I know I’m late…..but I missed the class where we watched Murder at Harvard, so here is my quick take on the film.
The film Murder at Harvard is an attempt to tell both the story of George Parkman’s murder and historian Simon Schama’s approach to this sensational event in Boston’s history. Schama utilizes the documentary to explain the methodology behind his writing of Dead Certainties, which uses fictional narratives based in a historical context to bring past events to life in the minds of the reader. I appreciated the literary and historical exercise in Dead Certainties, because it drew me in as a reader. If I had been using this text to learn about class conflict in mid-nineteenth century Boston, I would be able to appreciate the intricacies of the social relationship between a janitor and chemist, but I could not simply read Schama’s prose and accept it as fact. As a reader I would have to work to validate the interactions he constructed with the historical record, and I found this non-traditional format engaging.
Murder at Harvard did not captivate me in the same way, because Schama’s discussion of methodology turns into a detective story that he goes about solving on his own. Instead of allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions based on inventive narratives grounded in historical context, the film ends with Schama solving the case and validating Webster’s guilt. The sensational murder of George Parkman, and the trial surrounding it, can and should be used to investigate Boston society in the middle of the nineteenth century, but as the film concludes I felt as if I was watching a murder-mystery where all the sleuthing had been done for me.