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This thoroughly enjoyable book is a collection of essays previously published in New Yorker magazine. The text is a jumble of subjects Lepore seems to have bumped into while professing at Harvard, then turned into articles targeted for popular consumption paid for by a venerable magazine. Subjects vary widely: Edgar Allan Poe, the history of voting, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, debtor’s prisons, Kit Carson, presentation of the U.S. in school plays, and some others. Despite being popular history, Lepore did research on all of them and has her subjects in hand. She writes drolly with good, insightful metaphors—both her own and others’. For example: In the pantheon of American “superhero” Founding Fathers, she writes, Tom Paine is a lesser demigod only made use of occasionally, like Aquaman. Another example: she quotes farmer/ex-Revolutionary soldier William Manning in the 1790s: “It [the Constitution] was made like a Fiddle, with but few Strings, but so that the ruling Majority could play any tune upon it they please.” Surprisingly, her book is free of political bias, a seeming prerequisite for a person who 1) has a Ph.D. in American Studies, and 2) chairs the history department at Harvard. I scrutinize history books assiduously, just waiting for some injected political nonsense to appear and ruin them so I can grind my teeth. I had nary an objection to Lepore’s book. Want to read a well written, entertaining collection of informative historical essays, read well by a narrator? Here is one worth the price.
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