Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Counterfactuals and Alternate Histories

Robert E. Lee would certainly have benefited had he understood the power of the Force...or at least if Stonewall had not bought it at Chancellorsville. But of course, neither trying to extrapolate anything at all from either scenario is really little more than a futile exercise. Or is it? Believe it or not...I am beginning to hedge a smidge on my admittedly absolutist stance against counterfactual balderdash.

Fear not. I am not embarking on a career in fictionalizing historical actors into dragon slayers, gigolos, or time travelers. Nor am I planning on devoting any time at all to pondering the countless "what ifs" of history.

Lately, there have been a number of posts in the blogosphere and elsewhere grappling with the counterfactual. One such post suggested that I conflate the terms "counterfactual" and "alternate" when discussing this topic. Guilty as charged. I really see little difference musing over the prospect of Stonewall Jackson attacking Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg and South African White Supremacists traveling back in time to help the Confederacy win the war. Both were impossible. Neither happened (yet, anyway...the word is still out on that SA time machine project). So why bother?

But the posts and related comments got me thinking.

There indeed may be a benefit to all of this. As nonsensical as some of the counterfactual/alternate scenarios play out, the mere consideration of such stories might (it just might) lead a person down the road to finding out what actually happened and why an event unfolded the way it did. Let's just hope that folks can distinguish history from absurdity.



PS - why do people only ever consider the momentous "what if" scenarios? No one ever asks..."What if Robert E. Lee had had a nut allergy." That could very well have been of great import to the Confederate cause.





  1. Millenium Falcon with the battle flag....Where do you get this stuff?

  2. I know - it's great, right? It is wonderful what appears when you do random image searches.

  3. Not certain that I know what alternate histories and counterfactuals are, but doesn't any evaluation of decision making in the past, assuming that alternative actions were possible, involve the weighing out of the merits of each alternative? Are these only objectionable when stretched out to book length?

    For example, would a discussion of the merits of land reform as an element of Reconstruction be counterfactual?

    I'm not making an argument here, just trying to understand. I realize there are novels in which Stonewall Jackson marches on Philly, etc, but is it only silly counterfactuals you don't care for? What about novels like the Plot Against America by Philip Roth? does that sort of work which is clearly counterfactual with its Lindberg/Nazi plot trouble you as well, or its its artistic goal superior to its reworking of history?

  4. You're right, Pat - you don't know what counterfactuals and alternate histories are.
    What you are speaking of is contingency. I am sure you have read Battle Cry. That's what McPherson is getting at..not what didn't happen. If you really want to wrap your head around the subject, read Ayers's In the Presence of Mine Enemies and take "deep contingency" for a whirl. .

  5. Ok. I have Ayer's book, so I'll try to get to it this summer.

    Not much for historical fiction, factual or otherwise, except for War and Peace and such, so I don't really know much about the genre.

    Is Roth's book a counterfactual?

  6. Well - you will enjoy Ayers.
    And Roth's novel is an alternate history. But of course I see counterfactuals and alternates as two sides of the same coin. They might be fun, but they don't really tell us much.