In this week’s “Ideas” section of the Boston Globe, I’ve a profile of Jill Lepore and her new book The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History. Lepore was a great interview. (A couple of favorite [and context-free] lines: “I drink my cup of coffee and I think about the history of coffee. In my brain, everything unfolds on a time line”; “Arthur Schlesinger didn’t have to deal with email.”)
Lepore’s also written an interesting, if uneven, book. One thing I couldn’t get to in my profile was her critics within the academy. Lepore’s smartest move in The Whites of Their Eyes may be accusing the Tea Party of presentism — the Bicentennial was also, in Lepore’s phrase, “a carnival of presentism” — because this makes it harder to level one of history’s dirtier words at her. (The president of the American Historical Association defines presentism as “the tendency to interpret the past in presentist terms.”) Still, that’s exactly what people have done to her previous work. Consider the end of Brendan McConville’s blistering review-essay of Lepore’s New York Burning:
The unintended lesson within New York Burning is for those of us who study early America, and it goes something like this: colonial Americans aren’t like us, and that is what is truly disturbing and fascinating about them. Efforts to make their lives a long prologue to the emergence of our own world don’t work, even though some things they did clearly affect us.
I will say that, when it comes to writing about complex historical ideas for popular audiences, I’ve developed a lot of sympathy for Lepore. In the profile, for example, I wanted to explain why Sharron Angle was crazy to call Jefferson and Franklin “social conservatives.” Jefferson was easy enough — as was Franklin, if I’d talked about his views on gender inequality. But I figured I had to broach the issue of slavery at some point in a story on colonial America, so I went with Franklin’s abolitionism. Problem is, I’ve read David Waldstreicher’s excellent Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution, a book that shows this matter is much more complicated than simply referencing Franklin’s run as president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. I had to finesse the point, and quickly. I’m embarrassed to say one draft had “Franklin’s semi-abolitionism,” which my editor smartly shot down. “Franklin’s public abolitionism” might not be much better, but I hope it at least registers the skepticism conveyed in Waldstreicher’s book. It’s a small example, but one that nicely illustrates the difficulties in practicing responsible public history.
One more thing: it’s worth rewatching Santelli’s original “rant heard round the world,” if only for the studio’s confused reactions. “It’s like mob rule there” and “he’s a rabble-rouser” — no surprises there, but how about this line: “Rick, I congratulate you on your new incarnation as a Revolutionary leader.”