Murder at Harvard

In his book, Dead Certainties, Simon Schama attempted to fill in the blanks of a historical occurrence in which the sources we have do not leave us with a neat and conclusive story.  We know that Mr. Parkman was murdered, we know the main characters involved, and we know the details of the trial and sentencing.  However, we are left with only blurry clues to how the all pieces fit together, which is where Schama tries to use what is documented to blend history and fiction together to tell the story of the Murder at Harvard.  As I was reading the book, I was at first confused by the mix of fact and fiction that Schama presents in novel form.  He does not distinguish between what we know to be said “true” in the case, and that which are inferences that Schama himself is making from these “facts,”  and for the student of history, I found this to be a fairly frustrating form of presentation.  I personally do not mind the idea of blending history with inferences made from the details we do know, but I would have felt more comfortable with Schama letting the reader know what was fact, and what was derived from fact.  Modern historians have been told to uphold the ideal of objectivity, however impossible that might be, and therefore Schama’s method is unnerving to most.  The PBS film we watched did a much better job of informing the viewer of exactly how and why Schama made inferences to tell the story of the Murder at Harvard the way he did.  It also presented interesting counter-arguments to his version of the story, as well as historians who do not agree with his blending of fact and fiction.  For those of us who are reliant on footnotes and endnotes, this form of the “innovative” historical narrative gives us a crutch on which we can rely.  By seeing Schama admit to places where he made leaps of faith in his narrative, it gives us a more reassuring feeling, and there is less actual blending of fact with inference.

However much I was initially confused with Schama’s method and narrative, and dissatisfied with the end result, I think that he is on to something for the future of the presentation of history.  In order to present new perspectives and ideas about older history in which we do not have an abundance of sources, today’s historians must be more innovative in the way they present their works and analyze their sources.  Perhaps one day, more historians will embrace Schama’s method and refine it to something more mainstream.

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One Response
  1. dcook6 says:

    It is interesting how in some ways the book was more effective (not need for hokey reenactments), and in other ways the movie was more effective (clearer delineation between fact and fiction) at dealing with the gaps of historical evidence and sources. I agree that the movie did a much better job at indicating what was history and what was fiction than the book. Without viewing the movie, it still would not be clear to me where the line between believed fact and intentional fiction are blended. I also found the interview clips of historians, writers, etc., to be an interesting solution to dealing head on with the issue of a lack of historical evidence. It seems that so many filmmakers approach documentaries and historically based movies in the same safe manner, that Murder at Harvard is a creative leap at innovating the viewing experience of historically based educational films.