The Paris Review

America Doesn’t Have to Be Like This

On Jill Lepore’s These Truths and the foundational myths of the United States.

Adolphe Yvon, The Genius of America, ca. 1870.

It didn’t have to be this way.

This thought kept blinking through my mind, like a neon sign on a dark street, as I read These Truths, the newest book by the Harvard professor and New Yorker contributor Jill Lepore. A nine-hundred-plus-page tome, it is a full history of the United States, a country I was born in and soon after left. I was raised in Israel, a much younger country that was handed over by a colonizing force to a people desperate for a home back in the days—not so long ago, really—when colonizers could simply gift the land they’d taken as if it were theirs to give. The history I was taught from the ages of six to eighteen was both condensed and elongated, the history of a fledgling country full of war but also of an ancient people once enslaved and long persecuted.

But I was born in the U.S., which makes me a citizen. I didn’t have to pass a test or learn about this country or understand any more of it than any non-American understands about the place that gave us McDonald’s, the Internet, the iPhone. I moved back here easily, when I was nineteen years old. My birth certificate sufficed; my ignorance was never questioned or corrected.

What are the myths the United States has

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