Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations

by Simon Schama

Paperback, 1991





Knopf(1991), 352 pages


This book goes beyond more conventional histories to address the deeper enigmas that confront a student of the past. In order to do so, the author 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--the author creates a vital work of historical imagination.

Media reviews

Mr. Schama has a grand time of it, painting as histrionically in words as Benjamin West did in paint. And the reader happily joins in, even though disappointed that he knows the outcome of the case. Yet the puzzles continue to nag. What is the connection between James Wolfe's death and George Parkman's murder? Why does Mr. Schama turn from artistic analysis to courtroom drama? What is the point of the fictionalizing? What are the "dead certainties" of the title? What are the "unwarranted speculations"? In an afterword, Mr. Schama finally steps from behind his many masks, and offers some explanations. He admits that his two histories "are works of the imagination, not scholarship," and that they "play with the teasing gap separating a lived event and its subsequent narration."

User reviews

LibraryThing member cmc
Schama takes a somewhat unusual approach for a historian in this book. Rather than strictly attributable history, every fact footnoted and cited, here he takes primary and secondary sources (the “Dead Certainties” of the title) and uses them to spin a more accessible, but nonverifiable story, placing ideas, feelings, and motives into the forms of the historical actors (the “Unwarranted Speculations”).

The result is a very readable set of stories, the first dealing with the death of the British General Wolfe on the Heights of Abraham during the successful defeat of the French army; the second relating the murder of a medical-doctor-cum-landlord by a Harvard chemistry professor in the 1840s. The tales are linked by the Parkman family—George Parkman is the murder victim in the latter portion of the book; his nephew, Francis Parkman, was a famous historian responsible for excellent work on the French and Indian War.
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LibraryThing member Harrod
Schama is always wonderful
LibraryThing member JBD1
Intriguing little profiles of several key American deaths and how they've been used/viewed.
LibraryThing member Othemts
"It was that most trying season in Boston: hopes of spring, of the green resurrection of the earth, were deadened by the obstinate grip of winter." - p. 251

"The 'Conclusion' that every doctoral adviser urges on his students as a professional obligation has always seemed to my notoriously inconclusive temperament to be so much wishful thinking." p. 321… (more)


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