September 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 5
When I was eleven or twelve years old, I discovered, in the little library that served the Cape Cod town of Dennis, where I was spending the summer, a book about the turn-of-the-century— this century—war between Britain and France. The pictures drew me in: an invasion force wading ashore in the south; British rifle companies breaking up French cavalry assaults on the London road; the Kentish countryside in flames. Channel fighting! Dreadnoughts and destroyers and torpedo boats in a great promiscuous close-packed muddle, hammering it out nearly hull to hull.
I read the book with fascination. I don’t recall ever wondering why nobody seemed to have taken photographs of these interesting events; the grisaille illustrations were perfectly satisfying. I believed in this Anglo-Franco war for an embarrassingly long time and may well have gone into high school still wondering how the two countries had come to patch things up to the point where they could fight side by side as allies a mere decade later.
On my behalf I would say that the Dennis librarian believed in the war too; the book resided in the history section, bearing the appropriate Dewey classification. And the fact is, it could have happened. A century ago a good part of the British population believed that when the big war came, it would be with their traditional enemy.
That book belonged to a literary genre that has been with us nearly as long as the novel itself and that is just now enjoying particularly vigorous growth. In this issue Phil Patton explores why alternate history has become so popular, and Fredric Smoler picks some of the most telling current examples, while James McPherson offers one of his own, in which the Confederacy fares quite differently.
This sort of exercise (long despised in the academy, although not so much now that it can be ennobled with the term counterfactual ) is a useful way of looking at history. Not in every form, of course. Some of the literature is the sort of boilerplate Donald Westlake takes a swipe at in his novel God Save the Mark , when his hero meets a man who has just put the final touches to the manuscript of his book Veni Vidi Vici Through Airpower . It posits that Julius Caesar had fighter planes on the World War I level during his campaigns. Well, Westlake’s hero says, that would mean changes throughout Roman society: petrochemical industry, machine tools, electricity. No, the writer isn’t interested in any of that, just in imagining the cohorts going into battle with biplanes buzzing overhead. What would be changed then? Well, actually, the author admits, not so much. After all, Caesar won most of the battles he fought.
But when gifted and imaginative writers bring their skills to bear on exploring a world that might have been, the results can be thrilling, because they strike a universal chord. Just as every individual’s life is numinous with untaken choices, so is every nation’s. This is certainly true of America, which found its genesis in that longest of long shots, the Revolutionary War. The present is so concrete that it is easy to believe it grew out of a process governed by something like the laws of physics: The torrent of history sweeps along, comes against a rock here and a hillside there, and cuts its course—tumultuous, to be sure, but inevitable—to the only possible moment, the one in which you are finishing reading this sentence. But it’s not the only possible moment. You might have been reading another sentence in another magazine. You might have been reading a special issue of Signal , the magazine of the Wehrmacht, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the final victory in the East. You might have been reading nothing at all, but rather have been doing subsistence farming in a Westchester County still broken and thinly peopled because of what happened after Curtis LeMay talked President Kennedy into letting his boys take out the missile bases in Cuba. Or had things gone differently in that same era, you might have been watching a television address by President King. Or getting a drink of water from a fountain marked “Colored.”
Good alternate history reminds us of what the young Jay Gatsby knew: that the “rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing” and that we got to where we are not through a culmination of inevitabilities but through a sequence of miracles.