Author, Harvard Professor Jill Lepore on the Historical Record and the Direction of the Future


Jill Lepore

Sam Bisno, Editor-in-Chief

“It might sound inflammatory, but I truly believe that we will one day look back on social media as we now look back on slavery.”

If there’s one thing Jill Lepore isn’t, it’s afraid to make her opinions known.

The author, New Yorker staff writer, and Harvard professor graciously stopped by Obama on Monday for a question and answer session with a group of juniors and seniors. She was in town for a Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures seminar.

Most of the students in attendance had read at least some of her most recent book, These Truths: A History of the United States, which, as its name suggests, offers a political history of America beginning in 1492. In it, Lepore often references the inherent flaws in the historical record that emanate from the simple fact that different areas of the world developed systems of writing at different points, and that for the vast majority of human history nothing was written down. Thus, many student questions centered around Lepore’s contribution to this imperfect archive, from how she determines what to include in books to how she remains unbiased in her work.

Throughout the discussion, Lepore was unabashed in pointing out what she sees as shortcomings in the historical community. When she was writing her 2005 book New York Burning, about slavery in New York, she says she had to look past the traditional narrative of New York as a progressive force and read in between the lines of the testimonies of slaves being accused of arson to piece together truths about the vibrant African-American community that existed in the state long before Emancipation.

She also warned against presentism, saying that it’s necessary to understand how individuals looked at the world in a given time period rather than projecting modern values onto past actions: “I try to let the dead speak for themselves.”

There were too many raised hands and not enough time as questions bounced from topic to topic: Lepore’s personal journey to becoming an author (she initially wanted to be a journalist but became enthralled with how events past have shaped today’s world), the logistics of working with publishers, the dangers of making assumptions when dealing with history, and, of course, social media, which Lepore believes to have “no redeeming qualities whatsoever.”

In response to one question about whether history does indeed “bend towards justice,” Lepore said that although certain aspects of 2019’s reality, such as climate change, are trending downward, “there were times in the past when it was much worse than it is now.”