Harvard Prof Takes Aim at the Tea Party

Advance proofs of Jill Lepore’s new book, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History, forthcoming in September from Princeton University Press, arrived earlier this week as something of a surprise. The book was not listed in the press’s new catalog, and her previous works, including The Name of War (1998) and New York Burning (2005), were published by Knopf. Curious about how Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard University (and a novelist), settled on Princeton, I got in touch with Brigitta van Rheinberg, editor-in-chief of the press.

About a year ago, van Rheinberg explains, she and Ruth O’Brien, a professor of political science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and editor of Princeton’s The Public Square series, traveled to Cambridge to woo Lepore. It worked. In May, Lepore proposed a book on the rise of the Tea Party and the movement’s embrace of “historical fundamentalism,” a tendency that Lepore defines in the introduction like this:

“The belief that a particular and quite narrowly defined past—”the founding”—is ageless and sacred and to be worshipped; that certain historical texts—”the founding documents”—are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read, for instance, the Ten Commandments; that the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired; that the academic study of history (whose standards of evidence and methods of analysis are based on skepticism), is a conspiracy and, furthermore, blasphemy; and that political arguments grounded in appeals to the founding documents, as sacred texts, and to the Founding Fathers, as prophets, are, therefore, incontrovertible.”

The Whites of Their Eyes, says van Rheinberg “was written and produced in record time.” How fast? The book is based on an article Lepore wrote for the May 3 issue of The New Yorker, where she is a staff writer. “I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep this spring,” Lepore says, before adding, “I write all the time, and always have.” The original draft of The New Yorker article was about three times as long as the published version, and Lepore drew from other essays she has written over the past five years.

She felt compelled to write the book, she says, because “it’s not every day that what a scholar teaches—in my case, the American Revolution—is taken up on the streets, by people shouting, “Party Like It’s 1773!” I found that fascinating; I think it’s important, however evanescent.”

Lepore says that she chose to publish the book with Princeton because the topic is a “perfect fit” for The Public Square series. For her next book, however—a short history of life and death titled “The Quick and the Dead”—Lepore will return to Knopf. She is also at work on a book about Jane Mecom, Benjamin Franklin’s sister. Based on Lepore’s track record, we can expect both very, very soon.—Evan R. Goldstein

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