Book review: ‘The Whites of Their Eyes’ by Jill Lepore
The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History
by Jill Lepore
Princeton University Press (2010), hardcover, 210 pages
A review-blurb on the front cover of this book says, “Lepore is a better reporter than any historian, and a better historian than any reporter.” That short, muddled review is actually quite apt for this short, muddled book, mainly because it points up the fact that the author spends so much time being a reporter that she never quite makes it as a historian.
Her basic thesis is sound enough: the Tea Partiers are guilty of “historical fundamentalism,” which she defines as “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 . . . .” Once she states her thesis, however, she launches into a journalistic history of the days before the American Revolution, with lots of entertaining anecdotes about the Founders interspersed with anecdotes about modern-day Tea Partiers. Real analysis of the facts she reports only pops up now and again, and it is soon cast aside for more reportage. She states that the current Tea Party movement has more in common with the 1970s than the 1770s, but anecdotes from the ’70s once again supplant any thorough discussion of the facts. By the end, she’s giving an extended narration of her child’s grade-school history project, using that as an example of the work of real historians.
I’m sorry, but it’s all too cute by half. It would have been better if she’d just left this in its original form: an essay in the New Yorker. There’s not enough here for a whole book, and it’s not nearly a good enough work of history to justify its own demand that the Tea Partiers stop undermining the study of history.