Dead Certainties

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 444

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).

Illustration of PDF document

Download Dead Certainties Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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 pay it back. In his “novella,” Schama employs a number of narrative elements to flesh out the complete story. Various participants in Webster’s eleven-day trial are allowed to speak, including the janitor at Harvard who discovered Parkman’s body parts a week after the murder was committed. Schama weaves fact and fiction together to create a telling mystery story. All the evidence points to Webster’s guilt, but Schama leaves the door open for reasonable minds to question the absolute certainty of his guilt. Schama makes the point that any historical certainty can be put in question, and that the student of history must consider how a historical perspective was created if he is to inch closer toward the truth. Some historians may argue with the validity of Schama’s point or method, but none can deny the power of his presentation in DEAD CERTAINTIES.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. May 19, 1991, XIV, p. 1.

Commonweal. CXVIII, September 13, 1991, p. 519.

National Review. XLIII, August 26, 1991, p. 42.

New Statesman and Society. IV, June 7, 1991, p. 42.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVIII, June 27, 1991, p. 12.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, May 12, 1991, p. 3.

The New Yorker. LXVII, July 22, 1991, p. 83.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, May 17, 1991, p. 46.

The Times Literary Supplement. June 14, 1991, p. 5.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, May 5, 1991, p. 8.

Dead Certainties

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2265

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 well as military genius.

Schama then turns from the anxious meditations of James Wolfe in the North American wilderness to London in 1771 and the exhibition of Benjamin West’s masterpiece The Death of Wolfe (1771). West was a young American artist hoping to establish a reputation for himself in the British metropolis. Defying the convention that heroic figures be painted in classical rather than contemporary dress, West depicted Wolfe in his bloodied uniform. The stricken commander lies in the arms of his officers, his eyes fixed on heaven, as word is brought of the rout of the French. In the background of this dramatic scene, West painted a compressed recapitulation of the events surrounding the death of Wolfe—ships disembarking troops, the climb up the cliffs to the Plains of Abraham, and the final, triumphant volley that broke the resistance of the army defending Quebec. Even as Wolfe expires beneath a folded British flag and the smoke of battle, the light of approaching morning breaks over the city of Quebec, heralding that an empire had been born. At once shocking and gratifying, West’s painting became a sensation. It had the desired effect on West’s career, leading to his appointment as court painter to George III. It also broke down the conventions of historical painting and led to a new naturalism in historical art. The rhetorical power of West’s painting enshrined for generations the image of James Wolfe as an almost saintly martyr to Britain’s greatness.

Schama shifts next to Boston in 1893 and the reading at the Massachusetts Historical Society of an autobiographical memoir by the recently deceased historian Francis Parkman. The gentlemen of the society, expecting familiar, well-bred words from beyond the grave, were startled by an astonishingly candid memoir, in which the seemingly self-contained and stoic Parkman detailed the suffering his great work had cost him. Schama then moves back in time to 1880 and enters both Parkman’s house and mind as he labors on his history series France and England in North America (1865-1892). Parkman’s work was rooted in his childhood. As a remedy for his physical frailty, he was sent to live on a farm, and there developed a lifelong love for the American wilderness. At Harvard, Parkman received his inspiration to write a history celebrating the men who had explored and fought to control that wilderness. At every vacation, he punished his fragile body with excursions tracing the paths of long-dead explorers. In 1846, Parkman traveled the famed Oregon Trail in search of experience in the wild and contacts with Indians. He found both, but the experience nearly killed him and completed the destruction of his health. Parkman settled down to writing history, grappling with illness and eyesight so poor he could not read more than ten minutes at a time. A maid had to read aloud most of the documents he consulted. Work under such conditions was literally painstaking. Because of his own infirmities, and his own frustrating struggle, Parkman came to empathize with James Wolfe, the hero of his climactic volume. Indeed, Schama argues that, as Parkman wrote, in some sense he became Wolfe, bridging time and distance with a shared identity of suffering and achievement. From this apotheosis of the historical imagination, Schama returns to his invented British soldier and describes the decisive battle outside Quebec and Wolfe’s tortured death. He concludes the piece with a letter from Wolfe’s fiancée to his mother asking for some token by which to remember her lost lover.

Schama’s exploration of the many deaths of James Wolfe is a brilliant literary experiment. He crosses the dimensions with a novelist’s ease and skill and creates a memorable entertainment. Yet for all the virtuosity of his presentation, Schama provides no startling new insights into his material. Historians have long known of the self-doubts of James Wolfe, the opportunism of Benjamin West, and the grim determination of Francis Parkman. Jumbling these stories together does nothing to illuminate them severally. Even Schama’s observation that there exist many versions of, and uses for, historical events boils down to a well-worn banality. Only the implication that there is no definitive version of the death of General Wolfe gives the work some intellectual force. In the end, moreover, this tacit assertion proves to be more shadow than substance, a fact borne out by Schama’s account of the death of George Parkman, in which the techniques he used in treating James Wolfe are reinvoked, only on a greater scale and with a more lurid subject.

George Parkman was a physician whose great dream had been the establishment of a humane asylum for the insane in Boston. A variety of factors conspired to foil Parkman’s philanthropic project. Disappointed in this ambition, Parkman channeled his energies elsewhere. Turning to real estate, he bought up large tracts of land in Boston. One of the most prominent landlords in the city, Parkman gained a reputation for eccentricity because he walked about town collecting his rents himself. On the afternoon of November 23, 1849, George Parkman disappeared. He was last seen walking in the direction of the Harvard Medical College. A week later, body parts identified as those of George Parkman were discovered in the medical college building. Professor John Webster was arrested for the crime. Webster’s undoing was the enmity of Ephraim Littlefield, the janitor at the medical college. A former grave robber who had served the needs of Harvard medical students, Littlefield had never enjoyed friendly relations with Professor Webster. His suspicions were aroused when, soon after Parkman’s disappearance, Webster gave him a Thanksgiving turkey. On his own initiative, Littlefield tunneled into Webster’s privy vault at the medical college and found human remains. A male torso was later discovered in a chest in the professor’s laboratory.

The trial of John Webster became a nineteenth century media event. So shocking a crime among Boston’s elite seemed to imply incipient corruption in respectable circles. The widespread support for Webster on the part of his colleagues and other leading citizens tended to polarize opinion on the trial along class lines. Newspapers from around the country followed the proceedings; tens of thousands of people filed through the courtroom at ten-minute intervals. Though Webster maintained his innocence, the prosecution easily demonstrated that the professor habitually lived beyond his means. He had borrowed a large sum of money from George Parkman, who at the time of the murder had been dunning him for repayment. This, the physical evidence, and an important statement on circumstantial evidence from the presiding judge, Massachusetts chief justice Lemuel Shaw, served to convict the professor. Webster later confessed to the crime in a vain attempt at getting his death sentence commuted.

Schama’s account of the Parkman murder case enthralls the reader as he masterfully moves from one viewpoint to the next, backward and forward in time. Yet as with Schama’s narrative of the death of James Wolfe, there is less here than meets the eye. To further his thesis about the indeterminacy of knowledge about the past, Schama works hard to raise doubts about the official explanation of George Parkman’s murder. The facts of the case are so clear, however, that Schama’s ingenious twists and turns seem more like deliberate mystification than illumination. Thus Schama’s fascination with indeterminacy ultimately leads nowhere. The facts, which Schama himself never questions, speak for themselves. Because Schama questions only interpretations and not facts, he fails to threaten seriously the foundations of the historical discipline. Dead Certainties deserves to be widely read for Schama’s storytelling skill. As a history, though, Schama’s work is a game, enjoyable but frivolous.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. May 19, 1991, XIV, p. 1.

Commonweal. CXVIII, September 13, 1991, p. 519.

National Review. XLIII, August 26, 1991, p. 42.

New Statesman and Society. IV, June 7, 1991, p. 42.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVIII, June 27, 1991, p. 12.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, May 12, 1991, p. 3.

The New Yorker. LXVII, July 22, 1991, p. 83.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, May 17, 1991, p. 46.

The Times Literary Supplement. June 14, 1991, p. 5.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, May 5, 1991, p. 8.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial