In a recent issue of The New Yorker magazine, Harvard historian Jill Lepore wrote about murder in America. Her article looks at recent and historical events in Connecticut to illustrate her points. All Things Considered host Mark Herz spoke with her about how the Cheshire home invasion crime and subsequent changes in punishment guidelines fits in historically.
Soon after earning her bachelor’s degree in English from Tufts, Jill Lepore started working at Harvard, but not as a member of the faculty. The future David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History was clocking hours as a secretary on temporary assignment. But she was also writing up a storm, auditing courses, and thinking about attending grad school. In a conversation that opens with high-school recollections before venturing into seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America, Lepore describes how she became the person she is today: a well-known scholar of early American history, a winner of the Bancroft Prize, a former NEH research fellow, and the author of numerous essays and several distinguished books. She is also a staff writer at the New Yorker and, with fellow historian Jane Kamensky, the coauthor of Blindspot, a work of historical fiction set in Revolution-era Boston.
It was a classic medical scare story: Parrots died. A few people got sick. Newspapers went wild. Then, well after the outbreak of "parrot fever" was declared dormant, researchers who dealt with the birds began to mysteriously die themselves. Historian Jill Lepore talks to host Jacki Lyden about the great parrot fever outbreak of 1929. Lepore chronicles the episode in the June 1 issue of The New Yorker magazine.
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.
Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard, and Jane Kamensky, a professor of history at Brandeis, met as graduate students in the 1980s. In 2007, the two began to write a historical novel. The product of that collaboration, the occasionally racy Blindspot (Spiegel & Grau, $24.95), tells the story of the portrait painter Stewart Jameson and his apprentice, "Francis Weston," née Fanny Easton, the disguised daughter of a prominent Bostonian. Lepore and Kamensky compiled glossaries, consulted collections of urban slang and lifted freely from eighteenth-century sources. With each in charge of one narrator--Lepore wrote Jameson's chapters, Kamensky Easton's letters--the two volleyed passages back and forth, like "a tennis game."--Christine Smallwood
Historians, Ralph Ellison once said, are "responsible liars," but at least they're responsible. Historical novelists, on the other hand, don't let facts get in the way of a good story. But in "Blindspot," to be published next week, two academic historians and long-time friends, Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore, have painted a portrait of pre-Revolutionary Boston that is true to the spirit of the time while inventing a couple of romantic, witty, down-on-their-luck, larger-than-life characters struggling to stay afloat in a tumultuous time. Ms. Kamensky is the chairwoman of Brandeis University's history department; Ms. Lepore is chairwoman of the History and Literature Program at Harvard University and a contributor to the New Yorker magazine. Both have written several works of nonfiction; this is their first novel.
In the most ambitious, one-volume American history in decades, award-winning historian Jill Lepore offers a magisterial account of the origins and rise of a divided nation.
The American experiment rests on three ideas—“these truths,” Jefferson called them—political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. And it rests, too, on a fearless dedication to inquiry, writes Jill Lepore in a groundbreaking investigation into the American past that places truth itself at the center of the nation’s history. In riveting prose, These Truths tells the story of America, beginning in 1492, to ask whether the course of events has proven the nation’s founding truths, or belied them. “A nation born in contradiction, liberty in a land of slavery, will fight forever over the meaning of its history,” Lepore writes, finding meaning in those very contradictions as she weaves American history into a majestic tapestry of faith and hope, of peril and prosperity, of technological progress and moral anguish. Part spellbinding chronicle, part old-fashioned civics book, These Truths, filled with arresting sketches of Americans from John Winthrop and Frederick Douglass to Pauli Murray and Phyllis Schlafly, offers an authoritative new history of a great, and greatly troubled, nation.
Praise for These Truths
“[B]rilliant…insightful…It isn’t until you start reading it that you realize how much we need a book like this one at this particular moment.”
—Andrew Sullivan, The New York Times Book Review
“This sweeping, sobering account of the American past is a story not of relentless progress but of conflict and contradiction, with crosscurrents of reason and faith, black and white, immigrant and native, industry and agriculture rippling through a narrative that is far from completion.”
—TheNew York Times Book Review, Editors’ Choice
“[Lepore’s] one-volume history is elegant, readable, sobering; it extends a steadying hand when a breakneck news cycle lurches from one event to another, confounding minds and churning stomachs.”
—Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times
“Jill Lepore is an extraordinarily gifted writer, and These Truths is nothing short of a masterpiece of American history. By engaging with our country's painful past (and present) in an intellectually honest way, she has created a book that truly does encapsulate the American story in all its pain and all its triumph.”
–Michael Schaub, NPR
“A splendid rendering—filled with triumph, tragedy, and hope—that will please Lepore’s readers immensely and win her many new ones.”
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“This thought-provoking and fascinating book stands to become the definitive one-volume U.S. history for a new generation.”
—Library Journal, starred review
“An ambitious and provocative attempt to interpret American history as an effort to fulfill and maintain certain fundamental principles. . . . Lepore is a historian with wide popular appeal, and this comprehensive work will answer readers’ questions about who we are as a nation.”
—Booklist, starred review
“Astounding… [Lepore] has assembled evidence of an America that was better than some thought, worse than almost anyone imagined, and weirder than most serious history books ever convey. Armed with the facts of what happened before, we are better able to approach our collective task of figuring out what should happen now . . . Perhaps instead of the next U2 album, Apple could make a copy of These Truths appear on every iPhone—not only because it offers the basic civics education that every American needs, but because it is a welcome corrective to the corrosive histories peddled by partisans.”
—Casey N. Cep, Harvard Magazine
“In her epic new work, Jill Lepore helps us learn from whence we came.”
“Sweeping and propulsive.”
“ ‘An old-fashioned civics book,’ Harvard historian and New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore calls it, a glint in her eye. This fat, ludicrously ambitious one-volume history is a lot more than that. In its spirit of inquiry, in its eager iconoclasms, These Truths enacts the founding ideals of the country it describes.
“It's an audacious undertaking to write a readable history of America, and Jill Lepore is more than up to the task. But These Truths is also an astute exploration of the ways in which the country is living up to its potential, and where it is not.”
“Gutsy, lyrical, and expressive… [These Truths] is a perceptive and necessary contribution to understanding the American condition of late.… It captures the fullness of the past, where hope rises out of despair, renewal out of destruction, and forward momentum out of setbacks.”
—Jack E. Davis, Chicago Tribune
“Lepore’s brilliant book, These Truths, rings as clear as a church bell, the lucid, welcome yield of clear thinking and a capable, curious mind.”
—Karen R. Long, Newsday
“A splendid rendering—filled with triumph, tragedy, and hope—that will please Lepore’s readers immensely and win her many new ones.”
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“An ambitious and provocative attempt to interpret American history as an effort to fulfull and maintain certain fundamental principles . . . Lepore is a historian with wide popular appeal, and this comprehensive work will answer readers’ questions about who we are as a nation.”
—Booklist, starred review
“In this time of disillusionment with American politics, Jill Lepore’s beautifully written book should be essential reading for everyone who cares about the country’s future. Her history of the United States reminds us of the dilemmas that have plagued the country and the institutional strengths that have allowed us to survive as a republic for over two centuries. At a minimum, her book should be required reading for every federal officeholder.”
—Robert Dallek, author of Franklin D. Roosevelt
"No one has written with more passion and brilliance about how a flawed and combustible America kept itself tethered to the transcendent ideals on which it was founded. If the country is to recover from its current crisis, These Truths will illuminate the way."
—Gary Gerstle, author of Liberty and Coercion
“Who can write a comprehensive yet lucid history of the sprawling United States in a single volume? Only Jill Lepore has the verve, wit, range, and insights to pull off this daring and provocative book. Interweaving many lively biographies, These Truths illuminates the origins of the passions and causes, which still inspire and divide Americans in an age that needs all the truth we can find.”
—Alan Taylor, author of American Revolutions
“Lepore brings a scholar's comprehensive rigor and a poet's lyrical precision to this singular single-volume history of the United States. Understanding America's past, as she demonstrates, has always been a central American project. She knows that the "story of America" is as plural and mutable as the nation itself, and the result is a work of prismatic richness, one that rewards not just reading but rereading. This will be an instant classic.”
—Kwame Anthony Appiah, author of The Lies that Bind
“Anyone interested in the future of the Republic must read this book. One of our greatest historians succeeds, where so many have failed, to make sense of the whole canvas of our history. Without ignoring the horrors of conquest, slavery or recurring prejudices, she manages nonetheless to capture the epic quality of the American past. With passion, compassion, wit, and remarkable insight, Lepore brings it all to life, the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. This is a manifesto for our necessarily shared future.”
—Lynn Hunt, author of History: Why it Matters
“In this inspiring and enlightening book, Jill Lepore accomplishes the grand task of telling us what we need to know about our past in order to be good citizens today. Avoiding political and ideological agendas, she confronts the contradictions that come from being born a land of both liberty and slavery, but she uses such conflicts to find meaning—and hope—in the tale of America’s progress.”
—Walter Isaacson, University Professor of History, Tulane, author of The Innovators
"Lepore is a truly gifted writer with profound insight."
"This vivid history brings alive the contradictions and hypocrisies of the land of the free"
- David Aaronovitch, The Times
"A history for the 21st century, far more inclusive than the standard histories of the past"
"Monumental ... a crucial work for presenting a fresh and clear-sighted narrative of the entire story ... exciting and page-turningly fascinating, in one of those rare history books that can be read with pleasure for its sheer narrative energy"
- Simon Winchester, New Statesman
"Jill Lepore is that rare combination in modern life of intellect, originality and style"
A brilliant, revelatory account of the Cold War origins of the data-mad, algorithmic twenty-first century, from the author of the acclaimed international bestseller, These Truths.
The Simulmatics Corporation, founded in 1959, mined data, targeted voters, accelerated news, manipulated consumers, destabilized politics, and disordered knowledge--decades before Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Cambridge Analytica. Silicon Valley likes to imagine it has no past but the scientists of Simulmatics are the long-dead grandfathers of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. Borrowing from psychological warfare, they used computers to predict and direct human behavior, deploying their “People Machine” from New York, Cambridge, and Saigon for clients that included John Kennedy’s presidential campaign, the New York Times, Young & Rubicam, and, during the Vietnam War, the Department of Defense. Jill Lepore, distinguished Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer, unearthed from the archives the almost unbelievable story of this long-vanished corporation, and of the women hidden behind it. In the 1950s and 1960s, Lepore argues, Simulmatics invented the future by building the machine in which the world now finds itself trapped and tormented, algorithm by algorithm.
“A person can't help but feel inspired by the riveting intelligence and joyful curiosity of Jill Lepore. Knowing that there is a mind like hers in the world is a hope-inducing thing.”
“Everything Lepore writes is distinguished by intelligence, eloquence, and fresh insight. If Then is that, and even more: It’s absolutely fascinating, excavating a piece of little-known American corporate history that reveals a huge amount about the way we live today and the companies that define the modern era.”
“Data science, Jill Lepore reminds us in this brilliant book, has a past, and she tells it through the engrossing story of Simulmatics, the tiny, long-forgotten company that helped invent our data-obsessed world, in which prediction is seemingly the only knowledge that matters. A captivating, deeply incisive work.”
—Frederik Logevall, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam
“Think today’s tech giants invented data mining and market manipulation? Think again. In this page-turning, eye-opening history, Jill Lepore reveals the Cold War roots of the tech-saturated present, in a thrilling tale that moves from the campaigns of Eisenhower and Kennedy to ivied think tanks, Madison Avenue ad firms, and the hamlets of Vietnam. Told with verve, grace, and humanity, If Then is an essential, sobering story for understanding our times.”
—Margaret O’Mara, author of The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America
“It didn’t all start with Facebook. We have long been fascinated with the potential of using computing technology to predict human behavior. In another fast-paced narrative, Jill Lepore brilliantly uncovers the history of the Simulmatics Corp, which launched the volatile mix of computing, politics and personal behavior that now divides our nation, feeds on private information, and weakens the strength our democratic institutions. If you want to know where this all started, you need not look any further--read this book!”
— Julian Zelizer, author of Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker and the Rise of the New Republican Party
Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and is also a staff writer at The New Yorker. A two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, her many books include the international bestseller, These Truths.
A New York Times and National Bestseller and Winner of the 2015 American History Book Prize
"Ms. Lepore’s lively, surprising and occasionally salacious history is far more than the story of a comic strip. The author, a professor of history at Harvard, places Wonder Woman squarely in the story of women’s rights in America—a cycle of rights won, lost and endlessly fought for again. Like many illuminating histories, this one shows how issues we debate today were under contention just as vigorously decades ago, including birth control, sex education, the ways in which women can combine work and family, and the effects of 'violent entertainment' on children. 'The tragedy of feminism in the twentieth century is the way its history seemed to be forever disappearing,' Ms. Lepore writes. Her superb narrative brings that history vividly into the present, weaving individual lives into the sweeping changes of the century.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Lepore’s brilliance lies in knowing what to do with the material she has. In her hands, the Wonder Woman story unpacks not only a new cultural history of feminism, but a theory of history as well.” —New York Times Book Review
“Lepore specializes in excavating old flashpoints—forgotten or badly misremembered collisions between politics and cultural debates in America’s past. She lays out for our modern sensibility how some event or social problem was fought over by interest groups, reformers, opportunists, and “thought leaders” of the day. The result can look both familiar and disturbing, like our era’s arguments flipped in a funhouse mirror….Besides archives and comics Lepore relies on journalism, notebooks, letters, and traces of memoir left by the principals, as well as interviews with surviving colleagues, children, and extended family. Her discipline is worthy of a first-class detective….Lepore convinces us that we should know more about early feminists whose work Wonder Woman drew on and carried forward….A key spotter of connections, Lepore retrieves a remarkably recognizable feminist through-line, showing us 1920s debates about work-life balance, for example, that sound like something from The Atlantic in the past decade.” —New York Review of Books
“Even non-comix nerds (or those too young to remember Lynda Carter) will marvel at Jill Lepore’s deep dive into the real-world origins of the Amazonian superhero with the golden lasso. The fact that a polyamory enthusiast created her partly as a tribute to the reproductive-rights pioneer Margaret Sanger is, somehow, only the fourth or fifth most interesting thing in Ms. Woman’s bizarre background.” —New York Magazine
“With a defiantly unhurried ease, Lepore reconstructs the prevailing cultural mood that birthed the idea of Wonder Woman, carefully delineating the conceptual debt the character owes to early-20th-century feminism in general and the birth control movement in particular….Again and again, she distills the figures she writes about into clean, simple, muscular prose, making unequivocal assertions that carry a faint electric charge…[and] attain a transgressive, downright badass swagger.” —Slate
“Deftly combines biography and cultural history to trace the entwined stories of Marston, Wonder Woman, and 20th-century feminism….Lepore – a professor of American history at Harvard, a New Yorker writer, and the author of “Book of Ages” – is an endlessly energetic and knowledgeable guide to the fascinating backstory of Wonder Woman. She’s particularly skillful at showing the subtle process by which personal details migrate from life into art.” —Christian Science Monitor
“Wonder Woman, everyone's favorite female superhero (bulletproof bracelets, hello!), gets the Lasso of Truth treatment in this illuminating biography. Lepore, a Harvard prof and New Yorker writer, delves into the complicated family life of Wonder Woman's creator (who invented the lie detector, BTW), examines the use of bondage in his comics, and highlights the many ways in which the beloved Amazonian princess has come to embody feminism.”—Cosmopolitan
“The Secret History of Wonder Woman relates a tale so improbable, so juicy, it’ll have you saying, “Merciful Minerva!”… an astonishingly thorough investigation of the man behind the world’s most popular female superhero…. Lepore has assembled a vast trove of images and deploys them cunningly. Besides a hefty full-color section of Wonder Woman art in the middle, there are dozens of black-and-white pictures scattered throughout the text. Many of these are panels from Marston’s comics that mirror events in his own life. Combined with Lepore’s zippy prose, it all makes for a supremely engaging reading experience.” —Etelka Lehoczky, NPR
“If it makes your head spin to imagine a skimpily clad pop culture icon as (spoiler alert!) a close relation of feminist birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, then prepare to be dazzled by the truths revealed in historian Jill Lepore’s “The Secret History of Wonder Woman.” The story behind Wonder Woman is sensational, spellbinding and utterly improbable. Her origins lie in the feminism of the early 1900s, and the intertwined dramas that surrounded her creation are the stuff of pulp fiction and tabloid scandal….It took a super-sleuth to uncover the mysteries of this intricate history, hidden from view for more than half a century. With acrobatic research prowess, muscular narrative chops and disarming flashes of humor, Lepore rises to the challenge, bringing to light previously unknown details and deliberately obfuscated connections.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“This captivating, sometimes racy, charming illustrated history is one part biography of the character and one part biography of her fascinating creator, psychologist and inventor William Moulton Marston—an early feminist who believed, way before his time, that the world would be a better place if only women were running it….In the process of bringing her ‘superhero’ to life in this very carefully researched, witty secret ‘herstory,’ Lepore herself emerges as a kind of superheroine: a woman on a mission—as energetic, powerful, brilliant and provocative as her subject.” —Good Housekeeping
“This book is important, readable scholarship, making the connection between popular culture and the deeper history of the American woman’s fight for equality….Lepore restores Wonder Woman to her rightful and righteous place.” —The Kansas City Star “Fascinating…often brilliant….Through assiduous research (the endnotes comprise almost a third of the book and are often very interesting reading), Lepore unravels a hidden history, and in so doing links her subjects’ lives to some of the most important social movements of the era. It’s a remarkable, thought-provoking achievement.” —Bookpage
“The Marston family’s story is ripe for psychoanalysis. And so is The Secret History, since it raises interesting questions about what motivates writers to choose the subjects of their books. Having devoted her last work to Jane Franklin Mecom, Benjamin Franklin’s sister, Lepore clearly has a passion for intelligent, opinionated women whose legacies have been overshadowed by the men they love. In her own small way, she’s helping women get the justice they deserve, not unlike her tiara’d counterpart….It has nearly everything you might want in a page-turner: tales of S&M, skeletons in the closet, a believe-it-or-not weirdness in its biographical details, and something else that secretly powers even the most “serious” feminist history—fun.” —Entertainment Weekly
“An origin story far deeper, weirder, and kinkier than anything a cartoonist ever invented.” —Vulture
“Lepore restores Wonder Woman to her rightful place as an essential women’s rights icon in this dynamically researched and interpreted, spectacularly illustrated, downright astounding work of discovery that injects new zest into the history of feminism.” —Booklist (*starred review*)
“The fullest and most fascinating portrait ever created about the complicated, unconventional family that inspired one of the most enduring feminist icons in pop culture…. The Secret History of Wonder Woman is its own magic lasso, one that compels history to finally tell the truth about Wonder Woman—and compels the rest of us to behold it.” —Los Angeles Times
“The Secret History of Wonder Woman is as racy, as improbable, as awesomely righteous, and as filled with curious devices as an episode of the comic book itself. In the nexus of feminism and popular culture, Jill Lepore has found a revelatory chapter of American history. I will never look at Wonder Woman’s bracelets the same way again.” —Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home
"Hugely entertaining." --The Atlantic
“Lepore has an astonishing story and tells it extremely well. She acts as a sort of lie detector, but proceeds through elegant narrative rather than binary test. Sentences are poised, adverbs rare. Each chapter is carefully shaped. At a time when few are disposed to see history as a branch of literature, Lepore occupies a prominent place in American letters. Her microhistories weave compelling lives into larger stories.” —The Daily Beast
“In the spirited, thoroughly reported "The Secret History of Wonder Woman," Jill Lepore recounts the fascinating details behind the Amazonian princess' origin story….[Lepore]seamlessly shifts from the micro to the macro….A panel depicting this labor unrest is just one of scores that appear throughout Lepore's book, further amplifying the author's vivid prose.”—Newsday
“A Harvard professor with impeccable scholarly credentials, Lepore treats her subject seriously, as if she is writing the biography of a feminist pioneer like Margaret Sanger, the founder of the birth control movement — which this book is, to an extent….Through extensive research and a careful reading of the Wonder Woman comic books, she argues convincingly that the story of this character is an indelible chapter in the history of women’s rights.” —Miami Herald
A Finalist for the 2013 National Book Award for Nonfiction
From one of our most accomplished and widely admired historians, a revelatory portrait of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister and a history of history itself. Like her brother, Jane Franklin was a passionate reader, a gifted writer, and an astonishingly shrewd political commentator. Unlike him, she was a mother of twelve. Benjamin Franklin, who wrote more letters to his sister than he wrote to anyone else, was the original American self-made man; his sister spent her life caring for her children. They left very different traces behind. Making use of an amazing cache of little- studied material, including documents, objects, and portraits only just discovered, Jill Lepore brings Jane Franklin to life in a way that illuminates not only this one woman but an entire world—a world usually lost to history. Lepore’s life of Jane Franklin, with its strikingly original vantage on her remarkable brother, is at once a wholly different account of the founding of the United States and one of the great untold stories of American history and letters: a life unknown.