Damning Evidence—From History, Into Essays

What’s old is new again—in families, in communities, in nations, in populations transitioning in search of a home. This is only one—albeit the most powerful to this reader—of themes brought to a prismatically diffuse but revealing light by the research-driven, carefully analyzed essays Harvard Professor of History and Law Jill Lepore regularly delivers in her side-hustle: writing for The New Yorker. The articles of the most recent decade, plus some previously unpublished pieces, have been compiled and issued in a doorstop volume titled “The Deadline.”

Lepore, along with Congressman Jamie Raskin, will be discussing this new book on Monday, Sept. 11 as part of the Kentucky Author Series. The pair have to be admired for their ambition: not only was this a tumultuous decade to have to view journalistically, but that’s only one style with which Lepore shares her view of subjects. A lot to cover? She is encyclopedic about most everything she casts her eye toward, whether it’s the day-to-day of past generations of her family, say, or the Magna Carta. And what happens over time to patterns of intimacy or grand schemes or seemingly rigid institutions is an oft-overlooked component of knowledge that this author explores and shares in a way that can’t be dismissed.     

She has a stylistic voice that’s authoritative but unafraid to prioritize tenderness. Her range also easily skirts dryness when little rimshot witticisms show readers they’re being respected. But who wouldn’t want to curl up with a warm drink while reading sumptuous, lightly poetic rhapsodizing about environmental-sage Rachel Carson, with punctuations unexpected (the author of “The Sea Around Us” couldn’t swim?!) and catty (Library of America treats Carson’s classics before “Silent Spring” as if they were pale warm-ups).

But then: a very clear-eyed several thousand words that triangulate how modern American policing came about through competing historical threads of enforcing the will of royalty versus the rule of law, with racial paranoia and veterans’ cases of undiagnosed PTSD as some of the defining influences.

Every time this book is opened, a new perspective might be found on almost any of the topics herein—whether it’s the antagonistically poll-driven devolution of journalism, or potential interpretations of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” that resonate to this day. And there’s that type of resonance again (said with intended irony): Lepore puts a definitive finger on communal and cultural pain-points that are always coming back around. (Yes, it’s even true about robots.)

Consider the swinging pendulum of tactics to try and get public education to court religious dogma, with skew away from uncomfortable facts. A century ago at the time of the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” legislative bills to dictate evolution-free content was all the rage—but by the 1950s, “parent choice” had become a new catch-phrase by which fundamentalist groups got better legal traction. Sound familiar? Like maybe, today? Or how about this: the struggles of a Supreme Court, seeming to be in a continuous series of skirmishes brought on by a President who wants to see decisions made in the name of affecting economic policy—naturally, to favor the President’s initiatives. Sound like at least part of the docket of recent years? This is from the mid-1930s, and FDR’s New Deal was the policy.

It should be said that Lepore is scrupulous in sharing attributions for sources of background, clues for patterns she wants to point out, etc. And speaking of sharing the stage, the presence of Congressman Raskin at the Kentucky Center at this event might be particularly interesting given his place in history as Lead Impeachment Manager for Donald Trump’s second trial in the Senate. Author Lepore winds up her collection of 46 essays with “The American Beast,” which provides an overview and some even-handed digging into important sidelights regarding the January 6 riot at the Capitol.

Evening events begin at 6 p.m. at Bomhard Theater. Options include dinner at Muhammad Ali Center with the presenters. More information and tickets at 584-7777 or www.kentuckyperformingarts.org.

About the Author

Damning Evidence—From History, Into Essays

New Jersey–expatriate T.E. Lyons reconnected with the written word coincident with the arrival of his first child. His byline has since appeared on over a thousand reviews, previews, features, and fiction pieces–and a clutch of journalism awards. Favorite interview questions: “What’s your idea of good country music?” and “Do you think that last question was meant to bait you?” Reading and listening suggestions always welcome.


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