I’m productive, but Jill Lepore writes an extended article for The New Yorker every few weeks, a book every two or three years (including a fantastic book on Benjamin Franklin’s sister, a novel, and one about to come out on Wonder Woman), served a number of years as chair of the History and Literature program at Hah-vuhd, co-founded Common-Place, has won an award for undergraduate teaching, and, yes, raises at least a couple of children, probably a dog or two, and perhaps some spotted owls or endangered whales rescued from the wild.
By “Jill Lepore syndrome,” I don’t mean that I can accomplish what she can. Just the opposite–and you and I know it. What’s a self-respecting mortal academic to do?
It’s fair to say that, as an historian, Jill Lepore is pretty close to a national treasure. Her prose is by turns elegant, incisive, witty, and poignant. The shelf-full of books she’s written present impeccable and creative scholarship to an informed public, and her New Yorker pieces engage with a range of timely issues, putting the present in conversation with the past. My very status-conscious mother asks me if I know Jill Lepore; my guess is that Jill Lepore’s mother is very little concerned with whether her daughter knows me, nor should she be.
The funny thing is, in many ways I’m a poor man’s (poor woman’s?) Jill Lepore. We’re both early Americanists. In fact, we’ve even at times addressed a similar topic, contemporary memory of the American Revolution, Lepore with The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History and me with Fighting over the Founders. I, too, have written for the public, in various pieces for the History News Service. I’m in my third year of directing my university’s American Culture Studies program. We’ve both done a little in the realm of digital humanities. We’ve both been associated with some of nation’s oldest academic institutions (she got her Ph.D at Yale and is now at Hah-vuhd, and I got my undergrad degree at Yale and my Ph.D at the College of William & Mary). Still, every moment I spend not productive (and oh, there are so many such moments in a day) is another moment I’m further behind.
Methinks there are several saving graces here. One is that, in any field of human endeavour, around seven billion of us have to reconcile ourselves with the fact that we are not now, nor ever will be, Jill Lepore, or Lebron James, or Jon Stewart, or Edmund Wilson, or whoever is so good that she (or he) transcends her narrow field of endeavor. And even then, we’re all just temporary blips on a little blue dot in the middle of galactic nowhere. With the possible exception of Jill Lepore (who for all I know is a baseball fan with Clayton Kershaw syndrome), then, we all have Jill Lepore syndrome. Let’s get over it, people!
Second, not to get too George Bailey on us here, but we’re all accomplishing things in addition to fame and glory. I’ve been really active in my faculty union, my religious congregation, and my girls’ soccer club. I have a family, and we try to spend time with each other, one of the perks of faculty life being the ability to organize much of our own time. Also, as Gregory Semenza pointed out in Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century: How to Build an Academic Career in the Humanities, in academia, you want to be the person that other people ask for advice and ask to be on committees — that’s a sign that people respect your judgment. And I’ve been asked to be on or elected to a lot of committees that matter: job searches, college council, promotion and tenure, etc. So even when we’re not building a breathtaking oeuvre as a scholar and public intellectual, we can still be building a community and making a difference in the lives of our colleagues and students.
Finally, and maybe this is an elaboration on my first point: life’s short. No need to take ourselves too seriously. Here’s a confession: I like to exercise, I like to spend time with my wife and our girls, I like to read the occasional novel or non-fiction work, I like to hang out with friends. Given that time is our most precious commodity, those hours of leisure come at the price of productivity.
So, I’m never going to be Jill Lepore. I’ll try not to be jealous about it, and rather be generous and admiring. There’s still lots of good work for us to do, and fun to be had, and it’s all going to be all right.
p.s. And if Jill Lepore wants to write a blurb for my new book or review it in the New Yorker, I’m not proud and there’s still time!