Lepore, Jill 1966–
LEPORE, Jill 1966–
ADDRESSES: Office—History Department, Boston University, 226 Bay State Rd., Boston, MA 02215. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Yale University, New Haven, CT, instructor in American Studies, 1993–95; University of California, San Diego, assistant professor of history, 1995–96; Boston University, Boston, MA, assistant professor, 1996–2001, associate professor of history and American studies, 2001–. Coeditor of Commonplace, an online history magazine.
MEMBER: American Antiquarian Society, American Historical Association, American Studies Association, Organization of American Historians, Massachusetts Historical Society (member, steering committee, 1997–).
A Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States, Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.
New York Burning: Liberty and Slavery in an Eighteenth-Century City, Knopf (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor of the chapters "Literacy and Reading in Puritan New England" in Perspectives on Book History: Artifacts and Commentary, 1999, and "'Till I Have No Country': The Problem of Indian Speech in Early America" in The Young Americanists, 1999; also contributor of articles and reviews to the Journal of American History, American Historical Review, and American Quarterly, among others.
SIDELIGHTS: Jill Lepore won solid praise for her first book, The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity. King Philip was actually a Native American leader, and the war named after him arose after several years of relative peace between the English and the Native Americans. Deemed the most murderous of conflicts ever to have spilled blood on American soil, the strife began in 1675 with a rumor and a suspicious murder of a prominent Algonquin preacher near Plymouth Colony. Yet fear and distrust on both sides were the underlying root of the hostilities: New England's indigenous peoples and the European newcomers had engineered a shaky coexistence and even began to assume some of the other's customs, as Lepore recounts in her book. The massacre, however, eradicated any hope of Native American hegemony or independence.
In The Name of War, Lepore chronicles the year-and-a-half conflict which began when Wampanoag leader Metacom, also known as King Philip, launched an attack on Plymouth Colony. An alliance of Algonquin tribes decimated over half the English settlements in New England, and colonial militia groups pursued them in turn across much of modern-day Connecticut and Rhode Island, slaughtering women and children along the way; torture and mercilessness occurred on both sides. Lepore portrays prominent figures of the era, including Puritan theologian Cotton Mather, the Harvard-educated convert John Sassamon, and Mary Rowlandson, who wrote a captivity chronicle that became the first North American bestseller.
King Philip's War concluded with the quartering and beheading of its namesake, his skull enshrined on a pole in Plymouth Colony. The victorious colonists then shipped many of the surviving Algonquin off as slaves, a violation of the tenet at the time that held slavery acceptable only when the captives were "heathens." The New England economy was devastated by the war and took three decades to prosper again. Lepore, who begins The Name of War with the observation that "war is a contest of injuries and of interpretation," devotes equal space to the postwar ramifications. What has been termed America's "first civil war" curiously faded from significance in the annals of American history by the early nineteenth century, and the author offers insight into how such obliterations become possible and even obligatory to the victor. She also interviewed present-day descendants of Wampanoag and writes of the land claims that were still pending in the late twentieth century as a result of King Philip's War.
Reviewers cited Lepore's use of first-person accounts from the diaries of English settlers and the subsequent retelling of the war in plays, poems, and fiction, as especially noteworthy features of her debut. A Publishers Weekly reviewer found The Name of War "engrossing," while a Booklist critic called it "a powerful book that doesn't shy away from depicting the sheer horror of what must be termed a race war." New York Times Book Review critic Edward Countryman declared that Lepore's "contribution to a developing literature on historical American identity lies with her elucidation of how people attached meanings to the war's gruesome events." Boston Globe reviewer Barry O'Connell called Lepore's debut "a model of what multicultural history can be," a work that in tone "escapes all the parochialisms that afflict so many historians…. Her achievement in this book puts her in the company of our best contemporary prose stylists. It takes only a few sentences to be caught up." O'Connell concluded that a reader of the book will cast aside "the unexamined belief that Indians disappeared or became extinct or were, before the war, ever simply minor and marginal presences in the region."
In A Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States, Lepore looked at the way establishing a national language can unify the population of a country, and in particular the way the United States became a cohesive unit through the homogenization of its use of English. The author gives historical facts on the ethnic and linguistic make-up of eighteenth-century America, also comparing it to more contemporary statistics. Challenging the frequently-taught notion of the United States as a country that arose without conflict among its peoples, she shows how the ethnic minorities present during the country's early days were suppressed, and encouraged or forced to take on the ways of the Anglo founding fathers. Tensions between this British-descended power elite and new waves of immigrants continued throughout the decades. She also recounts the stories of those who did the most to create a truly "American" language. Chief among these is Noah Webster, devoted to a standardized system of spelling; William Thornton, a West Indian planter who promoted a universal alphabet to make communication between European and African languages easier; Thomas Gallaudet, who is largely responsible for the development of American Sign Language; Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima, a Southern slave who won his freedom by developing his literacy; and Samuel Morse, whose development of the telegraph and Morse code was the first system of instantaneous communication over extremely long distances.
Reviewing A Is for American, in New Republic, Alan Taylor remarked that the author's "distinctive style wears particularly well because she wastes no ink denigrating alternative modes of history or trumpeting her own innovations. Practicing instead of preaching, she avoids the canting self-celebration that distorts many other recent experiments in narrative history." Terry Teachout, a reviewer for Book, found that while the book lacked a cohesive conclusion, "Lepore has nonetheless produced a work of cultural history that is both diverting and informative, one that will introduce you to a gallery of 'men whose lives are rich with irony and passion and a certain kind of flawed earnestness.' That's what makes them worth reading about. They were good and bad, right and wrong, certain and confused—just like America, the endlessly complicated country whose identity they sought to shape."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Historical Review, December, 1999, John Canup, review of The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity, p. 1658.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 7, 1998, Drew Limsky, review of A Is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States, p. L11.
Book, March-April, 2002, Terry Teachout, review of A Is for American, p. 66.
Booklist, January 1, 1998; January 1, 2002, Philip Herbst, review of A Is for American, p. 783.
Boston Globe, March 1, 1998, p. F1.
Chicago Reporter, May, 2002, Stephanie Williams, review of A Is for American, p. 12.
Chronicle of Higher Education, March 27, 1998, Scott Heller, review of The Name of War, p. A16.
Early American Literature, winter, 2003, Patricia Crain, review of A Is for American, p. 157.
Houston Chronicle, April 26, 1998, Chris Patsilelis, review of The Name of War, p. 25.
Journal of American History, March, 1999, Patricia E. Rubertone, review of The Name of War, p. 1548; March, 2003, Lawrence Buell, review of A Is for American, pp. 1518-1519.
Kliatt, May, 2003, Patricia A. Moore, review of A Is for American, p. 38.
Library Journal, March 1, 1998, Grant A. Fredericksen, review of The Name of War, p. 104; February 1, 2002, Grant A. Fredericksen, review of A Is for American, p. 115.
New Republic, April 13, 1998, Alan Taylor, p. 37; July 29, 2002, Alan Taylor, review of A Is for American, p. 34.
New York Review of Books, April 9, 1998, Gordon S. Wood, review of The Name of War, p. 41.
New York Times Book Review, February 15, 1998, Edward Countryman, review of The Name of War, p. 38; March 17, 2002, Maria Russo, review of A Is for American, p. 26.
Publishers Weekly, December 15, 1997, p. 39; December 17, 2001, review of A Is for American, p. 72.
Sarasota Herald Tribune, April 14, 2002, James M. Abraham, p. E4.
School Library Journal, March, 2000, Steven Engelfried, review of Encounters in the New World: A History in Documents, p. 256.
Washington Times, March 3, 2002, Evan Haefeli, review of A Is for American, p. B7.