interviews Jill Lepore about her new book The Story of America. I have not read Lepore's book, but I have read some of the essays that have been republished in it. I was very struck by a quote Lindley chose from the introduction:
Writing history requires empathy, inquiry, and debate. It requires
forswearing condescension, cant, and nostalgia. The past isn’t quaint.
Much of it, in fact, is bleak.
Here is a taste of the interview:
A goal of your essays is “to explain how history works.” Can you
give a couple of examples of how your essays reveal the historian’s
Nearly every essay in the collection originally appeared in The New Yorker.
A few began as book reviews. That’s true of the essay about Plymouth
and the Pilgrims, which started out as a review of Nathaniel Philbrick’s
2006 book, Mayflower but became a reflection on the work of
Samuel Eliot Morison, the American historian who edited William
Bradford’s journal. “Let the facts speak!” was Morison’s motto. He never
met a footnote he didn’t like. Philbrick, like many popular historians
who work outside the academy, dispenses with footnotes and is
interested, above all, in letting his story speak. The difference
between Morison and Philbrick -- their methods and arguments and
especially their standards of evidence -- reveals a great deal, I think,
about how historians work.
History, as I write in the book’s
introduction, is the art of making an argument by telling a story. A
story without an argument fades into antiquarianism; an argument without
a story risks pedantry. But, in the end, evidence is everything. One of
the many essays in the book that didn’t start out as a book review is
the essay about the Constitution. Instead, it’s a history of how the
Constitution has been read over the centuries, not by lawyers or jurists
or politicians but by everyone else. I wanted to explain the rise of
what legal scholars call “popular constitutionalism.” I began with a
question: when and why did “Read the Constitution” become a bumper
sticker? I went to the archives to find out. Then I wrote an essay in
which I tried to make an argument by telling a story about what I’d
discovered. That might not be “how historians work,” but it’s how I