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History whodunnits

At the heart of Jill Lepore’s show are a series of intriguing and timely questions

Here’s an enduring question that has gained particular resonance in our times, one that could be the start of an action-packed Indiana Jones type series on your favourite streaming platform. Who killed truth? And buried under that, the even more perplexing thought: What, exactly, is truth?

In the manner of a 40s-style trench-coat-wearing sleuth, the persistent historian doggedly searches all manner of records to find the answer. She tunnels through basements of cavernous libraries, and dusts the cobwebs off scratched vinyl records. She breathes the air of forgotten cemeteries and burrows into voluminous legal records. And the stories emerge, one by one, on a podcast, pointing to an array of unlikely suspects.

The historian in question is Harvard professor and The New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore. The podcast is The Last Archive, produced by Pushkin Industries.

I must admit that Lepore is among my favourite writers, one who skillfully traverses the academic-popular divide, as comfortable talking about the history of the American Constitutional as that of Wonder Woman. So, I began listening to her latest creative (and no less scholarly) venture, predisposed to like it. I wasn’t disappointed. At the heart of the show are a series of intriguing and timely questions: How are truth claims evaluated? What are the tools that allow us to know what we know? The Last Archive claims to be “a show about how we know what we know and why it seems, lately, as if we don’t know anything at all.”

Current matters

That last sentence sums up how many of us feel about the current moment, but it’s also an indication of how Lepore deals with any subject she takes up — not with the weight of authority, but with the light touch of curiosity.

Each episode takes up a singular case — a murder, a legal conundrum, a spectacle, an icon, an invention — and draws from it lessons about how we perceive what’s true and what isn’t.

In the first episode (‘The Clue of the Blue Bottle’), Lepore and her team open up a cold murder case to “uncover the history of evidence itself” and seek answers using old photographs, newspaper stories, a private detective’s notebook and even the trial record itself. This interrogation of what makes evidence continues in the next episode, where an ingenious new instrument — the polygraph — was used to distinguish between truth and lie. In Episode 5 (‘Project X’) we get to hear about the U.S. Presidential election of 1952, the birth of the political advertisement and the introduction of technology into election forecasting.

Radio drama

The stories are told in the manner of 1930s radio drama, with some authentic sound effects (including, in Episode 4, the voice of writer Ralph Ellison of The Invisible Man fame) and the rest made up by some pretty skillful theatre. The Last Archive adroitly exploits the medium of sound, making full use of audio artefacts while also recreating an aural landscape befitting the period in question. Links to original sources on the web site make this an excellent resource for teachers of history — and historiography — as well.

The show sets out (as the web site tells it) “to make arguments about history. The nation-state, social movements, cultural history, the history of politics and technology, science and medicine — and especially the history of knowledge.” And in doing so, they “wanted the show to sound like history, too.”

If you thought history was boring, Lepore — and The Last Archive — will make you think again.

The Hyderabad-based writer and academic is a neatnik fighting a losing battle with the clutter in her head.

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Printable version | Jul 11, 2020 9:01:14 PM |

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