Harvard Historian Jill Lepore to Speak in Lexington

Jill Lepore

By Judy Buswick

This March, Lexingtonians will be delving into the story of America – a chosen theme investigating how American writers have impacted our history.

Whether it’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow or “Poor Richard’s Almanack” by Benjamin Franklin, a story and a backstory are there for the reading. Seeking to probe American history as part of the 2013 Lexington Reads program, the book suggested for a community-wide reading is The Story of America: Essays on Origins (Princeton University Press, 2012) by Harvard historian Jill Lepore. Filled with essays meticulously researched and thoroughly documented, yet first appearing in “The New Yorker” sans footnotes, this latest book by Lepore ties original works with today’s understanding of them, showing us many literary works that have affected Americans and American history. Fiction and political speeches are both analyzed. Stories range from 1607 and the lies or truths told by John Smith about the founding of Jamestown, up to the 2008 inaugural address of Barack Obama, who said, ”This union may not be perfect, but generation after generation has shown it can always be perfected.”

Opening the Cary Library series of programs on “The Story of America” theme, Professor Lepore will speak on Saturday, March 2, 2013, at 8 p.m. at Cary Hall (1605 Massachusetts Ave., next to the police station), about how American democracy is entwined with the history of its publications. Sponsored by the Cary Lecture Series and supported by the Cary Memorial Library, this special event will offer a preview look at Lepore’s upcoming book (Book of Ages), due to be released in September. The title of her program will be “Dear Brother: The Life and Letters of Benjamin Franklin’s Sister.” Free tickets have been mailed to all Lexington households; additional tickets are available at the Town Office Building or Cary Memorial Library.

Speaking by phone, Lepore explained that her Cary Hall lecture had been drawn from her research on Jane Mecom, Benjamin Franklin’s younger sister. As the youngest son and the youngest daughter in a family of 13 children, these two were close and wrote extensively to one another over their long lives. “They were both great letter writers,” noted Lepore. Actually, the prodigious Franklin wrote more letters to Jane than to anyone else, Lepore added. In the 1930s and 1940s, it was historian Carl Van Doren who collected the letters of both Jane and Benjamin; thus, “He saved her story,” praised Lepore. Van Doren won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for his biography Benjamin Franklin (Viking Press, 1938). As Lepore will explain in her lecture, Jane had a difficult life, out-living 11 of her 12 children and struggling with poverty. When Franklin provided her with a house in Boston’s North End on Unity Street, she was proud of her own home and took great care of it, acknowledged Lepore. Knowing her beloved house would be looted, Jane was forced to flee Boston after the Battle of Bunker Hill. Sadly, this house, the only property Franklin ever owned, was demolished years later to improve the sightlines along the Paul Revere Mall. The house and another identical home next door were built by the brick maker who provided bricks for the Old North Church. The brick maker’s house still remains and might someday become a destination for tourists seeking Franklin’s presence in Boston, surmised LePore.

In The Story of America: Essays on Origins, Lepore examines Franklin’s earliest writing, including Poor Richard’s Almanack, and mentions that in 1767, before Franklin had signed the Declaration of Independence, “his sister Jane asked him for a copy of everything he had ever published. ‘I could as easily make a Collection for you of all the Pairings of my Nails,’ he answered.” Lepore pointed out that few have written more or done more than Franklin to shape the history – the story – of America.

Lepore writes, “Democracy in America was not established with the stroke of a pen, in 1776, when members of the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence.” Our form of government “was neither inevitable nor swift,” she states. As the stories in Lepore’s book show, with each President or “contest of opinion” came new interpretations and new written insights. Her book includes chapters on Charles Dickens and his visits to America, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his friendship with Charles and George Sumner, Edgar Allan Poe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and many other fascinating writers from our past. Many writers interweave through chapters helping link the stories about our literary influences. Speaking about her separately written essays, Lepore noted that she wrote them “because I wanted to try to explain how history works, and how it’s different from politics.” When compiled, they add up to a new look at American history, a view that is more than the sum of the parts.

The last chapter focuses on inaugural speech writing – from that of George Washington to Barack Obama’s first speech. President-to-be Garfield, like most Presidents, read the inaugural speeches of those before him, confiding in his diary how difficult was the writing task. Lepore confides, ”Reading Lincoln left James Garfield nearly speechless.” He considered not even trying to write such an address for fear he wouldn’t succeed. The problem with a political speech’s content, length, poetry, hyperbole, and rhetoric come under discussion pertaining to particular presidents. Readers will find not only some insights on the content and political intent of written inaugural addresses, but also such personal tidbits as who was “the first inaugurée to wear pants instead of knee-breeches” (John Quincy Adams); who was first to give his speech on television (Harry S. Truman); who first broadcast the speech on the Internet (Bill Clinton); and who was first to be “YouTubed” live (Barack Obama). This final chapter of the book is representative of the engaging content that will lead to discussions on many levels. Invoking LePore’s last line, “Enough said.”

Jill Lepore has had a fair share of literary success. Since 1998, she has authored seven non-fiction books and co-authored a novel. Her book New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan (Knopf, 2005) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History. Since 2005, she has been a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and many scholarly reviews.

Besides being a professor of American History at Harvard, she is the chair of Harvard’s History and Literature program, which offers an innovative and rigorous approach to interdisciplinary scholarship by teaching writing and critical thinking skills that are invaluable in any profession. The Cambridge resident serves on the boards of the National Council for History Education, the Society of American Historians, and the National Portrait Gallery.

Copies of Professor Lepore’s book, The Story of America, will be on sale at the Cary Hall lecture. The author will attend the library’s annual Lexington Reads Book Discussion Brunch on Saturday, April 6th at 10 a.m. where advanced registration is required.  For more information, stop by or call Cary Library: (781-862-6288 x250).


Judy Buswick is the author of a quilter’s biography (Sally Palmer Field, New England Quilter). See Judy’s Website at judybuswick.com.

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