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Novel History

Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations)

by Simon Schama
Knopf, 333 pp., $21.00

It was bound to happen. Sooner or later a distinguished historian had to cross over, had to mingle the writing of fiction with the writing of history. The circumstances were ripe, the pressures were enormous. Everyone else was doing it. Novelists had long been blending fact with fiction without apology. They not only set their invented characters among real historical figures, but they had these authentic historical figures do and say things they had never done. When E.L. Doctorow was asked whether Emma Goldman and Evelyn Nesbit had ever actually met as they did in his novel Ragtime, he replied, “They have now.” Journalists and TV writers have been doing it, creating hybrids called “faction” and “docu-drama.” Television even began simulating the news, adding made-up pictures to otherwise apparently lifeless words.

These examples, however important, are merely the manifestations of a larger, more significant force at work. The blurring of fact and fiction is part of the intellectual climate of our postmodern time—dominated as it is by winds of epistemological skepticism and Nietzschean denials of the possibility of objectivity that are sweeping through every humanistic discipline, sometimes with cyclonic ferocity. Historians are usually the last to know about current fashions, but so powerful have the postmodern, deconstruction theories become that even historians can no longer remain ignorant of them.

Most historians are not yet ready to admit that they simply make up the past as a fiction writer does or to deny outright the possibility of representing a past reality, but the signs of doubt and anxiety are in the air. Hayden White and the journal History and Theory have of course long been writing about the fictional character of historical narrative and urging historians to recognize the complex nature of what they do. Peter Novick in a recent important and widely acclaimed book, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (1988), has offered his fellow historians an elegiac and anguished account of the demise of the founding ideals of the discipline of history with little or no hope for their rebirth. Literary scholars have been very busy bringing their postmodern, deconstructionist theories onto the historian’s turf and calling themselves “new historicists” while further undermining the old-time faith in an objective past reality. Although historians have scarcely begun to experience the kinds of epistemological quarrels that have torn apart the literary disciplines over the past decade or so, the signs of change are ominous. And Simon Schama’s new book, Dead Certainties, is the most portentous of them.

Dead Certainties, which loosely combines two separate stories about the past—one about the death of General Wolfe at the battle of Quebec in 1759 and the other about the murder of George Parkman by Professor John Webster of Harvard in 1849—is a self-proclaimed experiment in narration. In his storytelling Schama has avoided neat chronological sequences and has in fact “deliberately dislocated the conventions by which histories establish coherence and persuasiveness.” Both stories “begin with abrupt interventions…and end with accounts at odds with each other as to what has happened.” He has given us what literary scholars would call interior monologues, shifting voices, and multiple points of view; and if these were not enough he has even invented whole passages, including a fictional account by one of Wolfe’s soldiers of the battle of Quebec and a made-up dialogue between two of the figures in the Webster trial. It is an extraordinary book, with important implications for the discipline of history, especially because of who Schama is.

Schama is no small-time renegade in the historical profession. He is not a philosophically inclined critic of history, like Hayden White, who carps at the margins of the discipline and preaches skepticism and subversion to the halfway converted but writes no history. Schama is a prominent practicing historian. Indeed, at the outset of his career he was marked by his mentor J.H. Plumb as “the outstanding historian of his generation.” Whether or not he is that, he has certainly risen rapidly to the top of the historical profession.

He was born in London in 1945 (“the night we bombed Dresden”), he says, educated at Cambridge University, and taught at Cambridge and Oxford until moving a decade or so ago across the Atlantic to Harvard, where he is currently Mellon Professor in the Social Sciences and senior associate at the Center for European Studies.

Though only in his mid-forties Schama has already published (before Dead Certainties) four highly acclaimed history books, the two most recent of which sold widely in several nations and languages. Not only have these books brought him professional acclaim, but they have made him something of an international celebrity. Earlier this year the London Sunday Times Magazine devoted its weekly feature “A Life in the Day of” to this university professor—a bit of fame usually reserved for politicians and film stars. Even in Boston local television stations have occasionally invited Schama to comment on current events, including the upheavals in Eastern Europe, about which he presumably knows not much more than the rest of us.

So that when a professional historian of Schama’s status and significance deliberately decides to mingle fact with fiction and try an experiment in narration, the result can be no trivial matter. In writing this book, however, Schama seems to have no hidden political purpose or dark schemes in mind. Indeed there is a certain guilelessness about him. He explained recently to The Guardian that he is being “held currently guilty of committing a fiction,” saying this, according to the interviewer, “with a big pleased grin…, the bad boy of the class enjoying the trouble he didn’t quite mean to cause.” He doesn’t want to change the world. He wants to tell stories. He has said that “all history tends toward autobiographical confession,” which his experiment in fictional history confirms. It is no momentary aberration for him; it is the natural development of his work.

Schama is a born storyteller. From the beginning of his career he has had a powerful desire to write something more aesthetically pleasing and imaginatively exciting than the prescribed rules of history writing currently allow. To be sure, his two earliest books were more or less traditional historical studies, heavily footnoted and based on intensive archival research; but they were certainly more narrative than they were analytical, and big narratives at that. His first work, Patriots and Liberators: Revolution in the Netherlands, 1780–1813, published in 1977, began, he admits, “as a trim monograph” but “came to assume proportions of…indecent corpulence,” 745 pages worth—a problem of volubility Schama has continued to struggle with. Telling the story of the complicated process that destroyed the Dutch Republic and established the Kingdom of the United Netherlands under William I required Schama’s mastering the Dutch language and the Dutch archives, and that alone was an awe-inspiring achievement.

Most reviewers believed that there was nothing to rival Schama’s study of this important period of Dutch history—in any language. Still, even in this very scholarly work dealing with a relatively recondite subject for an English-speaking historian, Schama nevertheless expressed an aspiration to break out of the “pedantic specialisations” of the historical profession. “It is time, perhaps,” he wrote in his preface to the book, “to poke our heads above our several molehills and to take in a view, however nervous and blinking, of the broader historical landscape.” He knew too from his teacher J.H. Plumb that “history must at least strive to be art before it can pretend to be a science.” Already this early book revealed the richness and garrulousness of his narrative style, where words and sentences seem to spill out as fast as the storyteller can speak. One reviewer said that Schama’s writing sometimes “approaches the ripeness of late eighteenth century prose, but it never goes beyond the bounds of decency.”

His second book, Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel (1978), dealing with the contribution of Edmund and James de Rothschild to the creation of a Jewish community in Palestine, was an even more traditional history than his first book, based as it essentially was on the single archive of the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association. The book grew out of an informal seminar on Jewish social and intellectual history that Schama had been teaching to undergraduates at Cambridge University in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a very personal story, which at one point in his life he felt he had to tell, but one he says he would never have finished except for the “goading of those two kindly but purposeful bullies, my mother and father,” especially his father who was “a passionate enthusiast of Jewish history.”

His move from England to Harvard in the late 1970s allowed fuller scope for Schama’s deep desire and remarkable ability to tell stories, an activity that in origin is after all an oral process. At Harvard, unlike Oxford or Cambridge, he became, as he says, the examiner of his own curriculum and thus became free to develop his lecture courses at will. “I do anything I want to,” he says. By his own count his courses now number twenty or so, ranging in subject from baroque art and architecture and eighteenth-century French politics and painting to Dutch art and Pieter Brueghel, and most recently to the reading and writing of narrative history, which, he says, has become “a major concern” of his. This Dead Certainties bears out. Nearly all of Schama’s courses combine art with history and so rely heavily on the showing of slides. He says he never has a prepared text for his lectures, only his slides, “just a series of shuffled images.” His very popular lectures at Harvard thus become awesome feats of extemporaneous speaking, extraordinary displays of the ancient art of oral storytelling with the modern addition of pictures.

His third book, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (1987), revealed fully Schama’s remarkable talent for telling stories and shuffling images, and it brought him to the attention of a wider public. Like his first book, Embarrassment of Riches was huge—698 pages—but it was not old-fashioned linear narrative history; as Schama admitted, it “strayed a good deal from the straight and narrow of the historical method.” The book was essentially a cornucopia of stories, dozens if not hundreds of them, with over three hundred interspersed illustrations. Schama roamed all over seventeenth-century Dutch society, gathering what he called “bits and pieces of culture,” incidents and anecdotes, curiosities and delights, paintings and engravings, on a wide variety of subjects, from criminal punishments to dike building, from Calvinist patriotism to beached whales, from Dutch eating, drinking, and smoking habits to tulip sales, from cleanliness to child-rearing—all designed to reveal a collective self-portrait of the Dutch people. The “shameless eclecticism” of the study was very controversial, one critic calling the book the “triumph of ingenuity over evidence.” Some experts in Dutch history or art history were reluctant to praise this eccentric and imaginative book, but many other did. Still, Schama himself expressed concern that the collective image of the seventeenth-century Dutch people that he had tried to recover “might at best be fugitive and ghosty.”

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