Book of the week
These Truths: A History of the United States
Shortly after the 2016 election, Jill Lepore accepted a challenge to “attempt the preposterous,” and we’re lucky she did, said Karen Long in Newsday. Lepore’s “brilliant” new single-volume history of the United States succeeds in reanimating centuries of struggle, conflict, and triumph by asking a simple question: Has the country lived up to the ideals that framed its founding, or does U.S. history belie them? The “prodigiously gifted” New Yorker writer and Harvard scholar sets the stage with some stark numbers: From 1500 to 1800, she reminds us, 2.5 million Europeans relocated to the Americas, along with 12 million Africans brought by force, and that wave of newcomers resulted in the deaths of some 50 million Native Americans. It was, of course, a subset of the smallest cohort who declared “the People” sovereign.
Lepore doesn’t discount how remarkable the Founders’ achievement was, said Evan Thomas in The Boston Globe. They did create a government based on ideas about human equality and, judging by Lepore’s assessment, “got the basic structure right.” But slavery’s presence meant the U.S. was born in contradiction: George Washington’s very smile was cobbled from teeth pulled from the mouths of his slaves, Lepore tells us. Even after the nation fought an unprecedentedly bloody war to end it, slavery’s stain remained. In the South around 1900, someone was hanged or burned alive once every four days. The Confederacy “had lost the war,” Lepore writes, “but it had won the peace.”
Slavery’s legacy isn’t the only current in Lepore’s story, said Andrew Sullivan in The New York Times. She also notes how the secular nation of 1789 was transformed by the Second Great Awakening into a land where eight in 10 citizens were churchgoers, and she proposes the distinctive, if questionable, idea that the post-1945 mass media have steadily eroded the concept of empirical truth. Lepore’s analysis is “brilliant at times,” and though she is occasionally guilty of purple prose, her writing is packed with anecdote and color. Across 800 pages, “there wasn’t a moment when I struggled to keep reading.” And though toward the end of the book Lepore panders a bit to liberal readers, she has written a history every American can enjoy. “We need this book. Its reach is long, its narrative fresh, and the arc of its account sobering to say the least.” It is, in the end, “a classic tale of a unique country’s astonishing rise and just as inevitable fall.” ■