Review: These Truths

History,” writes James Baldwin in August 1965, “as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read.” Rather, history derives its profound force from the fact that “we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do […] since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.” Baldwin, like Faulkner, knew this truth well: the past is never truly buried and left behind; it perpetually haunts the present, like a restless spirits in an old house. To confront the history that determines one’s position in the world is to reckon with innumerable, unquiet ghosts. Yet however painful or frightening such a reckoning may be, it is the only way to change the history of the future, to emancipate ourselves from the past’s tyrannical influence over the present. “To study the past,” Jill Lepore tell us, “is to unlock the prison of the present.”

These Truths is Jill Lepore’s ambitious attempt to distill five centuries of American history — from Columbus’s arrival in 1492 to Trump’s ascendancy in 2016 — into a single 900-page volume, told from the perspective of the country’s founding ideals. These ideals, the “truths” to which the book’s title alludes, are the three “self-evident” principles Thomas Jefferson outlined in the Declaration of Independence: political equality; natural rights; and popular sovereignty, through suffrage. The central question of this book is whether American history proves or disproves their truth. Lepore approaches this question by examining the challenges the truths of the Declaration have posed to each successive generation of citizens, looking for the disjunctures between thought and action, hope and experience, ideal and reality, that defined each era, with an eye toward how those conflicts still shape the present.

The story Lepore tells is not a new one. Neither are the observations she makes, nor the conclusions she draws, particularly revelatory. What is unique here, however, is Lepore’s profound talent as a writer: her prose throughout is filled with moments of arresting lyricism, the work of the historian performed with the poet’s tragic sensibility. This lyrical beauty lends a sense of urgency to her writing that feels at once timely and amaranthine. “History isn’t only a subject,” she declares at the book’s outset; “it’s also a method”:

My method is, generally, to let the dead speak for themselves. I’ve pressed their words between these pages, like flowers, for their beauty, or like insects, for their hideousness. The work of the historian is not the work of the critic or of the moralist; it is the work of the sleuth and the storyteller, the philosopher and the scientist, the keeper of tales, the sayer of sooth, the teller of truth.

Some critics clearly do not share my feelings about Lepore’s penchant for figurative description, and her tendency toward a more elevated, literary register, which some view as cringeworthy passages of purple prose. And that’s fine. Sure, there are moments where one gets the sense that she’s struggling to keep her similes, along with her footnotes, “clipped and short, like a baby’s fingernails.” (One reviewer remarks, regarding what I’ll begrudgingly concede is an instance of imaginative overreach, simply: “Oof.”) But even the most florid passages reach toward classical drama and poetry, attempting to locate the epic tragedy of her narrative amongst broader historiographic and literary traditions (a far cry from, say, opening the 2016 chapter with, “It was a dark and Stormy Daniels…”).

What makes this 950-page tome absolutely essential reading, I think, especially at this juncture in our history, is the elementary lesson in American civics it provides. “Civics” has emerged as a watchword of contemporary political commentary; “civics education” is a common refrain among the diagnostic panels on cable news shows, offered as both cause (in absentia) and cure in the etiologies of these dark times. And like other watchwords — “economic anxiety” comes most immediately to mind — it’s typically used without a clear sense of what it’s intended to signify, or to what end. (Maybe it’s just me, but the phrase “civics education” always feels like it has a thin residue of weird Cold War nostalgia on it, conjuring images of quaint, McCarthy-era classrooms with dusty civics textbooks laying open on neat rows of desks, under which children are huddling for an air raid drill).

But this is not the case for Lepore: though she intends These Truths “to double as an old-fashioned civics book,” she neither offers civics as a panacea for democratic crises, nor blames those crises on civic ignorance. Instead, Lepore’s account shows how the meaning of civics in America — that is, the rights and responsibilities of the nation and its citizens, to themselves and to the other — has never been a settled matter, but has always consisted first and above all in an endless debate over the nature of those rights and responsibilities, what they mean, and for whom.

Admittedly, I never took a dedicated civics class in elementary or high school (we didn’t have air raid drills, either), but I get the impression that Lepore’s approach to civics instruction differs significantly from the old civics books she references, emphasizing as she does the (often violent) incoherence and paradox of the American past, over the (often imaginary) smooth, inevitable slide toward progress. It’s pretty effective: by examining the irresolvable contradictions of American democracy — the failures in practice of its institutions to fulfill their ideals — one gets a good sense of how they were intended to function in the first place. More precisely, one realizes these contradictions are part of the design.

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