Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations

by Simon Schama

Paperback, 1991





Knopf(1991), 352 pages


Inspired by his research into the reality of the General Wolfe's death at Quebec, Schama is drawn towards the case of a gruesome murder in the family of Wolfe's chronicler, Francis Parkman. What Schama reveals however is a history of stories. Originally published: 1991.

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 JBD1
Intriguing little profiles of several key American deaths and how they've been used/viewed.


Original language



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