Thinking Outside of the Box

“Murder at Harvard” in its book form tells the historical tale of the murder of Dr. George Parkman. It is an unconventional history told from several points of view, steeped in the story yet lacking much of what conventional historians require for serious consideration. Murder at Harvard as a documentary tells the historical tale of writing the book form, detailing the process Simon Schama used to arrive at his historical narrative. Schama’s dialogue outlining the process of writing history draws attention to how little we actually know about the past and must make conventional historians at the very least uncomfortable.

One of the strong arguments against the film was the way in which Schama made up (gasp!) the conversations between the historical actors. Even Schama admits that this was the case in the film. This detracts from the history, the argument goes, because we have no evidence of what was said and how can we know? Therefore it must be better to not report on the unknown (stick to the facts) than to extrapolate what is known to fill in the gaps. That is to say, this is a better representation of the past:

than this:

Which of these two historical representations gives you a better understanding of how the past fit into the surrounding environment? By using their vast expertise to extrapolate the form and structure of the skeletons, archeologists are able to provide a much more compelling story about the bones they dig up from the ground. The “story” in history is the value, and crafting a more effective story sometimes requires filling in the gaps. The value historians bring to the story in history is the deep understanding of the historical environment that brings vital context to the creation of accurate extrapolations of things that are lost to History.

Documentary versus book. That’s a little bit unfair to ask historians to choose, isn’t it? The conventional wisdom of academic History maintains that if it isn’t written, it isn’t history – instead it’s anthropology (or maybe economics). Perhaps it’s my background in blended learning, but I do not see an “either…or” situation. Instead, I’ll choose to use them together since they compliment each other rather well. The book provides the myriad of details that create a historical topic, along with the footnotes, bibliographies, foreign language phrases and other accouterments that prove historical scholarship. The movie supplies a focus on the narrative of the story, stripping away the layers required by academia in favor of the base elements of a dramatic account. The story itself is what is valuable to everyday people, while the details and the scholarship have value only for fellow academicians. The film gets us back to the story in history – but without the details provided by the historian, the film becomes an exercise in imagination instead of scholarship.

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3 Responses
  1. dcook6 says:

    I think your photos make an excellent point about the need to use professional expertise to fill in the gaps of concrete knowledge. I also agree that this really shouldn’t be an “either-or” type of decision. Many times people can gain a better understanding of a topic by being exposed to multiple sources of information and putting it all together to form a more holistic understanding. While Schama did invent the dialogue between the characters, at no time did he state, “This is the actual dialogue.” It was made very clear in the film that the reenactments were imaginative speculations. If the viewer walks away with the false impression that those were true accounts of the actual events, then odds are the viewer is probably walking around with inaccurate information about more subjects than just the Weber/Parkman trial.

  2. tgoodwin says:

    Chris -

    I agree that these two pieces are more successful when presented together. I’ll use Natalie Zemon Davis “The Return of Martin Guerre” as a better example, though. I think she succeeds where Schama fails. The book is clear on methodology and less prose while the film is all prose and less methodology. Schama’s prose is just that, without any sense that this is not scholarhsip until the end and the film is more about him and less about the event.

    I do think there is plenty of room in the study and presentation of historical scholarship for more blended and interactive modes- I think this example shows how easily the historian becomes the focus- and that is a slippery slope.

  3. sdouglass says:

    Well, there are loose bones, and then there is “The Land Before Time” at opposite extremes, or Jurassic Park for realistic dinos. The point is powerfully illustrated with the photo examples. Dinosaurologists have been itching to find out what color dinos were, and whether they had feathers or scales. Here and there evidence is turning up in fragments. Artistic renderings are very exciting, and have animated generations of kids to care about what would be a very obscure science. So for historians, the re-creation brings in the crowds, well, at least PBS viewers and History Channel aficionados.