Monday, August 4, 2014
I wrote this for the Telegram & Gazette in Worcester, MA.. Published Aug. 3.
LANCASTER — History professor and writer Jill Lepore found some startling data at Thayer Memorial Library, and she returned to town recently, talking about the book that came from her research.
Speaking to a crowd of about 75 on July 27, Lepore — a Harvard University professor of American history and chairman of the university's history and literature program — proved that the best qualities in a good writer-researcher may be curiosity and the willingness to dig. She exudes energy and humor as she speaks, drawing upon a generous reserve of knowledge about early American history.
Of specific interest that evening was her recent biography of Jane Franklin Mecom, sister of Benjamin Franklin and a relatively obscure figure in history. Yet through patient research — some of it in Lancaster's library — Lepore crafted "Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin," a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award for Nonfiction. How did she turn an unknown life into a national awards finalist? Digging deep.
As a scholar of history, Lepore carries weight. She has written multiple historical books and co-wrote a novel. Her "New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan," published in 2005 by Knopf, earned finalist status for the Pulitzer Prize in history.
One might have expected she would be dry and academic, use big words and offer weak attempts at wit to get her points across. Not so. Lepore, born in 1966 in Worcester, is small in stature and large in personality. She dresses casually, in jeans, blouse, sweater and clunky heeled boots — obviously comfortable speaking to crowds. She proved to be a lively, warm speaker, witty, smart and plain-spoken, as she delivered the story of Jane Franklin Mecum, who married a brute at 15, bore 12 children and saw 11 of them die. She also carried on a correspondence with her brother that lasted for decades.
As a staff writer at The New Yorker, Lepore could rest on her laurels. Instead, she writes numerous essays and reviews for publications such as The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The American Scholar, along with prominent history journals.
Fittingly enough, her next book, to be published by Knopf in October, is about Wonder Woman. In 2015, she'll focus on Charles Dickens in America.
Not bad for a local girl, raised in West Boylston before moving to Sterling during high school. (Her parents lived there, on Franklin Street, until their deaths in 2012.) Lepore left home to study English at Tufts University, where she received a bachelor of arts, later earning a master of arts in American culture from the University of Michigan and a doctorate in American Studies at Yale University. Before Harvard, she taught at the University of California-San Diego and at Boston University.
Lepore describes herself as a regular "pain in the ..." to Sterling librarians as she obsessively read through George Orwell's works. She always wanted to be a writer, but studied math as a ROTC scholar for awhile before dropping it to follow her instincts, becoming a historian. Now she uses all those skills. She prefers "impossible" subjects and does her own research.
Jane Franklin was in that category, but Lepore says she felt obligated to bring her story to light. About half the letters Benjamin Franklin ever wrote were to his beloved little sister, Jane. They were among 17 siblings, raised poor and ramshackle. "Benny" Franklin ran away from home in Boston as a teenager, and we all know what he accomplished. Jane met a different fate more common to her gender, but remained a faithful correspondent throughout her quiet life.
Lepore named her biography "Book of Ages" after the title of a journal Jane put together. Coming from a family of printers, Jane had access to the resources needed for making paper and printing on it, creating books. Her own, however, is empty — except for the birth and death dates for each of her children. Lepore described it as "a litany of grief," and she said she abandoned the project once, finding it difficult as a mother of young children to write about so many young deaths. But The New Yorker requested an essay about the subject, so she found herself drawn again to Jane's life.
Nine blank pages in Jane's book are as upsetting, she says. There, Jane could have detailed her life — but did not. Lepore relied instead upon the letters to Benjamin for a history of Jane's thoughts and beliefs.
Born in 1712, Jane lacked the advantages Benjamin had by virtue of his gender and intellect. Married at 15 to a man with violent tendencies, she never had the chance to learn to write — common among women of that era. She was taught to read the Bible and little more. From Benjamin, she learned to write enough to respond to his letters in an uncertain hand, with poor spelling. At one point, she wrote, "I read as much as I dare." Despite their long, intense correspondence, Lepore says, Benjamin never even mentioned her in his autobiography.
Lepore's mother urged her to check local resources for bits of history connected to the Franklin family. She hit a bull's eye when she contacted Library Director Joe Mulé. Thayer library has a rich historical collection, which includes 20 books from Jane's personal library, given to her son, Josiah Mecum, and eventually her grandson, Josiah Flagg. The Flaggs were among Lancaster's earliest families. The library has a silk-on-linen sampler stitched by Jane's great-granddaughter, Sarah "Sally" Flagg. Better still, Lepore discovered, the library boasts two 1765 oil portraits by Joseph Badger — of Jane Flagg, later Jane Flagg Greene, and Josiah Flagg (Jane's great grandchildren by her daughter, Sally Mecom Flagg). The portrait of Jane Flagg Greene is on the book jacket. Lepore believes there is more information out there, as yet unrecognized by its possessors, perhaps tucked away in attics or family papers. She would like to see it.
Lepore points to the bifocals Benjamin Franklin invented as a symbol of the way she approaches historical research, using the larger, better seen images from history as a way of also seeing the smaller, harder-to-detail stories. She used those literary bifocals to draw a portrait of Jane Franklin's life.
"I'm more comfortable working with history," she said. "There aren't a lot of prominent women writers of history. The few there are, write about men. I think it's important to model for others that women can do anything." Thus, her continues her work.
In "The Prodigal Daughter," the New Yorker essay published in July 2013, Lepore wrote, "Jane Franklin never ran away, and never wrote the story of her life. But she did once stitch four sheets of foolscap between two covers to make a little book of sixteen pages. In an archive in Boston, I held it in my hands. I pictured her making it."
That was the start, and her book is the result.