If you paused in your day to watch the presidential inauguration ceremonies on Jan. 20 and 21, you observed a series of rituals that seem firmly scripted and deeply embedded in America’s past. The president, for example, placed his hand on a Bible, uttered an oath laid down by the Constitution and concluded with a brief acknowledgment of the divine: “So help me God.” Following the official ceremony, he offered his inaugural address to the American people, setting the tone and agenda for his four years in office. Like all of our public rituals, the ceremony strikes viewers as providing an unbroken link to our rich national history, bonding today’s president—and his people—to those who have served before him.
And yet, as Jill Lepore details in the concluding essay of The Story of America, very little of what we see in the inaugural ceremony comes to us scripted by either the Constitution, the traditions of the distant past or—for that matter—our nation’s religious heritage. The Constitution calls only for the new president to swear the official oath. It does not require the oath-taker to place his (or her) hand on the Bible. That was a last-minute decision George Washington made on the morning of his inauguration; and while most presidents have followed his precedent, Franklin Pierce did not. Neither does the Constitution require the president to offer a post-ceremony address. After his inauguration, Washington addressed members of congress at Federal Hall. “He made,” Lepore says, “no pretense of speaking to the American people.” The first open-air inaugural address was made by James Monroe in 1807. And while we might appreciate the pious sentiment of “So help me God,” the concluding phrase of most presidential oath-takers, that phrase does not appear in the official oath of office, and may never have escaped the lips of George Washington or his immediate successors.
Historical excavations of our political traditions, like the one offered in this piece, seem to come easily for Lepore, a Harvard historian who has gathered into this volume a collection of 20-like-minded essays, most of them reprints or revisions of pieces originally published by The New Yorker. Lovers of the leisurely, digressive prose of that magazine will welcome this happy yoking together of so many finely crafted meditations on American history, politics and literature.
You will not find a single guiding thread in the essays gathered here, although you will find constant attention to the genre of history itself. Lepore wants us to understand that while our past comes to us through documents, “documents aren’t to be trusted.” They require interpretation, and that act of interpretation can be a deeply political one. “The heart of politics,” she argues in her introduction, “is describing how things came to be the way they are in such a way as to convince people that you know how to make things the way they ought to be.” By that definition, the role of the historian—who describes “how things came to be the way they are”—looms large in the political process.
And so Lepore offers us an essay, for example, detailing the trope of the presidential campaign biography—whether that comes in the form of a multi-volume tome or a convention video. Unsurprisingly, most campaign biographies tell the story of a plucky youth who overcame adverse circumstances in his rise to political power. I watched political campaign videos this season with a much clearer view of the ways in which aspiring office-holders were crafting their biographies in order to mold themselves to this firmly established narrative. In another essay, wittily entitled “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” she narrates the history of voting in America—not in some broad sense, but finely focused on the actual process of stuffing a ballot into a hole or marking an X on a piece of paper. Just as she did with the inaugural ceremonies, she provides a fascinating account of the patchwork history of the voting process in America, highlighting the contingent nature of both past and present practices.
Her historical and critical lens extends beyond politics. Essays on Edgar Allan Poe and Charlie Chan sit side-by-side with stories of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, or a reflection on the post-civil war migration of American blacks from the South to the North. In “A Nue Merrykin Dikshunary,” Lepore takes on the strange biography of lexicographer Noah Webster, a political arch-conservative whose liberal views on language led him to publish the first American dictionary. Definitions pulled from his first edition show how Webster grounded his definitions in illustrations from American life—and how his definitions reflected his deeply held Christian beliefs.
In “Longfellow’s Ride,” her dismantling of almost every fact narrated in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” leads her to a nuanced and complex reading of the poem—one in which she argues that Longfellow had less interest in the story of Paul Revere and the American Revolution than he did in offering a covert rallying cry to his fellow abolitionists at the outbreak of the Civil War.
Given the broad range of subjects in this book, any reader with even the most passing interest in the history of America will find here at least an essay or two on a favorite topic and plenty of essays that will stimulate interest in historical and political subjects that remain central to us today. But most readers will also find themselves, as I occasionally did, skimming through essays on subjects that held little interest for them and that were perhaps not well served by Lepore’s conversational, digressive style. That wandering essay form, made famous by writers for the The New Yorker and their imitators, works well when you are sitting down with a magazine article after a long day. But, as a colleague rightly pointed out to me, it can wear thin over the course of 20 essays in a single volume. More than 300 pages of sharp turns and winding pathways can leave one feeling dizzy and exhausted, stumbling wearily toward the finish line of a long trail race.
Still, I do not hesitate to recommend this book to lovers of American history and literature, who will find themselves mostly relishing Lepore’s deeply researched and elegantly written essays, newly aware of the shifting grounds of some of America’s most deeply held historical myths and traditions.