The Story of America: Essays on Origins

Overview

In The Story of America, Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore investigates American origin stories—from John Smith's account of the founding of Jamestown in 1607 to Barack Obama's 2009 inaugural address—to show how American democracy is bound up with the history of print. Over the centuries, Americans have read and written their way into a political culture of ink and type.

Part civics primer, part cultural history, The Story of America excavates the origins...

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Overview

In The Story of America, Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore investigates American origin stories—from John Smith's account of the founding of Jamestown in 1607 to Barack Obama's 2009 inaugural address—to show how American democracy is bound up with the history of print. Over the centuries, Americans have read and written their way into a political culture of ink and type.

Part civics primer, part cultural history, The Story of America excavates the origins of everything from the paper ballot and the Constitution to the I.O.U. and the dictionary. Along the way it presents fresh readings of Benjamin Franklin's Way to Wealth, Thomas Paine's Common Sense, "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe, and "Paul Revere's Ride" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, as well as histories of lesser-known genres, including biographies of presidents, novels of immigrants, and accounts of the Depression.

From past to present, Lepore argues, Americans have wrestled with the idea of democracy by telling stories. In this thoughtful and provocative book, Lepore offers at once a history of origin stories and a meditation on storytelling itself.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
“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.)
Prospect
Lepore's elegant account of America's genesis is alert to discrepancies and exaggerations of all kinds. It's characteristic of her genial style that while examining the sticky history of Captain John Smith (he of Pocahontas fame), she observes that while he probably wasn't a liar, his pantaloons did on one notable occasion literally burst into flames.
— Olivia Laing
Los Angeles Times Book Review
She trains the literary equivalent of wide-angle and zoom lenses on seminal American documents, examining their subjects and their creators. . . . [E]legant . . .
— Julia M. Klein
Boston Globe
Lepore, who teaches history at Harvard and writes for The New Yorker, brings to the task a keen eye for the often-competing claims of history, politics, and literature. . . . [T]errifically readable, intellectually engaging, and thoroughly entertaining. . . . Lepore's subjects mostly range from the 17th to the 19th centuries, but the essays feel remarkably relevant, grappling with ideas about race, equality, voting rights, taxes, poverty, the role of America in the world.
— Kate Tuttle
PopMatters
[L]ively, funny, argumentative, and plain-spoken. . . . Lepore is trying to hear America through its stories, and there are a lot of voices in that choir.
— Chris Barsanti
Wall Street Journal
Anyone who has not yet had the pleasure of reading Jill Lepore might begin with The Story of America: Essays on Origins. Ms. Lepore is a gifted historian and a contributor to the New Yorker, where most of these essays appeared. Her subjects range from John Smith and the founding of Jamestown to the murder of a Connecticut family in 2007 by a pair of drug-addled drifters. She drops in on, among others, Andrew Jackson, Noah Webster, Edgar Allen Poe and Charlie Chan (the real one). Her voice is always fresh, her prose engaging and her insights original.
— Fergus M. Bordewich
WilsonQuarterly.com
Lepore's strength as a popular historian is her ability to make her target audience . . . take a second look at the political culture we have long taken for granted, and realize that our system was not preordained, not historically inevitable, not even, always, very well planned. . . . [S]urprising and enlightening.
— Brooke Allen
Library Journal
This is not a history of America but rather an assessment of how history has been told by historians, literary figures, profit- and vote-seeking biographers, and other writers. In 20 essays previously published in The New Yorker, Lepore (history, Harvard Univ.; The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death) makes the case that American history has always been closely bound up with literature. The essays concern some varied American works motivated by nationalism, ego, politics, finances, sentimentality, social and religious movements, and outright dishonesty, from Capt. John Smith's memoir about Jamestown, to the Constitution, Poor Richard's Almanac, and works by Longfellow, Dickens, and Earl Derr Biggers, who created Charlie Chan. Lepore looks at the first Webster's Dictionary of the American Language, notes that Longfellow's poem "Paul Revere's Ride" was intended to fuel abolitionism, and comments that most modern inaugural addresses pander to popular emotion rather than offer well-reasoned argument. VERDICT In an engaging and entertaining style, Lepore questions and exposes the political motives underlying commonly accepted versions of history. Each enlightening essay reveals that what most of us think of as history is often a tangle of prejudice, speculation, and imagination. An enjoyable and thought-provoking read for history buffs at all levels and for anyone seeking to understand how history is written.—Margaret Kappanadze, Elmira Coll. Lib., NY
Kirkus Reviews
"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," says a character in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. As New Yorker contributor Lepore (American History/Harvard Univ.; The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death, 2012, etc.) sees it, American historians have been doing just that since the dawn of the republic. Tackling a wide variety of subjects--e.g., the Founding Fathers, Charles Dickens, Clarence Darrow, Charlie Chan, voting regulations, the decline of inaugural speeches--the author proves to be a funny, slightly punky literary critic, reading between the lines of American history. She takes historians to task for embellishing myths, citing the way John Smith's long-discredited history of Jamestown is still used to support contrasting views of colonial life. She calls out Nathaniel Philbrick, in his 2006 book on the Mayflower, for leaning uncritically on the suspiciously self-centered account of the militia captain Benjamin Church. She rereads original documents and finds that Benjamin Franklin's advice in Poor Richard's Almanack was made mostly in jest. Lepore also takes a fresh look at the U.S. Constitution, explaining why everyone debates original intent: "A great deal of what many Americans hold dear is nowhere inked on those four pages of parchment, nor in any of the twenty-seven amendments to the Constitution." She examines how the legend of George Washington began, with his own writings brutally edited by Jared Sparks to dress the first president in full patriotic trappings. Most interestingly, Lepore finds that Longfellow's 1861 "Paul Revere's Ride" is both a subtle call to overthrow slavery and "a fugitive slave narrative." The author weighs her opinions throughout with research and original insight; the same goes for her essay on Edgar Allen Poe, although it does have a bit of a mean streak. As smart, lively and assured as modern debunkery gets.
Times Literary Supplement - Amanda Foreman
The Story of America, like A is for American, serves up a delightful smorgasbord of synecdoches and allegories of the evolution of American democracy. . . . [A] deeply satisfying book.
Erie Times-News - John Cussen
[C]opiously researched, deftly written and anecdotally instructive.
Organiser - R. Balashankar
Simple, short and appealing, Jill has told the story of America well.
From the Publisher
"The Story of America is a must-read for anyone interested in American history and the history of American publishing and writing. A fascinating, engaging, and expertly written book. I cannot recommend it highly enough."—Politics Reader
Los Angeles Times Book Review - Julia M. Klein
She trains the literary equivalent of wide-angle and zoom lenses on seminal American documents, examining their subjects and their creators. . . . [E]legant . . .
Wall Street Journal - Fergus M. Bordewich
Anyone who has not yet had the pleasure of reading Jill Lepore might begin with The Story of America: Essays on Origins. Ms. Lepore is a gifted historian and a contributor to the New Yorker, where most of these essays appeared. Her subjects range from John Smith and the founding of Jamestown to the murder of a Connecticut family in 2007 by a pair of drug-addled drifters. She drops in on, among others, Andrew Jackson, Noah Webster, Edgar Allen Poe and Charlie Chan (the real one). Her voice is always fresh, her prose engaging and her insights original.
Prospect - Olivia Laing
Lepore's elegant account of America's genesis is alert to discrepancies and exaggerations of all kinds. It's characteristic of her genial style that while examining the sticky history of Captain John Smith (he of Pocahontas fame), she observes that while he probably wasn't a liar, his pantaloons did on one notable occasion literally burst into flames.
Boston Globe - Kate Tuttle
Lepore, who teaches history at Harvard and writes for The New Yorker, brings to the task a keen eye for the often-competing claims of history, politics, and literature. . . . [T]errifically readable, intellectually engaging, and thoroughly entertaining. . . . Lepore's subjects mostly range from the 17th to the 19th centuries, but the essays feel remarkably relevant, grappling with ideas about race, equality, voting rights, taxes, poverty, the role of America in the world.
PopMatters - Chris Barsanti
[L]ively, funny, argumentative, and plain-spoken. . . . Lepore is trying to hear America through its stories, and there are a lot of voices in that choir.
WilsonQuarterly.com - Brooke Allen
Lepore's strength as a popular historian is her ability to make her target audience . . . take a second look at the political culture we have long taken for granted, and realize that our system was not preordained, not historically inevitable, not even, always, very well planned. . . . [S]urprising and enlightening.
Minneapolis Star-Tribune
Jill Lepore's fascinating, provocative and wide-ranging essays explore the 'origin stories' Americans have told themselves, from the 17th-century English settlers in Jamestown and Plymouth to the Founding Fathers to Barack Obama's origin story today. Lepore offers at once a history of American origin stories and a meditation on storytelling.
Tulsa World
Elegant, enlightening, and engaging, [Lepore's] essays give the lie to the proposition that contemporary America lacks public intellectuals. . . . Most important, Lepore's analysis is smart, sharp, and sassy.
H-Net Reviews - James Gilbert
The appropriate audience for these stories will surely be the literate citizen, if not the student of history or American Studies. . . . Lepore's ability to bring characters and subjects to life might well persuade such readers to delve more deeply into the biographies of the famous as well as the less famous Americans she engages.
NewYorker.com's Page-Turner blog
In this collection of essays (most of which previously appeared in The New Yorker), Lepore illuminates the various ways in which the story of our nation has been formulated as a narrative. From John Smith's largely fictionalized account of the founding of Jamestown, in 1607, to Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration address, these pieces comprise an examination of the nature of history and an exploration of how the way we tell our story has shaped the story itself.
The Daily Beast
In this collection of her essays from the magazine, she paints portraits of George Washington, Thomas Paine, Longfellow, and many forgotten figures in America's founding, rescuing them from dogmatic myth to show that they are as human and as able to surprise as your best friend is able to inspire and infuriate you. . . . Lepore knocks you out of your comfort zone. You thought you knew America?
Booklist
If the definition of a good book is one that makes a reader think, then Lepore has written a good book. If the definition of a very good book is one that makes a reader question prevailing thought, then Lepore has written a very good book indeed. . . . The stories behind stories are more revelatory than the so-called facts they are ostensibly built upon. And while to have read the U.S. Constitution is one thing, to understand what it says is an altogether different matter, since its meaning seems to shift with the times and the reader's intent. This book ought to be intentional reading for every American history wonk.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691153995
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 10/7/2012
  • Pages: 420
  • Sales rank: 792,239
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Jill Lepore

Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer at the "New Yorker". Her books include "The Mansion of Happiness", "The Whites of Their Eyes" (Princeton), "New York Burning", and "The Name of War".
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1. Here He Lyes 17

2. A Pilgrim Passed I 31

3. The Way to Wealth 44

4. The Age of Paine 59

5. We the Parchment 72

6. I.O.U. 91

7. A Nue Merrykin Dikshunary 111

8. His Highness 130

9. Man of the People 146

10. Pickwick in America 159

11. The Humbug 178

12. President Tom's Cabin 197

13. Pride of the Prairie 209

14. Longfellow's Ride 220

15. Rock, Paper, Scissors 240

16. Objection 254

17. Chan the Man 268

18. The Uprooted 279

19. Rap Sheet 291

20. To Wit 304

Notes 319
Index 399

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