Best-selling author Jill Lepore discusses American ideals and the death of a friend at WBUR CitySpace

Historian and writer Jill Lepore discusses the paperback release of her new book "These Truths: A History of the United States," at WBUR Cityspace, Boston, Mass., Oct 1, 2019. Photo by Aaron Halford/ BU News Service

By Aaron Halford
BU News Service

Renowned author and historian Jill Lepore stopped by a sold out WBUR CitySpace Tuesday evening to discuss her New York Times bestselling book “These Truths: A History of the United States,” and the book’s inspiration — the death of a close friend. 

“These Truths” — originally released in September 2018 — is a reference to Thomas Jefferson’s passage in the Declaration of Independence. Throughout the book, Lepore assesses whether the government has delivered on its promises ever since. 

“These are interesting historical times,” Lepore said facetiously. “One of the reasons I became a historian is because I get my head turned around so easily by what’s going on day-to-day.”

Lepore’s 1,000-page “doorstop of a book,” as award-winning NPR host Robin Young (who moderated the event) called it, attempts to put historical events into both perspective and context with great detail. At a time when “these truths” are not always agreed upon, the work has an added relevance. 

Lepore described how the adversarial press during the 1950s helped her better understand the country’s relationship with the media today. She cited the 1952 presidential election as being a monumental one for the media, given that most American households owned a television for the first time in history. 

“In the 1950s, conservatives began talking about the liberal media, and their demon was the FCC,” Lepore said. “That’s really important for breaking the stories involving the lies of the Johnson administration, Watergate and Vietnam and for unraveling the story of Watergate.”

Lepore, a native of West Boylston, is currently an American History professor at Harvard University and has been a regular contributor to The New Yorker since 2005. 

Young and Lepore discussed one of Lepore’s recent New Yorker articles called “The Lingering of Loss,” in which she describes trying to cope with her best friend passing away, while also trying to uphold her friend’s legacy. Jane, as Lepore calls her, left Lepore her laptop containing all of her creative ideas as a part of her will. 

“I just felt like I needed to finish the work that she had,” Lepore said. “I was just lucky to have had her as a friend for the 10 years I had her, and I think that people responded to the honesty of ‘Yeah, when somebody you love dies, it sucks and it never stops sucking.’”

Jane was cited as a major source of inspiration for Lepore beyond her renowned New Yorker essay, however. Jane’s death at a young age caused Lepore to change the way she looked at the world, at people, and at different situations, she said.

“I’m terrible at making new friends,” Lepore said. “I can’t get close to people. Jane knew everybody. But I only knew Jane. And when Jane died, I didn’t know anybody anymore.”

“These Truths,” Lepore says, is written for Jane. Lepore described the work as an ode to Jane’s curiosity and writing, and her inability to be content when the truth is misrepresented. 

Worcester resident Patrick Hilson, who brought a hardcopy to the event, discussed the detail Lepore uses in “These Truths,” and how she’s able to paint such a vivid image of history for the reader. 

“Jill is able to shed light on so many historical events that have been lost,” Hilson said after the event. “Her ability to capture moments that haven’t been talked about, or that I’ve never even heard of, is what makes this book so interesting.”

Hilson said he resonated with Lepore’s description of her childhood, like waking up in the morning with her father to read the Worcester Telegram and Gazette. 

“I think sharing a similar blue-collar background with [Lepore] makes the text a bit more life-like for me,” Hilson said. “So many of her descriptions, like driving around in a truck on weekend mornings with her father, I could relate to.” 

Beth Collins said she related to much of what Lepore said despite coming from a different upbringing. Collins said she has read “These Truths” twice in full, and has met Lepore to discuss history on multiple occasions. 

“[Lepore] just has a fabulous way of recreating history — I don’t know how she does it,” Collins said. “She’s able to put you in a room with the founding fathers and on the campaign trail with Donald Trump within a matter of pages.”

In Lepore’s New Yorker essay about Jane, she said she was finished writing books, and since “These Truths” was written for Jane, it made sense to her to end on that note. 

However, Lepore’s creativity couldn’t be tamed, as since publication of that essay she has produced a podcast and finished the rough draft of another book.  

“I find that that’s my head’s spinning at a much faster rate, you know, with the acceleration of our news,” Lepore said. “I always have some interest in pulling that timeline long and seeing where we are, because everything just vanishes so fast.”

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