The Story of America: Essays on Origins

Jill Lepore, Author
Jill Lepore. Princeton Univ, $27.95 (424p) ISBN 978-0-691-15399-5
Reviewed on: 09/17/2012
Release date: 10/01/2012
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“I wanted to try to explain how history works, and how it’s different from politics,” states Harvard history professor Lepore (The Mansion of Happiness), introducing her collection of essays, almost all previously published in the New Yorker. History involves making an argument by telling a story “accountable to evidence,” which she marshals ably in discussing personalities real and fictional, from Benjamin Franklin to Charlie Chan. Her argument that Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” was an abolitionist “call to arms,” subsequently “juvenilized” for schoolrooms, is as pointed as a legal brief. Varying her tone—brisk when detailing changes in how Americans cast their votes, poignant when recounting Edgar Allan Poe’s career—Lepore also provides drollery. Nixon’s attempt to give a concise and, he hoped, memorable inaugural address “led him to say things briefly but didn’t save him from saying them badly.” Ranging from colonial times to the present, the essays are liberally sprinkled with fascinating facts—etymologies of “ballot” and “booze,” or that Davy Crockett was the first presidential candidate to write a campaign autobiography. Even the footnotes contain buried treasures; history buffs and general readers alike will savor this collection. Agent: Tina Bennett, William Morris Endeavor. (Nov.)
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