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4.0 out of 5 stars What is history (again)?, 14 May 2012
This review is from: Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations (Hardcover)
Ostensibly a book about two indirectly related deaths, those of an English general in the Seven Year War and of a nineteenth-century Harvard doctor, Dead Certainties actually is a divagation on the nature of history. The title itself gives it away, of course: for nothing is certain, and much will forever remain conjecture, as to these two deaths. History as art, history as tale, history as judicial process. Such is where Schama ultimately wishes to turn his reader's attention. As the author himself admits in his afterword, the book veers between historical enquiry and novella, between source transcription and invention, however faithful.

Dead Certainties is divided into two unequal parts. The first glosses the death of general James Wolfe at the battle of Quebec in 1759. It is interested in the process of mythologizing that followed the battle, by which a semi-official, heroic commemoration came to substitute for other historical versions. Painting, art, monumental sculpture embody their own sublimated truths. But what are the truths of history if not also totalizing? The second, much longer half of the book is an 1850 whodunit involving the alleged murder of George Parkman by another Harvard professor, the respectable but indigent John Webster. Here the process of historical enquiry merges with that of judicial discovery, aiming, with the aid of perforce incomplete evidence, to establish a version of events 'beyond reasonable doubt'.

Dead Certainties should perhaps be classified as micro-history. If so, however, the macro-history it speaks to is to do with the nature of the discipline itself. The most effective of its two sections it the second, which draws parallels between history-writing and court processes. Thus both centre around circumstantial evidence, and both confront contradictory clues in an attempt to re-create a past reality. While trials oppose defence to prosecution, history often is the product of revisionist and counter-revisionist claims. Both remain dominated by narrative more than any candid submission of conflicting evidence. ('But give them only uncertainty and they will squirm with unhappiness like children sent to bed without their story's end,' writes Schama.) And both draw their power at least in part from rhetoric.

In some ways, this is a postmodern tract. 'I have deliberately dislocated the conventions by which histories establish coherence and persuasiveness,' Schama concludes, who puts his two deaths together in several, competing versions rather than in a single narrative. And perhaps the avoidance of any footnotes is to be criticized. It is a little too easy to probe at history-writing's frailties while ridding it of its main prop: the primary source reference. Nevertheless, Dead Certainties is a brilliantly illustrative book on the discipline, to be read alongside Richard Evans's In Defence of History and E.H. Carr's What is History?.
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