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 more 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.
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. (June)
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
Simon Schama is the prize-winning author of seven acclaimed books. An art critic and essayist for The New Yorker, he also writes and presents documentaries for BBC television. He is University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University and lives outside New York City.