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Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

Thesis Topics: Ready-Made


The bored fourth-grader, rushing through homework in order to be allowed to play baseball, may mutter 'Why do we have to learn this stuff?'; but for many people the study of history is a source of continuous fascination. The genealogist, discovering an ancestor who fought in the Civil War or went west in a covered wagon, surely wants to know how that ancestor went about his daily life and what he thought about the issues of the day; others study history to reaffirm pride in his or her own country, or to learn about a totally different culture. But the underlying motive is often simply to discover 'what really happened.' Research on many historical topics can also provoke speculation: What might have happened?

A recent article in The Atlantic Monthly lists some questions that frequently occur in both academic and popular literature: 'What if Hitler had won the war? . . . What if John Wilkes Booth had missed?' The author notes that the Library of Congress recognizes this genre with a specific subject heading, Imaginary Histories.[1] A search of this heading in Dartmouth's online system, in the Catalog and Wilson Combined Indexes files, produces a sampling of books and articles ranging from humorous and lighthearted to serious and scholarly. Although 'imaginary histories' can include historical fiction, science fiction, and works that create imaginary civilizations such as Narnia, this essay will focus on works that explore the possibilities of 'what if?'

The Atlantic article mentions, in passing, an essay by Winston S. Churchill on subsequent United States history following a Confederate victory at Gettysburg. This exercise in historical speculation, along with a number of similar essays, appeared in an anthology that was published in both the United States and Britain.[2] The volume also includes Milton Waldman's 'If Booth Had Missed Lincoln.'[3] The collection primarily comprises chapters intended as serious history, but the editor's own contribution is a facetious report of the uproar in the press and academia following the 1930 discovery that Francis Bacon really was the author of Shakespeare's plays--including a reference to a Punch cartoon of Bacon holding a copy of the 1623 'First Foolio.'[4] A scathing review by F. J. C Hearnshaw, appearing in the journal History, called the volume a 'monument of misapplied labour and misdirected imagination.' The reviewer, while agreeing that 'it is often interesting, and it is sometimes instructive, to speculate upon the "might-have-beens" of history,' suggested that the construction of imaginary history could be better done, and referred his readers to John Buchan's The Causal and the Casual in History as an example--even although Mr. Buchan included some discussion of the ever-fascinating (on both sides of the Atlantic) American Civil War, which Mr. Hearnshaw had suggested was rather overdone in If. [5]

Mr. Hearnshaw probably would have approved of W. Warren Wagar's A Short History of the Future.[6] Although there are elements of science fiction in the book, the author, a professional historian, intended to produce 'an informal general history of the years 1995-2100 with supporting documents,' with 'analysis and narrative in the style of history textbooks.'[7] He has scrupulously applied the conventional methods of historical scholarship. The future he describes--he just as scrupulously declines to call the result 'prediction'[8]--is the logical outcome of the events of the late twentieth century: New political alignments, protest movements, environmental problems, successes and failures in medical research (cures are found for cancer and heart disease, but not AIDS). The immediate future holds both calamity and optimism. One of the successes in the area of planetary food supply came about when 'the public finally heeded the advice of physicians and cut its consumption of animal food by 50 percent throughout the developed world between 1995 and 2010. . . . Even the world-famous American hamburger . . . found itself upstaged in the fast food chains by the "earthburger," a palatable concoction of lentils and tofu reinforced by vegetable adhesives.' The twenty-first-century Big Mac(TM) is called a 'Big Earth.'[9]

Anniversaries of momentous historical events often provide starting points for 'what if?' hypothesizing. The journal History Today has published several examples. In 1988, four hundred years after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Felix Barker wrote about England's defense plans, the 'capricious' weather, and the 'boastful intentions' of Spain's Philip II. Queen Elizabeth would probably not have been allowed to live; England would be 'plunged into religious civil war'; Philip 'would either have appointed a viceroy to rule or would have nominated a King of England from his own family.'[10] Among the multitude of 1995's commemorative articles on World War II is a speculation on a possibly different future of the world if Hitler's Operation Barbarossa had been successful.[11] The 1992 quincentennial of Columbus's landing inspired Brian Fagan's discussion of ancient Aztec and Mayan civilizations following the arrival of the conquistadors. The author believes that ancient Native Americans were 'victims of history' in a different sense. Domesticated animals--asses, cattle, horses--were essential to the development of transportation systems and thus trade routes; but during the Ice Age, numerous medium-sized mammals in Mesoamerica became extinct. Had the Aztecs and Maya owned such animals before the conquest, 'one can certainly assume that the future course of local history would have been different. And one can certainly be sure that Cortés and his ragtag adventurers would have been lucky to escape with their lives.'[12] Of course, the effect of the European colonization of North America continues to be a source of discussion and argument in both popular and scholarly journals. A recent article in The Journal of American History reflects in some detail on 'an Indian-free scenario of colonial history,'[13] particularly in the areas of (among others) agriculture, property, and religion. The author's sobering concluding section discusses the Indian as enemy: 'It is a certainty that non-Indian enemies would not have been the target of frequent if unrealized campaigns of genocide; it is difficult to imagine English settlers coining an aphorism to the effect that "the only good Dutchman is a dead one."'[14]

Possibilities abound for thesis topics. Do you agree with Churchill's or Buchan's analysis of a hypothetical Southern victory at Gettysburg? If you read the sources cited in the articles on the Maya and colonial America, do you come to the authors' conclusions? Or you could--and here we strongly recommend prior approval from your professor--write your own 'what if?'

[1] Cullen Murphy, 'What If? History's Parallel Universe,' The Atlantic Monthly (August 1995), 16-20.

[2] Winston S. Churchill, 'If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,' in John Collings Squire, ed., If: Or, History Rewritten (New York: The Viking Press, 1931), 259-284. The British edition (London: Longmans, Green, 1931) bears the title If It Had Happened Otherwise: Lapses Into Imaginary History. Page references refer to the American edition.

[3] In Squire, If, 287-316.

[4] J. C. Squire, 'If It Had Been Discovered in 1930 That Bacon Really Did Write Shakespeare,' in Squire, If, 360.

[5] F. J. C. Hearnshaw, review of If It Had Happened Otherwise: Lapses Into Imaginary History, edited by J. C. Squire, History: The Journal of the Historical Association, n.s., 16 (1931), 275-276.

[6] W. Warren Wagar, A Short History of the Future, 2d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

[7] Wagar, Short History, xiii.

[8] Wagar, Short History, x.

[9] Wagar, Short History, 61-62.

[10] Felix Barker, 'If Parma Had Landed,' History Today 38 (May, 1988), 41.

[11] Dmitry Oleinkov and Sergei Kudryashov, 'What If Hitler Had Defeated Russia?,' tr. J. Crowfoot, History Today 45 (May 1995), 67-70.

[12] Brian M. Fagan, 'If Columbus Had Not Called . . . ,' History Today 42(May 1992), 34, 36.

[13] James L. Axtell, 'Colonial America Without the Indians: Counterfactual Reflections,' The Journal of American History 73 (March 1987), 988.

[14] Axtell, 'Colonial America,' 996.

Last Updated: 5/3/12