Jill Lepore

Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco awarded Jill Lepore an honorary degree during the University's 158th Commencement ceremonies on Sunday, May 18, 2014.

Photo by Alonso Nichols/Tufts University

In a lecture you gave last year about your biography of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister, you quoted John Donne: “When thou lookest through spectacles, small things seem great.” Seeing, you said, was all about perspective. And in thinking about what lens we use to interpret the world, you said, we confront the nature and boundaries of the self and of moral imagination. “What if you could see through another man’s eyes the way you can look through a pair of glasses?” you asked. In your books and essays, articles and lectures, you have given us the answer. As an historian, you allow us to see through the eyes of those who lived and made our history and our American identity. You unearthed not only facts, but the voices and emotions that brought to life those who otherwise might have languished in obscurity. As a writer for The New Yorker, you also explore in illuminating historical context the issues of our time—the power of the presidency, the state of our democracy, abortion, health care, and gun control, among others. For opening our eyes to where we came from, who we are, and what we might become, Tufts is pleased to present you with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

After graduating from Tufts, Jill Lepore, J87, had a temp job working as a secretary at Harvard Business School. Her future was uncertain. Restless, she sat in on a few classes across the river on the main campus, wrote fiction like mad, and devoured books she pulled out of Widener Library to satisfy her inner appetites, all of this according to no larger, more focused scheme. “I was just some secretary, auditing a course,” she later told an interviewer. “I very much doubt I ever spoke in class.” 

It wasn’t until the day that representatives from Manpower arrived at her desk at the business school with a bouquet of flowers, honoring her with a best secretary award, that Lepore knew something had to change. Sure enough, it did. Today, she’s a professor in the Harvard history department, widely acclaimed on the national stage for her stylish, original, and penetrating work.

Lepore grew up outside Worcester, Massachusetts, the daughter of a junior high school principal and an art teacher mom who kept an easel in the trunk of her car for impromptu roadside painting. She was a jock in high school and attended Tufts University on a ROTC scholarship, but neither passion lasted. She graduated early and set about trying to find her way in the world. In the end, that meant locating and telling a few of the stories that had fallen through the cracks of history and been forgotten—narratives of the silent and the lost.

She wanted to read other people’s letters, in effect, and learn what they had to say. At Yale, where she earned her Ph.D. in American Studies in 1995 (after completing an M.A. in American culture at the University of Michigan), Lepore ran into a prevailing emphasis on historical theory and analysis, where character was viewed as incidental. “Unfortunately, all I ever wanted to do was figure people out,” she said recently. That meant acting “like a detective, like a Chandler gumshoe.”

Lepore’s first book, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity, published in 1998, was typical of her approach. It explored the virtually unknown war that Algonquian chief King Philip launched against the English in 1675 to drive the settlers from New England and reclaim his land. After reviewing the complex affiliations among the English back home in Britain, the English settlers in the New World, and the Native Americans, Lepore challenged the long-held notion that American identity arose chiefly in the tension between two English contingents, one old and one emerging. That book won the Bancroft Prize, among other honors.

A more recent work, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, pursued an even more shadowy topic, the biography of Benjamin Franklin’s sister, who, while dear to her famous brother, lived and died in obscurity. By sorting through the trove of intimate, chatty letters the two Franklins had exchanged, Lepore was able to bring her subject vividly to life. The book was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award for Nonfiction. “History’s written from what can be found; what isn’t saved is lost, sunken and rotted, eaten by earth,” she wrote last summer in the New Yorker (where she is a staff writer), recounting how Jane’s story had haunted her for years.

Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and chair of that school’s History and Literature Program. Her other books include New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan (2005), The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle for American History (2010), The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death (2012), and The Story of America: Essays on Origins (2012). Her next book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, will be published this fall.

Lepore will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.