- Telling It Like It Wasn’t: The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction by Catherine Gallagher
Catherine Gallagher’s masterful, fascinating, and eminently readable Telling It Like It Wasn’t: The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction, the culmination of years of public work and interest by its author, has already begun to gather considerable accolades. The American Philosophical Society awarded it the 2018 Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History; one expects further formal recognition of its achievement to follow, and probably in more fields than one.
Counterfactual writing is, potentially, any text that requires for its premise “an explicit or implicit past-tense, hypothetical, conditional conjecture pursued when the antecedent condition is known to be contrary to fact” (2). Counterfactuals also tend to keep characters consistent even as they vary events: if a time-traveler kills baby Hitler, it was somehow always “our” baby Hitler who died (11). The counterfactual mode is often used to significant ends in legal writing as well as military, theological, and some strains of [End Page 676] history writing; it has also exploded in recent years into the novelistic landscape. Telling It Like It Wasn’t historicizes the counterfactual mode of thought, asking when and why and how we came to use it in the first place.
Its task is timely. Counterfactual cultural texts are at a moment of peak popularity now: from the fascination with counterfactual outcomes for the American Civil War and World War II (for example, the alternative history writing of Harry Turtledove, or the acclaimed television series The Man in the High Castle, based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name) to the occasionally horrifying popularity of Rick and Morty, an animated series determined to surpass Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz by positing a multiverse in which every world is somehow always the worst of all possible worlds. Victorianists in particular have every reason to enjoy the better understanding of this mode provided by Gallagher’s tome, given the proliferation of neo-Victorian and steampunk fictions and aesthetic codes that makes up a sizeable portion of modern counterfactual culture.
Telling It Like It Wasn’t locates the origins of the modern counterfactual mode in eighteenth-century debates over theological problems and military history, and posits that, from there, Europeans in the nineteenth century, in France especially, found uses for the kinds of narrative instability it enabled. Writers adapted counterfactual thought for fictional uses such as novels that treat the question of historical justice in trying to come to terms with the Napoleonic era. Prior to the twentieth century, the general tendency of counterfactual thinking was to examine “why some regrettable event occurred” and whether it might have been prevented or reinterpreted (97). A historical shift occurs in the twentieth century, when counterfactual authors begin obsessively to “refight” the Civil War and World War II as “two wars that we continually lose” in an attempt to understand the fraught circumstances of the present (97). This amounts, ultimately, to a broad cultural sense that a better present might have been arrived at by fighting better wars, but not by avoiding them.
Gallagher focuses on history and fiction working in tandem but also as distinct forms. While bringing in a number of intellectual genres, such as military science and the theodicy of Leibniz and Blaise Pascal versus the anti-teleological rejoinders of Joseph Priestley, she understands fiction largely as prose fiction and the novel. One wonders whether letting go of that formal restriction might be fruitful, for counterfactuals in historical drama were in vogue well before the eighteenth century, and critics are only slowly starting to scratch that theatrical surface. Counterfactual-aware approaches to William Shakespeare have caught on in recent years, most notably in Amir Khan’s monograph Shakespeare in Hindsight: Counterfactual Thinking and Shakespearean Tragedy (2016). Similarly inspired analyses could focus with profit on the many history plays of John Dryden, for example, such as the openly propagandistic Amboyna (1673). Or consider (someone...