cover image Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations

Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations

Simon Schama. Alfred A. Knopf, $21 (333pp) ISBN 978-0-679-40213-8

In a virtuoso performance, Harvard historian Schama underscores the yawning abyss between experiential knowledge of an event and historical interpretations of it. In the book's first half, heroic British general James Wolfe, killed in the battle for Quebec in 1759, emerges as a neurotic monomaniac thirsty for glory. We glimpse his death thrice: through the eyes of a fear-racked soldier who took part in the battle; through American painter, Benjamin West, whose grandiloquent Death of General Wolfe won him an appointment as court history painter to King George II, and through Boston Brahmin historian Francis Parkman, who helped make Wolfe a patriotic martyr. The second half deals with the case of Parkman's mercurial Uncle George--exacting landlord, physician, authority on insane asylums--whose dismembered body parts were found at Harvard Medical College one week after he disappeared on Thanksgiving Day, 1849. Although a genial, expansive Harvard chemistry professor was hanged for the crime, the conflicting testimony presented here casts doubt on the verdict. Schama ( Citizens ) blends fact, speculation and fictitious dialogue in a chronicle as gripping as a good detective novel. Illustrations. BOMC and QPB alternates. (May)