The Public Historian

Humanities, September/October 2009 | Go to article overview

The Public Historian


A Conversation with Jill Lepore

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 '4 1 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: 1 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 newspaperstyle 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 1 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. 1 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-m-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, 1 thought somewhat suspiciously, for inflation. I mean, good for him, but he charged us like fifty cents. …

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