Does Alternate History Have Value?

Civil War historian Keith Harris posted a review (I know — over a year old, but he just tweeted it Monday) of Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South. He liked the book. But alternate history itself? Not so much:

Acording [sic] to historian Mark Grimsley, there are roughly two kinds of counteractual history. First – for the basest of simpletons I suppose – we have the “beer and peanuts” counterfactual. These “what ifs,” such as “what if Stonewall Jackson had lived to fight at Gettysburg” generally make their appearance at various “buff” gatherings. Second, we have “counterfactual theory.” This theory, the brainchild (I believe) of Grimsley himself, couches counterfactuals in the high-toned language of academics. The objective: to derive an element of truth from what did happen by laboriously theorizing about what…ummmm….didn’t.

Frankly, I find both varieties equally absurd. I have always suggested to my students that counterfactual history has limited utility (apart from a few laughs) and analysis of the infinite “what ifs” of history bears little or no fruit. Why, I ask, should we dwell on what might have happened (something that we could never, ever, ever really know – ever…no matter what) when we still have trouble determining what actually did? Ughh.

His reaction is noteworthy as it’s the first time I’ve read a PhD’s opinion on the genre (well, not exactly — Turtledove himself has a PhD in Byzantine history). Overlook for a moment Keith’s conflation of alternate-history fiction such as The Guns of the South with counterfactual history — those scholarly presentations of what-if scenarios that have all the appeal and impact of a green Lunesta moth. And let’s set aside the obvious primary goal of fiction — to entertain — for a utilitarian argument.

Quoth William Faulkner, “The best fiction is far more true than any journalism.” Or history. Now, I’m more fully in the truth is stranger than fiction camp but Faulkner precisely diagnoses how alt history can underscore and engage fact in a way that should interest historians, academic or otherwise. Today there are people who insist, contrary to every scrap of paper written by anybody from the period or even the Confederate Constitution itself, slavery would have peacefully extinguished in an independent CSA. (The motivational poster at right, with its LOL and justice is served punchline, is actually a sincere expression swiped from an apologist’s blog). In my story “Glorieta Pass,” I not only call bullshit on the idea but further speculate that a peacetime Confederacy would have known little internal peace. If I can’t convince apologists of their stupidity outright, then I can mock them while entertaining everyone else. Through fiction.

But alt history further implies a question very relevant to historians, which is: Is history deterministic? Could it have unfolded any other way or is it — like perhaps the fabric of the universe itself — the summation of the only possible series of events? Why didn’t events happen differently? Think about it the next time someone at a dinner party suggests that without Hitler, another dictator would have still come to power in 1930s Germany.

(PS: You might not guess it from this post, but I actually like Keith — he’s a runner! — and I recommend his blog, Cosmic America.)

One thought on “Does Alternate History Have Value?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *