Dead Certainties: Unwarrented Speculations

Simon Schama is one of those rare historians whose books get widely reviewed and nibble at the lower reaches of the best-seller lists. Writing about the Dutch Golden Age (The Embarrassment of Riches) or the French Revolution (Citizens), Schama deploys the historian’s tools — documentation, analysis, quotation. But he also brings a novelist’s sense of pace to his narratives and a shrewd eye for verbal portraiture. Dead Certainties allows Schama to turn this formula on its head, creating a work of fiction that leans heavily (if skeptically) on the historical record. In the first of two ”tales,” Schama focuses on the British General James Wolfe, who perished during the Battle of Quebec in 1759 and was later deified in Benjamin West’s mythic canvas, The Death of General Wolfe. In the second, he examines the disappearance of the Boston patrician George Parkman in 1849. A Harvard Medical College professor was eventually convicted of Parkman’s murder. Again, Schama plays with the gap between an actual event and its subsequent narration. Unfortunately, the Parkman caper is so good that it makes the earlier take on James Wolfe seem like a warm-up. Still, Dead Certainties is a brilliant, entertaining reminder that, as the author suggests, there’s always one more ”alternative path to the truth.” A-

Dead Certainties: Unwarrented Speculations
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