The historical mystery "Blindspot" (Spiegel & Grau) is a collaboration between the New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore, who is also a professor of American history and the chair of the History and Literature Program at Harvard, and Jane Kamensky, the chair of the Department of History at Brandeis. Set in Boston during the summer of 1764, against the backdrop of the colonies' increasing discontent, the novel imagines the lives of Stewart Jameson, a swashbuckling Scottish portrait painter, and Fanny Easton, a young woman whose circumstances have forced her into disguise in order to serve as his painting apprentice. Lepore and Kamensky graciously took a moment to answer our questions. Below is our discussion with Lepore; later today, we'll post our talk with Kamensky.
Renowned Harvard scholar and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore has written a strikingly original, ingeniously conceived and beautifully crafted history of American ideas about life and death from before the cradle to beyond the grave.
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.
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.