Dead Certainties

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In DEAD CERTAINTIES, Simon Schama, the highly respected historian and author of the remarkable CITIZENS: A CHRONICLE OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION (1989), takes on the task of describing how history is created. He begins with an examination of the death of the English General James Wolfe, who was killed in 1759 while fighting against the French forces near Quebec. In “The Many Deaths of General Wolfe,” Schama presents the general’s demise from various perspectives. The opening narrative is a fictionalized account told by an English soldier who participated in the battle. Also presented in this particular “historical novella,” as Schama labels it, is a narrative from the point of view of the young artist Benjamin West, who painted the strikingly colorful painting THE DEATH OF GENERAL WOLFE (1770), which invested Wolfe’s death with a tragic and heroic aura. The last narrative of this “novella” presents a powerful version of the story created by the historian Francis Parkman, whose close identification with Wolfe is apparent in his gripping book MONTCALM AND WOLFE (1884).

The second and larger “historical novella” of DEAD CERTAINTIES involves the retelling of the murder of Francis Parkman’s uncle, George Parkman, in 1849. The link between the two episodes is Francis Parkman. John Webster, a Harvard professor of chemistry, was tried and convicted for the murder of George Parkman. Webster had borrowed some money from Parkman and was unable to...

(The entire section is 444 words.)

Dead Certainties

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties is an essay on the limitations of history. Such a work from this author demands attention, for Schama is a distinguished historian who has written best-selling histories of the Netherlands of the seventeenth century (The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, 1987) and the French Revolution (Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, 1989). In Dead Certainties, though he deals with historical subjects, Schama eschews the traditional scholarly apparatus and tells his stories from a variety of viewpoints, some invented for his purposes, and without regard for the niceties of chronology. Instead of striving for clarity in his narrative and a magisterial interpretation to guide his readers, Schama deliberately weaves a tapestry of cross-purposes and loose ends and forbears from drawing conclusions. Schama has artfully created a monument to epistemological uncertainty in his aptly titled book. His message is that certitude is a quality that will never be achieved in investigating the past. Because of the evanescent nature of the past, with the images of collective memory always slipping just beyond the grasp, history is, of necessity, an exercise in storytelling. Without the imaginative effort of the historian in imposing order on the elements of his narrative, history would exist simply as the dry and dusty record of discrete facts. In making this point, Schama boils down and makes accessible to the general reader the gist of several decades of theorizing about the nature of history. Though Schama drops no names and cites no tomes, his work reflects the influence of the postmodern criticism of authority in literature. Dead Certainties, designed as it is for popular consumption, not only represents a significant assault on the nineteenth century notion of history as a science but also questions the more modest proposition that objective knowledge about the past is possible.

Structurally, Dead Certainties is two books in one. In a relatively brief section, Schama explores the symbolic ramifications of the death of General James Wolfe at his victory on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec in 1759. This victory broke the power of France in Canada and ensured British supremacy in North America. The bulk of Dead Certainties is devoted to the grisly murder of Dr. George Parkman of Boston in 1849 and the subsequent trial of John Webster, a professor of chemistry at Harvard. The only direct link between these two stories is the figure of Francis Parkman, the great American historian who memorably depicted Wolfe and his victory in his history of the struggle between France and Britain for control of the New World and who was the nephew of the victim in the celebrated murder case. Yet Schama takes no pains to draw connections between the two parts of his book. Though Francis Parkman glorified James Wolfe, he played no role in uncovering or avenging his uncle’s death. What really unifies the disparate ends of James Wolfe and George Parkman is the way in which people later used these deaths for their own purposes. The gap between the bloody violence of these men’s deaths and the meanings imposed on them illustrates Schama’s message about the ultimately arbitrary nature of history and its intrinsic relation to the art of storytelling.

Schama spins his stories out of a masterful mix of fact and fiction. Dead Certainties is a triumph of technique over traditional historical values. The first part of Schama’s book reveals the strengths and weaknesses of such an approach. Schama opens with an invention—the supposed memoirs of a British soldier who struggled up the cliffs of Quebec and stood on the Plains of Abraham with James Wolfe. This imaginative device vividly re-creates the events of September 13, 1759, and effectively sets the scene for what is to follow. Schama jumps from the mind of his hypothetical private soldier into that of James Wolfe himself, and travels back in time in a pithy recapitulation of the general’s career and the events leading up to his last battle. In his thirties at the time of his death, Wolfe had been born into a soldier’s life. His officer-father saw to it that he left home for the military at the age of fourteen, and he saw his first battle at the age of sixteen. Courage and skill, as well as good connections, fostered rapid promotions. Only Wolfe’s delicate health, of which he was morbidly conscious, threatened the potential brilliance of his career. The mission to capture of city of Quebec, the hub of French power in North America, offered Wolfe the military apotheosis he craved. Soon, however, things began to go wrong. The French skillfully defended their city, frustrating Wolfe’s plans for months, until the Saint Lawrence River threatened to freeze over, trapping his army. An assault on the French lines at the Montmorency Falls ended as a bloody failure, Wolfe’s frail constitution began to break down. He suffered from a variety of maladies and believed himself to be dying. It was against this background of defeat and expected dissolution that Wolfe devised his bold scheme to take Quebec. He proposed to scale cliffs supposedly too steep to climb which the French guarded lightly because of their inaccessibility. This would leave Wolfe’s force on the Plains of Abraham, just outside the city, and give him the chance to fight the battle that, won or lost, would restore his honor. Thus Wolfe’s successful strategy was a product of desperation as...

(The entire section is 2265 words.)