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IN THE WORLD OF ALTERNATE HISTORY, IT ALL CAME OUT DIFFERENTLY—AND IN AN ERA WHEN REAL HISTORY IS TAKING SOME VERY STRANGE TURNS, THE GENRE IS FLOURISHING AS NEVER BEFORE
September 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 5
On the fatal night at Ford’s Theatre, Abraham Lincoln was carrying in his billfold a Confederate five-dollar bill. It was apparently a reminder of what was at stake in his job. If he failed, the bill would have value, and the whole world would be different. It might help him flee into hiding or exile. If Pickett’s charge had carried the Union breastworks, the bill could have had value. If Stonewall Jackson had not been shot by his own men, if the Monitor had foundered on the difficult voyage south to her momentous appointment with the Merrimack, if the textile lobby in Great Britain had forced the recognition of the Confederacy to secure its supply of cotton, that bill could have had value.
Alternate history, the world of fictional narratives of what might have been, is like that bill, redeemable in the flush treasury of a victorious Confederacy circa 1866. Its premises, so easy to choose—the South wins, the Allies lose—are like a promissory note. The promise of the premises proves very tough to pay off on, yet answering the question “What if?” has become an increasingly popular form of fiction. It’s an easy game to play and a hard game to play well.
It can be as crude and blunt as the bumper sticker that reads, “Save your Confederate money, boys: the South will rise again,” or as rich and filigreed in detail as the most finely engraved Confederate bank note. Creating scenes with historical figures is dangerous, as even Shakespeare found, with his tolling clocks in Julius Caesar’s Rome. Historical novels about the South are choked by kudzu decades before it arrived in the real South. Lines put in the mouths of historical figures can be unintentionally funny. Donald Westlake in his review of Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen’s alternate-history novel 1945 cites a scene where Hitler appears before a group and says, “Perhaps you are wondering why I have asked you here today.”
The last few years have brought us such popular books as Robert Harris’s best-selling Fatherland, a police procedural set in a victorious Third Reich in 1964, with Hitler still in power and Joseph P. Kennedy, former ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, now President of the United States. Such alternate history classics as Bring the Jubilee, Ward Moore’s view of an America some ninety years after a Confederate victory, have been reissued, and the genre has drawn notable amateurs as well, including not only Gingrich but the actor Richard Dreyfuss and the late business writer Robert Sobel. A scholarly conference at Ohio State in the fall of 1997 examined the subject; so did a special issue of Military History Quarterly.
Alternate history fits nicely with the new world of the computer game; a game, after all, is a story with many variants. Re-elect JFK, for instance, is a very strange CD-ROM game that takes as its premise Kennedy’s near-escape from the Dallas assassination attempt. The player takes the role of Kennedy, trying at once both to assure his re-election—there’s a “poll meter” to track progress—and to solve the mystery of who took the shots at him. Unconvincing but weirdly moving figures of Robert Kennedy and others appear on-screen. Images show the view from the desk in the Oval Office, and a “tape recording” provides important clues.
Perhaps alternate history has become so attractive because history itself has come to resemble fiction. The twenty-fifth anniversaries of key sixties events and the fiftieth anniversaries of World War II each raised unsettling “what if” questions. What if we hadn’t used the bomb? What if Kennedy had lived? The widening posthumous popularity of Philip K. Dick’s work has sent readers back to his classic 1962 vision of an Axis victory, The Man in the High Castle, and there are countless other Hitler-wins and Kennedy-lives scenarios. Also, we have a growing sense of the tentativeness of real history. The relentless logic of the Cold War carried with it the implication of a face-off lasting indefinitely, and it suddenly crumbled with the Berlin Wall. For many of us, a united Germany still seems like a “what if” alternate reality, even ten years later.
It often resembles a game, but its roots lie in science fiction. It is almost always a kind of time-machine tale.
Francis Fukuyama’s grandiose 1992 proclamation of the end of history has already come to seem old and tawdry, just as ideologies that proclaim the inevitability of revolution from below or revelation from above appear equally bankrupt today. History no longer looks inevitable or divinely driven; our destiny is no longer manifest. The dizzying pace of the changes that brought Lech Walesa from house arrest to power and Nelson Mandela from prison cell to presidential palace has suffused the world with a sense that anything’s possible after the iron grip of the Cold War. What, then, is so privileged about real history, about the version of things that actually happened to occur?