Saturday, October 6, 2018

Listening to Lepore

Jill Lepore's essays in The New Yorker have been an adornment there for some time. She is of course a prominent historian, holding a chair at Harvard as well as a staff writer position on the magazine. Perhaps this demonstrates how her writing style is wonderfully enticing, but is accompanied by a piercing capacity to look at history from a different direction and provide enlightenment in areas previously undisturbed for eons.

She spoke at Politics and Prose bookstore in DC recently and accompanied her lecture with slides that illustrated how much of what we assume is totally new in American life, especially politics, has occurred before, or as she said, our history offers multiple precedents. I've started reading her lengthy new history of the U.S., These Truths, which expands on her essays but essentially focuses on the parts of American history she deems important and often previously ignored.

The overarching theme of the first section, for example, is the conflict between liberty and slavery that dominated the entire "discovery" and colonization of the New World. Examining the events of those centuries through this viewpoint gives new meaning to what were previously mere statements of what happened.

I've found her essays always stimulating. In several pages, she covers an amazing amount of ground, usually penetrating to the core of her subject. I've read several biographies of Clarence Darrow, including his own, but her short summary of his life, career, and significance did a better job of explicating the story of America's greatest lawyer than any of the longer works.

She wrote not long ago about the crime victims' movement in the U.S., something with which I've been involved now for several years. It struck me that she was the first analyst I've encountered who wrestled with the continuing tension between the rights of defendants and victims. This has not been easy to resolve nor should it be. Lepore forces us to confront these competing interests and strive to find ways to reconcile them. 

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