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Jill Lepore on the History of America (in 1,000 Pages or Less)

Category: Art & Culture,Books

Professor Lepore, whose book hardly stints on the dark side, said she was most moved by examples from the 1920s and ’30s by historians like Charles and Mary Ritter Beard and James Truslow Adams (who coined the term “American dream”).

“They were all pretty significant critics of the United States government,” she said. “And yet, with fascism on the rise around the world, they decided it was important to write an account of where democracy came from, and what it needs to survive — not to indict anybody or prosecute anybody or elevate themselves, but to offer a tonic, and a little bit of a recipe.”

The book includes many women and people of color, not as tokens but as political actors. (For whatever it’s worth, “These Truths,” which will be released later in a textbook version, appears to be the first solo-authored one-volume history of America by a woman.)

And they aren’t all feminists or progressives.

We get cameos by the pioneering journalist Margaret Fuller and the anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells, but also Mary Elizabeth Lease, a 19th-century populist whose nativism might have worn a Make American Great Again hat, and Phyllis Schlafly, leader of the brigade of suburban housewife-activists who largely powered the postwar conservative movement.

“I would say, more often in American politics, women have been a conservative force rather than a liberal one,” Professor Lepore said.

There’s also, perhaps more unexpectedly, an emphasis on technology, especially communications technology. Professor Lepore (whose husband is a computer scientist) takes a dim view of the rise of political consultants and polling, and don’t get her started on Silicon Valley’s cult of “disruption.”

If “These Truths” ends on a note of “Gibbonesque foreboding,” as she put it, she hopes it will take us out of the frenzy of the present and provide perspective, if not necessarily comfort.

“Yes, the internet is disruptive of democracy, but this has happened before,” she said. “You shouldn’t stop worrying. But here’s a way to be a more informed worrier.”

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