Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations

Simon Schama

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Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations

Dead Certainties Unwarranted Speculations Like his The Embarrassment of Riches and the bestselling Citizens Simon Schama s latest book is both history and literature of immense stylishness and ambition But Dead Certainties goes beyond these

  • Title: Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations
  • Author: Simon Schama
  • ISBN: 9780679736134
  • Page: 350
  • Format: Paperback
  • Like his The Embarrassment of Riches and the bestselling Citizens, Simon Schama s latest book is both history and literature of immense stylishness and ambition But Dead Certainties goes beyond these conventional histories to address the deeper enigmas that confront a student of the past In order to do so, Schama reconstructs and at times reinvents two ambiguoLike his The Embarrassment of Riches and the bestselling Citizens, Simon Schama s latest book is both history and literature of immense stylishness and ambition But Dead Certainties goes beyond these conventional histories to address the deeper enigmas that confront a student of the past In order to do so, Schama reconstructs and at times reinvents two ambiguous deaths the first, that of General James Wolfe at the battle of Quebec in 1759 the second, in 1849, that of George Parkman, an eccentric Boston brahmin whose murder by an impecunious Harvard professor in 1849 was a grisly reproach to the moral sanctity of his society Out of these stories with all of their bizarre coincidences and contradictions Schama creates a dazzling and supremely vital work of historical imagination.

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    One thought on “Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations

    1. Daniel Polansky on said:

      In retrospect I'm surprised I'd never heard of this odd pseudo history, or historical criticism, or what have you, by renowned historian Simon Schama, having been a long time fan and also enjoying these sort of exercises. The peculiar narrative structure revolves around (I am simplifying the matter significantly) short pieces of fiction recounting 1) the death of Wolfe at the gates of Quebec, as well as the veneration which followed and 2) the murder of a relative of a renowned historian of the [...]

    2. Eric_W on said:

      Simon Schama, author of Citizens (a history of the French revolution) and Embarrassment of Riches (a cultural history of the Dutch), has authored a strange little book entitled Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations . I say strange, because while I've enjoyed it, I can't figure it out. Basically, he describes two historical events from several perspectives, and the link between the two is tenuous indeed. We begin with a fictional account of the death of Wolfe on the heights of Abraham in Que [...]

    3. Lauren Albert on said:

      This is an odd mishmash. Schama is a good historian and this work is a puzzlement. Part fiction part history. It doesn't seem to know what it is. I also found it surprisingly dull.

    4. Shelley on said:

      It doesn't quite work (and I'm a Schama fan girl). It's essentially a short bit of the death of General Wolfe (and how memory of it was shaped by West's painting and other sources) and then the remainder of the book is about one of 19th century America's Murders of the Century (businessman/doctor murdered by Harvard professor). I knew a fair amount about both topics already. I kept expecting it to break into a Connections sort of thing (if you remember that show) but There really is no connectio [...]

    5. Charlotte on said:

      This is an exceptional, though controversial, book which discusses history in terms of imagination, using circumstantial evidence to piece together stories of the past. It highlights the difficulties faced by historians, as they attempt to move beyond written records to explain why certain events took place, the motivations behind the actors, and in a sense, what really happened. Schama most eloquently compares the role of the historian with the role of lawyers in a murder trial, who are challen [...]

    6. Jacqueline on said:

      Sort of history. Some of it is imagined, all of it based on documentary evidence. This is the best sort of history, that brings you an interesting and complicated story which requires filling in some blanks. Counterpoising the stories of Francis and George Parkman, the first who constructed our understanding of General James Wolfe with the second who was murdered, adds to our understanding of how history comes about from the facts that are available.

    7. Kelly on said:

      What a lovely, strange little idea. I don't even care if it works or not. I bet the painting of it will make me smile.

    8. Kate on said:

      An experimental work of history-writing, imaginative yet rooted in archival sources. Highly recommended!!The first part, about the death of General Wolfe in 1759, functions as a proof-of-concept and an introduction to the historical methods we are about to experience. We enter the minds of people who see Wolfe from different points of view: a common soldier, a historian in the late nineteenth century, and so on. Schama also describes a painting by Benjamin West, a depiction of Wolfe's demise tha [...]

    9. Robert on said:

      I was hooked by the General Wolfe aspect and then the story of how the famous painting of his death came to be, and the story of how Francis Parkman's history of the contest between France and Britain in North America came into being - but as I struggled through the saga of the murder and subsequent trial of the murderer of the uncle, George Parkman - I wondered why. Frankly, if Schama was trying to tell me something about history, I missed it.

    10. Cat on said:

      He seems to be railing against positivism, which was in vogue 150 years ago. Women's history, black history, and other "alternative" histories have been challenging the concept that there is a single truth for a while.

    11. Vasile on said:

      Using facts and fabricating the possible truth. Schama tries to narrate a possible truth

    12. Simon Mcleish on said:

      Originally published on my blog here in October 2001.A death forms the centre point of each of the two parts of this book. The first is a famous death, that of General Wolfe on the Heights of Abraham as his army was victorious. Schama looks at the way the event has been mythologised, including the completely unhistorical painting by Benjamin West and the more accurate account by American historian Francis Parkman. The second death is that of this historian's uncle, which prompted a famous murder [...]

    13. Stephen on said:

      I don't think the author achieved quite what he set out to do in this one. It seems he tried to compare and contrast two public deaths: James Wolfe, a British General who died at the battle of Quebec in 1759 and whose death was immortalized by painter Benjamin West and historian Francis Parkman, and George Parkman (nephew of the historian) a Boston Brahmin and Harvard professor who was murdered by fellow professor John Webster over a debt in 1849. What the author does incredibly well is take his [...]

    14. John Mccullough on said:

      This book is pure Schama. And I mean that in a very positive sense. It is a strange book, one that hops from island to island, so to speak. It is history, but history with a touch of fiction. Not that history is never without fit ion, but here it is admitted. The island hopping has two themes that link it loosely together. There is first death. This is history that everyone knows so can there be a spoiler here/ Maybe, so I'll be circumspect. The deaths begin with General Wolfe who dies in the si [...]

    15. Deb on said:

      While looking for material to back up our study of "The Death of General Wolfe" by Benjamin West, I discovered a 1991 text by one of my current favorite historians (move over David McCullough!). This early Simon Schama is both about how historians piece together history from disparate clues and also about two ambiguous deaths of historically significant people: General James Wolfe in 1759 at the Battle of Quebec and George Parkman, Boston brahmin and father of Francis Parkman, who was murdered i [...]

    16. Greg on said:

      Dead Certainties is a bit of a strange book. Simon Schama combines two stories within it: one called The Many Deaths of General Wolfe recounts Wolfe"s demise in battle, and then looks at the mythologising that followed it, in the forms of Benjamin West's famous painting, and the history of Francis Parkman.The second story, called Death of a Harvard Man, occupies most of the book. It concerns the disappearance and murder of noted Boston capitalist George Parkman (an antecedent of Francis Parkman' [...]

    17. Dan Schiff on said:

      I haven't read any other books by Schama, but this seemed kind of tossed off. He jumps from one brief historical account to another (tangentially related) story a century later, and then stays on that for the rest of the book. It's a novel structure, no doubt, but it's unclear what exactly he's up to until the afterword. Schama's point with Dead Certainties is that even the best-researched historical re-creation involves a great deal of creative license on the part of the historian. But it's not [...]

    18. Jeffrey Williams on said:

      Simon Schama uses some interesting literary devices in this work. Using one narrow thread of historiographical evidence to weave a story of a murder at Harvard with a French-Indian War battle and art history. It is not my favorite read because of the structure of this narrative, however, the reasons that I didn't like it were most likely the reasons that Schama wrote the book in the first place. If you are looking for a suspenseful murder-mystery, this might fit the bill. You will be board with [...]

    19. Jrobertus on said:

      This is a very strange book, but oddly compelling. It begins with the death of General Wolfe before Quebec 1n 1759, shifts to a story about Benjamin West who painted the famous portrait of his death, then to Francis Parkman who wrote a biography of Wolfe around 1870 and then to his uncle, Dr. Parkman, who was murdered by a Harvard Chemistry prof, John Webster. Most of the book focuses on the murder and trial. I guess the theme here is the way in which deaths of the famous are portrayed to suit t [...]

    20. Elise on said:

      At the beginning of this edition Schama puts some emphasis on what he termed the "storm of righteous indignation" this book received when it was first published. Taking that into account and understanding that liberalities are taken when fictionalising historical accounts, I was looking forward to diving into this book.It's not necessarily the story that I felt a bit let down by, but rather the way it was written and presented. I found it a bit haphazard and therefore hard to follow - though may [...]

    21. Susan Barsy on said:

      Readers of this book have puzzled over the tenuous connections among its parts, which are true to the strange tissue of interconnection characterizing human life. The nature of such connections can be outlandish, as anyone who has bumped into a friend half a world away under strange conditions knows.These strange interconnections jump out all the more boldly when historians are doing research. Just as all the strands of a life are connected (a therapist would say), so lives are braided together [...]

    22. Alastair on said:

      This is one pretty terrific, imaginative report on the Parkman/Webster case: the trial of John White Webster, Harvard professor, for the murder of George Parkman, physician & philanthropist. Schama's ironic title alludes to how treacherous historical evidence can be: three differing 'authoritative' versions of the trial, plus miscellaneous other sources, & the question of if Webster did it — & what he did — remains unanswered.The first part of the book deals with the relationship [...]

    23. Brent on said:

      This was my first reading in the fine historical writing of Simon Schama.I recall ordering and receiving this from the History Book Club somewhere immediately following what I now call Gulf War One, as I was living near Fort Benning, and moving to jobs in WV, MS, and LA. One of these essays appeared in a journal and I read it in 1991, during this time.The relevance of recent military history is this book's essay in reflection on Wolfe and Montcalme. I want to reread this, my first encounter with [...]

    24. Stephen Tuck on said:

      An intricate book about the structure of the past and how we relate to it, with overtones that seem to be drawn from the work of Hayden White. It really needs to be read twice, though, to understand just how the separate ideas all fit together.The writing style in this book is, I think, Schama's best. Often his style does tend to be rather heavy going, I find, but in this book he condenses the writing and the stream of ideas moves at a very brisk pace.

    25. Amanda on said:

      While Schama has clearly done his research for his writing, I don't really think that Dead Certainties can be considered history. This book reads like a novel, and should be treated as a sort of historical fiction, in my opinion. In conclusion, Schama has produced a spectacular piece of writing, but mostly in the sense of good literature, not history.

    26. Andy Huang on said:

      This book is a great blend of mystery and non-fiction written in a narrative form. Not only does it recount the disappearance Dr. Parkman and the discovery of his mangled corpse, it recreates the atmosphere of 19th century Boston in a vivid tale of intrigue and mystery. If you enjoy history and murder, this is definitely the book for you!

    27. Tom on said:

      While I applaud Schama's ambitions in this "speculative" history, I didn't think he quite pulled it off, in terms of provoking insightful connections between the two stories of death. Nonetheless, the writing is wonderful, and if you like imagining the story behind the story in famous historical events, this is an entertaining book.

    28. Edward on said:

      This was a fascinating book about one of the countries earliest homicides to capture the public's attention. The book reads like a novel, but is in fact non fiction. It starts off discussing a famous painters paintings and then ends up being about something entirely different than you ever expected. I read the whole book in one sitting. I highly recommend it.

    29. Louise Leetch on said:

      Simon Schama is the most varied Historian you'll find. His major tome, Rembrandt's Eyes, was 700 pages of pure joy, his "Future of America" book & PBS program showed his insight into our culture & this exploration into the varied ways we can see history, according to the reporter, really gives you pause to pay attention to who's telling you the story.

    30. Shannon on said:

      Schama blurred the lines between history and literature in this imaginative work focusing on two historical deaths. Not sure how this can be taken as history -- I understand his goal in writing history in such a narrative fashion, but it's unnerving.

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