Friday, January 04, 2013

Je T'Adore, Jill Lepore

We have already hinted at our unwholesome admiration for Jill Lepore, the Harvard professor and New Yorker columnist.  Her essays combine erudition, depth and wit in a way that is rare even among our other favorites.  She goes deeper than, say, Adam Gopnik and yet carries it off more lightly than Marilynne Robinson.

So, naturally, we are smitten.  Please don't tell Mother Anonymous, or this could turn ugly.

Dr. Lepore -- may we call you Jill?  No?  How awkward -- has further endeared herself to us by publishing her New Yorker essays in a single volume, called The Story of America.  (Her conceit is that they are held together by the common theme of storytelling, or really self-representation, in American history.)  Her subjects range from Jamestown and Plymouth to Obama's inaugural address, but they also range widely: the history of "American Studies" as a discipline, Edgar Allan Poe's almost compulsive lying, the real detective behind Charlie Chan.

She has actually improved upon these pieces here, by arranging them not in the order they were published, but in the order of the events they describe -- and improved upon them even more by adding a solid index and better-than-solid footnotes.  (Her publishers, Princeton University Press, deserve great praise; notes and indices are too often omitted these days, especially in books intended for a general audience).

Now, we had previously imagined that anyone with Jill Lepore's smarts must be a sixty-something bluestocking, birdlike from a life of scholarly asceticism, gray hair pulled back in a severe bun, and most hampered in conversation by her dubious social skills.  We loved her this way.  To our shock, the dust-jacket photo reveals her to be young and pretty with a playful hint of affability in her smile.  We love her just as much, with a love so much more than love that it practically demands a kingdom by the sea.  (Forgive us; she spends a lot of time on Poe and Dickens.)

But it was this simile, near the beginning, that made us Jill Lepore's love-slave forever.  About the author of Common Sense, she writes:
Thomas Paine is, at best, a lesser Founder.  In the comic book version of history that serves as America's national heritage, where the Founding Fathers are like  the Hanna-Barbera SuperFriends, Paine is Aquaman to Washington's Superman and Jefferson's Batman; we never find out how he got his super powers, and he only shows up when they need someone who can swim.
Take me, Dr. Lepore.  Take me now.

No comments: