October 25, 2018

"These Truths" is full of untruths

These Truths: A History of the United StatesThese Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book has been heavily touted, in large part because of the author's name, I think. I've seen authors better than Jill Lepore hit a foul ball, which is why I try to avoid, in my own reviews, touting books solely because of the author. (For various reasons, I've changed that original 2-star rating to 1 star. I don't know if or when Blogger will capture that.)

That makes it all the more disconcerting to see an error as early as page 8 and a whopper to boot. As I tweeted Penguin Random House, is this an issue of the ongoing cheapness of book publishers on second-level copy editing and fact checking in general, or is it an issue of "name" authors getting more and more of a pass on these issues?

(Update: John Horgan notes that Norton was the actual publisher, in a Twitter exchange, after I questioned why the hell he loves this book. And he does. And, to be honest, John, I wonder if this isn't a bit of tribalism; certainly, a number of the apparent knee-jerk responses to my review on Amazon, that's the best explanation I see. And, I certainly didn't see this book as having an emphasis on combating "fake news." If it does, well, Lepore herself failed on that, including, as I note below, getting wrong the modern history of fake news where she briefly discusses the start of modern public relations and its connection to government entities. Finally, re-reading on Twitter, I was a bit cheesed about the word "review" being put in scare quotes by John. Hey, I get that you don't like it. But, it's a review, not a "review." Or else, your piece is a "review," not a review. )

Indeed, beyond that as representative of numerous errors of fact, there’s numerous arguable errors of interpretation, and dubious decisions what to contain and what to omit. In specific citations below, I will use an (I) for what are at least in part errors of interpretation.

Behind THAT, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, as far as I can tell, there’s no “there” there. All of this is so bad did one thing I've occasionally done in the past and another I've never done.

Beyond THAT that? A Howard Zinn makes worse errors, tis true. But, they were for particular reasons of historic slant and his book was never touted like this. In addition, contra one commenter on Amazon, I didn't even tackle all she left out in a 1-volume U.S. history review that shouldn't have been crammed into one volume. That's especially true when Lepore wastes pages on weird interpretations of part of why we entered World War I. See below.

(Due to Jeff Bezos being Chairman Mao, I've stopped most reviews — and book purchases — on Amazon. But, this one was big enough, plus I was early enough in the review curve, to jump in. Here's my yellow Satan review, which is the top-rated "negative" review of the book on Amazon.)

Note: I emailed Lepore a copy of my original Goodreads review, from which this is edited and updated.

I tweeted a copy of that review to the book's publisher, Penguin Random House, as already noted. (Neither Lepore or Penguin have responded.)

One last note: Some commenters at either Goodreads or Amazon, or any I get here, might think I hate Lepore because she's a liberal. No, I don't hate or even dislike her. To the degree I disagree with her beyond errors of fact, on errors of interpretation, it would be because, for America at least, I'm a leftist. NOT because I'm a conservative. And, a leftist is not the same as a liberal.

With that, let’s dig in to everything wrong with this book, with the errors of fact carefully documented.

Page 8: No, pre-Columbian American Indians did NOT herd (or "tend" as the book actually says) pigs because there were none in the New World! (Update: One commenter on my original review, and multiple ones at Amazon, have tried to claim she actually meant peccaries/javelinas. Nope! They were not domesticated either then or today. So, if that were the case, Zachariah, Lepore made not one but two additional errors — a false claim plus mislabeling peccaries as pigs. Nobody does that. Trust me; I'm in Texas, which I believe is the nation's top state for both javalinas and wild hogs. Nobody calls a javalina a pig.)

18: Contra Lepore, plenty of plants went from New World to Old, and quickly became common parts of Old World diets. Tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize and chiles are the obvious ones.

33: Kind-of sort-of on the Virginia Colony. Its original grant went to today’s Canadian border on the coast; a reformulation in 1609 changed that. Hence the worries of the Separatists fears of settling in Plimouth in 1620, even though they had no charter from the crown for anywhere. They had intended to, and had publicly indicated their intent to, settle in Virginia.

By page 45 or so, I realized that I would find little to nothing in the book in the way of facts that were new to me.

So, I started skipping and grokking.

116ff. Ignores larger background of Shays Rebellion, and issues related to this in the Washington Administration, ie, the promissory notes for land offered to veterans, speculation on them and repurchase, etc. There's nothing new here. Standard American History 101.
145: America had political factions, and alliances, of various sorts long before federalists and anti-federalists. And the Founders knew that. 1790s newspapers did not spring parties into being, and the Founders should have known that. (I)

World War I take? Wasting pages on Germany being criticized by fundamentalists for higher criticism, and making that the intro to Bryan and Scopes, with almost zero coverage of the controversy over entry into the war itself, and Bryan’s time as Secretary of State? Horrible. (I)
As for Wilson’s health, he arguably had at least one mild-moderate stroke, and more than one mini-strokes or TIAs, a few years before the War.
The whole all-too-brief section on the Great War, especially given that we're in the centennial, is simply unacceptable, even if not complicated by wasting pages in the short coverage she did have. (I)

242: Polk couldn’t have “wanted to acquire Florida,” as the U.S. had acquired it all by 1821! This was before Polk had been elected to the Tennessee Legislature, let alone the U.S. House.
242: Russia had renounced its Oregon claims by the time Polk became President. Spain had in the Adams-Onis treaty sidebars, and thus, any later Mexican claims (contra Lepore, there surely weren’t) would be rejected by the US anyway.
250: No, the Mexican War boundary line did NOT end up at the 36th parallel of latitude after Polk allegedly gave up on seeking the 26th parallel. El Paso is at the 32nd parallel. The Mexico-California border is approximately 32°30’. Also, I’ve never seen claims that Polk wanted Mexico down to the 26th parallel. Indeed, Polk even specifically mentions the 32nd parallel in his December, 1847 State of the Union; another version here. Goodreads commenter Zachariah says other historians make the same claim. I responded that, at least as of the time of this SOTU, Polk did not. Tis true that he may have done so earlier than that; tis also true that in private message to Nicholas Trist, he may still have wanted more. But, for public consumption? His last comment was to stand at the 32nd parallel. See more below. **

More importantly, though, I thanked him for offering more indirect confirmation of something I have figured for some time. That is that Lepore likely had graduate assistants do much of her research. In this case, they obviously just looked at some secondary sources and she never followed up. That itself is an error. Per the actual full history of Polk's ideas, it also shows the shallowness of this as a one-volume project.

(I jumped back here after moving ahead to WWI, as she said little about Spanish settlement in today’s Southwest. She had little more on New Mexico of wartime Mexico’s possession.)

Even worse, on her Polk land-seeking claims, this heavily footnoted book had NO footnotes. Readers, and Zachariah, you should be thanking me for that.

406: No, most the world did NOT support “free trade” before WWI.
408: No, the 1924 immigration bill did not make immigrant proportional to current (of that time) population. It went back to the ethnic numbers of the 1890 Census.
410: I see no need to put “illegal alien” in scare quotes after first reference. The world "illegal" applies to civil law as well as criminal law violations. (I)
450: Doesn’t mention FDR playing a behind-the-scenes role in the defeat of Upton Sinclair. Doesn’t even mention that he refused to publicly endorse him. Doesn’t mention that he tried to get Sinclair to drop out and that support was offered to GOP incumbent Merriam when he refused. (I)
452: No, the American PR factory was not democracy’s answer to fascism. In the US, it goes back at least as far as Teddy Roosevelt. And LePore even mentions Emil Hurja’s pre-1933 work. David Greenberg has the correct answers on all of this in “Republic of Spin” as reviewed by me here.
548: AFL-CIO (and big biz) opposed Truman’s national health care plan, not just AMA. The unions saw health insurance as a recruiting tool.
717: Given that Bush v Gore was the apotheosis of a further rightward shift of the Supreme Court, it gets short shrift. (I)

Per other reviewers, and commenters to my review, on both Amazon and Goodreads with numbers in some of their comments, indicating page numbers:
7: Meteors have nothing to do with the age of the universe. They do have something to do with the age of the Solar System, which is far different.
32: Nope, Mary, Queen of Scots did not die the year after James VI (future James I of England and KJV fame) was born; it was 20 years later.
154: Nope, it was Burr and Jefferson, not Adams and Jefferson, who tied in the 1800 Electoral College.
293: Nope, there were 11 Confederate states, not 15.
Lafayette did not lead French troops at Yorktown. (IF Lepore thinks he led French troops at ANY TIME in the Revolution, rather than Americans, oh my god.)
40 million people did not die in WWI.
674: In 2000, 28 million foreign-born Americans were far less than 29 percent of the population.
Per one commenter to my review critiquing her on matters of interpretation, she seems lacking on diplomatic and economic history understanding. YES on the latter, per the paragraph immediately following.
Per others who don't like my critical review? Specifically the "Indians herding pigs"? Almost nobody in the Southwest today calls peccaries / javalinas pigs. So, nope, that doesn't work to explain Lepore away. Second, even if they DID, nobody either pre-Contact or today herds javalinas. God, tribalism.

Basically, after I got a little way into the book, beyond looking for errors of fact, and started looking for errors of interpretation I began wondering what her intended audience was, and what her angle was. I had in mind something like Howard Zinn’s book. Zinn had several errors of interpretation, but he had an interpretive focus. And, that was in part a leftist take on economic history. Or, go back to Charles and Mary Beard. They too had errors, but they were coming from that same place.

With Lepore, as noted, it seems to be no “there” there, per Gertrude Stein. Yes, she goes intellectual with the extended references to John Locke. Yes, she goes deep history with several pages about Magna Carta (without telling you it was honored by English kings more in the breach than the observance up to the time of Charles I).

Then I realized: Her target audience is readers of the New Yorker plus non-social science bachelor’s level Harvard grads or something like that. Socially liberal — the repeated las Casas references as an example — but not economically leftist or close.

Wikipedia says: She has said, "History is the art of making an argument about the past by telling a story accountable to evidence".

I’m still not sure what argument she was trying to make in the whole book. I eventually grew tired of trying to figure it out.

I did learn tidbits and things, and learn enough about Lepore's writing, not to one-star it originally. Plus, I thought a two-star review would be less easily dismissed. But, it's close. (I did one-star it on Amazon, where I very rarely review books any more. That's because of the plethora of perhaps bot-driven one-paragraph five-star reviews and because Amazon bounced my original review since it refuses to allow external URLs in the body of reviews. (And I'm glad I did there; I hope the 1 star, rather than 2, better offsets the puffery.)

With this all in hand, of course, I'll be highly skeptical of any future magazine pieces by her I see in the New Yorker (beyond my normal degree of skepticism about ANYTHING in the New Yorker).

One other note: I've seen more and more history books over the last decade (Douglas Brinkley being a big example with his TR biography) where it looks like large chunks of the book's research and even a first draft of writing were turned over to graduate students by professors writing history. I think Lepore's book is another example of that, too.

As for Horgan? If this is the best history book you've read? Per the last few grafs above? She's not that good of a writer, history or otherwise, IMO.

As for the decline of the media? I think John sees a golden age of the media from inside the box of the duopoly. No comments there about places like Counterpunch, Alternet, etc. Nor about non-duopoly voices from the past like Appeal to Reason. That's in part because there's none of that in Lepore.


View all my reviews

** I've added this section re Polk and the Mexican War based on a response to a comment of mine on Quora, which asked about Polk requesting, and being refused, money to occupy Mexico down to the 26th parallel and what his motivations might have been.

It’s hard to tell, for me at least, because Polk played his cards close to his vest at times. And not just here. Remember, in the Northwest, he ran in 1844 on the slogan “Fifty Four-Forty or Fight,” but it’s clear that he had no real desire to go to war with Britain to try to seize British Columbia. Rather, he was running a bluff to get Britain to concede today’s Washington State. (The British were already willing to let go of today’s Oregon in the jointly occupied Oregon Territory.)

So, on his asking for money for occupying more of Mexico? At one time, he may have been sincerely eyeballing that. Early on, he was indeed looking at the 26th parallel (more here on how this would have affected the future of the US if attained), which is roughly the Rio Yaqui in Sonora. (You could draw a line from its headwaters to those of the Rio Conchos, which eventually flows into the Rio Grande in the Big Bend country, for the 26th parallel in the western half of northern Mexico.)

I think Polk pulled his horns in after that. I think he was mad at Trist in part for other reasons and in part for southern public consumption. (Trist had been chosen in part as being a Whig, and kind of had Polk over a barrel in other ways.)


As it was, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had 14 nays in the Senate. It’s very possible that a highly annexationist treaty would have failed to clear the 2/3 bar. Whigs were already (LEARN, today's Democrats!) threatening to cut off all money for further occupation of Mexico if Polk didn't accept Trist's work. And, a Polk attempt to circumvent treaty-making, a la Tyler’s annexation of Texas by joint declaration of both houses of Congress, might not have gotten 50 percent in the House.

Due to further controversy on this issue I've run into on Quora and elsewhere, I've now done a full blog post on this issue.



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