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 …

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