THIS AMERICA: The Case for the Nation
By Jill Lepore. Liveright. 150 pp. $16.95
THE HEARTLAND: An American History
By Kristin L. Hoganson. Penguin. 399 pp. $30
There are stories Americans have long told themselves about their country, stories that — depending on the prevailing mix of cynicism, optimism and realism — still hold sway. The shining city on a hill. A nation of laws, not of men. The land of opportunity. The melting pot. With liberty and justice for all. Parsing the enduring truths and myths behind these notions (not to mention their original context) is the work of historians. Their choices of territory to explore and stories to interrogate are not just academic concerns, but reshape the mythologies on which nation-states are built, understood and mobilized.
In “This America,” a slim and pointed book, Harvard University historian Jill Lepore worries that her profession has ceased to tell the story of the American nation. For the past half-century, she argues, historians have veered toward sweeping global accounts, studying webs of commerce and culture, or to narrower investigations of class, gender and race. These approaches have produced vital scholarship from previously neglected vantage points, Lepore acknowledges, but bypassing the broader story of the United States carries risks. “Nations, to make sense of themselves, need some kind of agreed-upon past,” Lepore writes. “They can get it from scholars or they can get it from demagogues, but get it they will.”
Of course, sometimes scholars get demagogic, too. Lepore recalls how American and European intellectuals in the early 20th century “propped up the worst forms of national prejudice and national mythmaking,” with catastrophic results. Later, postwar historians sought to minimize internal dissent in the battle against communism, depicting ideological consensus and unchallenged Western liberalism, while coming late to the turmoil of civil rights. And starting in the 1970s, historians, fearing that nation-state histories would revive the scourge of nationalism, began to avoid them. It didn’t work. Historians left the door open to “fiends and frauds,” Lepore writes, those who promote hatred of outsiders rather than love of country.
It is no secret what sort of fiends and frauds she has in mind. Lepore decries the rise of Vladimir Putin in Russia, Viktor Orban in Hungary and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, among others, as well as the Brexit vote in Britain — all signs of a nationalist resurgence. She reserves special ire for President Trump, “a nationalist with a vengeance,” and recalls a 2018 rally when he gleefully urged supporters to embrace the term: “I’m a nationalist. . . Use that word. Use that word!”
Though Trump seems bent on personally dismantling many of our national mythologies, Lepore is also critical of the American left for not offering comprehensive answers to this illiberal turn, for failing to draw on America’s story to fight back. “Trump’s loudest critics answered Trump’s viciousness with their own viciousness,” she writes, “his abandonment of norms with their own abandonment, his unwillingness to speak to the whole of the country with their own parochialism, speaking to their own followers rather than to the nation.”
It is a broad brush, perhaps unnecessarily so. One need not excoriate the full range of political and intellectual opposition to Trump to prove its shortcomings. Some of the most prevalent and instinctive criticisms of the Trump era wield America’s story as a counterpoint — which is why “that’s not who we are” has emerged as a battle cry, however ineffectual, of resistance to the Trump administration. If “This America” is a call to probe more deeply into that self-knowledge, it is a welcome one.
Lepore’s latest work emerges from an essay she wrote in Foreign Affairs in February, which in turn seems inspired by her massive 2018 book, “These Truths,” which is precisely the sort of national history she now argues has gone missing. In “These Truths,” Lepore skillfully assesses how well the United States has lived up to the self-evident truths of the Declaration: political equality, natural rights and popular sovereignty. (Short answer: Not well.) In a sense, “This America” reads both like a justification for the larger volume — though it’s not clear one is needed — and a warning about the shortsightedness of her academic colleagues. “When serious historians abandon the study of the nation, when scholars stop trying to write a common history for a people, nationalism doesn’t die,” she writes. “Instead, it eats liberalism.”
In “The Heartland,” Kristin L. Hoganson tackles one of America’s most common national myths, impossible to miss in political speeches, electoral forecasts and endless dissections of the white working class. “Americans persist in imagining a heart,” Hoganson writes. “Beset by disunity, they imagine their nation as a body with a protected, essential core: the heartland.”
Hoganson has many — too many, really — descriptions of that myth. The heartland has been viewed, by turns, as “the steadfast stronghold of the nation in an age of mobility and connectedness, the crucible of resistance to the global, the America of America First . . . A place of nostalgic yearnings . . . The garden of prelapsarian innocence before the fall into global entanglements . . . The ultimate safe space . . . A psychic fallout shelter in which to seek refuge from a changing and dangerous world.” (And that’s all just in the preface.) In popular lore, the heartland is isolationist, provincial, localized, always focused inward. Once hailed as the mighty industrial center powering the American century, it is now downtrodden, suspicious, cowering and defensive.
This book focuses on Champaign County in east-central Illinois, where the author, a historian at the University of Illinois, has lived for the past two decades in a sort of full-immersion Heartlandia. Hoganson unveils a long record of global trade, empire and displacement, papered over by self-serving local histories. Her eclectic chapters include the story of the Berkshire hog, an import that became wildly popular in Illinois in the late 19th century and tied local farmers to British standards of agriculture, science and taste. “The hog farmers of the Corn Belt piggybacked on the British Empire,” Hoganson writes, noting how the state’s pork producers helped feed Britain, especially in times of war. Migratory bird patterns, Indian exchange students and even kite-flying exhibitions are all deployed — possibly stretched at times — in the service of revealing a globally integrated heartland that undercuts the myth of provincialism.
Hoganson admits “a kernel of truth” at the center of the heartland mythology. There is indeed evidence of “locality, insularity, national exceptionalism, isolationism, provincialism, and white tribalism in the rural heartland,” she writes, describing it as “a place shaped by long histories of antiblack legislation.” Nowhere is the impact of such white tribalism more evident in “The Heartland” than in Hoganson’s history of the Kickapoo Nation, Native Americans who made a home in central Illinois by the early 1700s, only to find themselves displaced by white pioneers. The Kickapoo lost not only their lands by force but also their story, long recast by county historians and old-settler societies as a tale of vagrants and nomads. “The pioneers had not really displaced anybody,” Hoganson writes, describing the “deceit” of conventional histories, “because Indians had never really made the place their own.” Settlers, by contrast, were invariably — and inaccurately — depicted as rooted in place, thus transforming the Kickapoos into outsiders. Theirs is a story Hoganson hopes to rectify.
“The Heartland” implicitly takes up Lepore’s challenge, confronts persistent views of the insular and benign Midwest and reinterpreting the heart of the American nation. (Lepore even offers a book-jacket endorsement.) Yet Hoganson’s book shows that local, national and global histories are more malleable and permeable than hard-and-fast categorizing allows, and that identity-based history — as in the case of the Kickapoos — does not necessarily undermine the national story. Rather, it keeps our history honest, free of simple nostalgias. “The heartland of myth can never be recuperated, much less preserved, because it never existed in the first place,” Hoganson concludes. If she had continued her history of the Midwest past the early 20th century, she could have told the ongoing stories of dispossession and displacement for multiple peoples, classes and races.
The United States, Lepore explains, “was a state before it became a nation,” a memorable formulation that captures the difficulty of joining disparate colonies with one cry for independence, of becoming a single We the People. That is why Americans have relied on shorthand concepts of nationhood and why historians, from George Bancroft with his 10-volume “History of the United States” to Lepore with “These Truths,” have sought to tell vast, unifying stories. Today, Lepore hopes to counter growing illiberalism with a “new Americanism,” one featuring “a devotion to equality and liberty, tolerance and inquiry, justice and fairness, along with a commitment to national prosperity inseparable from an unwavering dedication to a sustainable environment the world over.” The new Americanism, she writes, must “rest on a history that tells the truth” — the truth about national greatness and national shame. There is plenty of both.
It is a noble and high-minded end, and an utterly necessary one today. Yet it is an explicitly political end, too, transcending purely historical inquiry. And history in the service of politics carries its own risks. It can eat liberalism, too.