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These Truths: a History of the United States

by Jill Lepore

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1,0062815,642 (4.33)161
Written in elegiac prose, Lepore's groundbreaking investigation places truth itself--a devotion to facts, proof, and evidence--at the center of the nation's history. The American experiment rests on three ideas--"these truths," Jefferson called them--political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. And it rests, too, on a fearless dedication to inquiry, Lepore argues, because self-government depends on it. But has the nation, and democracy itself, delivered on that promise?These Truths tells this uniquely American story, beginning in 1492, asking whether the course of events over more than five centuries has proven the nation's truths, or belied them. To answer that question, Lepore traces the intertwined histories of American politics, law, journalism, and technology, from the colonial town meeting to the nineteenth-century party machine, from talk radio to twenty-first-century Internet polls, from Magna Carta to the Patriot Act, from the printing press to Facebook News.Along the way, Lepore's sovereign chronicle is filled with arresting sketches of both well-known and lesser-known Americans, from a parade of presidents and a rogues' gallery of political mischief makers to the intrepid leaders of protest movements, including Frederick Douglass, the famed abolitionist orator; William Jennings Bryan, the three-time presidential candidate and ultimately tragic populist; Pauli Murray, the visionary civil rights strategist; and Phyllis Schlafly, the uncredited architect of modern conservatism.Americans are descended from slaves and slave owners, from conquerors and the conquered, from immigrants and from people who have fought to end immigration. "A nation born in contradiction will fight forever over the meaning of its history," Lepore writes, but engaging in that struggle by studying the past is part of the work of citizenship. "The past is an inheritance, a gift and a burden," These Truths observes. "It can't be shirked. There's nothing for it but to get to know it."… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 27 (next | show all)
By too many reviewers this book has been held up as a 1-volume history of America, from Columbus to Trump. Actually, it's much more of a history of ideas, specifically of the founding and guiding of "truths," and as such, it flows through the centuries with insight and perspective. Lepore's an excellent writer, building transitions and inserting humorous commentary that delighted this reader.

"Columbus widened the world, Gutenberg made it spin faster." (p. 13)
"Dewey ... proved about as good a campaigner as a pail of paint." (p. 541)

Ultimately, I came away from my reading depressed by the contradictions in our quest for the truths of freedom and equality, also reconsidering what for me were more the footnotes of history ... things like polls, progressivism, and Phyllis Schlafly.

"By 1992, more than four decades after it began, the Cold War, unimaginably, was over. Missile by missile, the silos began to close, their caves abandoned. The skies cleared. And the oceans rose." (p. 690)

Finally, this about Bill Clinton, who — at least indirectly — Lepore holds responsible for the rise of Fox News and the power of super-partisanship:
“A white southerner from a humble background, he appealed to the party’s old base. An Ivy League-educated progressive with a strong record on civil rights, he appealed to the party’s new base. And yet he was, all along, a rascal.” (p. 697) “In 1996, CNN had 60M subscribers; MSNBC, 25M; and Fox, 17M. Two years later, a news story broke that led to a 400% increase in Fox’s prime-time ratings.” (p. 708) “Clinton’s foolishness, irresponsibility, and recklessness in this affair was difficult to fathom.” (p. 709) ( )
  markburris | Jul 11, 2021 |
Writing a history of the United States is a little like a mosaic puzzle my son has: you can assemble the pieces to make multiple pictures, though not all arrangements make sense. In the case of the single volume history, you also have a frame that's too small for all the pieces. The author has to choose what to select and highlight, and this inevitably means some aspects are glossed over.

In These Truths, Jill Lepore has stuck to the traditional chronological format, but her organizing principle is around several recurring themes. The overarching concept is of the development of what it means to be an American. This is a boldly liberal book--and by that I do not mean slavishly devoted to a particular type of politics, but to confronting the reality of our history, even when it is uncomfortable. From day one, racism and its companion, slavery, were baked into our politics and our institutions. It was woven into the structure of our elected government, as the South gained additional political power from black people who could not elect those who represented them, and those Southern politicians were able to block legislation. Liberals and progressives are not excused either--they were routinely willing to throw black people and their rights under the bus. While Lepore doesn't make a point of saying "the more things change, the more they stay the same," she does often highlight issues that have contemporary parallels: complaints about liberals overrunning the universities; religious awakenings; the belief that government is the road to new slavery.

There are gaps; notably, military history gets almost no mention at all. But at this length, it's difficult to argue with what's left out. She does devote more time to a few topics--such as the birth of political analysis and polling--that another writer might have chosen to leave out, but it is very much relevant to contemporary politics.

Lepore is a terrific writer--this is a popular history in the best sense. It is meant to be read and enjoyed. I don't know if this is going to supplant Howard Zinn as a go-to single volume history; only time will tell. But it's very much worth a reading today. ( )
  arosoff | Jul 11, 2021 |
These Truths , a history of the United States of America by Jill LePore, starts with Columbus‘s arrival and ends with Trump being elected. This is a big picture overview of US History that also attempts to include histories ignored or downplayed by some past historians/histories (i.e. that of women, people of color). A single volume project this ambitious does leave out, or not cover as deeply, some incidents or ideology. So, of course, different readers are going to say or have said that LePore should have included this or that. That's understandable.

My copy was the first edition in paperback, which was revised from the original hardcover edition. This was to correct errors, and also --according to LePore-- it added or deleted some historical aspects. ( )
  ValerieAndBooks | Jul 2, 2021 |
中文版: 真理的史詩:從創建殖民地到獨立戰爭,從解放黑奴到民粹雲起,一段歷經五百年驗證、淬鍊的美國全史
  natalieliu | Jun 9, 2021 |
This is a great book and you should definitely read it. Be prepared to make a commitment - it's a tome, almost 800 pages of text and another 100+ of footnotes, credits, etc. Lepore knowingly took on a challenge, cover the entire history of the United States in one volume. While that's indeed both a strength and an accomplishment it's also one source of problems, weaknesses. She had to leave some things out to achieve that goal. Some of the omissions just are jarring, more about that later.

Back to the strengths. Lepore is a great writer. Easy to read even when the subject is off putting. She makes extensive use of metaphor making it easy to understand even obtuse topics. Two that stand out are seeing the internet as an amusement park, squeals included, and the future as the building a wooden sailboat. Both get to the point. But it made me wonder at times about what Wallace Stegner, Stanford professor of creative writing, said about writing. When asked about whether his books were fiction or autobiographical Stegner explained he always preferred fiction to non-fiction because the truth was too constraining and he could always imagine a better arc to the story. Was Lepore erring on the side of a better arc? I kept wondering.

The book is essentially chronological with lots of side trips. And like any good author who has a gun appear in act one it eventually goes off in act three. Like Hillary Rodham Clinton as a teenager supporting Nixon in 1960 and investigating what happened in Chicago. Of course she appears later when it's her turn. These hints of the future seem to be part of a message, the future was brewing all the time, it just wasn't soup yet. At times the side trips were distracting, are we going here now? Did we finish with that already, or is there more? I kept on looking ahead or off to the index hoping there would be more about something further on.

Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is it fills in missing information. This is especially true regarding the long history of Blacks in every aspect of American history and the women who have always been there, we just hadn't been told what they did. You will definitely learn something new, even if you thought you knew everything before.

Lepore does have some axes to grind. She sees computers, polling, consultants and advertising as detrimental to democracy. She never gives us a better alternative but she does believe they do not help us. She also sees the downside of totally unfiltered news sources. She is ready to see them as diluting natural discourse and enabled by the internet. She attributes the news environment's decline to these forces. Curiously she misses entirely Craig's list's destroying the business model print journalism had been built upon.

And now back to omissions. Craig's list is mentioned in passing but it's impact is missed entirely. Here are just a few things never (or barely) mentioned - Elvis Pressley, Jackie Robinson, John Glen, Neil Armstrong, Gerrymandering, demographics. Instead we hear about more marginal players such as Jane Franklin and Ithiel de Sola Pool. Yes some thing's had to be omitted to fit everything in to one volume. I personally would have preferred a two volume set.

At last but not least it ends with Donald Trump. Fortunately life continued, even if the book didn't. ( )
  Ed_Schneider | Feb 20, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 27 (next | show all)
Lepore doesn’t cop to her own biases. Nor does she argue which systems of government are more insidious than others, though she has no trouble denouncing American slavery, American racism, Jim Crow, segregation and the on-going, never ending war (or so it seems) against African Americans. ...

If I were a good liberal I might say that my criticism of the book does not detract from its glory, and that it’s a triumph of scholarship. I can’t say that. I won’t say it. These Truths has moments of glory, but it will not help us as a nation and as a people to cut though the lies and the fake news of the Trump era.
 
Those devoted to an honest reckoning with America’s past have their work cut out for them. Lepore’s book is a good place to start.
added by aprille | editWashington Post, H.W. Brands (Sep 20, 2018)
 
It isn’t until you start reading it that you realize how much we need a book like this one at this particular moment.

This book is aimed at a mass audience, driven by anecdote and statistic, memoir and photograph, with all the giants of American history in their respective places. There wasn’t a moment when I struggled to keep reading.

We need this book. Its reach is long, its narrative fresh and the arc of its account sobering to say the least. This is not Whig history. It is a classic tale of a unique country’s astonishing rise and just-as-inevitable fall.
added by aprille | editNew York Times, Andrew Sullivan (pay site) (Sep 14, 2018)
 
This vivid history is a must-read for anyone wrestling with today's toxic political environment.
 
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Epigraph
We must disenthrall ourselves,

and then we shall save our country.


- Abraham Lincoln, 1862
Dedication
First words
"WE SAW NAKED PEOPLE," A BROAD-SHOULDERED SEA

captain from Genoa wrote in his diary, nearing land after weeks of staring at nothing but blue-black sea.
Quotations
"To write something down doesn't make it true. But the history of truth is lashed to the history of writing like a mast to a sail. ....

To write something down is to make a fossil record of the mind. Stories are full of power and force; they seethe with meaning, with truth and lies, evasions and honesty." p12
...it has been the question ever since...Can a political society really be governed by reflection and election, by reason and truth, rather than by accident and violence, by prejudice and deceit?" (introduction)
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Written in elegiac prose, Lepore's groundbreaking investigation places truth itself--a devotion to facts, proof, and evidence--at the center of the nation's history. The American experiment rests on three ideas--"these truths," Jefferson called them--political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. And it rests, too, on a fearless dedication to inquiry, Lepore argues, because self-government depends on it. But has the nation, and democracy itself, delivered on that promise?These Truths tells this uniquely American story, beginning in 1492, asking whether the course of events over more than five centuries has proven the nation's truths, or belied them. To answer that question, Lepore traces the intertwined histories of American politics, law, journalism, and technology, from the colonial town meeting to the nineteenth-century party machine, from talk radio to twenty-first-century Internet polls, from Magna Carta to the Patriot Act, from the printing press to Facebook News.Along the way, Lepore's sovereign chronicle is filled with arresting sketches of both well-known and lesser-known Americans, from a parade of presidents and a rogues' gallery of political mischief makers to the intrepid leaders of protest movements, including Frederick Douglass, the famed abolitionist orator; William Jennings Bryan, the three-time presidential candidate and ultimately tragic populist; Pauli Murray, the visionary civil rights strategist; and Phyllis Schlafly, the uncredited architect of modern conservatism.Americans are descended from slaves and slave owners, from conquerors and the conquered, from immigrants and from people who have fought to end immigration. "A nation born in contradiction will fight forever over the meaning of its history," Lepore writes, but engaging in that struggle by studying the past is part of the work of citizenship. "The past is an inheritance, a gift and a burden," These Truths observes. "It can't be shirked. There's nothing for it but to get to know it."

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