The Hold of the Dead Over the Living: A Conversation with Jill Lepore
By Julien CrockettJanuary 2, 2024
The Deadline by Jill Lepore
“I WROTE THESE essays during a period of terrible, tragic decline in the United States,” historian Jill Lepore writes in the introduction to her new essay collection, The Deadline. Wide-ranging and often provocative, the essays cover the past decade of “political violence, endless vicious culture war, a series of constitutional crises, catastrophic climate change, and a global pandemic.” In short, “a time that felt like a time, felt like history.”
But Lepore’s United States is not merely bleak—it is multifaceted, evolving, complicated. It is at once “held hostage” to its history, but also full of potential for “generativity and invention.” It is the home of clownish techno-futurists, “spin,” and “truthiness,” but also of the ingenious engineers who created the internet, and the investigative reporters gumshoeing through city halls. Lepore strives to understand the transformations that have tipped the scales in any given direction—and does so with verve and even hope because, as Lepore says, “you can’t successfully make a better future if you’re convinced that the future is terrible.”
JULIEN CROCKETT: In the introduction to your collection, you write that the essays concern “the hold of the dead over the living.” What do you mean?
JILL LEPORE: Many of the essays engage with the question of written constitutionalism in the United States, meaning, in a specific legal way, that we are ruled by the dead. But a lot of the essays also engage broadly in questions about how memory and devotion and obligation to the dead inform decisions that we make. I don’t think it’s an unshakable hold. And sometimes, as in the title essay (from 2019), that hold is an embrace.
Two other thoughts came to mind when I read the phrase “the hold of the dead over the living”: there is the hold or inertia of things continuing to be as they are and seemingly have always been, but there is also history as the story we tell that is used to explain and justify actions. Do those ring true to you too?
I’m working on a long book about the history of attempts to amend the Constitution. And on the one hand, we have a Constitution that has a provision that allows for generativity and invention and adjustment and improvement and alteration and remedy and making amends, and all of these wonderful, beautiful ideas that we associate with the idea of the future. And yet, we live in a world where we can’t actually use that provision because our politics are so overridden with the idea of the past. Consider the Supreme Court’s history-and-tradition test, under which we can’t do anything that doesn’t derive from the past. The week that we’re speaking, the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments on the question of whether people who have restraining orders against them due to domestic abuse can be prohibited from buying or owning weapons, and the test that the Supreme Court uses is to ask: “Was there an analogous law like that in 1787?” That is plainly nuts. In that sense, we are held hostage by the dead.
Do you find that the way history is practiced in academia has changed because of how history is used in politics?
What people mean when they say the “practice of history” is really quite different, and always changing. The field of academic historical inquiry derives from an 18th-century notion of empiricism that was professionalized in the 19th century and has been called into question in the 21st century by a call for advocacy that rejects the idea of objectivity and even the very notion of empiricism. A similar transformation has taken place in journalism. You could date the current iteration of the struggle over the practice of history to the Tea Party movement; there has been a really weird and crude version of American history that operates as a political narrative to justify a set of political commitments on the right. I think of the Tea Party movement as a marriage of populism and originalism. It has a pretty big cultural and political hold right now, but its idea of history is to academic history what astrology is to astronomy or alchemy is to chemistry. By which I mean, it is bunk.
In “Just the Facts, Ma’am” (2008), you talk about history’s role as a purveyor of “truth” and ask, “Is ‘historical truth’ truer than fictional truth?” What are the differences between these “truths”?
Since Aristotle, there has been a debate about the relationship between literature and history, and in the 18th century, this took the form of a debate between the novel and history. As this line of argument goes, history has the truth of the particular—you can learn from history the particulars of the reign of George III—but the novel has the truth of the universal, meaning you can read Robinson Crusoe and learn something about the human condition. I myself find that very persuasive. I think the universality of the truth revealed by art is really very different from the quite particular, almost legalistic or prosecutorial nature of the truth revealed by the work of the historian. Only the most beautiful history ever reaches the truth of literature. It’s a very rare thing.
That is well captured by the definition of the novel as “a private history.”
Yeah. The novel is meant to be the story of the ordinary life. And that is the life that most of us have. The study of George III was meant historically to be edifying to future statesmen, so the reader is not an ordinary person either. The great turn of social history in the 1960s and 1970s was meant to be a remedy to that.
Just as historical writing has engaged with and learned from novels, have novels been similarly influenced by historical writing? For example, there seems to be a demand for historical fiction.
Some years ago, I and a colleague, Jane Kamensky, were both very frustrated watching and observing the gap between the kinds of history books that you could buy at Barnes & Noble and the kinds of history that we cared about. A lot of that Barnes & Noble stuff was a kind of David McCullough, “great man” biography. But the history that we cared about was the story of ordinary people. And you could tell that story only in the aggregate through the methods of social history, like looking at the ages and lengths of stay of the poor who were confined in poor houses, or you might learn about infant or maternal mortality rate. But even if you wanted to, you couldn’t write a McCullough-style character-driven novelistic account of one of those lives because you just don’t have that texture in the archive. And that is why you read Jane Austen instead, right? Or Dickens. It tells you about those lives. But we were so frustrated by the rich complexity of knowledge of the lives of ordinary people and what was left out by the publishing juggernaut. So we wrote a fake 18th-century novel together, Blindspot (2008). And that’s how I came to write that “Just the Facts, Ma’am” essay: it’s a reflection on what I had learned about the relationship between history and fiction.
How was the experience of writing a novel?
It was fun. We learned a lot and packed in a lot of things we wanted to say about the American Revolution and the culture of the 18th century. But in the end, I really felt like, wow, I’d much rather write history. I like the accountability to the historical record as an intellectual constraint. Sometime after that, I wrote a biography of Benjamin Franklin’s sister Jane, who was a poor woman in Boston in that same time period, and I think writing the novel was really fruitful because it gave me a different literary sensibility in how I wrote about Jane Franklin. But I think that the line between history and fiction is a really interesting and important one.
In “After the Fact” (2016), you explore the similarities and differences between the 2016 post-truth moment and related moments of distrust in the past and write,
The past has not been erased, its erasure has not been forgotten, the lie has not become truth. But the past of proof is strange and, on its uncertain future, much in public life turns. In the end, it comes down to this: the history of truth is cockamamie, and during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, it got cockamamier.
What do you mean by “cockamamie,” and has it only gotten “cockamamier” since you wrote the essay?
It’s funny how that seems like such a long time ago now. I ended up doing this whole podcast series that became an audiobook called Who Killed Truth? A History of Evidence (2023) because I became fascinated by that question. Like, how did we even get to 2005 when Stephen Colbert used the term “truthiness,” which was in response to the “unshakable evidence” of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? We had that very unsettling moment of, wow, what if policymakers are creating an alternative reality? Looking back, some of that 2005 truthiness moment was about shifting political power, but some of it was also about technological anxiety. The year 2005 would have been about nine years into the existence of the internet, and we were on the cusp of social media. That looks like a pretty stable moment relative to where we are now: deepfakes, zero accountability for lying to run for office, the commodification of misinformation. We have been living for decades with a major industry, fossil fuels, just deliberately lying about the consequences of much of the world economy and how it operates. So, shaking in our boots is where we are now. That’s pretty different than I think we were in 2005. So is it cockamamier? Yes. Is it cockamamiest? I don’t know.
You also write that “[t]he era of the fact is coming to an end: the place once held by ‘facts’ is being taken over by ‘data.’” How so?
For years, I have taught a class at Harvard Law School called the history of evidence. In the course of teaching that class, I developed a theory with my students of the transformation of the elemental unit of knowledge across the history of the West, from “mystery” to “the fact” to “numbers” to “data.” “Mystery” is what God knows but humans can’t know. And for a lot of human history, much of how things happen in the natural world was mysterious to us (like where does life come from? What happens when we die?), leaving us with great humility and incredible vulnerability. Many of these things are still mysteries, but a lot of things have been revealed, like how disease is transmitted. The emergence of what historians call “the cult of the fact” is associated with the beginnings of trial by jury, which starts in the 13th century when ordinary people are charged with hearing evidence given by two sides in a dispute and determining the verdict, which means the truth is based on the presentation of facts, or observed acts.
The “fact” transformed all kinds of realms of knowledge: the scientific revolution depends on the idea of the fact, journalism comes to depend on the idea of the fact, and histories tend to understand themselves as compilations and interpretations of facts. The “number” begins to vie alongside the fact in the 18th and 19th centuries with the development of the social sciences. All kinds of things can be quantified, and by counting things you get a whole new way of knowing. And in the 19th and 20th centuries, you start to see the emergence of the preference for the elemental unit of knowledge being “data”—by which, in this context, I mean quantification that requires a machine to do it. Data becomes preferable to facts because facts require the human acts of observation, deduction, reasoning, and conclusion. Data doesn’t require any of those things. It doesn’t require humans. It just requires the accumulation and analysis of numbers. And the objective of the cult of data is not truth, the objective of the cult of the fact, but prediction, because the work is all about pattern detection. If you reorganize all of humanity around prediction, and yet people can’t actually undertake those predictions—those predictions are all offered by machines—we have returned, in a sense, to the age of mystery, because in an age of data, only computers can really know things. So we are as vulnerable as we were in a prescientific, pre-Enlightenment world. It’s a really weird kind of reversal.
One of the hardest-hit industries from the disruption of the internet and technology is journalism. You write:
Still, journalism, as a field, is as addled as an addict, gaunt, wasted, and twitchy, its pockets as empty as its nights are sleepless. It’s faster than it used to be, so fast. It’s also edgier, and needier, and angrier. It wants and it wants and it wants. But what does it need?
Throwing that question back at you, what does journalism need?
Needless to say, there are talented investigative reporters and war correspondents and people gumshoeing through city halls all over the world doing amazing, heroic, essential work. But journalism has been really gutted by the loss of the subscriber- and advertiser-driven business model. It had plenty of problems but it meant that, on the whole, a news organization had to be able to reach a large and mixed group of viewers or readers or listeners because that was just the way the business model worked. For the 1920s to 1970s era of American journalism, you had to have a lot of different kinds of coverage and reporting, and the unit was your subscription, and your loyalty was to that news outlet. The move to digital news and distribution via social media meant that the unit was no longer the news organization; the unit is now the story, and your loyalty is … you have no loyalty.
So, what does journalism need? There is no going back to the advertising and subscription model. But there are ways for journalism—and here I’m thinking about American political news—for cable and network news to be more honest about the ways in which Trumpism has had an incredibly destabilizing effect on the news. In news organizations, you could see the moral compass spinning. People just did not know what to do. People like Martin Baron for The Washington Post have since come out with memoirs that tend to insist, “We made the right decision at every turn.” But they didn’t make the right decision at every turn. And I think they’d be stronger if they’d admit that.
In “The Cobweb” (2015), you discuss the Internet Archive and the Wayback Machine and write about their founder Brewster Kahle’s mission of staving off a digital dystopia by creating an online library. This theme also permeates through your essay “Plague Years” (2020), where you discuss Mary Shelley’s book The Last Man (1826), whose main character’s central desire is becoming a librarian. What is it about libraries that represent hope for society?
“Plague Years” was a really fun assignment. It must have been February or early March 2020, that sad, horrible time at the very beginning of the pandemic. I remember that my editor said, “Would you be willing to read a bunch of novels involving plagues?” And I was like, “Yes!” because what else am I going to do? People are dying, losing their ability to feed themselves and get out of their homes and are struggling from loneliness. And I had this big box arrive with these books that have answers about how to think about all of this pain and loss. So in a way, my own answer to that deprivation was to build a library.
I think I was primed to think of it that way—one answer to a plague is to build a library—but then all the books actually have this element in them. They’re also all post-Enlightenment, and they’re riven through with Enlightenment ideas that human history is the story of progress from barbarism to civilization. And it’s like climbing a ladder. So the story that writers like Mary Shelley tell—and The Last Man is the first book in which humanity is driven to extinction by a pandemic—is the story of human progress in reverse, a story of human regress. As the pandemic takes more and more of the world’s people and peoples, their humanity goes backward down that ladder rung by rung. Things descend into violence and the rule of force instead of the rule of reason, the rule of men over women through kidnapping and rape, no more agriculture, and the last remnants of humanity are goat herders. Our main character, what he wants to do—and this then becomes what happens in all of these novels—is to hold on to a library, to find and then collect a library of books so that if humanity ever has the capability to thrive and flourish once again, all the knowledge of human history would not have been lost. This is what Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series is too. It drips through science fiction like a leaky pipe in the ceiling. Everything comes down from Mary Shelley.
Do you think that the internet can serve as the “library” that saves civilization?
The internet is an astonishing product of human ingenuity and an incredible archive. But what is tough about the internet, from a historian’s point of view, is the way that it has not realized the promise of democratization, and not only of our politics but also of the historical record.
A recurring theme in your collection is our perception of the future. For example, you write in “No, We Cannot” (2017)—a play on Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can”—that dystopias were once “a fiction of resistance,” and have since “become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century” that “cannot imagine a better future.” That essay reminded me of your argument in “In Every Dark Hour” (2020) that losing democracy is not something that happens to us but is instead something that we let happen. Do you think we need a new American story to help us imagine a better, more hopeful future?
When I wrote “No, We Cannot,” dystopian fiction was very hot. There was and is this radical pessimism that is shot through American life. I teach 18-year-olds and they’re really pessimistic. That’s new. There’s a lot to be pessimistic about, but it’s also a cultural posture that we’re stuck in. You know that game you play as a kid where you line up like the game of statues where you have to freeze in place? It’s like we’re all in this game of statues in this pose of greatest possible despondency. I wonder what shakes that out because you can’t successfully make a better future if you’re convinced that the future is terrible. It’s partly why I wrote a 1000-page history of the United States a few years ago to address all the things we talked about earlier. When I started the book, I had planned to end it with Barack Obama’s inauguration. It was a great ending that had a “ta-da” feeling. But then I was halfway through writing the book when Donald Trump was elected. I was getting memos from my kids’ school district superintendent saying children will be in mourning and we need to help them deal with their trauma and grief over this election. And it was like, I mean, he’s a horrible person, he’s going to be a terrible president, but what are we talking about? Like we all need psychotherapy for our children because of this guy? It was just so weird.
And I then had to change the ending of the book. I had to end with Trump’s election instead of with Obama’s inauguration. And I was pretty full of despair. So I went to a department meeting where you can workshop and I workshopped the epilogue to the book. I have a real commitment to hope in this Obama-like way, the audacity of hope, but in my own other way too, and I felt like the book, which was going to be for young people, needed to end on some hopeful note. And yet, I couldn’t really see it. And we went around the room and I asked the faculty to come up with something that they are hopeful about. This was the Harvard history department. Nobody could come up with anything, other than really slender reeds. It’s hard. It’s very hard. But I do think it’s important to recognize that when it’s fashionable to be despairing, it requires a certain amount of contrariness and courage to be hopeful. And I’m always up for that.
Jill Lepore is the David Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University, a staff writer at The New Yorker, and the host of the podcasts The Last Archive and Elon Musk. A two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, Lepore is the author of many books, including the international bestseller These Truths: A History of the United States (2018); If/Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future (2020), long-listed for the National Book Award; and the audiobook Who Killed Truth? A History of Evidence (2023).
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