The Wrong Way to Look at the Past

Americans are taught history through the stories of great men, but no one changes the world alone: Your weekly guide to the best in books

A man's shadow cast onto the floor
H. Armstrong Roberts / ClassicStock / Getty

Americans are used to learning history through the stories of great men. Think of Thomas Jefferson: He drafted the Declaration of Independence; he was the first secretary of state and our third president; he even died, poetically, on the Fourth of July. Though he’s frequently discussed alongside other Founding Fathers, in the public consciousness, Jefferson stands on his own, like a titan. But the historian Annette Gordon-Reed, in her Pulitzer Prize–winning The Hemingses of Monticello, reminds us that Jefferson’s life was intimately connected with those of the Hemingses, a family he enslaved. His story is inextricable from theirs, Hamilton Cain writes.

Gordon-Reed punctures “great man”–style history by reminding readers that no one, not even Jefferson, is an island, and by insisting on the Hemingses’ inclusion in narratives of the American past. Other writers and scholars dismiss our tendency to center powerful men in different ways. In G-Man, Beverly Gage’s biography of J. Edgar Hoover, the man remembered as a singular, influential figure who remade the FBI in his own image appears “more team player than solo villain,” Jack Goldsmith writes. The problems with making a person into a myth are even more obvious when the key players are all still living. Both Michael Cohen’s and Mike Pence’s memoirs have the same issue: Cohen’s tone is “self-exonerating and accusatory,” Laura Kipnis writes, and Tim Alberta explains that Pence refuses to “reflect meaningfully” on the Trump administration. Each wants to characterize his role during those years as pivotal—while eschewing their own responsibility, and distancing themselves from the former president.

Of course, individuals can matter quite a lot to the course of history—Maria Ressa, a co-founder of the news outlet Rappler in the Philippines, won the Nobel Peace Prize for standing up to President Rodrigo Duterte’s regime. And she admits that the fight against encroaching fascism will require “person-to-person” efforts. But her book How to Stand Up to a Dictator doesn’t suggest that anyone should go it alone. Instead, she writes, it will take the effort of “you and me and everyone you know” to change the future.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

Join us Sunday for a conversation on reading Proust during the pandemic, featuring Oliver Munday, an associate creative director at The Atlantic, and Caroline Weber, the author and Barnard professor, presented in partnership with The Villa Albertine.

When you buy a book using a link in this newsletter, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

What We’re Reading

a book with the cover open to reveal a car engine

Getty; The Atlantic

Seven books that will make you smarter

“Gordon-Reed layers her book with meticulous research and revelatory anecdotes, exposing how Jefferson’s life is inextricable from the Hemingses’ just as America’s history is inextricable from slavery.”

photo collage of older J. Edgar Hoover over younger sepia-toned photo of same

Illustration by Ernesto Artillo. Sources: Bettmann / Getty; Popperfoto / Getty.

How J. Edgar Hoover went from hero to villain

“[Gage] also shows that the prevailing image of Hoover as a ‘one-dimensional tyrant and backroom schemer who strong-armed the rest of the country into submission’ is a distortion. Hoover emerges instead as a still-flawed figure, yet more team player than solo villain. He understood that his success depended on public approval, which he was adept at building. Just as crucial was high-level support for his actions (covert as well as overt), under liberal and conservative administrations alike, which he worked assiduously to secure. Hoover’s pragmatism helped curb, at various junctures, his dogmatism and extremist tactics.”

Portraits of Michael Cohen

Chip Somodevilla / Getty; Yana Paskova / Getty; The Atlantic

America’s mediocre hero

Reading [Cohen’s] two memoirs back to back presented certain quandaries: Although they cover much of the same ground, something in Cohen radically shifted between them. In the second go-around, he seems to have come undone, and is by turns scattershot and floundering. No longer a witness to history and to [Donald] Trump’s political self-invention, he has been fractured by history, though perhaps in illuminating ways.”

Mike Pence

Erin Scott / Bloomberg / Getty

Mike Pence refuses to connect the dots

“And yet, the book is also singularly frustrating, tortured in its appraisal of so many history-making moments and reluctant to reflect meaningfully on the author’s view of them.”

A photo of Rodrigo Duterte and protesters

Getty; Alex Cochran

How to fight fascism before it’s too late

“World War III won’t just be a conventional war. The fight for democracy requires a person-to-person defense of our democracies. Microtargeting means that this is hand-to-hand combat for all of us on social media. This is us—you and me and everyone you know—resisting dictatorship through our values not only in the public sphere but in our daily lives. That begins with trust.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Emma Sarappo. The book she’s reading next is Present Tense Machine, by Gunnhild Øyehaug.

Comments, questions, typos? Reply to this email to reach the Books Briefing team.

Did you get this newsletter from a friend? Sign yourself up.