Dangerous Times Demand Dangerous Books

All history is contemporary history. After all, historians look at the past through the lens of the present. They’re prisoners of their own times no matter how far and wide they stray into the past. In These Truths: A History of the United States (Norton; $39.95) Jill Lepore traces the narrative of our failing republic through the prism of Donald Trump, Facebook, Fox, “fake news” and the current, often volatile and very nasty debates about abortion, guns, the Second Amendment and the Constitution itself, that landmark document that the author returns to again and again in her 932-page tome that offers dozens of biographies of the famous and the infamous, hundreds of pages of footnotes and thousands of facts. At the end, Lapore acknowledges her students and her esteemed colleagues, including Adam Hochschild, Jane Kamensky, Louis Menand, Emma Rothschild and Sean Wilentz.

After just a few pages, one wonders who the hell will read this book? Certainly some of Lepore’s colleagues; at the very least they’ll peruse it. Then there are Lepore’s students at Harvard where she has taught American history, plus the readers of The New Yorker where her articles and essays have appeared for years, and where I first encountered her name and her distinctive style.

In an article entitled “Misjudged” in the October 8, 2018 New Yorker she writes about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and makes it clear that she, Lepore, values moderation, restraint, rules and clear separation of the legislative and judicial branches of the federal government. “There are very few rules left anymore, and even less restraint,” she complains.

I like These Truths much more than I have liked her essays in The New Yorker. In her history book, she fires off provocative comments such as “Instead of Marx, America had Thoreau,” which is neither the truth nor a fact, but rather an opinion. In fact, the U.S. had both Thoreau and Marx, who served as the European correspondent for Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune in the 1850s. Later, he covered the American Civil War.

Reading Lepore’s first few hundred pages—which are entertaining and aimed for a mass audience—can feel a lot like watching a Ken Burns documentary. The illustrations help immensely, especially when they’re combined with discussion about nineteenth-century photography, which was supposed to extend democracy and that reached a pinnacle in the mid-nineteenth-century with Matthew Brady’s photos of slain soldiers in the Civil War.

There’s a lot that’s hard to take in Lepore’s recounting of the carnage of the Civil War, lynching, mob rule, the use of torture by the U.S. military, and homegrown American terrorists who bombed abortion clinics. In the last hundred pages or so, it seemed to me that Lepore had stolen some of the thunder of H. L. Mencken, who appears briefly in this book, and who wrote, Lepore points out, a mock “Constitution for the New Deal” that began, “All government power of whatsoever shall be vested in a President of the United States.”

At times, Lepore also becomes a latter-day Ambrose Bierce, who doesn’t appear in these pages, though he wrote The Devil’s Dictionary, a classic of U.S. literature, in which he defines a cynic as someone “whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.”

Bierce, who fought in the Civil War, and who disappeared in Mexico in 1914, would probably call Lepore a cynic and mean to praise her. Occasionally, one can feel her sense of frustration, anger, resentment and sadness at what has happened to the American experiment with democracy.

On page 688, she offers a quotation from Justice Thurgood Marshall who observed that the government that the “Framers devised was defective from the start.” Three pages on, when describing the fall of the Berlin Wall, she writes about “the end of the Cold War.” The last time I looked, the U.S. and Russia were still at one another’s throats, though they weren’t threatening to bomb one another with nuclear weapons. I suppose that’s progress.

Lepore does not glamorize or sentimentalize the past, though she admires some historical figures far more than others, such as Frederick Douglass, while she loathes others, including pollsters, publicists, public relations professionals and those who are paid to lie for politicians and get them elected to the White House and the U.S. Senate.

Near the top of her list of villains are Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter who started Campaigns, Inc., the first political consulting firm in the United States, and who helped to defeat Upton Sinclair when he ran for Governor of California and then pulled strings and worked behind the scenes to help elect Eisenhower and Nixon.

Arch cynics, Whitaker and Baxter, noted that “The average American doesn’t want to be educated; he doesn’t want to improve his mind; he doesn’t even want to work, consciously, at being a good citizen…Every American likes to be entertained. He likes the movies; he likes the mysteries; he likes the fireworks and parades.”

Lepore doesn’t write about the average American. She doesn’t seem to believe that such an animal exists. But she writes about citizens and about people, as well as “the People”—as in “We, the People”—and the short-lived People’s Party. But she has not written a “peoples’ history of the United States.” Howard Zinn did that and did it well in a book that has sold more than one million copies and that has influenced several generations of U.S citizens.

Characteristically, Zinn called his history “biased.” He also noted that the U.S. system of government was “the most insidious” ever created for control of the people.

Lepore doesn’t cop to her own biases. Nor does she argue which systems of government are more insidious than others, though she has no trouble denouncing American slavery, American racism, Jim Crow, segregation and the on-going, never ending war (or so it seems) against African Americans.

What’s missing from these pages, and glaring so, is a narrative about Native Americans. In the index, under Native Americans, there are references to 25 or so pages.

Two-thirds of the way through her history, Lepore explains that, “The civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam called attention to aspects of American history that had been left out of American history textbooks from the very start.” She adds that the “American Indian Movement, founded in 1968, challenged the story of the nation’s origins.”

What she neglects to say is that beginning in the seventeenth-century Native Americans offered narratives about themselves, their history and culture that ran counter to the narratives written by colonists, settlers and soldiers. Not only that, Indians also resisted occupation and colonization long before 1968.

When Lepore writes that, “Americans are descended from conquerors and from the conquered,” she’s far too schematic, at least from my point of view. It hasn’t always been clear who conquered whom, and indeed whether it’s useful to refer to some people as “conquered” and others as “conquerors.”

Many of the Native Americans in my part of California know the history of the wars that were waged here and in other part of the U.S. between their ancestors on the one hand and settlers and soldiers on the other hand.

They know about genocide, and yet they’re not willing to say that Indians have been conquered once and for all. We’re still here, they say. We’re still resisting. The story isn’t over yet.

Popular social, cultural and political movements, including the movements for the abolition of slavery and the end of segregation, show up in These Truths, but Lepore is less interested in movements and causes than she is in the decisive role played by individuals, including William Jennings Bryan, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Phyllis Schlafly and Ronald Reagan. Her history is history told through the lens of biography and through influential books such as Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology that misread the history of ideas, and failed to see the return of ideology in The Sixties and beyond.

In some ways, Lepore is best when she writes about seminal texts and their messages.

Gifted, or perhaps afflicted, with a steel-trap mind, she has an eye for significant facts, crucial anecdotes and spectacular sound bites. Lepore quotes Hitler as saying, “Transport a German to Kiev, and he remains a perfect German. But transport him to Miami, and you make a degenerate out of him.”

What Lepore doesn’t say is that the quotation reveals more about Hitler’s pathology than it does about Germans, Russians and the U.S.

Occasionally, she’ll sneak in some humor, as, for example, when, in December 1941, Churchill was staying at the White House with FDR. The president entered the prime minister’s room just as he was getting out of the bath and was stark naked.

“You see, Mr. President, I have nothing to hide from you,” Churchill said.

Savvy fellow. Of course, he had plenty to hide from FDR and from Stalin, too.

These Truths is packed with adjectives, bright shining images and metaphors. Lepore’s crucial metaphor is that of “the ship of state,” which appears again and again, from start to finish and in the middle, too. The ship metaphor is often coupled with comments such as “Time seemed to be moving both backward and forward.”

Indeed, These Truths offers a tale of revolutions and reactions, liberation from old chains and the imposition of new forms of bondage.

In the chapter entitled “Of Ships and Shipwrecks,” she offers an extended discussion of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s long, long poem—much too long—entitled “The Building of the Ship” (1849), which Lincoln apparently read and that, according to his secretary, brought “tears” to his eyes. Lepore pulls on heartstrings; she isn’t above aiming to bring tears to the eyes of her readers.

In the last paragraph of the Epilogue, he writes that, “the ship of state lurched and reeled.” She adds that liberals, “had neglected to trim the ship’s sails” and that conservatives “had courted the popular will by demolishing the idea of truth itself, smashing the ship’s very mast.”

A plague on both your houses, she seems to say. Radicals, cultural revolutionaries and dissidents don’t merit mention at the end of These Truths. Whether or not Lepore thinks that the ship can be saved she doesn’t explicitly say, though she doesn’t leave much room for optimism.

To save the ship, she writes, “a new generation of Americans…would need to learn an ancient and nearly forgotten art: how to navigate by the stars.” What she seems to be saying is that modern technology, including computers, won’t save us.

What she doesn’t say is that in that dark future there might not be trees to harvest to make lumber for the ship, and that the seas themselves might be burning cauldrons. In 932-pages, there is precious little about the destruction of forests, lakes and rivers.

More about the environment—the continent of North America itself—and more about environmental movements, and less about the Supreme Court and its landmark decisions, would have helped to make These Truths a veritable history for our time.

If I were a good liberal I might say that my criticism of the book does not detract from its glory, and that it’s a triumph of scholarship. I can’t say that. I won’t say it. These Truths has moments of glory, but it will not help us as a nation and as a people to cut though the lies and the fake news of the Trump era.

Perhaps that’s too much to ask of a history book. Still, it seems to me that dangerous times like ours demand books that venture into dangerous territory more boldly than These Truths.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.