In eighth grade, and again in 11th grade, our American History teachers, Mr. Cronk and Mr. McCreadie, had us read The Rise of the American Nation. It was blue, with George Washington on the cover. I didn’t take an American History class in college, so The Rise of the American Nation is the last systematic thing I learned in school about American history.
It’s not as if I haven’t learned anything since high school. I saw The Civil War and The Great Depression on TV; I’ve been to the Underground Railroad Museum, and a national monument or two. I’m just saying that The Rise of the American Nation and the book I got for Christmas one year, Life in Colonial America, with chapters on Jamestown and New England and … so on, have been my basic framework for thinking about American history for decades now.
So when Jill Lepore says that historians these days do not study or write the history of the nation, it takes me by surprise. Not because I don’t believe her, but because it tells me I haven’t been paying attention.
Furthermore, she thinks they should write histories of the nation, because “liberalism” depends on
… grabbing and holding onto a very good idea: that all people are equal and endowed from birth with inalienable rights and entitled to equal treatment, guaranteed by a nation of laws. This requires making the case for the nation (20).
Allowing the history of the nation to fall into neglect, from her perspective, is to neglect the care and feeding of liberalism. By “liberalism” here she does not mean “vaguely left-wing political preferences,” but rather
… the belief that people are good and should be free, and that people erect governments in order to guarantee that freedom (40).
[If she’s going to put it that way, I’m not sure I myself am liberal, another surprise. I don’t believe people are good, although I believe they ought to be free, nevertheless.]
Lepore proceeds to make the case for the importance of telling the story of the nation by telling that story herself, paying particular attention to the development of national sentiment and national appeals. This Nation is a short book, more a long essay than a monograph. She tells the story briefly and selectively.
Also, without footnotes. This got me in trouble with a friend of mine, who’s a devotee of William Faulkner, which I knew when I encountered, and then reported to her, the Faulkner quote on page 106. Lepore cites it as an instance of the “illiberal or ethnic nationalism, nativism, racism, and recourse to aggression” that historians and others who have “wanted to wrest the word ‘nationalism’ away from the bloody hands of tyrants” have labeled the “bad nationalism” (38).
My friend insisted she’s read every word Faulkner ever wrote, and she’d never read that, and she was pretty sure he wouldn’t have said it, either, unless he was drunk. So I had to go searching on the internet myself to find the notorious March 22, 1956 interview with Russell Warren Howe in The Reporter that proved that I was right. I wasn’t above that, since it was a chance to defend myself against the William Faulkner Appreciation Society, but I felt I should have just been able to look in the footnotes.
[I thought my friend must surely have been dissembling, too, because “the Howe interview” IS notorious, so someone who’s studied Faulkner that much would likely have heard of it, I thought. On the other hand, it’s not technically something he wrote, and he did reportedly say later he was drunk when he gave it, so she probably deserves the benefit of those doubts. I still don’t think Faulkner was as liberal as he said he was in that interview, in either the contemporary vague or the Leporian technical sense of that term. But then again, context is everything, and Faulkner was from Mississippi, and it was 1956.]
One of Lepore’s main points is that American nationalism has “almost always” been a complicated blend of the “bad” kind of nationalism and the “good” kind (“liberal or civic nationalism”), and that both versions have flourished down the few centuries of our national existence. America was not obviously a nation from the beginning – the American nation had to rise, remember – and so the kind of nation it was going to be, the location of its national boundaries with respect to other identities, in particular racial-ethnic-“national origin” ones, has been something Americans have fought over a lot.
Our current episode, where the discourse centers on immigration [again] and birthright citizenship [again] and “identity politics” [again], is only new in time, not substance, the latest season of the same show.
Another one of Lepore’s main points is that the stories historians tell work as the scripts for that show. More precisely, sticking with that metaphor, they work as backstory. All the actors may be doing improv, but they are doing it with a keen sense of who they are, and how they fit into an established story line. They know what side they’re on. And Lepore tells us, I think, that the “sides” are delineated by the interpreters of our past: our historians.
Because, in the end, nations are imaginative constructions, the kind of “now you see ‘em, now you don’t” entities that finally depend on people’s more or less willing and active participation in seeing ‘em, and being ‘em. They depend on people’s staying in character. Life imitates Live Action Role Playing.
That character-informing imagination feeds on stories, the stories that position us as heroes or villains, that give our actions meaning as loyalists of our heritage or traitors to our higher calling, that name the stakes, that give us the language to say what we think we’re doing.
Why does my neighbor on the corner fly that rattlesnake flag? Why do my fellow shoppers at Walmart have those bars and stars on their pickups? Well – whose histories are they the heroes of?
According to Jill Lepore, This America – any nation, for that matter, but This America for sure – needs histories that people can be the heroes of by championing and standing up for the kind of liberalism that holds on for dear life to the idea that “all people are equal and endowed from birth with inalienable rights and entitled to equal treatment, guaranteed by a nation of laws” (20). We’re back to that.
Historians after World War II bought too much stock in Eric Hobsbawm’s observation that historians “are to nationalism what poppy-growers … are to heroin addicts,” supplying “the essential material for the market” (100), in Lepore’s assessment. They believed they needed to stop writing histories of the nation, and that if they did, the addiction to nationalism would fade away.
Instead, she argues, what they needed to do was to write better ones, different ones. More like methadone, maybe. Or better yet, more like Narcotics Anonymous. Histories that give the better angels of our nature bigger, better parts, the kind everyone wants to try out for, full of experience, strength, and hope.
Christians ought to know better than to be any kind of nationalists. Or liberals, I guess, by Lepore’s definition, since Christians ought to know better than to think people are good. Christians are supposed to desire a better country (Hebrews 11:16) and to hold their citizenship in another kind of city altogether. Neither kind of nationalism, whether Lepore’s good kind or bad kind, is a pledge of allegiance to the Kingdom of God.
But as long as Christians are in the position of having to take Jeremiah’s advice to the exiles to heart, and to seek the welfare of the city in which they are living, we probably need to pay some attention to its nationalisms. We should probably keep track of which of those nationalist narratives we are reinforcing, and which we are dismantling, by our own presumably, or hopefully, cross-cutting and transformative identity stories.
We may not be able to believe that people are good, but we are supposed to know that people are equal, and equally God-made, and equally endowed by their creator with inalienable rights. We are supposed to have read that the nation blessed by God is the one that knows God’s instruction, all of which hangs on the hinges of loving God entirely, and loving one’s neighbor, Samaritan-like, as oneself. So it shouldn’t be a long stretch for Christians to imagine that Leporian liberalism would be the direction in which to seek the earthly city’s welfare, its shalom.
If it is a long stretch, we might need to take a closer look at what church histories we’ve been telling lately. Assuming Lepore is right about that imagined community thing. Which I imagine she is.
Lepore, Jill. This America: The Case for the Nation. Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2019.
[An installment of the “Read Me” Project.]