“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:
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.