Jill Lepore is a fine writer and an excellent historian. You have to be a pretty good historian to be a professor of history at Harvard University, as she is, and you have to be a pretty darn good writer to be a staff writer at the New Yorker, as she also. Your fides don’t get much more bona than that.
This book displays Lepore’s strengths as both writer and historian. On the one hand, her research is deep and wide and impeccable; on the other, she writes with the grace of an E.B. White or a John Updike.
In all there are twenty essays in this book. The topics range from John Smith, that famous liar (or was he?) to Ben Franklin, that insufferable prig (or was he?) to Thomas Paine to Noah Webster to debtor’s prison and its abolishment in the U.S. to George Washington, the Constitution, paper ballots, and the poet William Wadsworth Longfellow, now—undeservedly—despised by “serious” students of poetry, especially his poem on Paul Revere, which isn’t really about Revere at all.
Of all these essays, perhaps the strongest is the one on the Constitution, that 4,400-word document so beloved by Americans but so seldom read. Lepore, taking note of the Tea Party Movement and its dedication to the Constitution, says, “Ye old parchment had come to serve as shorthand for everything old, real, durable, American, and true, a talisman held up against the uncertainties and abstractions of a meaningless, changeable, paperless age.” The Tea Partiers, like many other Americans, venerate the Constitution, but know little about it, and that is precisely Lepore’s point. She points to a 1987 study that showed that eight of ten Americans believed that the phrase “all men are created equal” is in the Constitution. It’s not; it’s in the Declaration. And an astonishing five in ten believed that the phrase “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is in the Constitution. It’s not; it’s from Karl Marx, father of Marxism.
But Lepore is equally amusing and informative on Noah Webster, that prude of a lexicographer, and his Nue Merrykin Dikshunary. It really is hard to believe the vituperation heaped upon Webster when he announced his intention to write a new American dictionary. Partly he brought it on himself, for he was an arrogant man who made his fortune with his little blue speller, which generations of Americans learned to read and write from. But despite his critics, Webster persevered and eventually published his dictionary, making it American by including conspicuous Americanisms and using quotations from American writers to illustrate his definitions (but none from Jefferson, whom he hated).
This book of essays is a wonder. All of the essays are entertaining, each one can easily be read in a single setting. If there is one criticism to make of the book, it is of its title. It is not the story of America, but 20 American stories. But all of them provide so much pleasure that this small indiscretion is easily overlooked.