“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.