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The Story of America: Essays on Origins

4.07 of 5 stars 4.07  ·  rating details  ·  159 ratings  ·  39 reviews

In "The Story of America," Harvard historian and "New Yorker" staff writer Jill Lepore investigates American origin stories--from John Smith's account of the founding of Jamestown in 1607 to Barack Obama's 2009 inaugural address--to show how American democracy is bound up with the history of print. Over the centuries, Americans have read and written their way into a politi
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Hardcover, 416 pages
Published October 7th 2012 by Princeton University Press
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Newengland
The Story of America consists of 20 essays Jill Lepore wrote for The New Yorker. If you like history, you'll find it interesting, if surface-skimming, material. That is, Lepore is not diving in deep here, she's making her point in 15 pages or so, and moving on.

Me, I bought it strictly in hopes of using some essays for school, but Lepore's writing, as a rule, is a bit above your average 8th grader's ken. That's not to say I can't use certain excerpts. I can (and will). In these dark (bright? yet
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Mike
My history teacher mantra, which I repeat often to my students’ amusement, is “History is not just a bunch of stuff that happened… it’s the stories we tell ourselves about what happened.” In Jill Lepore, I have found a kindred spirit. In the essays that comprise “The Story of America”, Lepore explores many of the stories that make up Americans’ knowledge of our history. Along the way, she fills in many gaps and emends many misconceptions- but never in a sophomoric “Lies My Teacher Told Me” fashi ...more
Robert

A collection of short essays by one of our best 'storytelling' historians, this work is a joy to read. All but one essay appeared in The New Yorker; the exception, the Longfellow, appeared in The American Scholar. Although the author is a Harvard history professor, these essays are not 'academic history'. Although they embody solid scholarship and fresh insights, they are best characterized as 'historical stories'. Are written in a style so entertaining that it rivals the best fiction in its app
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Kelly
This was by no means an easy read, but it was immensely satisfying. Each essay revealed something I didn't know or straightened out some misconception I picked up in high school history.

My favorite quote:
"Thomas Paine is, at best, a lesser Founder. In the comic-book version of history that serves as our national heritage, where the Founding Fathers are like the Hanna-Barbera Super Friends, Paine is Aquaman to Washington’s Superman and Jefferson’s Batman; we never find out how he got his superpo
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Alexandra
This is probably one of the most well-written books I have ever read. I just enjoyed the way the author wrote. Even if you don't care much for history, you'll appreciate the writing style. The writing is what really earned the 4 stars.

The information given in the book was interesting. I found that I already knew a lot of it. But there were some small facts that I didn't know, which I really enjoyed.
Jeremy
Don't tell my wife: I am in love with Jill Lepore. I have been since I read her debut book, The Name of War, during my senior year of college back in 2003.

Since then I have feasted upon her New Yorker essays whenever I stumbled on them. This book, which assembles many of those essays, is a beautiful thing to behold: a brilliant mind at play—and a historian who can write with grace. She collapses space and time to explain how we Americans came to be who we are, or try to be, or fail to be.

Essay
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Byron Edgington
Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History, Harvard College Professor, and chair of Harvard's History and Literature Program, and a staff writer at The New Yorker. One of the more engaging and literate writers to be found, The Story of America: Essays on Origins, Ms Lepore has given us her version of the origin and continuing rewrite of the American Narrative. This collection of essays travels a somewhat different route than others, mining the origins of certain Amer ...more
Leif Erik
Lepore simply rehashed a bunch her New Yorker essays for this one, so rating it is akin to judging a Greatest Hits package, but I am fond of her flavor of Kool Aid . Her take on the various aspects of American history is at once wry and tinged with disappointment with lousy decisions (Dred Scot, etc) that have been made over the centuries. Think Sarah Vowell with more intellectual firepower, less snark.
Will
Aphoristic but not anti-intellectual, The Story of America is a modern classic of American storytelling. For anyone who thinks the 20th century marks the point at which history becomes relevant for being a well-informed citizen, read this book. Take it in small doses, read it straight through, it doesn't matter. It's brilliant.
jill
This book examined various documents, historical events and historical personages that have become part of our narrative of American history. Lepore examines ways in which historical evidence and narrative overlap and also part ways. Some of the essays are obviously adapted from book reviews the author presumably published first in the New Yorker, in which she gives her opinion of the thesis and historiography of a book about, for example, Thomas Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemmings. In ...more
Laura
Great fun. Lepore examines key documents or stories and reinterprets them. The last essay in the book is about presidential inaugural addresses, which she organizes around the struggles of ... James Garfield? It's an example of how Lepore often chooses the unusual or surprising specimen to show us something true about the whole. She's also voracious and democratic in the material she bring in for scrutiny--from dime novels to Poor Richard's Almanac, from hackneyed poems to oral histories of Afri ...more
Rj
Lepore is a masterful story teller and historian. In this book each chapter stand on its own looking at particular historical characters or events to illuminate the greater story of American history. A really good book for anyone interested in American history and how it is written.
Betsy
I enjoyed this set of essays that analyze and, in some cases, debunk a mix of the myths and pillars of American history and tell the story of how each one came to be thought of as it is today. The subject taken up by Lepore include the George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, the poet Longfellow, debt, and inaugural addresses. My favorite essays were the ones about election practices (did you know that secret ballots are relatively recent in American voting?) and Charlie Chan. Most of these essays ...more
Steve
A delightful series of essays about the various ways we have written about and interpret our origins as a nation. I think she illustrates through a seres of essays about significant writings in our history, and not always those one would expect, that we are what we have created from the literary imaginations of our people striving to bring the ideals of democracy, freedom, justice, and equality before the law to fruition in a rapidly changing world and a nation of changing political and social v ...more
Judy Seguin
If you like history, you'll love this book. It's a collection of the author's essays, all previously published in The New Yorker magazine. Great storytelling with lots of new and interesting facts about our history and those who made it.
Graham Polando
Fascinating and incredibly well-written. Extra points for the high degree of difficulty, intelligently weaving history and historiography. It’s not completely perfect--the reinterpretation of Longfellow is unconvincing and the history of bankruptcy got a bit dry--but it’s close. Very, very highly recommended.
Andrew
The best parts of this book were wild romps through American history, opening my eyes to things I didn't know much about (Kit Carson, Clarence Darrow beyond the monkey trial, etc.). I loved Lepore's focus on historiography—detailing the role historians have played in generating, transforming, and debunking fundamental American myths. Some of the chapters, especially early on, strayed a bit from my expectations, but most were spot on. The book picks up steam as it goes and I read the final chapte ...more
Gretchen
Lepore is so smart, and this is my kind of history--back to the actual texts, or authors, that we all presume to know without having read them.

Would like to use some of these in class, but New Yorker style is so idiosyncratic and subtle, so resolutely meandering, it may be frustrating for even my honors students. (And as far as a model for writing, they're certainly a "don't try this at home (...yet)" examples.
Megan
Jill Lepore's "In the Name of War" is one of my favorite books I was assigned in college, so I picked up this book of essays with high hopes. These were fantastically written--although I skipped the one that started rehashing a part of "The Warmth of Other Suns", which I read earlier this year.

This was great fun, and I could have read a whole book by Lepore about Poe. Anyways, I recommend this to my friends who don't read history regularly; it was interesting, accessible, and well-written.
Katie
This is my second Jill Lepore book (thank you, Coogan!) and I enjoyed it just as much as "The Whites of Their Eyes." I learned a lot about individuals I both did and didn't already know, and Lepore's entertaining writing style added an extra layer of enjoyment for me throughout the book. Anyone who wants to understand America just a little more and what it might mean to be American, read this book. It doesn't try to provide answers, only to provide some stories and possibilities.
Francisco Cardona
A great collection of essays that examines how figures in American history came to be imagined by a nation. Jill Lepore looks how historians have had a great hand in shaping these figures, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Anybody interested in writing history would love reading these essays and you don't have start at the beginning, the chapters can be read independent of each other so you can bounce from Bradford to Dickens to Paine.
Larry
Jill Lepore wrote the essays in "The Story of America" for the New Yorker. Like her longer, prize-winning works ("The Name of War" and "New York Burning"), the essays are elegantly written and engagingly conceived. Unlike most books of occasional pieces, they adhere as a whole, too. Lepore is the most interesting of active historians (in company with Eric Foner and David Hackett Fisher, though a generation or so younger), and is always worth reading.
Petrea
I found these essays very interesting--mostly they looked at the way historians have treated various topics, and events, and how their treatment has changed over the years. Examples include Washington and Jefferson. She pointed out some interesting relationships.

I didn't know that our way of voting came from Australia for example. I listened to this book--now I wish I had it in hand to thumb through and remember some of my favorite parts.
Megan
Wonderful! Lepore has a talent for telling compelling stories, and I was already a huge fan of her work in the New Yorker. I absolutely enjoyed this book and learned quite a bit about the real/untold history of the USA. My only caution would be that when you read this book, your "To Read" list will increase dramatically, as she cites from many interesting sources. If you like history, or even if you just like a well-told story, this book is a pleasure.
Tim
Shades of brilliance but too often she tailors her ideas into her own thought process about the subject at hand. What could be a an expansive essay into the unknown of the past gets trammeled by her forays into her own deeply held political beliefs -- in essence, Lepore is guilty of that most grievous of historian's sins - ahistoricizing by imputing one's current beliefs and mores into the past.
Bruce
Jul 02, 2013 Bruce added it
20 short essays on American history, mostly on people but occasionally on themes like inaugural addresses and America's high murder rate. She does a good job of giving people like John Smith, Edgar Allen Poe and the author of the Charlie Chan series a second look before they're snowed under by conventional wisdom. The book is sloppily edited.
Edward Sullivan
A great collection of essays previously published in The New Yorker in which Lepore assesses how American history has been told by historians, literary figures, and others. Lepore is as masterful a writer and storyteller as she is a historian. Lively, funny, thoughtful, and provocative, a genuine pleasure to read.
Pete
i think i'd read maybe half of these in the new yorker already but this is a book of intelligent, richly contextualized essays on how americans narrativize their experiences. particularly dug the edgar allan poe sketch, which made me laugh out loud repeatedly at what a enormous shithead EAP was.
Macee
I will read anything Lepore writes. She is a Harvard professor and staff writer for the New Yorker, and she infuses history with humor and excellent research and synthesis. This book is a collection of origin essays, so it is heavy on early American content, but not limited to that era.
Peter Mcloughlin
This collection of essays by historian Jill Lepore contains some interesting odds and ends of American history. It is fun for history buffs and the writing is good. Anyone who likes a good essay and is interested in American history will get some enjoyment from this book.
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Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History, Harvard College Professor, and chair of Harvard's History and Literature Program. She is also a staff writer at The New Yorker.

Winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Award for the best non-fiction book on race, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; The Name of War (Knopf, 1998), winner of the Bancroft Prize, the Ralph Waldo Emerson P
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More about Jill Lepore...
Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin The Secret History of Wonder Woman The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History

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“Still, it strikes me that, taken together, they do make an argument, and it is this: the rise of American democracy is bound up with the history of reading and writing, which is one of the reasons the study of American history is inseparable from the study of American literature. In the early United States, literacy rates rose and the price of books and magazines and newspapers fell during the same decades that suffrage was being extended. With everything from constitutions and ballots to almanacs and novels, American wrote and read their way into a political culture inked and stamped and pressed in print.” 3 likes
“Politics is a story about the relationship between the past and the future; history is a story about the relationship between the past and the present. It’s what history and politics share - a vantage on the past - that makes writing the history of politics fraught. And it’s what they don’t share that makes the study of history vital. Politics is accountable to opinion; history is accountable to evidence.” 1 likes
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