Jill Lepore teaches history at Harvard and writes about history for the New Yorker. But she's equally interested in the present: "We have an obligation to try to make sense of the relationship between today and yesterday," she says.
Lepore's latest book The Deadline, which comes out on Aug. 29, is a selection of her essays over the last 20 years on topics ranging from the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol to the fight between Barbie's maker and Bratz dolls.
In a recent phone interview with TIME, Lepore talked about why she mined deeply personal material for her new book, the most surprising thing she's found in the archives lately, and why she thought the Barbie movie was "creepy."
The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Was there a moment growing up that played a role in why you became a historian?
I had a high school English class assignment, which was to write an essay about how to do something that you did not know how to do. I had my Italian grandmother teach me how to make meatballs. I do not speak Italian, and she did not speak English. I cannot record what she knew. I’m fascinated by the loss of knowledge and the obligations of historians to recover archives.
That’s why I don't write presidential history. I don't write the history of Congress and or the history of the Supreme Court or institutions of power that maintain perfect records. There's a lot that historians can do with those institutions, writing biographies of men who left abundant evidence behind, but I am interested in the very opposite of that.
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One of the things that distinguishes your work is your deep dives into archives. What's the most surprising tidbit you found recently?
I'm working on a book on the history of attempts to amend the Constitution and at the moment I'm reading through reports of state constitutional conventions from the 19th century. I was reading yesterday the report from New York's 1821 constitutional convention, and there's a proposal at the convention to add the word white to the suffrage requirements. So instead of “free inhabitants,” it would be “free white inhabitants.” And then also they want to add the word male, so it'd be “free white male inhabitants.” There's just this incredibly interesting argument about that that goes on and on. I hadn't realized just quite how strenuously the case was argued on both sides starting in the 1820s. They get the word “white” in, and then it takes a really long time to get it out. But it also is useful to remember how long it took to get it in. Things were almost another way. Things could still change.
Some of the essays in your new anthology The Deadline are quite personal. In one, you write about both the idea of having to hide your motherhood duties as a scholar and about having a miscarriage. What made you decide to reveal such personal moments?
That essay—which is the title of the collection—I wrote on the 20th anniversary of the death of my best friend who died while I was giving birth to my first child.
My friend Jane knew how much I wanted to have a baby and had been with me through all of those early struggles, including the miscarriage. When I was pregnant, she was diagnosed with leukemia, and she made this kind of crazy pact with herself and with me that she wouldn't die until the baby was born. It was an expression of love and also her way of taking care of me. How could I possibly erase a detail that explains the momentous decision that this person I really love had made?
Another essay gets into the history of Barbie. Have you seen the film?
I hated the film.
I will be unpopular for saying this. To pretend that a story about peddling plastic Barbie dolls for a giant international corporation is a story of feminist liberation, it's just almost unbearably sad to me. It's just a bizarre, creepy love letter to tyranny and capitalism.
One of the essays in my collection, which is called “Valley of the Dolls,” is about the intellectual property battle between Mattel and the manufacturer of the Bratz dolls. Barbie was herself basically plagiarized, so there was an intellectual property battle over the creation of Barbie in the first place. Ruth Handler, who created Barbie, basically bought a doll in Germany on vacation, came back and redesigned it and called it Barbie and then tried to sell it in the U.S.
How will future historians describe this period we're living in?
Future historians will be A.I., so they'll write some very boring history.
I'm not the person who says you must wait 50 years. The last essay in this collection, which is called “The American Beast,” is my reading of the January 6 insurrection committee report. Historians have an obligation to make sense of what's going on in the present within the absolutely explicit and abundantly confessed constraint that we don't know enough right now and we will know more later. That's why I do what I do, because I believe we have an obligation to try to make sense of the relationship between today and yesterday.
Is there a historical figure or historical event you think would make a great movie?
I've heard there's this really good biography of Jane Franklin. [Benjamin Franklin's sister; Lepore wrote it.] She gets pregnant at 15, marries the boy next door, who I believe had raped her, and what you had to do when you got pregnant was marry the rapist. She went on to have 12 children with that guy, who ended up in a lunatic asylum. She was poor her whole life. In the letters that Jane Franklin did leave behind, she had a kind of political awakening during the American Revolution, when she came to feel that she should not suffer.
That is a story about what ordinary life in the 18th century actually is. It's not the story that Benjamin Franklin tells us in his autobiography. She was the person that he wrote to more than to anyone else, and he just completely erased her from the story of his life because it's inconsistent with his allegory for America that he wants to make out of the story of his rags-to-riches life.
Are you on Facebook or Twitter?
Back to your question about future historians, I think [the social networks] will be looked on as having been fairly catastrophic. Facebook's business model is to monetize loneliness. And I don't want to participate in any way in that business model. If tobacco companies had some great, fun, free thing that was seemingly free, but was actually selling tobacco products to children, I also wouldn't buy that.
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