Lepore's book enlightened you? Even if you're a history buff and fairly well versed in the discipline, was there something in particular that surprised you in her volume? What areas of history have you already been familiar with and has These Truths added to your understanding or altered it?

6. When it comes to contemporary politics, what does Lepore have to say about both conservatives and liberals? What is her beef with the rise of technology and Silicon Valley?

7. What do you think of the book's final metaphor: the U.S. as a troubled, weakened ship on a "doom-black sea"?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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