Jill Lepore: A Historian’s History



Her work as an academic, a professor, and a magazine writer is to bring alive documents of the past; speaking with her is like encountering a living book.



Jill Lepore’s office is leaking books. They’re crowded onto the dark brown shelves that line her walls, stacked vertically and horizontally, vying for space, certainly not in alphabetical order. They form precarious piles on the edges of her desk, but if they tip, no matter—they’ll only join piles on the floor.

Histories. Essay collections. Novels. An encyclopedia. One giant blue volume that contains the complete works of Charles Dickens.

At Her Desk

On the edge of her desk, in the shadow of a particularly tall pile of books, lies a single newspaper. Not today’s New York Times: it’s a paper dated November 23, 1963, its bolded headline concerning JFK’s assassination. When I try to move my seat forward, I can’t; it’s part of a row of seats from Somerville Movie Theater. It’s an archivist’s paradise.

Lepore sits beyond her desk, in the center of the shelves, leaning back in her chair with her arms stretched alternately behind her head or vaguely toward a conversationally-appropriate book. Her short hair fans out to the right and left; her glasses frame wide, bright eyes.

Somerville Seats
Movie theater seats previously used in the Somerville Theatre during the 20th century are permanently affixed to the floor.

If she ever wanted to, Lepore could fill one of those shelves just with her own words. The David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History and chair of Harvard’s history and literature program, Lepore has written seven academic works, compiled a collection of essays, and co-penned a novel with Brandeis University professor Jane Kamensky. Also with Kamensky, she co-founded a longform magazine called Common-place. Her writer’s page on The New Yorker website is 30 pages long.

Though her accomplishments are numerous, to understand Lepore is not to merely scroll through her resume or the first page that comes up when you Google her name. Rather, it’s an exploration through an archive of sorts—a space as crowded and full of treasures as her office, labyrinth-like, full of unexpected words and ideas. Her work as an academic, a professor, and a magazine writer is to bring alive documents of the past; speaking with her is like encountering a living book.

She’s a narrative historian, and her own historical narrative (from child scouring the library for George Orwell essays, to secretary auditing Harvard history courses, to tenured professor and accomplished magazine writer) has all of the delights and complexities of the stories she tells.

Lepore’s fans know her from many fields: they turn the pages of her books, they lead class discussions with her, they sit at a seminar table hanging on to her words. She has become everything that her historical subjects were not while they lived: widely read and well-known.

PATH OF THE PAST

Physically, the past is present in Lepore’s office—the movie theater seats, the newspaper. She calls it her “Harry Potter cupboard under the stairs.” Lepore seems to have a habit of collecting unwanted and abandoned objects, the proverbial treasures of someone else’s trash.

Once, when she was working as a secretary at Harvard Business School (her first job at the University), just before the school’s main building underwent a major renovation, her bemused boss told her that she could keep her desk. “I drove over to the Business School with screwdrivers and unbolted it and drove it home to our crazy vegan co-op. I had it there and I brought it to grad school,” she says. “I had that desk until tenure.”

In college, this habit seemed to fit in with a life philosophy of sorts. “[Your generation] has internships and stepping stones, building NGOs in Zimbabwe and start-ups in Canada,” she tells me. “My generation, we read Kurt Vonnegut on the smelly futon you found in the street that works as a couch in your apartment with six people. You ate beans and that was your life.” Her sarcasm is light-hearted, her nostalgia both self-deprecating and wistful.

And it seems that Lepore found her life’s passion and career in much the same way that she finds her furniture—items long needed and then spontaneously re-discovered. She grew up in West Boylston, Mass., on Franklin Street, as in Ben (and Jane, his sister, the subject of Lepore’s latest book). Her father was a junior high school principal who met her mother when he hired her as an art teacher. In a memoir piece she wrote for The New Yorker called “The Prodigal Daughter,” Lepore writes that her mother kept a collapsible easel and set of paints in the trunk of her car. When not painting, she “liked to command me to do things I found scary,” Lepore writes.

This included applying to college. As a teenager, Lepore did not want to continue her education (“Oh, I was just a difficult teenager, weren’t you?” she asks). She only decided to do so after receiving a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps scholarship to Tufts University. She began as a math major. After a year, though, she dropped both ROTC and math, and switched to English instead. To make up for the lost scholarship, she finished her degree at Tufts in three years, working as a secretary at Harvard, where she audited history classes.

When I asked what led to this sudden change, Lepore smiled and said: “You’re trying to get me to tell the letter story, aren’t you?”

She’s discussed it in interviews before: After her first year of college, Lepore received a letter forwarded from her home address. It was written by her, four years earlier—one of those time capsule projects you do in high school. In it, teenage-Lepore chastised college-student-Lepore for her life choices, accusing her of neglecting her real passions and wasting her time.

“It was totally mean and harangue-y—I was a really rotten teenager,” she says. “But it really affected me, and it sat with me for a while before I decided to change everything in my life.”

It also led her to think about the importance of the past. “What would it be like to read really old mail from actual strangers instead of fairly recent mail from yourself?”

The first time she entered the Widener stacks, she says, she sat down and cried.

Covered In Books
The walls of Lepore's office are decorated with a variety of books, posters, and artifacts from significant time periods in American history.

She had fallen in love with history, but getting into a master’s program in the field would be challenging without having majored in it. Then, working at the Bunting Institute, now the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, Lepore met Elizabeth McKinsey, an English and American Studies scholar who now teaches at Carleton College.

McKinsey recommend that Lepore apply to graduate programs in American Studies. “It was an incredible gift she gave me, this advice.”

Lepore enrolled at the University of Michigan, but then transferred to Yale for what she describes as “the usual stupid reasons”—she wanted to be closer to a boyfriend in Boston. There, she specialized in the history of early America and met two individuals who were integral to her career— Jane Kamensky, with whom Lepore would go on co-found Common-place and write a historical novel called “Blindspot,” and their mentor, professor emeritus John Demos. In an interview with The Crimson in 2009, Lepore said that she and Kamensky originally conceived the novel project as a way to honor Demos at his retirement.

After earning her Ph.D. from Yale, Lepore worked as a professor at the University of California-San Diego and Boston University before coming back to Harvard to help lead the department whose classes she once audited. Not exactly “Good Will Hunting,” she says, but cinematic nevertheless. She now lives in Cambridge with her husband and three sons.

As untraditionally as her career unfolded, Lepore says she was sure of one thing. “I always just wanted to be a writer, not necessarily a particular kind of writer,” she says. “Since childhood, I wrote a lot of fiction, a lot of stories, but I most loved writing essays. I was obsessed with George Orwell for years. I remember going to the town library and having to put in interlibrary loan requests to get the compilation of his BBC radio pieces. I had to get everything he ever wrote.”

History of Art and Architecture professor Robin E. Kelsey says that Lepore’s non-traditional background helps her connect with students: “She has an outside-of-the-ivory-tower perspective. It’s very easy once you’re inside this world to lose track of what this place looks like if you’re an eighteen-year-old coming from say, a working-class family. She’s exceptionally sensitive to people coming from other backgrounds.”

HISTORY IS WHAT REMAINS

When I meet with Lepore, we do step out of the ivory tower (or the Robinson marble).

“Take a look around you,” Lepore tells me. We’ve stopped outside of Memorial Church. “Now close your eyes. Take a deep breath.”

“Open your eyes, and imagine that it’s 1767,” she says. “What’s different?”

I feel silly, and at first, I only notice the obvious things: the iPhones, the distant rush of cars on Massachusetts Ave., the typed flyers advertising events and extracurriculars, the neon-colored backpacks, and the rubber snow boots. The cleanliness of it all. But this is more than the superficial evocation of the past in the manner of hoop-skirt sporting tour guides. Lepore’s also referring to something larger and more intangible, the way the writing of history is affected by the limited and sometimes unreliable preservation of the past.

“History is only written from what remains,” Lepore says. She raises and lowers her hand, as if to the suggest the construction and demolition of phantom buildings.

From inside a long, black puffy coat, she pulls out a printed copy of a 1767 engraving. It’s by Paul Revere, titled “A Westerly View of Colleges in New England.” Flanked by horses and men in breaches stand five buildings, labeled: Harvard Hall, Stoughton, Massachusetts, Hollis, and Holden Chapel.

She says she often gives this engraving to students in History 1400: “Intro to American Studies,” a class she’s co-teaching this spring with English professor Louis Menand. It’s one of her many “hands-on activities”—besides bringing her students to archives and museums, Lepore brings facsimiles of period newspapers into section.

“History is this great time machine, and I love that about it,” Lepore says. “You can go backward and hang out there as long as you need to.”

Entering Lepore’s world often requires leaving her office. Her Q Guide comments, accompanied by insanely high scores, rave about field trips to 18th-century printing presses and the Boston cemeteries where founding fathers lie interred. Teaching at BU, she once organized an overnight camping trip to the Boston Harbor Islands.

At Harvard, she holds “walking office hours.” “I’m super restless, and I cannot stand sitting in my Harry Potter cupboard beneath the stairs,” she says. “Moving is good—it’s about the pause. You think when you’re moving.”

During these walks, the length and nature of the route depends on the complexity of the question. “What kind of citations should we use for this paper?” might mean a walk around the Yard; life-goal questions extend out into Cambridge.

Walking Office Hours
Lepore is also known for her "walking office hours." Students are welcome to walk around the Yard with the American history professor during their appointments.

Lepore’s class “How to Read a Book,” which she co-taught with English professor Leah Price ’91, was similarly tactile and immersive. Brian K. Goodman, a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies and a teaching fellow for the class, describes it as “experimental.”

In teaching about the history of note-taking, Lepore and Price had their students take notes with the tools of the period they were studying, from ancient to contemporary. “When you imagine what your first teaching experience is going to be like, you don’t think you’re going to need to learn how to get a hold of historically authentic quills,” Goodman says. “We made clay tablets, we did quills and parchments, we visited a printing press, and in the last week, you could use your iPad.”

Sometimes Lepore’s experimental lesson plans have unintended consequences. Wax candles added to the period atmosphere, until one student, quill in hand and elbow in air, knocked a candle on to a piece of parchment and started a small fire.

STUDENT/TEACHERS

Lepore often co-teaches. While other professors can be reluctant to share the classroom, Lepore describes it as a “blessing.”

When I ask her why, she grins and scrunches up her shoulders, “Oh, I like being a student! There’s no greater gift than to be able to listen to a colleague give a lecture.”

Co-teaching can also provide a relief from an academic culture that often encourages isolation. “It’s meant to be kind of a lonely life—monastic,” she says. “There’s not a culture where you can just walk into other people’s classes.”

Lepore also says that co-teaching can make a subject more accessible to students. When two accomplished academics debate, they see that a subject can be approached from multiple angles. But Lepore gets along so well with her co-professors that she has to make a conscious effort to disagree with them for the benefit of the class.

And just as Lepore speaks about the joy of learning from her colleagues, Kelsey and Menand say that they’ve learned from her. The former says that he’s inspired by her document-based approach to history, while the latter praises her interactive, project-oriented sections.

Kelsey, who plans to co-teach a graduate seminar about the American attic with Lepore next year, tells me he knows her outside of the University setting; their children go to the same school.

Of Lepore, he says: “She’s a bit of a dynamo, very much on topic and to the point. And yet she manages to do that while remaining exceedingly cheerful and funny. She’s a joy to be around.”

Menand, currently her co-teacher, says simply, “She’s a ball of fire.”

INTERDISCIPLINARY STUDIES

Lepore often chooses co-teachers in fields different from her own, creating syllabi that are interdisciplinary. She is the chair of history and literature, one of only a few interdisciplinary committees at Harvard. Of her committee’s approach, she says, “I really believe in the method of a discipline, but some of the artificiality of the departmental boundaries can be exposed.”

“[In hist. & lit.], if you’re interested in what happened to a man, woman, or child, there are many ways you can find out—through acts of investigation, discovery, and analysis. You can experiment,” she continues. “Almost anything is game.”

The nature of interdisciplinary study is something that Lepore has spent a lot of time meditating on. On the one hand, there’s something to be said for the discipline of a discipline: “I’m a big believer in that word in all its senses—I’m a super-hyper-vigilant person, a deadline nut,” she says. “And the constraints of a discipline can be really interesting. It’s like physical training. Squats are really freaking good for you, and it’s not because a squat in and of itself is an accomplishment, but it improves everything you do to some extent.”

I ask Lepore what changes she’s implemented to the committee since becoming chair, but it’s hard to get her to talk about herself in any way that might remotely suggest listing accomplishments. (Earlier, when I had asked her which of her New Yorker pieces is her favorite, she waved her hand impatiently and offered to tell me all of her favorite pieces by other writers instead.) So she starts by placing herself between her predecessor, Price, and her successor, Amanda J. Claybaugh, also of the English Department, who will be taking over on the first of July. Of Price, Lepore says that she’s “learned so much from her,” and of Claybaugh she’s “incredibly excited to see what she’ll do.”

As for herself, Lepore explained that her placement between two English Department chairs was a deliberate choice to bring balance to the department. “I spent a lot of time trying to think about the history part of history and literature, because the position had been held for a very, very long time by people from the English Department. We got more History faculty to become involved.”

THE CULT OF LEPORE

Though her seminar-style classes obviously attract fewer student than Sanders-filling lectures like CS50 and EC10, Lepore has developed a small, but loyal following of fans and mentees. “There’s definitely a cult of personality around her,” Isaac C. Dayno ’15 says.

And her classes, though usually capped at fewer than twenty students, garner many more applicants. Some, like Dayno, are introduced to Lepore through her magazine writing. “I read The New Yorker and happened to discover that all of these articles I was obsessed with were written by this one woman named Jill Lepore, and she was a Harvard professor,” Elyssa A. L. Spitzer ’12, a former FM chair, says. “I emailed her and asked if we could talk.”

Even though Spitzer was concentrating in social studies, she wanted to use a hist. & lit. approach for her thesis. After a series of conversations with Lepore, some conducted on walks to the Charles River, Spitzer decided to write about William Godwin. Lepore became her thesis advisor. And along the way, also talked with her about her career plans and general life path.

Many of Lepore’s mentees discuss Lepore’s willingness to offer help outside of her area of academic expertise and beyond the class materials. Edgar Allan Poe? She’s obsessed with him. World War II? She has books numbering in the double digits for students to read.

She makes time to help not only her own students and thesis mentees, but anyone who comes to her with a question. “When my prospectus was due, I sent her a copy because I was interested to see what her thoughts would be,” Goodman says. “I was about to leave the country for a year, and she met me at seven in the morning right before I left town. And she wasn’t even on my dissertation committee.

“She’s always extremely generous with her students,” Goodman continues. “But she’s got this unique combination of toughness and kindness. She has high expectations for her students.”

Speaking about her classroom relationships, Lepore says, “It’s not about intimacy.”

“No, no, I don’t do that,” she says, as she lifts up her hand, palm out, and shakes her head. “But it’s about candor.”

THE NOBODIES

For all the attention she pays to her students and colleagues, Lepore seems to engage just as thoroughly with historical characters. At Houghton Library, she shows me the diary of Jared Sparks, an early American historian and Harvard professor who obsessively collected any and all papers relating to the founding fathers. He also altered, edited, and destroyed historical documents written by those whom he deemed “nobodies,” once ripping up a draft of a George Washington speech because it had been transcribed by an unknown clerk.

One of those “nobodies” was Benjamin Franklin’s sister, the subject of Lepore’s most recent work, “The Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin.” While her brother became one of the most towering and consequential figures of American history, Jane married at thirteen and had 12 children, several of whom died.

For Lepore, writing about Jane was part of her broader concern for representing what she calls the “asymmetry” of history, the imbalance that occurs in our understanding of the past when narratives are controlled by those with power. This motivation inspired her writing about King Philip’s War, focusing on the perspective of the defeated Native American tribes, as well as “New York Burning,” her book about New York’s slave rebellion in 1741, which was nominated for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for History.

Jill Lepore's Books
Lepore's books sit on the shelf at the Harvard Book Store. Lepore's bibliography is expansive and continues to grow. Her next novel is slated to be published in October of this year.

Her works often highlight Sparks’s so-called “nobodies.” “If we’re interested in inequality as a society, it’s helpful to have a historical vantage on it,” she says. “You need to see these people as individuals with fully realized lives.”

“With Benjamin Franklin, you know when he slept with some prostitute in London to the hour,” she continues. “But when you know so little [about someone] to just shrug and say ‘shh’ is a very familiar maneuver.”

In order to write about subjects when such details are not readily available, Lepore does extensive archival research. I get to see her in action, examining the uneven sheets of parchment bound together in Sparks’s diary.

“I’m just so excited!” Lepore says, beaming, rubbing her hands together as she bends down over the text to decipher frustratingly tiny handwriting. According to Lepore, “none of the good stuff is digital yet.”

Earlier, in her office, Lepore spoke about the deep satisfaction that comes with the tangibility of physical archives.

“Who leaps out of bed in the morning to read The New York Herald Tribune from 1929 online?” she asks. “But if you’re going into the newspaper room at the archive—I don’t know, I kind of leap out of bed for that.”

When she gets excited about something, Lepore twists a little bit in her chair and grins. This is not uncommon: “I’m the person who laughs too loud at the joke. I’m so easily amused. I’m so easily fascinated, and so easily devastated.”

WRITING AND TRUTH

In minute details and minor characters, Lepore finds the hidden angles of history—though she’s careful to qualify that “microhistories” should be used to “interpret larger historical structures.”

Lepore thinks a lot about the relationship between story and statement of truth. Literature and history, she says, have, respectively “the truth of the universal and the truth of the particular.”

Her essay “Just the Facts, Ma’am,” explores the way in which history can be just as factually problematic as fiction: “Every history is incomplete; every historian has a point of view; every historian relies on what is unreliable—documents written by people who were not under oath and cannot be cross-examined.”

Lepore tries to resolve these difficulties in her own writing by trying to “squeeze as much as we can out of letters...pushing as far as we can go.” This often means exploring previously overlooked documents and perspectives.

And once the evidence falls into place, there’s the question of presentation. Lepore considers herself a narrative historian, and students, like Emily C. Graff ’10, a former FM chair, say that she taught them how to make historical writing compelling and persuasive in that manner.

“‘To write history is to make an argument by telling a story about dead people,’” Graff quotes Lepore. “When I was writing papers…I was always using my head, never my heart. She helped me to see that you had to use both to look critically and also analytically.”

Lepore also employs a narrative writing style in the essays she writes for The New Yorker. “When you’re writing for a general interest magazine, you’ve got this thing that a body of experts knows a lot about, that is rich and detailed and tangled, full of contradiction and distortion and subtlety and significance and meaningfulness, and here’s this reader that’s super smart but doesn’t know anything about it,” she says. “You have to make it interesting without stomping on it and beating the subtlety out of it.”

Lepore connects this to her work as a teacher, where she also has to convey specialized or expert knowledge to an audience that might have no knowledge of the specific topic. “The student could be a brilliant engineering concentrator but doesn’t know about the history of the paper ballot,” she says.

But Lepore says she also fears that relying too much on the narrative aspects of the past can undermine what she says is a historian’s main job: argument through evidence. She explains that historical writing that tells a story can focus on narration at the cost of analysis. For historical writing to be both compelling and worthwhile, it must combine “thick narratives” with “pregnant principles,” she writes in “Writing for History.” She says that the trick is weaving together the characters and chronology of the past with a focused and evidenced argument.

Lepore’s concerns about the style of narrative history are also personal. “Being a woman writer, it’s very, very easy to sort of build for yourself a box that says ‘I’m emotionally attached to my subject matter.’ We have a culture of letters that expects women to be writing about things that are emotional and personal,” she says.

Menand spoke about how Lepore navigates the emotional appeal of narration and the critical necessity of academia in her own writing. “You can’t just tell the story, you also have to have some idea what it means,” he says. “The trick is to make the story produce the idea, not just to overlay it with some analysis. She’s really good at that.”

EPILOGUE

On the last day we meet, we leave Houghton after about an hour—Lepore is on deadline tonight.

In the Yard, where the sun has begun to set, students trek to the dining halls for dinner. I’m blinded again by the reflection of sun on snow, so I close my eyes and try imagine that it’s 1767. Lepore had asked, “What’s different?”

Everything that is gone: the sounds and the smells, smoke, animals—all that organic matter. And all that has been added: any building larger than Harvard Hall, at that time the tallest in Cambridge. Female students and professors. The finally-published stories of those once dismissed as “nobodies.” Classes that go beyond the lecture hall, into the archives and onto the streets of Boston. An office leaking books, stuffed with found treasures, containing multitudes of words. One professor, surrounded by history, sits behind her desk—collecting and recording, penning a couple hundred more words to be read, studied, and cited by many.