THE STORY OF AMERICA by Jill Lepore
Kirkus Star

THE STORY OF AMERICA

Essays on Origins

KIRKUS REVIEW

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” says a character in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. As New Yorker contributor Lepore (American History/Harvard Univ.; The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death, 2012, etc.) sees it, American historians have been doing just that since the dawn of the republic.

Tackling a wide variety of subjects—e.g., the Founding Fathers, Charles Dickens, Clarence Darrow, Charlie Chan, voting regulations, the decline of inaugural speeches—the author proves to be a funny, slightly punky literary critic, reading between the lines of American history. She takes historians to task for embellishing myths, citing the way John Smith's long-discredited history of Jamestown is still used to support contrasting views of colonial life. She calls out Nathaniel Philbrick, in his 2006 book on the Mayflower, for leaning uncritically on the suspiciously self-centered account of the militia captain Benjamin Church. She rereads original documents and finds that Benjamin Franklin’s advice in Poor Richard’s Almanack was made mostly in jest. Lepore also takes a fresh look at the U.S. Constitution, explaining why everyone debates original intent: “A great deal of what many Americans hold dear is nowhere inked on those four pages of parchment, nor in any of the twenty-seven amendments to the Constitution.” She examines how the legend of George Washington began, with his own writings brutally edited by Jared Sparks to dress the first president in full patriotic trappings. Most interestingly, Lepore finds that Longfellow’s 1861 “Paul Revere’s Ride” is both a subtle call to overthrow slavery and "a fugitive slave narrative.” The author weighs her opinions throughout with research and original insight; the same goes for her essay on Edgar Allen Poe, although it does have a bit of a mean streak.

As smart, lively and assured as modern debunkery gets.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-691-15399-5
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Princeton Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2012




NEW & NOTABLE NONFICTION: NOVEMBER 2012:

Nonfiction LEONARDO AND THE LAST SUPPER by Ross King
by Ross King
Nonfiction MARBLES by Ellen Forney
by Ellen Forney
Nonfiction KURT VONNEGUT by Kurt Vonnegut
by Kurt Vonnegut
Nonfiction THOMAS JEFFERSON by Jon Meacham
by Jon Meacham

MORE BY JILL LEPORE

NonfictionBOOK OF AGES by Jill Lepore
by Jill Lepore
NonfictionTHE MANSION OF HAPPINESS by Jill Lepore
by Jill Lepore
NonfictionTHE WHITES OF THEIR EYES by Jill Lepore
by Jill Lepore

SIMILAR BOOKS SUGGESTED BY OUR CRITICS:

NonfictionEDGAR A. POE by Kenneth Silverman
by Kenneth Silverman
NonfictionLONGFELLOW by Charles C. Calhoun
by Charles C. Calhoun
FictionTHE ESSENTIAL GORE VIDAL by Gore Vidal
by Gore Vidal