Jill Lepore

David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History and Harvard College Professor Jill Lepore is featured in the Decisions and Revisions writing series. She is pictured in her home in Cambridge.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Arts & Culture

The art of the matter

Historian Jill Lepore writes her arguments to life

long read

When she was a freshman at Tufts University, Jill Lepore received a scorching letter from Jill Lepore. Assigned by a high school English teacher, the note from her 14-year-old self chastised Lepore for neglecting what she loved. A math major and member of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, she dropped both and shifted to English. It was a wise choice.

Lepore is a staff writer for The New Yorker who also finds time to regularly produce widely admired books. The growing list includes “The Name of War” (1998), winner of the Bancroft Prize; “New York Burning” (2005), a Pulitzer Prize finalist; “The Story of America” (2012), short-listed for the PEN Literary Award for the Art of the Essay; “Book of Ages” (2013), a National Book Award finalist; “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” (2014); and “Joe Gould’s Teeth” (2016).

Lepore, the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History, answered questions on her past and present as a writer for the third installment in  “Decisions and Revisions.”


Jill Lepore

GAZETTE: You’ve said that for historical writing to be both compelling and worthwhile it has to combine “thick narratives with pregnant principles.” What does that mean?

LEPORE: I try to have the story make the argument. The telling of the story is the act of argument. That’s a thing that I have really worked on writing essays for The New Yorker over the years; it has really changed my writing. Because it’s a narrative magazine, the nonfiction has to take the form of story, but it has to argue, it has to tell you something you don’t know. If it works the way it’s supposed to, you don’t know that you’ve been told something, you just know it, as if you’d always known it. There’s a whole intricacy to that.

You know how, when you cook, you’re supposed to beat the eggs and the butter first, and then you put the dry ingredients in a separate bowl and then slowly mix them together? I am the kind of cook who puts everything in one bowl and mixes it up all at once — whatever, it’s all going to the same place. I am a terrible cook. But writing is like that, too, and I am fussy about writing. Eggs in one bowl, flour in another. That’s what I mean, about how it’s intricate: There are steps. You mix the wet stuff with the dry stuff, the story with the argument, but only at the right time, and in the right-size bowl. In an essay your reader is interested in getting to the end of the story, if you are telling a good story. What’s going to happen next? How is this all going to end? But your reader — unless it’s a person like me, who wants to read an academic journal article — is not actually interested in getting to the bottom of the argument.

Imagine you’ve made bread dough, but now you want to braid it. The story goes on a bit, and then the argument gets introduced, and then you tell a little more of the story, then you advance the argument, then you add another piece of the story. You can’t get to the end of the story before you get to the bottom of the argument. It requires a certain amount of precision and I love the challenge of that. I find that really, really interesting. But that’s a little bit harder to do and more complicated in a book. It’s why people read all of novels and only the first three pages of nonfiction books. How many nonfiction books have you bought where you think to yourself: “I read the introduction. I am done.” What are you waiting for to happen? You found out what you needed to find out, which is what this writer’s argument is. You are done! Narrative nonfiction is supposed to address that problem, by not telling you the argument on the first page and by convincing you that you need to read the whole book to find out what you needed to find out, which is what happened.

“There was no question of not doing it. If you really love writing, it’s like eating. You can’t live without doing it.”

GAZETTE: Are there people you look up to in that regard, people who do that really well?

LEPORE: Yes, tons of people. But because I am writing this history of the United States from 1492 to the present and I am in 1945, I was just reading John Hersey’s “Hiroshima.” Hersey was an incredibly talented field reporter, did a lot of reporting from the war. He’d worked for Time, and he wrote for The New Yorker, and they had him report about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from Japan. When the piece came in it was so good and so long they just threw away the whole issue they had planned and instead ran this one long story. It begins, “At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”

Even if you just read the first sentence, you can already see what he is doing, where this thing is going to go, what it’s going to do. This is for an audience of Americans who have interned their fellow Americans, Americans of Japanese descent, for the duration of the war, and whose war propaganda has been about the inhumanity of the Japanese. It’s the most striking sentence: You are just dropped into this incredibly ordinary day, people beginning their work day. You are taken on a tour of a whole cast of characters in different parts of the city. And then you are going to follow them through their day, and then you are going to understand his argument — which has to do with, among many other things, how time stopped, at eight-fifteen, and how the world that you thought you knew is not the world that you thought you knew.

GAZETTE: Where did your love of words originate?

LEPORE: My dad had a typewriter, which was unusual in our world; it was unusual that he had one at home. It must have been a typewriter he got after the war. He went to college on the G.I. Bill. So it was old. But it wasn’t off-limits. I loved to play on it when I was a kid. A typewriter is really fun for working on poetry and most of what little kids do with language is basically poetry. Also, I was fascinated by what it means to record something and put it down on paper, and keep it.

GAZETTE: Were there early books that were influential?

LEPORE: We had a little library in town that I could walk to. [Lepore grew up outside Worcester.] When I moved to the grown-up section from the juvenile section in the library it was really unclear to me what it was that I was supposed to read next. I was done reading Mark Twain. I was done reading Charles Dickens, the things that are in both places. But the books in the adult section are ordered by author, not like in the juvenile section where they are ordered by the age of the reader. I had read “Charlotte’s Web,” and so I looked for E.B. White. There was an E.B. White section, and so I read “Is Sex Necessary?,” a very silly book that E.B. wrote with James Thurber in 1929. It turns out the book is basically a critique of the idea that there are books that kids should not read, which I did not understand at the time. In any case, I ended up reading White’s collected essays, which led me as a kid on this whole detour into reading essays.

I love the essay as a form but I am a very untaught person about the essay as a form in the sense that I just tried to find books that had essays in them when I was a kid by wandering the stacks. The thing I did as a kid that has stuck with me because I am a little obsessive is when I found a writer whose writing I liked, I read everything they wrote. I liked George Orwell essays so I read all the other George Orwell books. Then I found out that he had given these addresses on the BBC during the 1930s. I thought, “I should read those, because I won’t be done with Orwell until I get to the end of Orwell.” So I used the intralibrary loan and got some volume of Orwell’s collected BBC addresses. I was that kind of weird kid.

GAZETTE: Any other books you remember?

LEPORE: In little strip mall at the far end of town someone opened up an Annie’s Book Swap. It sold used books, for pennies; you could also swap books. I remember reading Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, the kinds of books that would find their way to a place called Annie’s Book Swap. I really would read anything. I remember getting some very big but very cheap book about organizational behavior. I thought: “This will keep me going for a while” and “That’s got to be interesting, someone wrote a book about it.” Other kids worked on their bikes and were always trying to straighten the spokes and add a new seat and try out a new handle bar that they found at the dump. I went to Annie’s Book Swap.

GAZETTE: How did you learn to be a writer?

LEPORE: I learned an enormous amount from my high school English teacher Thomas Moore. He was incredible and I became a better reader, I think, from him. He taught a class in Russian literature. We read Gogol and Solzhenitsyn. I loved that class. I learned a lot of what I know about writing from him. Maybe if not in the particular, mechanical sense, I learned that people could care about writing. He really cared about language. Also, he noticed that I cared, too, and other people didn’t notice. I read secretly and wrote mostly secretly, too.

GAZETTE: Why in secret?

LEPORE: It was not a thing in my family. When I went to college, my mother took me to a used typewriter store in Worcester and I got a typewriter and brought it to college and discovered that all the other kids had computers. I loved that typewriter. I took an English literature class freshman year. I wrote some paper about “Beowulf” or something. I remember my professor, a cartoon English professor with his crazy white hair and his crazy white beard, asked me “Where did you learn to write like this?”

GAZETTE: Did you know you were good?

LEPORE: I don’t know, but there was no question of not doing it. If you really love writing, it’s like eating. You can’t live without doing it.

GAZETTE: So you had that sense really early on?

LEPORE: Yes. I was always like that. People always ask me, “How do you write so much? You are so virtuous.” My answer is, “It’s a vice.” It’s an addiction. I can’t not do it. If it was something else you would recognize it as a vice. It was more of a problem than anything else. And also, I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. I had no idea. When I was a kid I remember reading some Bantam paperback. I looked in the copyright page and got the address of the publisher and I sent them some ridiculous story I had written. This is how I thought you would become a writer — you would just get an address. Plus, a typewriter! Those were the things you needed to have to become a writer: a typewriter and an address. When I graduated from college I was really no better informed. I wanted to become a writer but I couldn’t figure out how. So I became a secretary.

GAZETTE: Somehow, given your love of typewriters, that doesn’t surprise me.

LEPORE: I know [laughs].

I worked as a temp for a long time at places in Kendall Square but I remember really wanting to get a job at Harvard because Harvard was about to unionize so I thought I could get better pay and I also really wanted to have access to Widener. You had to take a typing test when you applied to become a secretary at Harvard. I remember thinking, “I am definitely going to get this job.” I type very fast. My mother made me take a yearlong high school class of an hour and a half of typing every day. She said, “I don’t think you are going to have much of a chance of becoming a writer, honey, but you will always be able to get work as a secretary.” Anyway, I started getting temporary assignments through the temp offices that work through Harvard, which was huge, because then I could use Widener, which was good, because I didn’t have enough money to buy books. I was writing stories and novels. I wrote a ton of stuff when I worked at Harvard and I also started sitting in on classes, sneaking into lectures.

GAZETTE: Can you tell me where your ideas come from?

LEPORE: I quite hate writing books.

GAZETTE: You hate writing books?

LEPORE: I can’t stand writing books. I love writing essays and I hate writing books. The ideas for the books I’ve written generally come from things that I come across in the archives and that I think are important and that I wish people knew about. I wish someone else would write a book about them, so that I could read it, so that it could exist, and be read by other people. But since no one has already written that book, I feel like I have to. It’s awful.

GAZETTE: What about essays?

LEPORE: I always have an idea for an essay. I love everything about writing an essay. The intensity, the evanescence. You study, you write, it runs, it’s over. Thank God.

Past interviews in this series: Claire Messud and Molly Antopol.