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.