How has America lived up to its founders’ grandest visions? That is the central question historian and author Jill Lepore explores in her latest book, These Truths: A History of the United States. The New York Times bestseller offers an ambitious examination of the history of the American experiment, from its infancy to our present contentious moment.
Lepore, who serves as the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University, delivered the fourth annual President’s Distinguished Lecture to a crowd of faculty, staff, students and community members at Connecticut College on April 25.
A staff writer for The New Yorker since 2005, Lepore’s award-winning essays and books on American history, politics, law and literature are unique in their skillful bridging of the divide between academic writing and more accessible narrative nonfiction.
The lecture was delivered as an illustrated presentation that guided the audience through a historical journey spanning from the arrival of the Europeans to the modern era of the Internet and 24-hour broadcasting.
“At a moment when we are lost in an ever vanishing present, it’s useful to pull out the whole long timeline of American history and try to figure out where we stand, and maybe where we want to head,” Lepore said.
Weaving together elements that ranged from maps and economic charts to political cartoons and works of art, Lepore discussed representations of the relationship between people and places. These included European depictions of indigenous people and slaves, and a map of free and slave states from 1856 that bore a striking resemblance to today’s sharply divided political map of red and blue states.
In addition to her New Yorker essays, Lepore’s articles have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs and The Journal of American History. Her book The Secret History of Wonder Woman won the 2015 American History Book Prize from the New York Historical Society. She has twice been named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
In introducing Lepore, President Katherine Bergeron spoke about the qualities that make Lepore’s work both relevant and distinct.
“She is that rare kind of scholar who is as committed to addressing the general public as she is to speaking to fellow historians,” Bergeron said. “And she has staked her career on finding, and telling, the stories of people whose histories have been forgotten or ignored.”
The President’s Distinguished Lecture Series was initiated in 2016, and brings notable figures from a variety of fields and backgrounds to Connecticut College each year. The guests are invited to deliver a public presentation to an audience of the College and local communities, and then engage in informal discussions and meetings with students, faculty and staff.
While Lepore argued that our current political climate certainly shares echoes of our past, she also said that the way Americans consume media promotes partisanship and creates an atmosphere in which there is little agreement over what traditionally has been considered objective facts of history.
“Our partisan politics puts walls around the specific notions of the relationship between the past and present. Are we for change or are we wanting to stop change? Does America’s greatness lie in its future, or does it lie in the past?” she asked.
“That’s why I wrote this book. If we reduce historical argument to the word ‘conservative’ or the word ‘progressive’ or to slogans, then there is a public need to offer up a thousand pages and see if people will read the book.”