A History of Life and Death
by Jill Lepore
Knopf, 2012, 304 pp.
Essays on Origins
by Jill Lepore
Princeton University Press, 2012, 420 pp.
The letter was from her fourteen-year-old self. “It was a very scary letter,” Lepore said in an interview with Humanities magazine. The letter had been sent by her high school English teacher, who, as promised, had held on to it for five years. “It said, more or less, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ And it went on like that, scolding, berating.” Soon after, Lepore quit ROTC, stopped playing sports, switched her major from math to English, and hastened to graduate in three years, because she couldn’t afford a fourth without the air force money. She wanted to be a writer but didn’t have a clue as to how to make a career of it. Working as a secretary at the Harvard Business School, she wrote stories in between answering the phone and paying her boss’s $18,000 credit card bills—a routine that continued until the day the “Manpower people” came to her desk with a huge bouquet of flowers in a crystal vase and informed her that she had won the Tiffany Award for best secretary. Oh no, she thought, this isn’t me, and she quit her job and applied to graduate school. From there on, the course of her life is—quite literally—history.
This is the beginning of the story, as Lepore tells it, of how she went from being a middling high-school student to a preeminent academic and one of America’s esteemed essayists—a writer of truthful tales, focused in scope, historical in nature, and literary in their attention to detail, very humanizing details of the sort with which Lepore regaled Humanities about herself.
An ambidextrous writer, Lepore has fashioned her scholarly interests into a variety of genres—from the New Journalism–inspired pieces that have recently made her famous in the New Yorker to historical fiction. But as a professor, she works most frequently in the academic corollary to the short story: the “microhistory,” an increasingly popular genre of social history that moves from the thin abstractions of social structures to the thick particularities of an individual’s life.
Microhistory arose largely in Europe and the United States in the 1970s and 1980s in reaction not only to the top-down historical narratives common to political history but also to the increasingly quantitative ones of social history. Microhistorians argued that the generalizations of capital “H” Great Man History distorted the truth of how most individuals actually lower-case lived and therefore advocated telling the stories of what one practitioner called “the normal exception”: the interesting small player who could stand in for the average person and, as a result, offer a unique angle overlooked by elite texts and master narratives. Although at first a European phenomenon—perhaps best exemplified by Carlo Ginzburg’s 1976 The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller—microhistory also found its advocates on this side of the Atlantic: Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, for example, and Laurel Ulrich’s Pulitzer Prize–winning A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812.
Microhistory uses biographical techniques, while giving more prominence to the landscape, time, and social trends shaping a person. Indeed one of the best ways to understand microhistory is by contrasting it with biography, as Lepore did in her scholarly essay spunkily titled “Historians Who Love Too Much,” which was published in the Journal of American History in 2001:
If biography is largely founded on a belief in the singularity and significance of an individual’s life and his contribution to history, microhistory is founded upon almost the opposite assumption: however singular a person’s life may be, the value of examining it lies not in its uniqueness, but in its exemplariness, in how that individual’s life serves as an allegory for broader issues affecting the culture as a whole.
Whereas the biographer documents an entire life, the microhistorian focuses on the illuminating episode. While the biographer tends to identify with his or her subject, the microhistorian often feels aligned with the detective or judge parsing out the nuances of a case. The biographer identifies with the cobbled road to success; the microhistorian with the work of investigation.
Microhistorians argued that the generalizations of capital “H” Great Man History distorted the truth of how most individuals actually lower-case lived and therefore advocated telling the stories of what one practitioner called “the normal exception.”
Lepore’s early scholarly books—The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (1998) and New York Burning: Liberty and Slavery in an Eighteenth-Century City (2005)—are both informed by the investigative impulse of microhistory, unpacking events largely glossed over by textbooks. And even the mock eighteenth-century novel that she co-wrote with Jane Kamensky and that tells the story of a debt-evading portrait painter who falls in love with a fallen woman during the American Revolution—has the sensibility of one. (Historical fiction, with its writerly interest in detail, is the natural next step from microhistory.) What’s more, with Common-place—the iconoclastic Web magazine she and Kamesky founded in 1999 to be a “bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine”—and with A is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States (2002), Lepore turned the genre into an essayistic art.
This art—Lepore’s skill at using small frames to convey ever larger pictures of truths—is not unlike the goals of New Journalism, and so it makes sense that it won her a place at the New Yorker, where almost all of the pieces making up her last two essay collections—The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death (2012) and The Story of America (2012)—first appeared. In addition to focusing on subjects typical of microhistory—Clara Savage (the first editor of Parents magazine begun in the 1920s), Chang Apana (the Hawaiian detective who inspired Charlie Chan movies), and Robert Ettinger (the leader of the cryogenics movement)—she also casts subjects previously deemed more suitable for the page counts and exclusive attention of biography—Ben Franklin, George Washington, Edgar Allan Poe—into the minidramas of microhistory. That is now her signature style. We see Ben Franklin siring his pseudonymous Poor Richard’s Almanack (a text whose popularity overshadowed the Founder’s more serious contributions). We see George Washington by way of the man who was later to edit his selected writings—and indeed felt the need to rewrite them.
In The Story of America’s introduction, Lepore says that she joined the New Yorker because she “wanted to learn how to tell stories better,” which is sort of like saying one wanted to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro to learn how to walk. But, indeed, the success of a microhistory is very much about storytelling, and rests on strengths not always prioritized in academia—a sensitivity to character and idiosyncratic detail, an ability to amplify the plot turns in a life or an idea while letting go of those that are unimportant. To wit, Lepore writes a whole essay about Samuel Eliot Morison, “the last Harvard historian to ride a horse to work,” who, “once interrupted at his desk by the incessant barking of a neighbor’s dog, went outside and shot it.” While some academics might think such a detail a barking distraction from their larger argument, Lepore recognizes that it is often the detail that pegs a person’s character but also that triggers an epiphany. Like a well-crafted short story, her writings focus on the letter that changed everything, the Tiffany Award that prompted you to quit your job.
Free time. That more and more people now have it and are able to enjoy it is no doubt one of the reasons there is a greater appetite for accessible history—and few approaches are more accessible than the lively narratives of microhistory that Lepore has popularized in the New Yorker. Coincidentally, free time is a central theme in her new collection, The Mansion of Happiness. In the introduction she argues that the shape of life elongated, yielding free time to myriad effect. Prior to the 1800s, she writes, lives were quick, birth-to-ashes affairs, governed by seasons and the cycles of light and dark. In the 1800s, lives became longer. One could switch on a light bulb. The day never needed to end, or the warmth—there were thermostats and heaters. Yet while lives pushed straight toward the horizon, their demise fell just beyond it. Since 1958, Lepore notes, the majority of deaths have taken place behind hospital doors. Stages of life were the natural result of a life long enough to accommodate them, and so each discursive essay in this collection departs from a different one: childhood, adolescence, motherhood, middle age, senescence.
Lepore recognizes that it is often the detail that pegs a person’s character but also that triggers an epiphany. Like a well-crafted short story, her writings focus on the letter that changed everything, the Tiffany Award that prompted you to quit your job.
As a microhistorian, Lepore avoids prescribing best practices, but she does try to capture the commonalities shared between certain people or between certain ideas. Indeed, many of her strongest essays juxtapose two seemingly dissimilar lives as they turn around an idea like a couple of strands of DNA, maintaining a common center. In “Confessions of an Amateur Mother,” for instance, Lepore contrasts Clara Savage, an ambitious editor of Parents magazine, with Margaret Sanger, a feminist who promoted “birth control”—the phrase she coined in 1914 for contraceptives—which, thanks largely to her tireless activism, were legalized in 1937. The conceit of Savage’s magazine was that parenthood wasn’t you but a role you played and could study up on. Sanger meantime fought to give women control over the term-limits of that role, arguing that this would improve a woman and a family’s lot more than anything else. Even though these two difficult women (neither of whom Lepore seems to particularly like) and their work couldn’t be more different, they both informed our current understanding of motherhood in a similar way: being a mother was not a condition, but rather something for which you could prep and plan. Lepore’s writing isn’t self-help, though life, as a subject, lends itself to that. Instead, Lepore displays her characters making their own decisions. And tucks her opinion about these decisions in the shadows of their actions.
But some of the more striking moments in The Mansion of Happiness are the quiet personal moments—Lepore’s own feelings of unlikely, awkward unity, for instance, with a handful of career women in a public restroom. As she writes in her essay about breastfeeding:
Duck into the ladies room at a conference of doctors, lawyers, or professors and chances were, you’d find a flock of women with matching “briefcases” waiting—none too patiently and, trust me, more than a little sheepishly—for a turn with the electric outlet. Pumps came with plastic sleeves, like the sleeves in a man’s wallet, into which a mother was supposed to slip a photograph of her baby because, Pavlovian, looking at the baby aids “letdown,” the release of milk normally triggered by the presence of the baby . . . . Whether it is more boring or more lonesome I find hard to say.
With one unassuming imperative, Lepore gently “ducks” the reader into the disorienting realm of bodily utility and offers a hushed meditation on modern motherhood as it is mediated by machine. In three short sentences, as glands are divested of their natural context, she captures the cacophony of feeling shared by a group of disparate women in a bathroom stall: awkwardness, ambition, embarrassment, impatience, alienation, love, and loneliness. Striking an emotional connection is how Lepore resolves the central tension of microhistory—the desire not to generalize but localize, and yet at the same time, in localizing, to say something universal.
The success of such emotional epiphanies, and the fate of microhistory in America, however, depend on nuance and originality and a writer’s ability to capture a shared sentiment that cuts across a variety of professional and political positions—that is, to reach a sort of “truth” about humanity. The trouble with this approach is that not all writers are equipped to make it work for all subjects. Consider Lepore’s essay, “Battleground America: One Nation, Under the Gun,” published in the New Yorker last year. Not trusting the power of her material (which is excellent—Lepore points out that the NRA paid lawyers to publish reinterpretations of the Second Amendment in law reviews), or perhaps feeling the need to prove to readers that she’s, er, given guns a shot, Lepore goes to a target range and fires a .22 caliber Mark III pistol. A few rounds later, she retreats to the restroom, where her thoughts travel from her brief, journalistic excursion to the deeds of a notorious high-school murderer: “I opened the door, and turned on the tap. T.J. Lane had used a .22-calibre Mark III Target Rimfire pistol. For a long time, I let the water run.”
Lepore’s grief-chopped, Yoda-like utterance, “For a long time, I let the water run,” although no doubt sincerely felt, is an unnecessary detail that doesn’t explain or illuminate. The weakness of the genre is, then, encapsulated in the oxymoron of its name: microhistory is micro in focus, but hopes to be historical in its reach. The genius of Lepore is how enjoyable she is to read. The misfortune of readability is that it can have the effect of making moral claims feel simple.
Microhistorians, like fiction writers, are more prone to meta-analysis—given to it, perhaps, out of the guilt that attends all aspirations to professionally entertain. Lepore’s second anthology of New Yorker pieces, The Story of America, is made up primarily of stories about stories. Although they take as their subjects figures like Thomas Jefferson, Noah Webster, and Andrew Jackson, they are most strikingly studies on the power of writing and the role of the “public historian”—Lepore’s term for the scholar who wants his or her rigorous work to be nonetheless accessible to everyone. And while these pieces don’t peak with the epiphanies of The Whites of Their Eyes and The Mansion of Happiness, they often feel more personal because their true subjects—not the protagonists but the ideas played out upon them—are the principles that govern Lepore’s career.
Striking an emotional connection is how Lepore resolves the central tension of microhistory—the desire not to generalize but localize, and yet at the same time, in localizing, to say something universal.
To better understand what a scholarly biography should be, Lepore looks, of course, to some of the earliest American examples. In “His Highness,” she considers the behind-the-scenes account of the first official biography of George Washington, which was penned, as it turns out, by a magazine man, Jared Sparks, the editor and owner of America’s first literary magazine, the North American Review. In 1827, entrusted with Washington’s papers, Sparks took the liberty of determining which letters weren’t important and cut them up to give to friends. The letters deemed worthy, Sparks polished—sometimes completely rewriting the first president’s notoriously stilted prose—and finally published as The Writings of Washington in 1837. Shortly thereafter, a British critic pointed out that the texts had been drastically edited, and a scandal erupted. The American public was outraged. It wasn’t just that Sparks had sifted through the contents of the country’s most esteemed shoebox and shredded the materials of our collective memory, it was that he had deprived the people of “celebrity intimacy.” As Lepore writes, “We want to be nearer the great. It sells like flax seed”—an observation that was as true in Sparks’s time as it is in our own.
Writing—especially academic writing—is ultimately an unpromising path to establishing oneself. Although one of her essays shows how a biography won Andrew Jackson the presidency and set a presidential precedent, another shows how Thomas Paine, who motivated the American Revolution with his pamphlet Common Sense, died alone in Greenwich Village shortly after being turned away from the poll booth, his nails curled over his toes like claws. Perhaps such instructives are why Lepore doesn’t primarily write for writing’s sake in the form of finely-crafted fiction. She writes to redeem a set of truths about the past for consumption by the normal exception, an audience of ordinary lives, readers who want history that sounds like them: “Who tells the story,” Lepore says in her preface to The Story of America, “like who writes the laws and who wages the wars, is always part of that struggle”—a struggle over who’s included and who’s excluded, which is to say, over who is empowered.
Lepore’s path to empowerment was fortuitous. After quitting her secretarial position, she went to grad school—first at the University of Michigan, where she received her master’s degree, and then at Yale’s American Studies program, the same program that turned out Tom Wolfe in 1957. (Wolfe once described it as “the worst part of the worst Antonioni movie you ever saw.”) Lepore was perhaps better suited for the part. She found a microhistorian mentor in professor emeritus John Demos and met her collaborator (and co-conspirator) Jane Kamensky. But still, as she said in an interview, “All I ever wanted to do was figure people out. In graduate school, that looked like a liability, and I took note.” But Lepore is not a normal exception; she is an exceptional exception. She turned a liability into her biggest asset, and her success shows that the stories of history—exuberant with rich scenes and characters resplendent in all their quirks—sell like flax seed in America. Readers want to know history. But we also want to feel it. The question is, will we feel it as she intends it to be felt, and will we know what to make of those feelings and how to act next?
Francesca Mari is an associate editor at Texas Monthly and has written for, among others, the New Republic, the New York Times Book Review, and the Paris Review Daily.
Corrections: an earlier version of this piece claimed Lepore won an army scholarship; she was actually a participant in the U.S. Air Force ROTC.
Jared Sparks was entrusted with George Washington’s papers in 1827, not 1927, and published The Writings of Washington in 1837, not 1937.