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Chatty Cathy’s Poison Pill

[1]3,082 words

Jill Lepore
This America: The Case for the Nation
New York: W. W. Norton, 2019

The theme of This America isn’t what Jill Lepore thinks it is.

Jill Lepore is a Harvard Professor of American History, and an incredibly prolific author – twenty-five books, and many essays in The New Yorker – with a fluid, appealing writing style. The only writer I can think of offhand with equally engaging prose is David Sedaris (at least in the old days, before he ran out of stuff to write about). But Sedaris is the Flaubert of hip shame-humor, rewriting every sentence twenty-seven times, and cranking out maybe one complete page of “creative nonfiction” on a good day, whereas Lepore seems to breeze through her writing with few revisions or second thoughts, every jot and tittle in place: from first draft to publisher’s proof without a hiccup. How else do you turn out a book a year?

John O’Hara, another book-a-year scribe and New Yorker regular, was likewise famous for his first-draft-is-the-best-draft work ethic, though in his case it was reams of typo-free yellow “second sheet” paper that got handed in, not electronic .doc files e-mailed to the editor. Typewriters, you know. The physical difficulty of producing copy forced you to work out the sentence, maybe the whole paragraph, before you hit the keys. Nowadays you can just type out a thought that occurs to you, and if it looks good – go with it, move on; never mind about bad transitions, incoherence, and incomplete arguments. You can be self-contradictory, shallow, and glib. You can pad out great doorstops of pop history with monstrous digressions about stuff you were thinking about on the elliptical machine last night. No one will mind. Not your editors, anyway. (Manuscript editing? Hell, most commercial publishers don’t even use proofreaders anymore.) Especially if you’re a tenured professor at Harvard and can turn out a widely-reviewed book – or something that looks like a book – every year or so.

Lepore’s 2018 book, These Truths: A History of the United States,[1] [2] was her most recent doorstop, weighing in at 960 pages. For the most part, reviewers purred over it, even if some paused every couple of paragraphs to point out that it was just a bit inconsistent and uneven. For example, H. W. Brands in the Washington Post [3] noted that Lepore claims that the sort of emotional “populism” that fueled the Trump phenomenon “entered American politics at the end of the 19th century, and it never left”; even though in talking about the Jacksonian era she seemed to be describing something very similar. Whole epochs of the American experience are reduced by Lepore to something seen through the wrong end of the telescope:

Lepore admits to paying little attention to military history, yet the short shrift she gives to the Civil War, as an episode in American political history even apart from the battles, is going to leave uninitiated readers mystified as to why that conflict still roils the nation. She covers World War I in hardly more space than she devotes to H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. This, too, would fall under the author’s prerogative, if the subtitle of the book – “A History of the United States” – didn’t promise more. The lack of coverage of the American West will remind some readers of the famous New Yorker map that compresses everything west of the Hudson River into an undifferentiated blur.

That’s pretty funny. But after publishing this sprawling Everest, Lepore decided she still had a few more things to add, and so has brought forth a mouse of a book called This America: The Case for the Nation.[2] [4] It stretches over about 120 pages of text, with big spacing and wide margins, printed in a format hardly larger than a pocket diary. It’s so small, it looks as though it should be put in a point-of-sale display and marketed as an impulse purchase or Yuletide stocking-stuffer. Maybe its cover price of $16.95 is too steep for that. Anyway, it’s as compact and readable as a David Sedaris volume of Christmas stories, and almost as jam-packed with irony.

Lepore presents one or two good, tight ideas in This America, although she then spends about a hundred pages walking them back, unraveling them into nothingness. She opens with what looks like a trumpet-call to the nationalist spirit:

Nations are made up of people but held together by history, like wattle and daub or lath and plaster or bricks and mortar. For a generation, American history has been coming undone and the nation has been coming apart, the daub cracking, the plaster buckling, the mortar crumbling. This tragedy was foreseen.[3] [5]

She is discussing the interpretation of American history more than the American people; historiography rather than the hard facts of history itself (which are, let’s face it, sometimes elusive). Those who foresaw “this tragedy” were some 1980s historians who worried that historical study had become both fractionated and global, with little room left for national history. A few historians cheered this trend, believing that nation-centered history simply encouraged nationalism, with all its ills. Lepore demurs: “Nations, to make sense of themselves, need some kind of agreed-upon past.”

Indubitably. But then comes the equivocation. Having acknowledged that a sense of historical, national identity is vital and necessary, Lepore lectures us that maintaining such an identity is fraught with hazards and is often distasteful. To keep us on the strait-and-narrow, she parses out a false dichotomy between two types of nationalism. There’s bad nationalism, which focuses seriously on issues of national – i.e., ethnic and cultural – heritage. For Lepore, this is loathsome; it makes her think of Fascism and Nazism, and the stump appeal of Donald J. Trump, Victor Orbán in Hungary, Marine Le Pen in France. And Rwanda. (There’s an unwritten rule that says every denunciation of ethnic integrity and or Right-wing nationalism must somehow mention Rwanda.)

By contrast, there’s good nationalism, though she doesn’t call it that; the word “nationalism” is a pejorative to Jill Lepore. She prefers to refer to it as the identity of a “nation-state,” or maybe, in America, a “state-nation.” She equates it with “liberalism,” because is based on shared civic values rather than exclusionary things like race, religion, and culture.

I’m pretty sure Lepore has run across the phrase “civic nationalism,” which is how we refer to that “shared civic values” thing on the nationalist Right. We regard it as a jejune, hypocritical pose, and caricature it endlessly in Twitter memes (e.g., the picture of a lone white schoolboy surrounded by savages: “At Least I Still Have Muh Constitution”). Civic nationalism is dishonest because it whistles past the graveyard, and pretends there’s no essential link between the people who created social institutions and the survival of the institutions themselves. Civic nationalists are perfectly aware that “we can’t restore our civilization with other people’s babies,” as Rep. Steve King tweeted in 2017. But they loudly denounce that obvious truth because it’s bad nationalism, and they don’t want to be called racist.

[6]And so it goes with Jill Lepore. She chatters on amiably, keeping her terminology fuzzy and confusing (nation-state? state-nation?). Chatty Cathy never notices – or hopes you won’t notice – how she doesn’t think things out to their logical conclusions. Does she really not see that the dissolution of homogeneity, in culture as well as race, is the cause of social breakdown and the loss of shared historical identity? Does she seriously imagine that ethno-identitarianism, or populism on the Right, are the termites that are bringing down the house? Does she think that H. H. Bancroft or Frederick Jackson Turner, if returned to present-day America, wouldn’t point the finger at the “diversity” cult, and damn it?

No, I don’t think she believes any of this. She’s just virtue-signaling, like any good civic nationalist, giving lip-service to the joys of tolerance while hoping that race problems will go away on their own.

And what does Lepore really mean when she writes of the “liberal nation-state”? Liberal in the eighteenth-nineteenth century Whig sense, or the modern journalistic meaning of progressive-Left? Well, she appears to mean both, however unreconcilable the two definitions. The old whiggish meaning pertains mostly to economics and trade, and its exponents today tend to call themselves libertarian. The only thing the two factions have in common is an adversarial stance toward social traditions and group cohesion, and that’s because both camps view these as obstacles to their desire for short-term economic gain and/or personal advantage. But the overlap is slight, and accidental. Leftist progressives and libertarians sometimes happen to have the same enemies; that’s all. At the end of the day, Lepore’s “liberal nation-state” is an unimaginable entity, a half-thought that appears and instantly vanishes as you are drifting off to sleep. It has no form or reality, but gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling.

Patriotism is a good thing, says Lepore, if it’s motivated by support for the “liberal nation-state.” Otherwise it’s not really patriotism, it’s nationalism. But how to distinguish between the two? Well, the “David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History” at Harvard has an easy litmus test for us:

Patriotism is animated by love, nationalism by hatred.[4] [7]

Accepting her terms for sake of argument, we wait for her to expand on the idea. Might nationalism, too, be animated by love? How do we spot hatred when it happens? But the explanation never comes. She’s just throwing a billboard slogan at us (“Trust Motherhood & Apple Pie! Eat at Ma Frisbie’s!”). And she does this repeatedly throughout the book, offering provocative dicta with no backup:

Nationalism, an infant in the nineteenth century, became, in the first half of the twentieth, a monster – the rage behind der Führer and Il Duce, bigoted and brutal, violent and finally genocidal.[5] [8]

Circular reasoning, really. If she doesn’t like something, it must be nationalism, and if it’s nationalism, it must be hatred – greedy, barbarous and cruel – because it’s hatred that fuels nationalism, and Lepore hates that.

Like a good civic nationalist, she gets all misty-eyed and sentimental about the olden days when we could all “just get along.” You know: that halcyon time of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, when there were three television networks; print news came mainly from morning and evening newspapers that all ran the same syndicated columns, funnies, and anodyne pap from the AP and UPI; and the Overton window was barely a glint in its father’s eye. In those days, it was easy to denounce most points of view as disreputable, fringe, and extremist, because we were all on the same propaganda feed, and we took what they fed us. The Hart-Celler immigration bill of 1965 would not significantly alter the homogeneity of the nation, we were told, and we believed it, because 1965 was really just about letting in a few more Filipino dishwashers and yo-yo designers, because, you know, Filipinos are very a hard-working and likable people, and we need them to power our booming economy and help pay for War and the Great Society.

Lepore doesn’t want to address the fact that we seemed to get along better because we were in fact much more alike, both in racial/cultural homogeneity and in our willingness to maintain the social props that enabled us to get along. When she speaks of bricks and mortar coming apart, she’s talking about historical consensus on national identity, but behind that broken consensus is a broken social contract.

Since her opening premise is that our historical sense of nationhood is becoming incoherent, you’d naturally expect Lepore to develop that idea, and show the wreckage caused by the politicized, faddish narratives we see and hear around us every day. She does not do this, which is remarkable inasmuch as it’s central to her thesis, and she has such an abundance of examples to choose from. Just as certain Jewish interests have tried to reduce the whole of the Second World War – the whole of the twentieth century, in fact – into tales of the “Holocaust,” far-Left academics such as Eric Foner have succeeded in turning most of American history into the Story of Slavery and Reconstruction. Millions of young people now hold the delusion that American economic might was built by negro slavery (even though Frederick Law Olmsted, who took a couple of long trips through the antebellum South, blamed slavery for making the South poor and backward). Negro slaves are no longer even called “slaves.” The hip new term is “enslaved men and women” – thus implying that Monticello’s slaves-from-birth had all been netted in the wild and personally shackled by Mistah Jefferson himself. Mystical-sounding coinages such as “the Middle Passage,” “the Great Migration,” and “the Jim Crow Era” have entered modern discourse, though they were virtually unknown a few decades ago.[6] [9] Such a marginal nineteenth-century figure as Frederick Douglass is now touted as a towering personage, a divine blend of Lincoln, Emerson, and Harry Houdini, even though Freddie’s own “escape” consisted of nothing more than taking a train ride from Baltimore to New York in 1838, after which he earned his keep as a novelty attraction, telling the crowds of white folk how brave he’d been to ride that railroad.

In the current pop-history narrative, the American Experience to 1900 consists of a few rich farmers in tricornered hats and lacy cuffs, cotton plantations with cruel slave-drivers, and the KKK. Post-1900, the story is expanded to accommodate millions of huddled masses from Minsk and Pinsk, shivering in their shawls and babushkas as their ship passes the Statue of Liberty, which was put into Lower New York Harbor expressly to welcome them. But that’s who we are as a nation, you know: a Nation of Immigrants.

Instead of criticizing this fabulous rubbish that has ruined history departments for fifty years, Lepore endorses it – runs with it, panders shamelessly. She was in college back in the 1980s, around the time Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. DuBois were being discovered, and she can’t get enough of them. She even opens the book with a chuckleheaded DuBois epigraph, topped by this cringeworthy dedication:

In memory of my father,
whose immigrant parents
named him Amerigo in 1924,
the year Congress passed a law
banning immigrants like them.[7] [10]

Now, what do you suppose that’s all about? It’s about the blue-eyed, fair-skinned, greying-honey-blonde Ms. Lepore telling the world that she, too, is an aggrieved minority, because in 1924 Congress voted to restrict (not ban) Italian immigration to America. This plea is so desperate, so erroneous, so wrongheaded, I find myself suddenly empathizing with Elizabeth Warren and her claim to be three percent Cherokee Indian.

As in These Truths and some earlier books, Lepore begins with a good premise, then wanders off the reservation, pads out her book with digressions, and never quite gets around to finishing her opening thoughts. The latter part of this hardbound essay is padded out with brash denunciations of early twentieth-century ethnonationalist literature, notably Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race (1916) and Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color (1920). Predictably, her knowledge seems to be secondhand. She doesn’t explain what the books are about, probably because she doesn’t know. The ignorant reader is thus left to assume that the Stoddard book is probably about negroes, when in fact its major concern is the rise of Japan.

Lepore doesn’t want to investigate these books; she invokes them merely as a useful cue to suggest that they were somehow connected to National Socialism:

Grant’s new book (in 1933, The Conquest of a Continent) did not meet with the same success as his early work, but an American fringe nevertheless fervently supported Nazism. On the radio, Father Charles Coughlin preached anti-Semitism and admiration for Hitler and the Third Reich.[8] [11]

Nice transition there. But I was charmed to see that she references not only Stoddard’s Rising Tide of Color, but his obscure Re-Forging America: The Story of Our Nationhood (1927), which I reviewed [12] in these pages a bit over a year ago. Re-Forging America has been reprinted recently, oddly enough, but it certainly wasn’t available last year, when I read the New York Public Library’s single disintegrating copy under supervision in a climate-controlled room. If I have helped Prof. Lepore flaunt her erudition by enabling her to cite yet another book she hasn’t read, I am pleased.

The insights and drivel that fill up a book are one thing; the reader’s lasting impression is another matter entirely. About ten books ago, Lepore wrote an account of the 1741 “Negro Plot” in New York City, in which some negroes tried to burn the town down, and were duly tried and executed.[9] [13] There isn’t much new to say about the event, so Lepore pads out the tome with digressions about publisher John Peter Zenger, and speculations upon why the white population of New York had such a delusional fear of negroes. She even compares this terror to the frenzy of the Salem Witch Trials of a half-century earlier. But for all of her stage-patter and legerdemain, she nonetheless leaves her reader with one core, unforgettable fact, which is that in 1741 Manhattan, some negroes were plotting to burn down the city, kill the white men, and rape the women.

Similarly, in This America Lepore describes a faceoff on the issue of national identity. On one side are the preservationists – the nationalists; and on the other are those who recognize the problem, but will not name the cause. Either you’re for nationalism – that is, ethnonationalism – or you’re whistling past the graveyard with Lepore, trying desperately to persuade yourself that you can indeed restore your nation with other people’s babies.

Dissolution or survival: those are your choices. That’s the moral Jill Lepore leaves us with, no matter how much she obfuscates and sugar-coats her pill.


[1] [14] Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States (New York: W. W. Norton, 2018).

[2] [15] Jill Lepore, This America: The Case for the Nation (New York: W. W. Norton, 2019).

[3] [16] Lepore, This America.

[4] [17] Lepore, This America.

[5] [18] Lepore, This America.

[6] [19] “Middle Passage” as a slave-ship term appears to have been popularized among abolitionists of the 1830s and ‘40s by William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator newspaper. However, its use in textbooks and modern journalism goes back only to about 1990. “Jim Crow Era” first appears in black newspapers circa 1970, and in the mainstream press about twenty years after that. “Great Migration” in the sense of Southern negroes moving north during 1910-1960 first appears in black newspapers circa 1978, and the mainstream press circa 2000.

[7] [20] Lepore, This America.

[8] [21] Lepore, This America.

[9] [22] Jill Lepore, New York Burning (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).