Murder at Harvard: An Opportunity Missed

Like the book upon which it was based, Murder at Harvard was not without merit. It was an interesting story that can be used to tell an interesting story about the nature of history as a discipline and a profession.

That said, both the documentary and the novella-zations fell flat under the weight of the self-promotion and self-importance of the author. In the book, Schama is the narrator who cannot help but interject on his own behalf, who cannot even feign any attempt at objectivity (no matter how impossible a goal that may be), who aims comments randomly at dead intellectuals outside his weight class (how does that feel, Foucault?), and who ultimately takes the story of one man taking another’s life… and makes it about the man telling the story.

In the novel, Schama analyzes the texts involved in an interesting manner– but then obfuscates what he’s doing by not giving us even the illusion of access to his sources, and by burying the whole thing in his purple prose and confusing flourishes. The reader is left feeling misled and confused by his storytelling just as often as he is left feeling like he’s heard the story or understood the truth.

This process is reproduced, to a lesser extent, in the film version as well. Schama is not hindered by his confusing prose patterns, and thus seems to be a bit more forthcoming and straightforward. And yet at the same time, this is still the story of a man, struggling with interpreting difficult and ambiguous texts that are full of lacunae

And told in such a way that said texts are conspicuously absent. This is a story about interpretation that, like the book, does not trust its audience to actually do any interpreting itself.

And that’s the rub, for me, at least. I’m all for what Schama’s doing. I’ve been saying for years now that I’m all for ambiguity, that “historical truth” is a misnomer at best, that “objectivity” in the creation of history is a pernicious myth… I want to like what Schama’s doing because it fits in with how I see history. And yet when I look at either of these works, all I really see is Schama. They feel like ego projects.

The book had, at best, mixed results. But honestly, I felt like the documentary was the real missed opportunity.

I loved the bits with the various historians arguing about his approach, about whether or not this book is “history,” etc. But it all could have gone further. I think that the story of a simple but perplexing murder, such as this, could have been a perfect opportunity to introduce lay audiences to what it is that historians really do, namely, that they debate historiography, methodology, that they interrogate texts and try to see ambiguities as the complex heart of the truth– that the past is always up for debate, unknowable, a matter of opinon and subject of argument.

Made a bit longer, and with more historians debating the advantages and shortcomings of Schama’s approach, and the film could have been a real comment on the profession of history– something that illuminated the processes and debates we go through to a more general public. Instead, we ended up with a movie that, like the book, used the rest of the historical profession to reaffirm why Simon Schama thinks he’s such a rock star.

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5 Responses
  1. jjanes says:

    I agree that it could have been extremely interesting to incorporate more outside historians and opposing viewpoints in the film. I found them to really add a different dynamic to the presentation, and appreciated that they incorporated viewpoints that did not agree with what Schama had done. At the same time, however, that would have made the film an entirely different project (one that students of history probably would have enjoyed a little more), and probably take away from the goal that they were really trying to accomplish.

  2. mbergman says:

    Wow – great post Tad. I share your feeling about liking Schama’s concept, but not liking the way Schama make the story about himself. It is as if his commentary on the process of “doing” history is more important than the history itself.

    I’m also in general agreement with you about ambiguity and “historical truth,” although I would like to add that (without getting all “Mulder and Scully”) the truth is out there. That is to say, someone killed Parkman. We may never be able to know for certain “who done it,” but the unknowable truth is not synonymous with the nonexistent truth.

  3. sdouglass says:

    I am glad you continued in the vein you began in class. Now I understand your points better. I agree that Schama should have exposed his sources to scrutiny, but I don’t agree that American Experience would have or should have run a film about historians and the historical process. What they produced was a film about the spirit and features of the time, worked around a riveting story of a group of characters, only three of whom are portrayed “in the round,” though I agree with you that the audience gets to see rather more of the author than necessary, without his revealing much about his process. Good points.

  4. rsibaja says:

    I’ll be a small voice of disagreement. Typically I am cautious of authors who think too highly of themselves, and in the documentary I sensed that with Schama; however, I did not come away with the same feeling after reading the book.

    Throughout the book, it felt that the importance centered on the case itself: what it tells us about Boston at the time, a glimpse into early media sensationalism, a murder mystery actually based in history and worth studying, and so on. So, when Schama went into detail about his methods, I felt like he had to do so, in order to show why his investigation covers some new ground that countless examinations before did not.

    As far as the reply that “It is as if his commentary on the process of “doing” history is more important than the history itself.” Why not? A large aspect of historical work is the historiography, the previous “doing” of history. Heading to the endnotes first, looking at a introduction or preface that explains the research process, seizing up the overall argument–all key to our understanding of historical work. If I could fault Schama, it is that in his zeal of trying to push the boundaries of what constitutes historical work, he did not provide the “breadcrumbs” that show what sources he was looking at, and what previous investigations or scholarship existed.

    Lastly, I would argue that the insight into Bostonian life, and the popularity of the case, tells us so much about American life then and now and provides us valuable questions that are as (or more) important than knowing who the murderer actually was.

  5. cwarburton says:

    Tad, tell us what you really think!

    I think your post articulates exactly why I don’t like this approach: “Purple prose and confusing flourishes”. It’s all about Schama! Or at least it comes off that way. His “angst” as I call it is so distracting and furthermore, as you so deftly put it, it obscures a very relevant dialogue about the issues of the historical profession. I think this is where the movie falls short–it really can’t decide what it is, is it examining the process of history, or a murder? I think the book can get away with thi because of the medium–you can skip around much more easily. But you’re right, the movie comes off as all about Schama and that’s definitely not what history should be about.