Friday, December 21, 2007

A Little Sweetness and Light; or, Three Reasons To Be Jealous of Jill Lepore

To speak briefly to the Blogger Ethic: Jill Lepore is a real person, a historian of early North America, and a very good one. And I, as you can tell by the item on the left, am currently reading her first book, The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity. Now it won the Bancroft Prize, so you would think I had already read it, but I hadn't. In 1998, I was happily celebrating having just gotten tenure and (sadly) burying my dad, so I only read the two or three hundred books I needed to read to get by.

But next semester I am teaching a core American Studies course that is about comparative colonizations in the Americas, one that I teach regularly, and one that causes me to go back and brush up on a period outside my research field (and brush up on the history of eleven or twelve other nations in the hemisphere, and fifteenth and sixteenth century Europe.) And I have always known that I don't teach King Philip's War very well (mostly, I suspect, because when I was studying for my general exams, someone else in the study group read whatever book we twentieth century specialists thought we needed to know about to make it through the test. Or, as we used to say, "I didn't read the book. I read the article." Or I read the review of that book. Or someone else did. I dunno. All I recall is the vivid pink of the Pepto-Bismo bottle that we passed from hand to hand.

So I thought this year, "Why not teach Lepore, Radical? Worst case scenario, you read it and decide it's not a good pick, and you call the long-suffering bookstore and cancel." So I ordered it, and the review copy came yesterday. Do you know that moment when, as you take a book out of the box, you want to sit down and start reading it? That there is something in that book that calls to you?

So last night I sat down with a cup of tea and started reading, and I am hooked. I have to say this is one of the best written history books, and one of the smartest and most elegantly argued, that I have read. Ever. And it is entirely relevant to our own current war, in Iraq, since the book is about how Americans narrate war. So this is my list of the three reasons to be jealous of Jill Lepore, in ascending order:

1. She lives in Cambridge, MA, near a number of friends of mine who I wish I lived closer to.
2. She gets to write for the New Yorker which is, in part, I think because she is a completely tireless and engaging writer and can be counted on to write to deadline. Unlike me, for example.
3. As part of an argument about how Indians and English construct categories of cultural difference that allow each group to remain distinct from the other, she wrote the following sentences, about the sacking of English towns in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut by Native warriors in 1675, which left the colonists without food or shelter and without the boundary that kept them from slipping into "savagery":

But there was more to the colonists' concern than simple practicality: English possessions were, in a sense, what was at stake in the war, for these -- the clothes they wore, the houses they lived in, and the things they owned -- were a good part of what differentiated the English from the Indians. These were not simply material differences, they were cultural, for every English frock coat was stitched with civility, each thatched roof rested on a foundation of property rights, and every cupboard housed a universe of ideas.

Honestly, that's where I put the book down and came upstairs to evangelize - I mean, blog. I have hardly ever read such a wonderful passage that captured an argument in metaphor like that.

10 comments:

Susan said...

Isn't it a great book! And there is something so great about starting to read a book and thinking "Yes! I'm learning something!"

Anonymous said...

That is a great passage by Ms. Lepore. I would add that the best writing by a historian that I have ever read was SHERMAN: Fighting Prophet by Lloyd Lewis. I am saddened to say that I did not read the entire work. The book was a gift and unfortunately the subject matter was not very interesting to me.

RRH

undine said...

It's a wonderful book. She writes for _The New Yorker_, too, and those essays are also fine. For the past few years, I've harbored a secret wish to be Jill Lepore.

Belle said...

What a lovely bit. Thanks for sharing.

Rob MacD said...

Total agreement on points 2, 3, and the general awesomeness of Jill Lepore. Have you read A is for American? I'm not sure I envy her living in Cambridge that much, though I do miss my friends there too and I guess I envy the salary that makes it possible.

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

Ooo, that passage gave me goosebumps.

whatever said...

Thank you for posting about this. The writing is elegant and economical. I'm going to buy and read the book. I'm an Americanist in literary studies. I think this book will be helpful and am glad to be directed to it.

Manan Ahmed said...

Thanks for this. I will pick this up at the earliest.

ks said...

A lovely tribute to a great work by a historian. I used this book last time I taught the first half of the US survey and for what it's worth, the students loved the book, as did I.

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