Friday, December 12, 2014

Featured Author: Jill Lepore

Jill Lepore is a professor of history at Harvard University and a staff writer at the New Yorker. Her acclaimed books ("dramatic", "provides rare insight", "delightful, learned, and altogether beguiling") about topics in American history have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in History and the National Book Award for Non-Fiction. Her subjects have included colonial war, slavery in New York City, the Tea Party, and "a history of curiosity".  Lepore has also written a satirical novel, set in the 18th century, with a fellow historian.

In an essay called “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on microhistory and biography", Lepore, herself a microhistorian, set out four propositions to show the difference between one and the other:

1) Unlike biography, the assumption in microhistory is that the value of an individual’s life story “lies in how it serves as an allegory for the culture as the whole”.
2) Microhistorians eschew cradle-to-grave projects because their interest lies in solving “small mysteries about a person’s life as a means to exploring the culture”.
3) Biography is about not betraying intimacy; by contrast, microhistory will use any means necessary “to resurrect those who did not [leave abundant records]”.
4) Biographers tend to identify with their subjects; microhistorians tend to judge them: “For this reason, a microhistorian may be a character in his own book”.*

We first heard of Jill Lepore with the publication of  her biography of Jane Franklin, Ben Franklin's sister, in 2013. Turns out she has an impressive back catalog, as well as publishing a new book on Wonder Woman this year. If you like to read about history, why not give Jill Lepore a try?

King Philip's War, the excruciating racial war--colonists against Indians--that erupted in New England in 1675, was, in proportion to population, the bloodiest in American history. Some even argued that the massacres and outrages on both sides were too horrific to "deserve the name of a war." Telling the story of what may have been the bitterest of American conflicts, and its reverberations over the centuries, Lepore has enabled us to see how the ways in which we remember past events are as important in their effect on our history as were the events themselves.

Over a frigid few weeks in the winter of 1741, ten fires blazed across Manhattan. With each new fire, panicked whites saw more evidence of a slave uprising. In the end, thirteen black men were burned at the stake, seventeen were hanged and more than one hundred black men and women were thrown into a dungeon beneath City Hall. In New York Burning, Bancroft Prize-winning historian Jill Lepore recounts these dramatic events, re-creating, with path-breaking research, the nascent New York of the seventeenth century. Even then, the city was a rich mosaic of cultures, communities and colors, with slaves making up a full one-fifth of the population. Exploring the political and social climate of the times, Lepore dramatically shows how, in a city rife with state intrigue and terror, the threat of black rebellion united the white political pluralities in a frenzy of racial fear and violence.

Stewart Jameson, a Scottish portrait painter fleeing his debtors in Edinburgh, has washed up on the British Empire's far shores—in the city of Boston, lately seized with the spirit of liberty. Eager to begin anew, he advertises for an apprentice, but the lad who comes knocking is no lad at all. Fanny Easton is a fallen woman from Boston's most prominent family who has disguised herself as a boy to become Jameson's defiant and seductive apprentice. Written with wit and exuberance by accomplished historians, Blindspot is an affectionate send-up of the best of eighteenth-century fiction. It celebrates the art of the Enlightenment and the passion of the American Revolution by telling stories of ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary time.

Jill Lepore, Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer, offers a wry and bemused look at American history according to the far right, from the "rant heard round the world," which launched the Tea Party, to the Texas School Board's adoption of a social-studies curriculum that teaches that the United States was established as a Christian nation. Along the way, she provides rare insight into the eighteenth-century struggle for independence--the real one, that is. Lepore traces the roots of the far right's reactionary history to the bicentennial in the 1970s, when no one could agree on what story a divided nation should tell about its unruly beginnings. Behind the Tea Party's Revolution, she argues, lies a nostalgic and even heartbreaking yearning for an imagined past--a time less troubled by ambiguity, strife, and uncertainty--a yearning for an America that never was.

How does life begin? What does it mean? What happens when we die? “All anyone can do is ask,” Lepore writes. “That's why any history of ideas about life and death has to be, like this book, a history of curiosity.” Lepore starts that history with the story of a seventeenth-century Englishman who had the idea that all life begins with an egg and ends it with an American who, in the 1970s, began freezing the dead. In between, life got longer, the stages of life multiplied, and matters of life and death moved from the library to the laboratory, from the humanities to the sciences. Lately, debates about life and death have determined the course of American politics. Each of these debates has a history. Investigating the surprising origins of the stuff of everyday life—from board games to breast pumps—Lepore argues that the age of discovery, Darwin, and the Space Age turned ideas about life on earth topsy-turvy. “New worlds were found,” she writes, and “old paradises were lost.” As much a meditation on the present as an excavation of the past, The Mansion of Happiness is delightful, learned, and altogether beguiling.

From one of our most accomplished and widely admired historians—a revelatory portrait of Benjamin Franklin's youngest sister, Jane, whose obscurity and poverty were matched only by her brother’s fame and wealth but who, like him, was a passionate reader, a gifted writer, and an astonishingly shrewd political commentator.    

A riveting work of historical detection revealing that the origins of one the worlds most iconic superheroes hides within it a fascinating family story and a crucial history of twentieth-century feminism Wonder Woman, created in 1941, is the most popular female superhero of all time. Aside from Superman and Batman, no superhero has lasted as long or commanded so vast and wildly passionate a following. Like every other superhero, Wonder Woman has a secret identity. Unlike every other superhero, she has also has a secret history. Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore has uncovered an astonishing trove of documents, including the never-before-seen private papers of William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman's creator... The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a tour de force of intellectual and cultural history. Wonder Woman, Lepore argues, is the missing link in the history of the struggle for women's rights a chain of events that begins with the women's suffrage campaigns of the early 1900s and ends with the troubled place of feminism a century later.   **all book blurbs taken from the library catalog unless otherwise noted 
 Jill Lepore: A Historian's History [The Harvard Crimson]   The Microhistorian [Dissent]   The Public Historian [Humanities]

Jill Lepore and the microhistory of America [TLS] *  Inside the List [New York Times]     

No comments: