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Murder at Harvard | Article

History and Fiction

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Historian Simon Schama

In this interview, historian Simon Schama describes his writing process and how he was drawn to George Parkman's murder.

How did you begin your research into the Parkman murder?
The history of Boston means the Parkman family, one way or another. I was interested in the greatest 19th-century Boston historian, Francis Parkman, who thought he was going blind, and he himself, as he was writing, was a mysterious and strange and compelling figure. One face of Boston history is of the ideal 19th century scholar-writer: severe, forbidding, with a great, tight grip on the truth. And, because of Francis Parkman's own strangeness, I felt there was another slightly more chilling and odd story to tell that attracted me.

And when I was writing about Francis Parkman, I fell over the story of his uncle George, much like someone tripping over a recumbent body. George was the uncle who'd been murdered in peculiar circumstances. Circumstances that concerned Harvard University, a place I'd taught at for years without knowing this. And sometimes projects choose you — all these bits and pieces: one's writing life, one's life as an historian, a sense of the presence of the dead creeping through, or floating up, into one's front mind in the library. It really was something that I felt an extraordinary kind of compulsion, a pull, towards. And I didn't definitely decide to write it until I made contact with the archives. It was still something I wasn't sure about. I was actually engaged in starting to write a different book at the time. And as I pulled myself into it, it was more like being glued to my chair, glued to the sources. The story came alive inside my head, and on the archive table, and I went ahead with it in that way.

It seemed above all, to be a story of mystery, the mystery of the truth about the past, how people came to be victims, murderers, but I guess I remember a line from an English historian, Collingwood, who was a theorist of history, had the most highfalutin ideas about history, who once said historians are like bad amateur detectives. They have the evidence. They bungle and fumble their way around, and grope at the truth. They try to reconstruct an event as a detective tries to reconstruct an event. I like mystery stories and all those things pulled me towards it.

Why did you find Parkman's story so compelling?
In the first place, this was something gruesome happening in a community that prided itself on esteem, honor and the New England virtues. Here was the light of suspicion thrown on a professor of chemistry at the medical school, who not simply disposed of his creditor in a gruesome way, but had issued blanket denial. His victim, too, had been part of polite Boston. And the crime was so hideous, really, the sort of thing which polite Boston and polite Cambridge always imagined would happen among those people, over there, meaning the the Irish, the immigrants. So already it was this kind of nasty little black poisonous stain occurring in the lily-white world of Boston, 19th century. So it was just the sense of the incongruousness of it all.

I also knew that extraordinary people were involved: the judges concerned, the lawyers concerned. That was part of it, just the sheer kind of intensely unsavory eloquence of it.

But what also struck me was that there were so many loose ends — that the law, like history, likes to tie up the ends. There's this word which I always say I'm allergic to which happened at the end of all history books called conclusion. History books that are proper, respectable history books have to have an introduction and a conclusion. And even though a verdict was rendered, a man was executed, there was so much that was truly inconclusive.

How did you approach the research?
You have to be a kind of paper sniffer. You have to be sensuously engaged in what you have in an archive. I remember in the Massachusetts Historical Society the way the light shone that particular day on these different kind of inks. If you are alert to this kind of thing — it's kind of ghostly physical exchange with the leftovers of the past. Like going into your grandma's attic and finding an old chair. The stuff spills in front of you, you can sort of smell the paper, you can sort of feel the writing. You ought to be able to hear the quill scratching over it.

What are the challenges of converting archival materials into a historical narrative?
The challenge for the historian at work -- you know you have it right away, once you've got over the exhilaration of these bits and pieces of people's lives in front of you -- how do you turn them into living people again? And you shouldn't be under any illusions that the incarnation of the dead person you're going to produce is going to be in any way approximately like the person. It's not. You're the intermediary. Literally, you're the medium. This voice from the dead is going to come out with your glottal stops... it's going to be your voice. But nonetheless, you have to make a good attempt to sink yourself into the experience of these dead people, these other people writing to each other, or whatever it is. And produce that for your reader. So your reader, from these little bits and pieces of this broken stuff from the past, is going to be living inside that world for a few hours, a few days.

In your book, Dead Certainties, you say history must be "a work of the imagination." If your writing includes fictional passages, can it still be called history?
I knew as soon as you make things up, you've crossed a crucial borderline between history and fiction. And that therefore, I — as forthrightly as I possibly could — I described these stories as novellas. This is a piece of fiction. I suppose I had in the back of my mind, pieces of miraculously seductive, intelligent, passionate historical fiction that nonetheless deliver a kind of truth in a way. Poetic truth, rather than documentary truth, about what the past was like. I'm thinking of some hero books of mine: Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard, for example, a wonderful account of the battle of Waterloo seen as unintelligible chaos, at the beginning of The Charterhouse of Parma. So I thought, well I'm going to try my hand at a fiction about the problems of writing history, and about an historical event.

Why is it important to consider how historians produce their work?
History is not just a walk down memory lane. It matters. There are big things at stake here, quite apart from storytelling. We are the remains of the past. The present is constituted of — is made up of — the experiences of the past. So to understand who we are, where we go as a community, as a city, as a nation, we need absolutely to understand history.

We also need to understand how history is produced. There are two ways in which it seems to be delivered. One is the kind of forbidding, austere, scientific way, which is done by professors at universities. Precisely because historians themselves have done a bad job at getting them out to our children, out to the world at large, an alternative way has happened, through recent years, and that is of the kind of anything goes, wild, docudrama kind. And what's left are these two alternatives: cold history, hot history. Maybe even a kind of warm history in between. There are so many interesting processes in between chilling fact and totally out of it invention. And it's in this warm zone, not the hot zone, that history gets written, produced, and remembered by future generations. It is important to understand how those memories are made if we are to understand ourselves and our future.

 

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