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Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations Paperback – June 2, 1992

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In a virtuoso performance, Harvard historian Schama ( Citizens ) underscores the abyss between experiential knowledge of an event and historical interpretations of it. This was a BOMC and QPB alternate in cloth. Photos.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

This book can be read on at least two levels. First, there are the two intriguing stories told by talented writer and noted historian Schama, author of Citizens ( LJ 4/1/89)-- one about the triumph and death of James Wolfe at Quebec in 1759, the second an exploration of the murder of the Boston Brahmin George Parkman in 1849. But Schama is after bigger game, and his target is the gap between a "lived event and its subsequent narration." In the chasm separating the two lies the ambiguity that obscures a more complete rendering of the past. This experiment in writing history attempts to close the gap through imagination--jumbling chronology to force the reader into more active participation in the story, and adding other voices to the usual historical narration. These include the musings of a governor of Massachusetts, the broad accents of a (fictional) soldier, and the urbane confessions of a Boston lawyer. These two "historical novellas," as Schama calls them, demonstrate the power of good storytelling in bringing history to life. Previewed in Prepub Alert , LJ 1/91; BOMC and Quality Paperback alternates.
- David B. Mattern, Papers of James Madison, Univ. of Virginia, Charlottesville
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (June 2, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679736131
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679736134
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #753,465 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Simon Schama is a professor of art history and history at Columbia University, and is the author of numerous award-winning books; his most recent history, Rough Crossings, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction. He is a cultural essayist for the New Yorker and has written and presented more than thirty documentaries for the BBC, PBS, and the History Channel, including The Power of Art, which won the 2007 International Emmy for Best Arts Programming.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

66 of 70 people found the following review helpful By Dianne Foster HALL OF FAME on October 21, 2000
Format: Paperback
A few years ago, I became a professional social scientist. As such, I became tangled in the beginning...what is truth? I never figured it out, but I had to go to work and earn a living so I took up the viewpoint that seemed most reasonable --material empiricism -- and began documenting my version of truth and getting it published.
In DEAD CERTAINTIES (UNWARRENTED SPECULATION), Simon Schama raises important questions about the truth of history. How do historians know what really happened? Well the truth is, they don't. At best, our reconstructions of the past are partial truths. They are partial truths because no one is free from prejudice. They are partial truths, because try as we might to be objective, we cannot help but place our own interpretation on "facts." They are partial truths because eye witnesses to history seldom know all the "facts." They are partial truths because language is alive and word meanings change over time. And, they are partial truths because eye witnesses often lie.
What really happened in the past times? In recent years, new historical practicioners have begun to revisit primary materials and attempt to piece together their version of what these documents tell them. This revisionist history has it's supporters, but in the end, who is to say their interpretations are free of bias and agenda?
In DEAD CERTAINTIES Schama revisits the story of Wolfe the British hero of the 1700's on the 'Heights of Abraham' in Canada. Probably every Canadian school child of my generation, plus a few Americans, remembers the words, "Wolfe the dauntless hero came and planted firm Britannia's flag on Canada's fair domain.
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 2, 1999
Format: Paperback
Simon Schama is a historian who is not afraid to acknowledge that history has a literary dimension. In "Dead Certainties", he tells a fascinating story in a style more familiar from historical novels, especially historical mysteries like "The Plague Tales" and "An Instance of the Fingerpost". But while you can read the book strictly for enjoyment, as if it were a novel, Schama has a serious point to make by writing in this accessible style. That point is that historical events are often highly ambiguous; that the records of the past that survive are often contradictory, and that writing history requires historians to provide the continuity by interpreting the past. It helps that the stories he uses for this demonstration are grisly: the deaths of General James Wolfe at the battle of Quebec in 1759, and the murder in 1849 of George Parkman, a very unusual member of Boston society, by a Harvard professor at the end of his financial and professional rope. Dramatic deaths beg to be explained, to be made to make sense, even though they may not be evidence of great causes, but simply the results of strings of chance. Ultimately, Schama wants readers to remember even when they are reading the most prosaic and authoritative histories that someone had to decide which facts counted, what they meant, and which sets of facts go together to explain the past. Once you read this book, you should never look at histories in the same way again.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Marty McCarthy VINE VOICE on December 31, 2002
Format: Paperback
Simon Schama's "Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations)" is an interesting foray into the murky realm of historiography. The book is comprised of two "tales:" that of General James Wolfe who (purportedly) meets his end at the Battle of Quebec in 1759 and that of George Parkman, a Harvard Professor who met a grisly end in 1849 - which Schama treats as an historical "murder mystery."
Critics of this work charge that Schama has engaged in historical chicanery by incorporating fiction into both accounts and has, thus, mucked up the waters of what is a proper "history." To this, Schama admits so much in his text and also admits to that being his point.
What is interesting is Schama's attempt to stake out a dividing line between what is "historical fact" and what is "historical fiction" and in so doing, obliterate that line. After all, historical fiction is based upon "historical fact" and many historians have written histories based upon "historical fact" that were modified or even overturned after those "historical facts" were proven to be inventions of fiction.
We have a certain reliance on a consistent historical past "reality" or else we run into an Orwellian 1984 reality of a constantly changing historical past. Yet, we can never be quite certain of the "facts" that make up our histories and as Schama puts it:
"... historians are left forever chasing shadows, painfully aware of their inability ever to reconstruct a dead world in its completeness, however thorough or revealing their documentation. Of course they make do with other work: the business of formulating problems, of supplying explanations about cause and effect. But the certainty of such answers always remains contingent on their unavoidable remoteness from their subjects.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By reader 451 on May 14, 2012
Format: Paperback
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.
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