How The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore learned to dance

Harvard historian Jill Lepore (Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Jill Lepore, the Harvard historian and New Yorker writer, cannot dance. “I have three left feet,” she said, sitting in her campus office with one right and one left foot propped up. She excels at metaphor, though. To explain the clumsy moves reporters often strut to bolster their stories with historical context, Lepore draws on the language of dance. There’s the electric slide, in which a reporter pumping up a story about the 2008 financial crisis thinks: “I must find a historian of the Great Depression and have him say something about how this is just like the Great Depression.” And then there’s the hustle, which Lepore describes as “using the past to justify a position by selectively digging through history.”

What’s Lepore’s move? Her metaphoric feet are tired. “I think I’ve run out of dances,” she says. “I should have never gone down the dance path.” Like a tipsy wedding guest, Lepore improvises. She names her move “the move.” “I think of it as the how-did-we-get-here question,” she says. For the last 10 years, she has been doing “the move” in The New Yorker on an astonishing range of subjects including guns, abortion, Roger Ailes, flu epidemics, the Tea Party, feminism, presidents, the gurus of disruption, various revolutions, and breast pumps.

In the era of hot take journalism, where embedding tweets in blog posts qualifies as humanistic inquiry, reading Lepore’s work is like re-entering the Age of Enlightenment. Lepore doesn’t break news; she breaks history. She doesn’t meet sources in dark garages; she finds them, typically dead, in archives around the world. Her pieces arrive at The New Yorker fully footnoted—“Box 12, folder 2, pages 3-5”— and appear online and in print roughly once a month, somehow composed between raising three boys, teaching two classes, and writing books, the latest of which is Joe Gould’s Teeth, which chronicles Lepore’s search for a madman’s oral history of the world.

“I think she’s an intellectual and human dynamo,” New Yorker editor David Remnick says. “She calls on a bank of knowledge and imagination and reading that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in journalism.”

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I remembered that letter, that time capsule, and I wondered what it would be like to read old letters all day, other people’s letters, to listen to the past, and I knew I wanted to do that.

 

The answer to the how-did-we-get-here question, applied to Lepore’s career, starts near Worcester, Mass., a factory town without many factories left. Lepore, by her own admission, was an ornery teenager, a jock who liked to knock around field hockey opponents. Though she wrote and read prodigiously, she had no plans for college—her parents couldn’t afford it, and she didn’t really see the point—until she won an ROTC scholarship to Tufts, near Boston. She loved boot camp. She majored in math. And then the letter arrived.

In high school, Lepore’s English teacher had made students write letters to their future selves that they’d receive a few years later. The letter arrived one day during her freshman year. It amounted to what a coach might call a gut check. “What are you doing?” the letter asked. “Do you like what you’re doing?” If not, the letter said, she should quit. She dropped math, stopped playing sports and switched her major to English, rerouting her life. “This didn’t make me ‘become a historian,’” she told a humanities journal in 2009. “But later, when I thought about what I did want to do, I remembered that letter, that time capsule, and I wondered what it would be like to read old letters all day, other people’s letters, to listen to the past, and I knew I wanted to do that.”




Lepore dropped out of ROTC, which left her short of tuition, so she scrambled to graduate early and pick up whatever odd jobs she could. She wound up as a secretary at Harvard, writing short stories at her desk. When she had time, Lepore audited history courses. She kept uncharacteristically quiet, and she fell in love with the past. When she won an award for being a top secretary, Lepore sensed a strong signal—like the letter—to move on. She enrolled in graduate school at Yale, earning a PhD in American Studies, eventually landing a professorship at the university where she had once answered phones.

In 2005, Henry Finder, a New Yorker editor, was browsing around a bookstore when he stumbled on Lepore’s New York Burning, a book she had just published about the fear and mystery of a black rebellion in 1741 Manhattan. Finder needed a writer to review a new history of democracy. “Maybe we’ve got something here,” Finder thought. He sent her an email. All these years later, Lepore is still floored.

“I always say, it’s like one of those cheesy velvet paintings where a hand is coming down out of the clouds with mere mortals being plucked up,” she says. “That’s how I picture it. It’s that hand coming down.”

Some stories are her ideas. Others come from Finder or Remnick. Her objective, as she has described it, is “to make an argument by telling a story about dead people.” A few months ago, when it became clear that Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee for president and the odds-on favorite to beat the former host of The Apprentice, Remnick emailed Lepore on a Sunday afternoon, noting that the momentous nature of Clinton’s potential presidency had so far eluded public discussion.

 

I always say, it’s like one of those cheesy velvet paintings where a hand is coming down out of the clouds with mere mortals being plucked up.

 

A few days later, Lepore sent Finder an essay that began with Donald Trump’s derisive comments about women, then wound back to 1553 and the reign of England’s Mary Tudor. Lepore dug up a treatise declaring that female rule was “repugnant to Nature” and the “subversion of good order,” among other things. “This might all seem ancient history, except that it’s also very much a part of the rhetoric that will likely characterize this year’s election,” Lepore wrote. “The candidates may not want this election to become a battle of the sexes, but the lines have been drawn, long since.

Between ideas coming in and Mary Tudor going out, Lepore’s life becomes intellectually and domestically chaotic. She acquires dozens of books, lugging them around her house in a bag so she can work whether she’s cooking dinner or hanging out with her family in the living room. She refers to these episodes as “research benders.” Lepore also works her sources–in her case, research archivists who send or point her to letters, diaries, and other materials. She looks for scoops. “It’s very important for her to get fresh stuff,” Finder says. “She has no interest in doing a retread of secondary material.”

Finder’s favorite example of this is in an essay Lepore wrote about Fox News boss Roger Ailes, in which she compares him to William Randolph Hearst. At the end of the piece, Lepore quotes Orson Welles, the director of Citizen Kane, which is modeled after Hearst’s life, speaking about how Kane isn’t Hearst but rather “a type—an American sultan.” Welles said Kane believed that “politics as the means of communication, and indeed the nation itself, is all there for his personal pleasuring.” To the reader, this would ring a contextual bell.

Finder, amazed by the historical parallel, searched Google for the quote so he could read more. He couldn’t find it. Lepore had discovered it in a previously unknown deposition connected to the film. “Here’s the astonishing thing,” Finder says. “This man has been researched more than any other cultural figure in the 20th century. Nobody had ever found this. She found it. She got it.”

Where? Lepore publishes a bibliography for each of her pieces on her faculty web page. Regarding Welles, she noted: “I have relied on the original legal proceedings: Ferdinand Lundberg v. Orson Welles, Herman J. Mankiewicz, and R.K.O. Radio Pictures, Inc., U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Civil Case Files-Docket No. Civ. 44-62, Boxes: 700780A and 700781A, National Archives, New York. The file includes Orson Welles’s twenty-seven-page deposition, taken in Casablanca, May 4, 1949.”

This sort of deep historical and intellectual digging is what makes her so valuable to The New Yorker. In 2009, with swine flu freaking out the masses, Finder suggested a piece about epidemics. Newspapers were filled with electric slides—stories about the 1918 flu pandemic. Lepore read every history she could find on outbreaks, stumbling on the forgotten parrot fever attack in 1930, which she used to frame a critique of how epidemics spread, not just virally but culturally. “Stories aren’t often deadly,” Lepore wrote, “but they can be virulent: spreading fast, weakening resistance, wreaking havoc.” The world, she wrote, “could do with a few more narratologists,” though she could just as easily have written “a few more Lepores.”

Lepore is working on it. She’s one of Harvard’s most popular professors. She holds office hours while walking around Harvard Yard. To teach the history of notetaking, she makes students use the implements native to the period of history they’re studying. Most importantly, she’s also a dance instructor, teaching “the move.” A class handout titled “How To Write a Paper for This Class” begins with her doctrine of writing history by making an argument through a story. “In the writing of history,” the handout says, “a story without an argument fades into antiquarianism; an argument without a story risks pedantry.” This is when the writer’s work is done: “When you’ve stated your case, and finished your story.”

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Michael Rosenwald is a reporter at the Washington Post. He has also written for The New Yorker, Esquire, and The Economist. Follow him on Twitter @mikerosenwald.