Essay | Alone with America

Reading Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States Under Quarantine

As the initial period of nervous joking subsides and people fall into a rhythm of life in relative isolation, those long books we laughed about finally reading will begin to get read, and even finished. Habitual binge readers know that there’s nothing like hunkering down with something substantial and gorging on hundreds of pages at a go, but they are also aware even the biggest books must end. In a situation as anxiety-prone as the present, that’s not always a happy thing. Go ahead, lose yourself in another world for 11 hours or more; when it’s over, you’re still living in this one.

That’s why Jill Lepore’s magisterial These Truths makes such an interesting choice for these virus-troubled times. It’s plenty long enough — just shy of 800 pages, with another 100 of fascinating, up-to-minute scholarly notes — and it is about a world that doesn’t vanish when you put it down, as Lepore has written nothing less than a single volume history of the United States, from the moment a Genoese sailor reported seeing “naked people” on the shore in 1492 to the 2016 presidential election and beyond.

A Harvard professor and a New Yorker staff writer, Lepore is a gloriously clear and approachable writer. Her prose renders the long hours spent in her company an intimate and deeply comforting experience. What you remember of American history comes flooding back in warm waves as it is reencountered, and the new context she provides illuminates the familiar with lightning flashes of significance and portent. The consistency with which Lepore reveals fascinating details, identifies key figures, and clarifies deep patterns of behavior across the centuries is the opposite of those text book approaches to U.S. history that clog our secondary schools with useless memorization. In short, as long books you could read right now go, it’s a winner.

From the start, there’s useful debunking of colonial myths, which remain among our most persistent, and which continue to obscure some of our least understood episodes. The sheer desperation of early arrivals, many of whom came to this continent only to die, makes a stark background against which to consider the astonishing rapidity of the shift in attitudes from curiosity about indigenous lives to genocidal repugnance for the so-called savages. Using her knowledge of the extensive recent scholarship on Native American societies, Lepore sheds light on the process through which ad hoc coastal arrangements solidified into deadly policies of paternalism and removal. 

The book cascades with characters, some familiar, others less so, all of them dished up in effective ensemble pieces that highlight their particular, often peculiar, contributions to the American drama. Alongside the monuments of our collective memory, new heroes arise. There, next to Abe Lincoln, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow emerges from the shadow of his easily mocked Hiawatha phase as a devoted abolitionist and champion of fugitive slaves. Longfellow also supplies Lepore with her guiding metaphor, the ship of state, which reappears as a reference point at more key moments in American history than one might expect. 

Journalist and radio personality Dorothy Thompson’s unmistakable voice echoes through the late 1930s and 1940s as, along with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the most appealing sound in a chapter titled “A Constitution of the Air.” As the first American woman to head a foreign news bureau, Thompson met everyone who was anyone in Weimar Germany, including Adolf Hitler. An early anti-Nazi, Thompson identified an emerging threat to democracy in the propagandistic manipulation of the medium that made her famous, radio. Lepore follows her lead for much of the book’s second half, connecting political polarization to the rise of mass communication technologies. 

It turns out that the connection between extreme political views and the means to spread information extends further back in time, to one of the book’s colorful villains, the brilliant inventor and virulent Nativist Samuel F. B. Morse. Before he created telegraphy, Morse wrote a book advocating that voting should be restricted to those born in this country. The system of dots and dashes for which he is known was initially intended to be a secret code for the preservation of American identity. “What hath God wrought?” indeed.

Less well known, but equally consequential in establishing the preconditions for contemporary far-Right populism is Mary E. Lease, a firebrand public speaker from Wichita who rose to prominence through the suffrage and temperance movements and became a founder of the People’s Party. Telling Kansans that it was time to “raise less corn and more hell” was only the prelude to a lifetime of outrageous and highly successful speechmaking and writing, all of it tuned to the key of working class xenophobia. Lepore, a scholar of the complexities of American feminism, knows that the rise of the Republican right wing in the later 20th century has its roots in the intolerance that so often came along with calls for temperance and even suffrage. 

These Truths reserves some of its most stinging criticism for the malign influence of Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, the team that invented the modern American political campaign. Starting in San Francisco, where they worked together to defeat the insurgent candidacy of Upton Sinclair for governor of California in 1933, and to run referendum campaigns on behalf of monopolies like Standard Oil and Pacific Telephone and Telegraph, Baxter and Whitaker formed a political consulting firm with the ominous name “Campaigns, Inc.”

According to Lepore, “the campaigns they chose to run, and the way they decided to run them, shaped the history of California and the country.” It was not a good shape. More even than P. T. Barnum, Whitaker and Baxter believed in the idea that Americans were, in the main, chumps. “The average American,” wrote Whitaker, “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.” 

According to the doctrine of Campaigns, Inc., the result is that there are only two winning strategies in all of politics — put on a fight, or put on a show. Lepore clearly sees this mentality as the beginning of a long slide into the era of Fox News and Trump’s tweets. It’s interesting to note that Campaign Inc.’s greatest feat of national fear-mongering and distraction was bankrolled by the American Medical Association: the defeat of Harry Truman’s “Fair Deal,” an attempt to establish a national system of health insurance in September of 1945. 

In its final chapters, These Truths delivers a story that parallels that of another masterful and much-needed work of recent American history, Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland trilogy. Both authors seek to correct the liberal “Whig” history that sees the period 1955-1967 as an unbroken string of civil rights victories with another narrative, one that places emerging alliances among religious fundamentalists, conservative women, and Republican politicians in the context of evolving forms of communication technology.

What starts out with direct mail and talk radio morphs, over the course of 50 years, into the Twitter presidency of Donald Trump. Lepore’s interpretation of this shift is more even-handed than most liberal versions, as can be seen in this topic sentence from a chapter on the Reagan years: “At nearly the same time, both the Left and the Right, unwilling to brook dissent, began dismantling structures that nurture fair-minded debate: the Left undermining the University, and the Right undermining the press.”

Reagan, as in so many cases, threw the switch that put the country on a new track. The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, a hard fought battle that Republicans eventually won, resulted in an exponential increase in a sector of the media that would prove to be a harbinger of the future. “In 1987,” writes Lepore, “there were 240 talk radio stations in the country; by 1992, there were 900.” In this view, it is not just that Rush Limbaugh was syndicated on so many of these frequencies, it is also that the Donald Trump who made such a boon companion to Howard Stern in the 1990s, when he would go on the show to talk trash about women and brag about his wealth and social impunity, would soon become an acceptable presidential candidate to a nation conditioned by the proliferation of such discourse. 

Speaking of talk, it’s time that each of us took a moment to have one with America. Reading These Truths right now makes great preparation for sitting down with our partner, the United States, and having not just a chat, but what is called in relationship-ese, “the talk.” It’s time to ask America the classic relationship questions: “What are we?” and “Are we together, or what?” It’s a conversation that we’ve had to have as a nation again and again, from the contest between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, to the rise of Andrew Jackson, the Civil War and the failure of Reconstruction, through Populism and Progressivism during and after the turn of the 20th century.

What are we, America? It’s the big question that too often seems to be answered without asking by people who talk before listening and who propose without consulting. Reading this wonderful, richly rewarding book at this time is one way we can prepare as a society for the coming conversation, the one that is sure to happen when we, or more likely while we make our gradual exits from the shells we have been forced into by biology and again take up the task of understanding our state and ourselves. The time is ripe for a new version of public life, and in order to have that conversation, America, we have to talk.

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