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How Jill Lepore makes history accessible, from Wonder Woman to presidential debates

The 2010 New Yorker Festival: 'The Tea Party' Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images the New Yorker
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Whenever I receive a new issue of the New Yorker, I flip through it to see if it contains anything by Jill Lepore. Lepore writes long, fascinating articles in which she homes in on some odd and chewy piece of history and brings out its nuances and complexities. When she writes, she brings all her academic expertise and rigor to bear on her subject, but the clarity and directness of her language shows non-academic readers exactly why her subject is so important and compelling.

Over the past three months, she’s written on the history of presidential debates, the history of the idea of a sovereign "people" in politics, and Frederick Douglass’s thoughts on how photography would help end slavery.

Outside of writing for the New Yorker, Lepore is a professor of history at Harvard and has written numerous award-winning books, including The Secret History of Wonder Woman and The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History.

I met Lepore recently when we both attended the National Endowment for the Humanities’ 50th anniversary conference, Human/Ties. We discussed how she makes her work so compelling to non-academics, her favorite research methods, and why the humanities are so important.

The following excerpts of our conversation have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

On making scholarship accessible and compelling to non-academics

Constance Grady

You’ve spent so much of your career making scholarship accessible to people not in academia, through the New Yorker and all of your books, so I wondered if you could talk about why you’ve gone down that track instead of the traditional publish-a-bunch-of-books-for-historians track.

Jill Lepore

I think during the time that I’ve been going down that track, the tracks have all changed, so it’s not as unusual as it was when I started out. Unlike a lot of academics, I started out wanting to be a writer, and it was just a failure of imagination about how to become a writer that led me to graduate school. [laughs] I love what I do, I love writing about history and about the past, but there was never a point in my life where that was my grand ambition. My grand ambition was always — to the extent that I had an ambition or that it was grand, neither of which is probably true — it was always just to write.

It’s always puzzling to me when you talk to academics who say, "I might like to write for a different audience, but my work’s too abstract, or too highly theorized, or I need to use a specialized jargon." These are good reasons to write for other specialists, but I’m always puzzled: What do you do in the classroom? Your freshmen aren’t indoctrinated and socialized into the jargon that you use.

I suppose you could indoctrinate them, and that could be the work that you do with your freshmen, but I don’t think that’s what most people do. I think that when teaching, the logic is that you meet people where they’re at and bring them along.

I still haven’t quite figured out why it is that’s a response that people give when they talk about why they couldn’t possibly, even if they wanted to, write for a different audience with the incredible bountiful knowledge that they have produced with their own scholarship.

Constance Grady

Do you ever have to deal with the perception from other academics that you’re flattening out the scholarship to present it to a lay audience? Or is that something they don’t bother about?

Jill Lepore

I can’t really think of a conversation that went that way. I’m sure many people perceive that to be the case. I think, if I were someone who were, in a structural sense, really vulnerable, like I didn’t have tenure yet, or I didn’t have a job, I would be really concerned about that, and I would probably have some ready witty retort for you about why that makes no sense, because I don’t think that makes any sense.

To the extent that I know that’s out there, it seems important to shrug it off and do what I do. Those people are not going to be somehow converted to some different way of thinking.

A lot of important work that people do within the academy — scientific research, academic scholarship — is not easily translated to a general reader, or a general magazine reader. Much of it is, but not all of it has to be translated in that way. And it’s a convention of the world of the natural sciences that translation is done in a whole field of journalism known as science reporting, and academic scientists are rightly frustrated, I think, with science reporting, and with the reward system within the world of journalism and why science reporting is often quite catastrophically bad. I mean, it can be excellent, too. But it can be very, very bad.

In the humanities, where what we’re doing is working with language and images and forms of aesthetic representation, communication, and interpretation, it would seem that the scholars who practice in that field are more likely to be able to explain their work to a different audience if they were so inclined. And what they will see, that maybe not everybody sees, is that that is an artful piece of work.

It’s not like you look at this beautiful, magnificent sculpture and you just take out a steamroller and you flatten it down. You’re doing a different kind of sculpture. It requires an enormous amount of art to do it; it’s not an act of destruction.

On writing about complex topics in a clear, concise way

Jill Lepore

I often find the concision to be frustrating. Once I was asked to write an essay on the history of taxation. My first thought was, Oh, my god, that’s so boring. My second thought was, Oh, and it’s also quite complicated. It intersects with a lot of different realms of the social sciences.

So I did my usual thing, which is that I dragged bagfuls of books from the library back to my office, and I read them all, and I thought about them all. And I wasn’t bored; I found the history of taxation to be completely fascinating — but I’m an easy sell. I’m a person who laughs too hard at people’s dumb jokes, and I cry at sad things really easily. I find everything really fascinating.

So I found this stuff on the history of taxation wildly interesting. But then the puzzle is how do you make it interesting to anybody else? Who kind of just wants to know, is the tax rate going up or going down, and how should I feel about that?

That was, to me, a tough nut to crack. But it wasn’t how to not oversimplify it; it was that there was a 4,000-word limit.

I find the concision part fun, like doing a cryptic crossword puzzle. It requires so much precision to be precise in that way. It’s like a dare. "I dare you to explain the history of taxation in 4,000 words." I kind of love that dare. But this happened to be a topic that I could see where a reader would look at the head of the article and be like, "What else is in this issue?"

I ended up coming up with a lead about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, because it was the infrastructure problems that earthquake revealed, as part of a national conversation about the federal government’s role in infrastructure, that ultimately made possible a shift in a long conversation about the federal income tax and the founding of the Federal Reserve Bank. It’s a cheap trick, like, "An earthquake!" It’s a cheap lead. I’m not proud of the earthquake lead.

Which is to say, I didn’t read those books and try to "simplify" them. I try to think: Okay, here’s some things that I’ve learned that seem really important about the history of taxation, that people, I bet, would like to know. I want them to read the whole piece from beginning to end, and that’s an architectural issue within an essay. How do I even get them to start was, for me, the hardest question there.

I have, first of all, one of the best libraries in the world steps away from my office, and second of all, I have colleagues who are tremendous. When I got through writing that essay, I asked a friend of mine who’s a very distinguished economic historian if she’d read it for me: "It’s for a magazine, you wouldn’t see it in the Journal of Economics, but is there anything I’ve got really wrong here, or some big debate among economists that I missed entirely?" We’ll often do that. It’s sort of a back-of-the-hand peer review.

Because I’m trying to offer up a subtle representation of a deep and rich scholarship involving the work of hundreds and hundreds of scholars working doggedly in the archives, and thinking using different theoretical models, and models of economic behavior. I’m trying to be fair and generous to all that work, while also recognizing that the reader’s not going to go out and read the latest issue of the Journal of Economics.

On the satisfaction of research, and learning how the League of Women Voters invented modern presidential debates

Constance Grady

You were talking earlier about how everything fascinates you, and I think that’s one of the most interesting things about your writing: Because you’re fascinated by everything, the reader gets fascinated, too. There are always these weird, quirky little facts buried in your work that I never would have thought of in a million years.

In your Wonder Woman book, for example, learning that the guy who created Wonder Woman was a bondage enthusiast who also created the lie detector makes the Lasso of Truth suddenly like, "Oh! Okay." Do you have a favorite weird quirky little fact that you’ve uncovered?

Jill Lepore

I have a point of pride, when I work on an essay for the magazine, that I have to have something in every essay that I found in the archives that no one had ever found before. It’s a dumb pride thing.

So like in this [recent] debate piece, I read exhaustively on the history of debate. I read a lot of proposals, white papers from think tanks about how debates should be arranged — but my one archival thing, which I just loved: This woman named Dorothy Ridings, Dot Ridings, she lives in Louisville. She’s retired now. She was a newspaper editor and was head of the League of Women Voters for a long time. She’s on the Commission on Presidential Debates now.

It turns out her papers are at the Schlesinger Library, which is at [the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard]. They hadn’t really been processed yet. They’re just a few boxes, not labeled, you can pore through them — that’s my favorite kind of papers, because you know that no one else has ever looked at them. She had a couple folders that were labeled "presidential debates."

The League of Women Voters is responsible for the fact that we have general election presidential debates. They revived them in 1976, and they ran them through the '80s, when the Commission on Presidential Debates took over, but they made them institutional. That we have them every four years is because of them.

But they really struggled, because there was a lot of contempt for the League of Women Voters. "This is whatever, some kind of ladies’ auxiliary," as the campaign wonks would have thought of it. They pushed [the league] around all the time: "Here’s what we’re gonna do with the debates," and the league would be like, "No, we’re not gonna do that." "No, we’re gonna do that, because we don’t care what you think."

In Dot Ridings’s papers, it’s hilarious. She kept notes when she talked on the phone with the campaign managers. They had come up with a plan where the campaigns would have a right to veto any proposed moderator, and her papers are just great. Just yellow-lined paper, pages and pages of her saying, "What about Brit Hume?" "No." "What about Lesley Stahl?" "No." She’s on the phone with these guys, vetting.

It has this immediacy to it. So in writing the piece, you can say — it’s not a killer line in the piece, probably no one will even notice it — but you can say, "For a long time the league struggled with the campaigns over who would choose the moderators."

Or you can quote from this cool document in an archive! That’s the kind of thing that I groove on. And in this instance I get to say, "And it’s at the Schlesinger Library," which is a really important place that people don’t really know about. I love being able to herald and celebrate those places and people’s papers.

On why we need the humanities

Constance Grady

Since the Human/Ties conference is about the role of the humanities today, do you have a couple of words about what role the humanities can and should serve?

Jill Lepore

I’ve been fascinated by the different moves that people in the humanities make to try to state that claim [that the humanities are valuable], that generally involve ways of knowing and arguing that come from other realms aside from the humanities.

"I know, let’s quantify it! Let’s figure out what our enrollments are, and then let’s look at salaries of graduates." There’s a lot of "let’s lean on the social sciences to help us prove the case that the humanities are important," which I think is an error. It yields the field.

You can’t cram Shakespeare down somebody’s throat. You can’t. But you can think about: What are the ways in this society that we ask one another about what it means to be human? And the places where that happens are, on the whole, imperiled.

So isn’t the university a place that needs to find out how to help people find what they’re looking for? People are looking for truth and beauty and goodness. You’ve got to believe that to think that this stuff is important. If they’re not looking for that, and they just want the McKinsey job, then all right, then skip Shakespeare.

But if they are like all other humans at all times and places across human history, then they’re looking for truth and beauty and goodness. And our job is to help them figure out where to look.

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