Culture

History for a Post-Fact America | by Alex Carp | NYR Daily

American School/New York Public Library/Bridgeman ImagesThe flag that flew over Fort McHenry when American troops were under attack by the British, inspiring Francis Scott Key to compose the American National Anthem, 1814

What was America? The question is nearly as old as the republic itself. In 1789, the year George Washington began his first term, the South Carolina doctor and statesman David Ramsay set out to understand the new nation by looking to its short past. America’s histories at the time were local, stories of states or scattered tales of colonial lore; nations were tied together by bloodline, or religion, or ancestral soil. “The Americans knew but little of one another,” Ramsay wrote, delivering an accounting that both presented his contemporaries as a single people, despite their differences, and tossed aside the assumptions of what would be needed to hold them together. “When the war began, the Americans were a mass of husbandmen, merchants, mechanics and fishermen; but the necessities of the country gave a spring to the active powers of the inhabitants, and set them on thinking, speaking and acting in a line far beyond that to which they had been accustomed.” The Constitution had just been ratified at the time of Ramsay’s writing, the first system of national government submitted to its people for approval. “A vast expansion of the human mind speedily followed,” he wrote. It hashed out the nation as a set of principles. America was an idea. America was an argument.

The question has animated American history ever since. “For the last half century,” the historian and essayist Jill Lepore told an interviewer in 2011, academic historians have been trying “to write an integrated history of the United States, a history both black and white, a history that weaves together political history and social history, the history of presidents and the history of slavery.” Over the same period, a generation of Americans have had their imaginations narrowed, on one side by populist myths blind to the evidence of the past, and on the other by academic histories blind to the power of stories. Why, at a time when facts are more accessible than at any other point in human history, have they failed to provide us with a more broadly shared sense of objective truth?

Part of the reason, Lepore has surmised, is that too much historical writing—and perhaps too much nonfiction in general—proceeds without many of the qualities that readers recognize as essential to experience: “humor, and art, and passion, and love, and tenderness, and sex… and fear, and terror, and the sublime, and cruelty.” Things that she calls “organic to the period, and yet lost to us.” Lepore’s training as a historian, she’s said, tried to teach her that these things did not contain worthy explanations. In graduate school her interest in them “looked like a liability, and I took note.”

Around the time that the current president announced his candidacy, Lepore set to work on a history of the US, from 1492 to the present, which she has called the most ambitious single-volume American history written in generations. Ramsay’s question echoes widely, and with These Truths: A History of the United States, Lepore sets herself at the opposite end of the same historical project. What was America? During the time Lepore has been writing, some of the most tightly held assumptions about American history, and about the idea of America itself, have been revised or overturned. (Her response, on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, to whether she thought he would still be in office when her book was published: “I don’t trust myself to know. Isn’t that the dilemma of our moment? We don’t know who to trust about how to know what we know.” She took a breath. “Right?”)

What do we keep, and what do we cast aside? Will this moment simply pass, or will it last forever? “There are large historical forces and structures; there are ideas; there are economic circumstances; there are theories of knowing, materiality, ideology, epistemology, economy. With these, you can analyze the past and understand it,” Lepore said. “Unfortunately, all I ever really wanted to do was figure people out.”

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For Lepore, history is essentially a writing problem: how we know what we know (or think we do), how different forms and genres transmit different kinds of signals, what it might mean to encounter a gap between the evidence and the truth. Her work has confronted the tension between what a reader needs to know for a story to work and the limits of what can be known, and what makes the difference between a person and a character. When she wrote a historical novel, set in colonial Boston and employing the dialect of the time, her co-author called it “a different way of knowing and telling the past.” After publication, they began receiving etymology queries from the Oxford English Dictionary.

Lepore has called history “the anti-novel” and “the novel’s twin.” Both history and the novel took the forms we recognize today over roughly the same period, emerging as ways of making sense of the world during a time of great changes, and over the past two centuries or so they have followed parallel paths. Between them was often the boundary of the self: history happens out in the world, growing out of inquiries into its documents, registers, and other records, while novels present an experience of it.

Yet, for a long time, histories explained the world largely through the public lives of extraordinary men, leaving the private and the ordinary—and, of course, the lives of everyone else—to other modes of storytelling, when those stories were told at all. The social histories, women’s histories, cultural histories, labor histories, and microhistories of recent decades have found ways of thinking historically that more closely resemble a report on experience, even as, with their colliding perspectives, they’ve left large questions about what kind of “integrated” history—what kind of integrated country—could possibly follow.    

Lepore is the rare historian who writes with a caution that most major events proceed in their time as halting, confused, contingent, and ultimately reliant on an uncomfortable amount of chance, despite how their stories are later told. These Truths comes at a time when many readers will have a nagging sense of living through a historical moment themselves, whatever that means (the details somehow “organic to the period” yet still lost to us). It also arrives as the raw materials of history seem to be losing their hold. “The era of the fact,” Lepore wrote in The New Yorker two years ago, “is coming to an end.”

This is, on one level, an explanation of our current political moment, when facts are more omnipresent yet less enduring than at any time in living memory, and never seem to resolve a debate for long. Lepore sees this as more than a trend and, for deeper historical reasons, as more or less irreversible. One of its most conspicuous features, a closer attention to fact-checking and the tallying of public lies, can sometimes look less like a straightforward contribution to the accuracy of public discourse and more like part of a strange, complicated wish. (In a book with barely more pages than there are years in the period Lepore set out to cover, there are dozens of passages on the nature of evidence, and nearly two full pages on the history of fact-checking, itself a deeply American phenomenon.) Earlier this year, a study by the Duke University Reporters’ Lab found that, from 2014 to 2018, more than two fact-checking organizations had been founded per month. There are now at least 149. Are they a way of working out a broader anxiety about the nature of our political debates—we have too many facts, and still not enough—or a subconscious recognition that facts themselves have lost some of their power?

How do we know what we know? Understanding the world through stories is as old as human civilization, but building those stories from evidence, and building that evidence from facts, is a relatively recent development. The medieval world accepted proof in the form of trial by ordeal (such as by burning or drowning) or trial by combat: the idea being that if two parties to a dispute fought on an even field, God would ensure that the truth would win. There was no evidence or argument, not really—the outcome was the proof. In 1215, Church edict effectively abolished trial by ordeal, and the practice gradually came to be replaced by trial by jury. The judgment delivered by God became judgment delivered by man. The era of the fact had begun.

Before long, the other parts of society set on determining the truth began to answer their questions with evidence that could be witnessed or documented. A science arose that understood the natural world through experiments—observable, repeatable. History cast aside fabricated speech, romances, and legends. The change reoriented our relationship to the world so completely that, as the historian Barbara Shapiro has noted, by the end of the seventeenth century, members of the Anglican Church began to reach for facts to settle disputes about Bible stories. “There were divine ‘facts’ as well as human and natural ones,” she found. Fiction itself came to prioritize verisimilitude, leaving behind romance and epic for forms more familiar to nonfiction: travel accounts, news, and what Shapiro describes as “the pseudohistory and pseudobiography we call the novel.”

What Shapiro calls a “culture of fact” has been the dominant intellectual force of modernity, but it sits on top of the conventions it displaced. In that 2016 essay, Lepore recounts a charming story about a baseball bat that went missing when she was eight or nine years old, just before she discovered that a bully who lived down the street—suspiciously and all of a sudden—had one just like it, down to Lepore’s name written in pink nail polish on the barrel. He offered to fight her for it; she countered by challenging him to a bicycle race. “The law of evidence that reigns in the domain of childhood is essentially medieval,” she wrote. (In the end, Lepore didn’t fight or race, and headed to the library. The bully kept her bat.) But it’s not just childhood. Increasingly, this description also fits the law of evidence that reigns in campaign politics, at a time when politics can appear to be a permanent campaign: “An American Presidential debate,” Lepore continued, “has a lot more in common with trial by combat than with trial by jury.” During the 2016 debates, anywhere from two to eleven candidates talked past each other. How do you determine the winner? The outcome is the proof.

Bruce Davidson/Magnum PhotosPeople marching from Selma to Montgomery with Martin Luther King, Jr., to fight for black suffrage, Selma, Alabama, 1965

For five years, I worked as both a book and magazine fact-checker and an essays editor for an oral-history book series, jobs that held conflicting ideas about where nonfiction narrative draws its power. Fact-checking trains writers to cut anything not based in evidence; oral history’s strength lies in its access to memory and belief, often not strictly “checkable,” and sometimes outright false, but capable of unveiling the biases and distortions of an official record. It can hold open the door to meaning-making and the texture of experience, illuminating, as the oral historian Alessandro Portelli has noted, “not just what people did, but what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing, and what they now think they did.” It comes together from the facts as far as they can be determined, but it is careful not to ask them for things they can’t provide.

In the late 1970s, Portelli traveled to the small, working-class city of Terni, Italy, to conduct interviews about the killing of a young steelworker that had taken place thirty years earlier, and found that residents and even witnesses misremembered major details, but that their memories were wrong in consistent ways. The worker, Luigi Trastulli, had been shot by police during an anti-NATO protest in 1949. Speaking with Portelli, some witnesses remembered a second policeman who considered shooting but lowered his gun; others saw the worker being shot not in the middle of a fracas, as the newspapers had reported, but against the factory wall (an image, Portelli notes, that came to them from the local traditions of political and religious iconography). Most oddly, many witnesses to Trastulli’s death placed it exactly four years later, in 1953, during riots that followed the staggered layoffs of nearly 3,000 workers from the factory at the heart of the town.

By the time of Portelli’s interviews, Italy was a quiet NATO member state, but the layoffs had cut a seam across the life of the town and, he found, across the lives of its residents. (Several of the workers spoke of the events in the present tense.) The inability to prosecute Trastulli’s killer was deeply shameful for the working class residents of Terni, Portelli writes, “whose self-esteem rests on a tradition of militancy and pride.” When the survival of their traditions conflicted with events, it was easier to change what had happened than their idea of who they were. “Errors, inventions, and myths lead us through and beyond facts to their meanings,” Portelli writes. “Indeed, if oral sources had given us ‘accurate,’ ‘reliable,’ factual reconstructions of the death of Luigi Trastulli, we would know much less about it.” One thinks not just of postwar Italy.

A fact, at its base, is a kind of social contract. What Lepore means when she writes that its era is coming to an end—that American politics has descended into a dispute about what to believe, or that there have been noticeable changes in what counts as evidence—is that this contract is breaking down. This is less a writing problem than a political one. But it’s a category error to treat facts as the ends, rather than the means, of what we can know. Around the time Lepore and her co-author, the historian Jane Kamensky, published their novel, a reporter from the Boston Globe asked them if, after working without the constraints of the archives, free from worrying about what kinds of documents might be missing or whose lives had been lost to time, they’d found that literary fiction could be a truer representation of the past. “I don’t think fiction is more true than history,” Kamensky replied, “but I don’t think the novel is fake. I think it is differently true. It is like asking whether a poem is more true than a wall.”

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These Truths is an answer to Ramsay’s question that is both deeply familiar and radically foreign. It’s still easy to imagine that the earliest Americans made something out of nothing, and Atlantic explorers had crossed the sea to make their way in the wilderness. But at the time of Christopher Columbus’s voyage, Lepore notes, the Americas already contained more people than Europe. Three million Taíno lived on Hispaniola alone, as Columbus called the island where he first made landfall, believing he had found the edge of Asia and a trade route to the East. He wrote in his voyage diary of how easy it would be to enslave them, which Spain soon did to mine gold and grow sugar, and within fifty years, their population had dropped by more than 99.9 percent. It would require a different explorer, more than a decade later, to recognize Hispaniola as part of the “new world,” a place where no place was supposed to be. Shortly after that, a German cartographer added it to a world map and labeled it “America.” Before it was an idea, it was a piece of land.

We like to think of history as a record, but it’s a narrative. When Lepore writes that Columbus’s voyage “tied together continents,” she’s also able to demonstrate how, even where the surviving records must be sparse. In the century after Columbus landed, Europeans carried back nearly 200 tons of gold and 16,000 tons of silver, not including contraband, pulling it from mines in the west, loading it into the holds of their ships, and sailing it across the sea. As wealth moved east, plants and animals moved west. Without natural predators, the cattle brought by Europeans doubled their population every fifteen months, and within a few years, the eight pigs Columbus brought on his second voyage—alongside chickens, sheep, goats, horses, and a small forest of seeds and cuttings—had grown to thousands. From the Europeans’ inability and unwillingness to take in the natives’ languages, stories, and ways of life grew a far-reaching misrecognition: the idea of a people who actually existed in a “state of nature,” the thought experiment out of which, back home, the philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were building ideas of modern government. “In the beginning,” Locke wrote, “all the world was America.”

The British established colonies relatively late, and did so not with the thought of seeding a new country but with an eye toward a more modest strategy closer to home. (One of Queen Elizabeth’s advisers titled his report on the England’s interests in the west “Discourse how Her Majesty may annoy the King of Spain.”) The British were also latecomers to the slave trade, but soon dominated it. From 1600 to 1800, for every two Europeans who had settled in British America, five Africans were brought there by force. One visitor to the coast of Carolina wrote that the area looked “more like a negro country than like a country settled by white people.” By the time of the Declaration of Independence, where much of the common understanding of America traditionally begins, nearly two centuries of slave rebellions and Indian wars had already put into practice the ideas of freedom, liberty, tyranny, and revolution that its signatories would proclaim for themselves.

In early 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John, at the Continental Congress, asking him to “remember the ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.” She reminded him that he and his colleagues had gathered in Philadelphia to build a government based on representation, and to leave another because it was not. “Remember all men would be tyrants if they could,” she wrote.

“I cannot but laugh,” he replied.

It would not be the only conflict between the founders’ actions and their principles. But rather than dismiss exchanges like this as a sign of hypocrisy or obvious bad faith, it may be wiser to understand them as the contradictions at the heart of America’s complicated origins. For better or worse, their insolvability has been the country’s political engine. In what Lepore calls “a colossal failure of political will” amid an act of extraordinary courage, the final draft of the Declaration left out an early passage counting slavery as one of the grievances perpetuated by England, a violation of “sacred rights of life and liberty.” Regardless, its ordainment of “these truths”—that all men are created equal, with certain inalienable rights to be secured via government by consent of the governed—was heard clearly enough that slave owners in Jamaica blamed the Americans for a slave rebellion that broke out a few weeks after the Declaration had been signed. (Serious attempts to end slavery at the Constitutional Convention and during the first session of Congress were also turned back. There were two American revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century, Lepore argues. Only one of them succeeded.)

Lepore’s work demonstrates that while America is a place, it is also an act of imagination. The great value of a project like These Truths is not just its placement of events in time, it’s also the light thrown across history’s absences and elisions. It tells us what happened as well as what most definitely did not; which problems were resolved, which were deferred, which are rephrased and repeated. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” invoked the Boston Tea Party; Ronald Reagan, in his 1964 endorsement of Barry Goldwater, warned voters not to abandon the founders. When David Walker published his appeal for abolitionism in the run-up to the Civil War, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton drafted a call for reform at Seneca Falls, they chose to do so by both remaking the Declaration of Independence for those it had excluded and by casting themselves as philosophical descendants of the men who signed it.

America was not so much a feat of invention as one of reinvention; the founders’ language of rights and equality has grown into the dominant American idiom, made and remade again. It stretches to the very edges of the political spectrum. When Donald Trump, then a candidate surging in the polls, sat for an interview with Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist and provocateur, at the end of 2015, the political establishment responded with shock. Perhaps they should have reconsidered. “What you’re doing is epic,” Jones told Trump, one self-professed outsider to another. And then: “It’s George Washington level.”

Every generation “has to find a way to inherit the mantle of the American Revolution,” Lepore has argued, in this book and elsewhere. “We are a people that share an idea.” Could she be right? Either way, it’s a really good story.


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