Lepore on Writing Current History

Professor and writer discusses civic duties of public historians

“The art of writing history is ... making an argument by writing a story,” said Jill Lepore, a Harvard professor of American history, in a talk at the Barker Center on Monday about historical writing. To the layperson, the idea that writing history is an art may seem contrary to memories of dull textbooks or sensationalist popular history books. But Lepore—academic, journalist, and novelist—managed to dispel that notion with her first few clear, well-chosen words. She described herself as having a “very obsessive relationship with writing,” adding that she’s “not in control of it, but instead possessed by it.”

For someone who claims to not have control over her writing, Lepore articulated a clear definition of what makes nonfiction compelling. She believes that “if [the author] could ‘smuggle’ a historian’s argument in a story past someone who wasn’t looking for it,” he or she has written a successful history book. Recalling her early love of writing, Lepore said that she “wrote lots of stories” but, unlike other nonfiction authors, she is “now an academic, not a failed novelist.” She does not avoid fiction because she does not want to write it—she recently co-authored the novel “Blindspot” with her friend Jane Kamensky—but because “fiction seems like an indulgence when one has so many other obligations.”

Professor Lepore sees herself as a public historian who “has a civic obligation to contribute to the public debate, not just [to] be  ... entertaining.” Obeying that same sense of duty, Lepore became a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps cadet in college; her concern for the public sphere has led her to investigate the Tea Party in her recent work. “Political philosophy is disguised as history,” she said, “and then [the Tea Party] declaim academic historians as wrong, so there is no way to win against their circular thinking.” According to Lepore, many Tea Party members believe “that the Tea Party has the ‘true’ notion of American history, and that historical record ... has been hijacked by the left. Historians and academics are conspirators and places like Harvard are viewed as the ‘elite’ enemy.”

She also decried the conservative and the mainstream media, saying that “the editor has disappeared from much of today’s writing process. Much of what you hear has never been fact-checked.” Although she sees it as her civic duty to write about current politics, Lepore does not advocate indiscriminate historical writing. She is saddened by the fact that “for the most part, yes, today historians are expected to comment on the present. When the swine flu craziness began, my editor asked if I would write a book about the Spanish Influenza of 1918.” Lepore reminded her audience that not all those who are asked to compare history with the present are even historians. According to Lepore, “most ‘analysts’ on TV and the public eye are just journalists masquerading as historians. They traffic in false analogy as entertainment.”

For her latest book, “The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History,” Lepore pursued the challenge of addressing contemporary politics. She said that she changed her focus from history to the present because “after Scott Brown won in January 2010, we all knew that the Tea Party was more than just a quick craze.” She added that her research for the book was not just the product of a historian covering a present event—it felt personal. She said that she “come[s] from people of the Tea Party,” and their culture reminds her of her “own family at Thanksgiving or Christmas.”

More frightening to Lepore is her instinct that the Tea Party represents “a dangerous way of thinking ... an increase in fanaticism.” As a historian, she said, one notices that “American politics are characterized by a paranoid style.” But what has changed in “the paranoid style is that now [the rhetoric of] good and evil infects it.” Discussing the media’s reactions to last month’s shooting in Tucson, Ariz., Lepore suggested that history is often appropriated by non-experts to make political points, but “academic historians are needed to weigh in on the connection between political violence and political rhetoric.” After all, history does tend to repeat itself.

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