The concept of a deadline is a complicated one for Jill Lepore. In addition to the obvious meaning — her new book, “The Deadline,” is a collection of essays written for the (mostly) weekly New Yorker — in the title essay, the historian explains the original idea of a “dead line”: the border around a prison outside of which escaped prisoners were shot. In the same essay, she recalls a more personal application: the inability of a dear friend to meet any of her own writing goals, or to have children, both of which Lepore was doing as her friend succumbed to leukemia, her own permanent deadline.
This may be the most moving essay in her substantial collection, but Lepore, Harvard’s David L. Kemper ’41 Professor of History, provides similarly multifaceted and readable deep dives into topics ranging from Constitutional originality to the #MeToo movement.
History, all of it.
“I’m a writer who writes about the past,” said Lepore in a phone interview. “I am mostly interested in the relationship between the living and the dead, which is a way to think about change over time.”
Along those lines, “The Deadline” is roughly divided between personal essays (“mostly elegies to the dead people that I loved”) and those dealing with “the American past,” as the historian puts it.
“A lot of what I’ve been working on lately as a scholar is the nature of written Constitutionalism, which is a really interesting relationship that the living have with the dead, and one that has a binding authority,” she noted. She adds that originalism has an intellectual place, but “as a Constitutional interpretation for judges to use as they think about the law and as a form of populism, it’s kind of wild and unhinged, and I think can be quite dangerous. So I’ve been trying to think through ways to investigate these problems of our time and to gain some historical vantage on them.”
To that end, in the essay “The Age of Consent,” she unwraps the background of the Constitution, debunking its reputation as wholly unique by rooting it in documents ranging from Catherine the Great’s Nakaz (or Great Instruction) to the numerous similar proclamations popular across 18th-century Europe and Asia.
The collection draws from the past 10 years of New Yorker pieces — a period, notes Lepore, that has made history feel especially relevant to many readers. “Between the election of Trump and the pandemic and the daily evidence of catastrophic climate change, I think most ordinary people have a sense of living in an unusual historical moment. A kind of historical consciousness, a historicism, is fairly acute for most people, and it’s quite acute for young people who feel that they’ve walked into this doomed historical moment. I have found this really interesting, because historians are always thinking about where we are in historical time.”
It’s a perspective that isn’t always pretty. She likens the process of becoming a historian to something comparatively dark: a friend’s experience of dissecting a cadaver in medical school. “[T]here’s a feeling of joining a cult. Like, when you cut open a human body and explore it, you are joining a minority of humanity that has seen the inside of a human body.
“Becoming a historian is quite a bit like that, or it has always felt that way to me. That there’s an unseen inside to time that I think about all day. And when I talk to other people who are historians, we can share that strange set of perceptions. But what’s been weird about Trump to the pandemic to global climate catastrophe is that now everybody’s seen the inside of time. And that’s sad because it is actually mostly ugly.”
And history, Lepore warns, doesn’t necessarily provide answers.
“When I started to collect these, it seemed to me the question that was haunting all of the things that I was writing was: Has it ever been this bad before? Has this ever happened before?”
But that question, she said, “rests on the assumption that if it had, we could look to the past and figure out how the dead dealt with it. That somehow there’s a message in a bottle out there, and the historian’s job is to set sail in the ocean and go find that floating, bobbing bottle somewhere in the sea and then bring it back to shore and say, ‘Look, here’s what we should do. This is what these people did, or we should not do what they did because this ended in disaster for them.’ And I just don’t think there are those answers in the past.”
What historical observation offers, instead, is a lens through which to view our own political movements, giving them a context that both illuminates and challenges our understanding of what we’re witnessing. In “The Return of the Pervert,” one of three new essays in the collection, Lepore dissects the complex nature of the #MeToo movement.
“The #MeToo movement is many things,” she explained. “It’s a squirrelly political protest. It’s part of a political movement. It’s a social media campaign. It has legislative outcomes with regard to criminalization of certain kinds of acts of harassment and violence against women and sexual assault. It is also a moral crusade. And the female moral crusade has a really elaborate and actually mostly distressing history.”
It’s a history that bears some scrutiny for what it says about the status of women in the past. “One of the reasons that women’s political activity is written out of political history is because political historians don’t recognize the female moral crusade as a political act. But it is a political act. And before women had the right to vote, a moral crusade was really the only way to engage in politics.”
Historical observation, for Lepore, also offers insight into our shared humanity. “I think there’s an extraordinary amount of illumination in the past,” she said. During the first month of the pandemic, she read Daniel Defoe’s 1722 “Journal of the Plague Year,” an account of the bubonic plague.
“I found it unbelievably moving that the experiences he was describing, looking back at London in 1665, were ones that I was having and that my world was enduring,” she said. “But it didn’t tell me what we should do.
“The past is not an instruction manual. But I find I like thinking about other humans and how they deal with things because generally they screw up and so do we. And that actually is a form of solace and comfort.”
Clea Simon is the Somerville-based author most recently of the novel “Hold Me Down.”