Dead Certainties (1991)
It would seem that the ideas of postmodernism fit the historical fiction model well and has helped to reinvigorate it as a genre and as a place where some historians feel comfortable (to an extent) exploring. In a rather interesting experiment at combining the two, the well-known historian Simon Schama wrote in 1991 Dead Certainties. This work explored two widely reported deaths with a 100 year gap between them. The first was that of General James Wolfe (a military officer involved in the battles of over the Scottish highlands and the Seven Year War) and the second was George Packman (a Boston man of high class). In this work Schama assessed the complex relationship between history and fiction noting that the historian can never entirely reconstruct a dead world in its completeness. The narrative of Dead Certainties muddles the factual evidence were numerous pieces of conjecture and fictionalisation which lead some reviewers to see it as ‘subversive of the integrity of history as a discipline’. Writing a year later (May 1992) Cushing Strout noted that the result was ‘problematic for both literary and historical reasons’ (Strout, p. 157).
Elsewhere in the world postmodernism has helped to breathe fresh light on historiographical and novelistic practices. In the case of South Africa, Michael Green has argued that a similar correlation between nationalism and the rise of historical fiction occurred there in the early twentieth century as it did in Britain in the nineteenth. Early black South African novelists related their works to moments of nationalism in South Africa: Sol Plaaje’s Mhudi (1930); Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka (1910); and Peter Abraham’s Wild Conquest (1950) focus on interpretations of national fever and understanding of what that means. Green takes a postmodernist viewpoint of South African historiography and fictional writing. He sees a problem in the predominantly social history writing for South Africa and argues for a fix through viewing the past as historicization: ‘Fiction, no less than the writing of history, or, for that matter, the constructing of nations, becomes a historicizing form when it so operates upon its material – no longer bound to a particular temporal location, but open to the past, present, and future’ (Green, p. 130).
Michael Green, ‘Social History, Literary History, and Historical Fiction in South Africa’, Journal of African Cultural Studies, 12:2 (1999), pp. 121-136.
Cushing Strout, ‘Border Crossings: History, Fiction, and Dead Certainties’, History and Theory, 31:2 (1992), pp. 153-162.