A conversation with Jill Lepore

Historians in the News

Soon after earning her bachelor’s degree in English from Tufts, Jill Lepore started working at Harvard, but not as a member of the faculty. The future David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History was clocking hours as a secretary on temporary assignment. But she was also writing up a storm, auditing courses, and thinking about attending grad school. In a conversation that opens with high-school recollections before venturing into seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America, Lepore describes how she became the person she is today: a well-known scholar of early American history, a winner of the Bancroft Prize, a former

NEH research fellow, and the author of numerous essays and several distinguished books. She is also a staff writer at the New Yorker and, with fellow historian Jane Kamensky, the coauthor of Blindspot, a work of historical fiction set in Revolution-era Boston.
HUMANITIES: Where were you born and where did you grow up?

JILL LEPORE: I was born outside of Worcester, Massachusetts, and grew up there.

HUMANITIES: Where did you go for undergrad?

LEPORE: I went to Tufts.

HUMANITIES: And when did you decide to become a historian? Don’t worry, the high school newspaper-style questions will stop soon after this one.

LEPORE: It’s funny you should ask that. I had to give a talk at my high school last year, and the high school newspaper-style question they wanted me to answer was just like that: How did the person that you were in high school become the person that you are now?

I had no idea. I have a terrible memory. But this talk was for kids who were trying to imagine who they might become, and it seemed like a good question. So, I did some research to try to find an answer. I went through the archive of my high school life, which was this diary that I kept, this immensely ponderous and agonized, horrible diary. And my mother had kept my report cards and every letter I ever wrote home, and my varsity letters, too, in a box in her attic. I opened it up and I read through everything. It was hilarious or, at least, my mother thought it was funny, in the way that your mother finds something funny that you find mortifying.

There was a public record and a private record; that’s how history always works. In the public record I was a total jock. There were all these newspaper clippings because I played sports. And the report cards: Well, I was not an especially excellent student. And then there was a private record, letters to my best friend and the diary, oh, the dreadful, endless diary, and the me that’s in the diary is a compulsive, nonstop reader and a manic writer and all I do is read and write about what I’m reading. I hadn’t remembered it that way, but I guess that’s what high school is like—floating in the uncomfortable space between the public you and the private you—and why it stinks. Anyway, I did find a story, a story to tell about how I decided to become a historian.

I went to college, but I didn’t want to go; I wasn’t sure what college was for, and we didn’t have any money. I went because I won an ROTC scholarship—and 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.

HUMANITIES: Was there maybe a history class project that gave this new pro-intellectual direction some specificity?

LEPORE: No. I never had a grand ambition to become a historian. But I did always want to be a writer. I wanted to be a writer when I was six years old. When I was a little kid, all I did was write stories, and hide them. That letter didn’t turn me into a historian; it turned me into a secretary. Quitting ROTC meant that I had to graduate from college early because there wasn’t any money, and I worked and worked, to pay that tuition. And then I worked as a secretary for a while. I worked here, in fact, as a secretary at Harvard.


LEPORE: Yeah, really. But what I actually did all day was write really bad stories, essays, plays, anything, when no one was looking. That was fun, until one day. I was working as a secretary at the Harvard Business School, a truly horrible job, as a long-term temp, although, to be fair, I’ve had far worse jobs. Anyway, there was really very little to do, except answer the phone and pay this guy’s Visa bill. So one day I was sitting there writing some crap piece of fiction in between paying this guy’s $18,000 Visa bill, when the Manpower people show up with flowers in a vase of crystal because I’ve won the Tiffany Award for best secretary.

And I just was, like, ‘Oh. No. I must quit.’ Like, ‘This is not okay. What am I doing?’

HUMANITIES: It’s like another letter.

LEPORE: Yes! It was like another letter saying, ‘Hold on. This is the wrong life.’ So, I decided I would go to graduate school, because I couldn’t figure out how to become a writer but, graduate school, there are forms to fill out; I could do that. I didn’t know anybody who was a writer. I didn’t have any social capital whatsoever. So, I went to graduate school, not in history because I didn’t have a degree in history. I don’t have any degrees in history. I went to graduate school in American studies because I had a degree in English, and I could conceivably get in, could write a persuasive essay about the study of the past, because, while I was a secretary at Harvard, I took a lot of books out of the library, and sat in on a lot of classes, in this history department and in the Harvard Extension School. I’m quite sure no one here knows I was ever in those classes; I was just some secretary, auditing a course. I very much doubt that I ever spoke in class. But, by then, I had become entirely fascinated by the past.

HUMANITIES: Let’s talk about your first book, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origin of American Identity. Twice this week I’ve mentioned King Philip’s War to people I consider well educated, and both said, ‘King Philip of Spain?’ Maybe we can start by having you explain who King Philip was.

LEPORE: Yeah, I can see my book about him really made a dent. Well, King Philip is referred to by many names in the course of his short lifetime. But his Algonquian or Wampanoag name is Metacom, or that’s the name he is using at the time he is killed in 1676. He’s a sachem of the Wampanoag Indians, who are also known as the Pokanoket in New England in the seventeenth century. He’s the son of Massasoit, who people have heard of because he’s the Indian at the first Thanksgiving in 1621 with William Bradford...

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