History for “We the People”
THE STORY OF AMERICA:
Essays on Origins.
By Jill Lepore.
Princeton Univ. Press. 416 pp. $27.95
The era when serious historians aspired to write works that also qualified as literature are long, long gone. During the Enlightenment, David Hume and Edward Gibbon wrote prose as grand as any in our language, and brought sophisticated literary techniques to the craft of history writing. Their tradition was carried on by the great historians of the 19th century: Thomas Babington Macaulay, Hippolyte Taine, Francis Parkman, Alexis de Tocqueville, George Bancroft, Jacob Burckhardt, and Thomas Carlyle all composed their epics with an eye to the literary immortality they eventually achieved. Exciting, mellifluous narrative was, to them, no insignificant part of the historian’s craft, and the result is that while many of their ideas are no longer groundbreaking, we continue to read them for their flair, their masterful syntax, and most of all their big-picture perspective.
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Brooke Allen is the author of several books, including Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers (2006). She teaches literature at Bennington College.more from this author >>