I’m reading Dead Certainties by Simon Schama, a rather odd book that explores the often uneasy boundary between history and fiction. Schama is particularly interested in the death of James Wolfe, the British general whose army stormed Quebec in 1759—although his interest is less in the details than in how those details are lost, or, more to the point, how they are transformed into myth. Consider the 1770 painting by the American Benjamin West, Death of General Wolfe (above).
From its first conception, West rejected literalism and embraced rhetoric. “Wolfe must not die like a common soldier under a Bush,” he wrote. “To move the mind there should be a spectacle presented to raise and warm the mind and all should be proportioned to the highest idea conceivd of the Hero . . . A mere matter of fact will never produce the effect.” Accordingly, throughout the composition, from top to bottom, mere fact is overwhelmed by inspired, symbolically loaded invention. It was this unapologetic hyperbole which set West’s painting off so dramatically from the prosaic versions that preceded it, none more painfully feeble than Edward Penny’s effort of 1763. Where that product of honest toil conscientiously had the General attended only by two officers and set down in a shrubby clearing apart from the battlefield, West produced the grandiloquent lie the public craved: a death at the very centre of the action; the firing of guns still sounding at his back; the St. Lawrence that he had finally conquered to his right; three groups of officers and men arrayed like a Greek chorus to witness the tragedy.
Schama goes on to explore the treatment of Wolfe in a history by the Bostonian Francis Parkman, and then veers into a long, sometimes fictional treatment of the 1849 murder of Parkman’s uncle, followed by the trial and hanging of a Harvard professor. It’s an odd book, but fascinating.