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.
About 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. She received her Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale in 1995. Her first book, “The Name of War,” won the Bancroft Prize; her 2005 book, “New York Burning,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In 2008 she published “Blindspot,” a mock eighteenth-century novel, jointly written with Jane Kamensky. Lepore’s most recent book, “The Whites of Their Eyes,” is a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.
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 theMayflower, 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. – Kirkus Reviews
Jill Lepore’s ‘Story of America’ an engrossing journey
The Chicago Tribune Book Review – October 20, 2012 (Excerpt)
For Jill Lepore, a Harvard history professor and New Yorker staff writer, the story of America is part myth, part tall tale, and never less than engrossing.
“All nations are places,” she writes in her stylish new collection, “but they are also acts of imagination. Who has a part in a nation’s story, like who can become a citizen and who has a right to vote, isn’t foreordained, or even stable. The story’s plot, like the nation’s borders and the nature of its electorate, is always shifting.”
As if to underline that point, Lepore’s own narratives in “The Story of America: Essays on Origins” move from close-up to context and back again. She trains the literary equivalent of wide-angle and zoom lenses on seminal American documents, examining their subjects and their creators.
One of Lepore’s great themes is that “the rise of American democracy is bound up with the history of reading and writing.” For that reason, she argues, the study of our history and our literature are necessarily entangled. [Read the full article...]
THE LONDONDERRY AIR
Testament of an Ulster Gunman A Novel by Garrad Gawler
It all changed for Charles Cunningham, a Physics teacher at the local College of Technology in the County Derry town of Maddenstown, on a June afternoon in 1973 when a bomb exploded in his neighborhood. He answers an advertisement by the UDR, the Ulster Defence Regiment, but, in the time to come, he will experience the consequences of his decisions, and how his involvement complicates matters with family and friends, Protestants and Catholics alike, to an unexpected degree.
With “The Londonderry Air – Testament of an Ulster Gunman” Garrad Gawler describes in minute detail and with an astonishing level of authenticity not only the inner workings of the Ulster Defence Regiment, but also the activities of underground paramilitary groups of regular citizens who planned and carried out the assassination of suspected Republican terrorists in their neighborhood.
We are the only country that makes guns, including military-style assault weapons, available to anyone who wants to buy them. This is not freedom. It is a tyranny of death and destruction — a tyranny of which the National Rifle Association is proud. The Washington Post
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