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
“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
From New Yorker staff writer and Harvard historian Jill Lepore, the dark, spellbinding tale of her restless search for the long-lost, longest book ever written, a century-old manuscript called “The Oral History of Our Time.”
Joe Gould, a madman, believed he was the most brilliant historian of the twentieth century. So did some of his friends, a group of modernist writers and artists that included E. E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, John Dos Passos, and Ezra Pound. Gould began his life’s work before the First World War, announcing that he intended to write down nearly anything anyone ever said to him. “I am trying to preserve as much detail as I can about the normal life of every day people,” he explained, because “as a rule, history does not deal with such small fry.” By 1942, when The New Yorker published a profile of Gould written by the reporter Joseph Mitchell, Gould’s manuscript had grown to more than nine million words. But when Gould died in 1957, in a mental hospital, the manuscript was nowhere to be found. Then, in 1964, in “Joe Gould’s Secret,” a second profile, Mitchell claimed that “The Oral History of Our Time” had been, all along, merely a figment of Gould’s imagination. Lepore, unpersuaded, set about to find out.
Joe Gould’s Teeth is a Poe-like tale of detection, madness, and invention. Digging through archives all over the country, Lepore unearthed evidence that “The Oral History of Our Time” did in fact once exist. Relying on letters, scraps, and Gould’s own diaries and notebooks—including volumes of his lost manuscript—Lepore argues that Joe Gould’s real secret had to do with sex and the color line, with modernists’ relationship to the Harlem Renaissance, and, above all, with Gould’s terrifying obsession with the African American sculptor Augusta Savage. In ways that even Gould himself could not have imagined, what Gould wrote down really is a history of our time: unsettling, and ferocious.
“A madman’s grossly engrossing tale.” —The New York Times
“Revelatory..” —San Francisco Chronicle
“We owe Lepore a debt of gratitude for re-introducing us to one of the strangest strangers to have ever walked among us.” —Chicago Tribune
“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….Her discipline is worthy of a first-class detective.” —The New York Review of Books
“At a time when few are disposed to see history as a branch of literature, Lepore occupies a prominent place in American letters.” —The Daily Beast
“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
“Lepore’s superb narrative brings that history vividly into the present, weaving individual lives into the sweeping changes of the century.” —The Wall Street Journal
A version of this essay was delivered on November 5, 2015, as the Theodore H. White Lecture on the Press and Politics at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.