Blogs > Cliopatria > Another note on Jill Lepore's New Yorker review

Apr 29, 2006 5:16 am

Another note on Jill Lepore's New Yorker review

See Ralph Luker's post from April 26 for the URL to Jill Lepore's review of Nathanael Philbrick, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, in the current New Yorker.

In exquisite prose, rare among those in the historical profession, Lepore achieves multiple aims in these five pages. First, she weaves a masterful narrative setting Philbrick's current effort against the work of Harvard's fabled historian Samuel Morison. Second, she reminds us why her own scholarly work "crosses over," garnering awards among people in the scholarly profession and among regular folks who read nonfiction books on airplanes. Finally, she teaches. Never speaking down to her audience, she explains by hinting and pointing what historical research is all about, and why, when done carefully and rigorously, is a far cry from journalistic writing. Her piece is short, but full of insight on every page. It will be a standard on my reading lists for undergraduates in years to come.

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Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs - 4/29/2006

For an alternative view on Professor Jill Lepore's achievements in her non-review of Nathaniel Philbrick's book, see my comment at the end of Ralph Luker's post from April 26.

Disclaimer: I think Philbrick wrote a good book aimed at a popular audience. Many will learn much from it that they didn't get in school. But I don't think the history of Plymouth Colony is most important as a forerunner of later American developments, whether described by Philbrick, Morison, or Willison. That's not primarily what Philbrick's book is about. Concentrating on two particular memoires, those of William Bradford and Benjamin Church, it tells a focussed but fascinating story. It's not some other book. It's not a history of the colony to its end in 1691, not an analysis of Separatist theology, not a study of group origins, not a study of the development of towns in the colony. But it should not be dismissed as journalistic hack work. Philbrick's research was thorough and I was among the people he consulted. I have read the manuscript at a late stage. If he chose to ignore Lepore's fashionable psychologizing about King Philip's War, it is not because he was unfamiliar with her point of view. Moreover, to suggest that he was unaware of the nature of the Benjamin Church narrative, and needs a lecture in how to do historical research, is unwarranted.

When she wrote about King Philip's War, Lepore did not use the full archival evidence about Native land loss. That is understandable, as it was not published until 2002. That she considers Samuel Eliot Morison a reliable guide to Pilgrim history, however, may be a consequence of not being seriously involved in the study of Plymouth Colony. (It wasn't Massassoit who taught the Pilgrims how to plant maize, for example.)

The valuable remarks Lepore makes to remind people of the complexities of Samuel Eliot Morison's study of history might be worthy of Mr. Wineburg's students' time. But her article is not much about Philbrick's book.

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