Mr. Schama knows how to tell a good story, and this book is no exception. The "only" three star rating certainly does not imply that this is not a good little read, because it is. But the subjects of the stories are in all honesty of very limited historical interest. The 'unwarranted speculations' mentioned on the title page only concern the fact that a very popular 'heroic' painting of a person's death may totally misrepresent the true circumstances of his death and give him a larger-than-life place in history. The other case history - in itself a nice crime story - teaches us that a murder suspect's high social standing may (or at least, used to) strongly colour peoples' perception of his possible guilt.
All true, of course; but hardly any big surprises here. And although this book won't provide you with new insights, it will help you to pleasantly kill a few hours.
Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations. Simon Schama. 1992
Is there any writer of history that captures the imagination other than Simon Schama? The answer to that question is probably a resounding no. His lyrical style reads effortlessly from page to page, each one surprisingly full of interest and containing something quotable.
This is quite clearly one of those books where the author has been born to write it. Schama shows us his understanding of what history is and means through the study of the accounts of two deaths. That of General James Wolf (the British General credited with success in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham for Quebec in 1759) and that of a death in the family of the historian of Wolf: Francis Parkman (the influential American historian who overcame crippling neurological illness to write some of the best histories of any in the romantic period). The more we read of Schama's reproduced accounts of these two deaths, the more we come to understand his general thesis of the book: That all history is in fact the history of stories. This is a great piece that shows the subjectivity of accounts of a different nature, the prejudice of the historians reporting the facts and ultimately the fact that none of us can know the whole truth of the past.
Schama's writing style flows with dogged enthusiasm and rises and falls to the occasion he is describing, surely if all of us were blessed with such talents then we would write substantially better. The extent to which we can take this as a work of history rather than a relativist treatise is up for debate, however I myself would jump behind the book, there are a couple chapters that don't quite fit in but we are shown how easy it is to rewrite history through our imaginations. We are certainly concerned with this now, every time we see a media report we are treated to this teasing gap between the event and its narration? This book is ultimately successful Schama is by no means the first person to suggest that the imagined and the historical are more closely related than we think but here he has managed to show us this in action. It is also, unusually for Schama, thankfully short - his other attempts at producing short books have, by my library's reckoning, turned in to visual trickery of simply making the book bigger.
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?.
I found the book very interesting. Especially on the sensational murder cases that took place more than 100 years ago. I found it very topical especially in light of the O.J. Simpson trial a few years back. People do not change much over the years.