I’ve long since added Jill Lepore to my list of people younger than I who fruitlessly I want to be when grow up. (Others include legal star Kimberle Crenshaw and my J-school classmate Jina Moore.) So it made sense when I learned, preparing to write this, that she’s one of ours – a ROTC dropout like Bayard Rustin, a 1980s Reagan-resister like Jeff Sharlet, a Warrior Writer. She only went to college, she told an interviewer in 2005, because “I won an ROTC scholarship:
I really liked ROTC, actually, except I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in the military. Loved boot camp; hated SDI, the Strategic Defense Initiative. So, freshman year, there I was, in ROTC, playing sports, failing all my classes, when I got a letter in the mail. Or, well, my mother got it, and she forwarded it to me. It was from me.
In high school, I had an English teacher who was that once-in-a-lifetime teacher who shapes everything that ever happens to you. He had given us an assignment to write a letter to ourselves five years in the future, or four years into the future, whatever it was. And he was not going to read it. We had to give him money for stamps, adjusted, I thought somewhat suspiciously, for inflation. I mean, good for him, but he charged us like fifty cents. Anyway, we addressed the letters to our parents’ houses. I had completely forgotten about that letter because—did I mention?—I have a terrible memory.
Turns out, it was a very scary letter. It said, more or less, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ and it went on like that, scolding, berating: ‘If you’re not actually doing what you’re supposed to be doing, quit everything and figure out your life for God’s sake. Get on with it!’ Apparently, I was a very difficult fourteen-year-old, but not altogether lacking in foresight. It was as if I had known that I would still be the jock who was reading in the dark. So I quit. I quit ROTC. I quit sports. I had been a math major; I switched to English.
This didn’t make me ‘become a historian.’ But later, when I thought about what I did want to do, I remembered that letter, that time capsule, and I wondered what it would be like to read old letters all day, other people’s letters, to listen to the past, and I knew I wanted to do that.
Like many, I discovered Lepore through her brilliant historical-context pieces for The New Yorker, one of which led me to her lovely Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin. On my way there, I did note that she named herself a fellow member of the I’m-Only-Happy-When-it-Rains Club, or what my friend Joshua Phillips calls “The House of Slytherin.” She describes why she took so long to be truly interested in Ben Franklin’s semi-literate sister: at Harvard in the late 1980s, “I was sick of attics, sick of blighted girlhood….I wanted to study war. I wanted to investigate atrocity. I wanted to write about politics.” So her first books were about documenting the atrocity-born “New World,” about 18-century New York City set afire by abolitionism and untrammeled commerce. She’d already read all the work of William Apess, the main figure of my second chapter , and in 2005 published a book answering in depth my questions about Apess’ final work, “In Defense of King Philip.”
In 1836, Apess was writing about Metacom, the Wampanoug warrior who led perhaps the last serious effort by those indigenous to “New England” against the colonists there in the 1670s. His essay is one of thousands of documents Lepore illuminates in The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity, Lepore’s exploration of both the facts behind those early wars and the way ‘Philip”s defeat has been memorialized by waves of writers after. Including, as we learn from the image at left, Paul Revere, who 100 years after Philip’s defeat took up his image a s a herald of resistance to the British. Lepore does so with her signature clarity, giving generous voice to Philip’s numerous chroniclers, including Revere, Apess, and the thoroughly unpleasant Increase Mather, who saw Indians as savages from hell and the war against them holy. More important, she lifts beautifully the scraps and fragments that help us understand a little of that earlier world, strewing details that startle: how long Philip’s severed head loomed over Kennett Square, or how many natives of Massachusetts and Connecticut were sold by the Puritans into slavery in the Caribbean. It all goes down like an insomniac bedtime story, with endnotes nearly as mesmerizing as the text. I actually read The Name of War a few months after the equally absorbing Jane Franklin book, in which those scraps and fragments are of seemingly humbler stuff — but the second book is as much about power, memory,identity as the other. And as much about violence, if you count the sort of semi-voluntary servitude that as 13 successive pregnancies and the multiple child deaths that followed. The difference, in some ways, is that Jane Franklin did write her own story, in a language we can read and greatly helped by a writer who persuades us that her story is no less a biography of America.