The Magazine

The Way It Wasn't

How what-if history grew from a minor literary curiosity to a bestselling genre of popular fiction.

Sep 6, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 48 • By GREGORY FEELEY
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PART FICTION, part historical speculation, the publishing genre known as "alternate history" is a literary chimera--a seeming anomaly that is perfectly in sync with its time. Popularized by the Edwardians, alternate history pottered along for decades, mostly as a literary curiosity, before roaring to life in the 1990s, just in time for a century to which it seems peculiarly suited.

In form, alternate history draws upon the genres of science fiction and fantasy, historical novels and adventure stories, even technothrillers and mysteries--something from just about every contemporary publishing category, except "literature." It hasn't often broken into movies (explaining the setup seems inescapably to involve one step too many), but it has established itself not only on superstore bookshelves but in the popular consciousness.

Alternate history--in its early days, it was known as "counterfactual history"--first appeared in recognizable form not in fiction but as an exercisein popular essay-writing by genuine historians. The publication of G.M. Trevelyan's essay "If Napoleon Had Won the Battle of Waterloo" in 1907 is usually cited as the tradition's starting point, and Trevelyan certainly served as the inspiration for the 1931 anthology edited by J.C. Squire, If It Had Happened Otherwise, with essays by G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, A.J.P. Taylor, Winston Churchill, and others. The piece's titles--"If the Moors in Spain Had Won," "If Louis XVI Had an Atom of Firmness," "If Byron Had Become King of Greece," and so on (Churchill, with some wit, contributed "If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg")--made clear that while "counterfactuals" might consider any possible variation in history, their appeal lay in imagining the different outcomes of important military campaigns. The frisson of political foreboding, with a dash of sensationalism, was present from the first.

But while Squire's volume was popular, the tradition goes back earlier. Trevelyan may well have seen the series of "Reviews of Unwritten Books," cowritten by the British eccentric Baron Corvo and published in the Monthly Review in 1903, which similarly toyed with history, and included a discussion of "Machiavelli's Dispatches from the South African Campaign." A year earlier, an American novelist named Charles Felton Pidgin published The Climax; or, What Might Have Been: A Romance of the Great Republic, which detailed the century of history following Aaron Burr's election as governor of New York and unbroken, duel-free climb to political power. This is alternate history in its purest form, although many of its elements can be glimpsed in a number of popular novels published in the United States, England, and France from the mid-nineteenth century (the 1836 Napoléon et la conquête du monde, 1812-1823 seems to be the first) and increasing in number in the 1880s.

None of this was regarded as serious literature or serious history, and most works of alternate history (no one seems to know when the term was coined) enjoyed brief shelf lives, reflecting as they did the anxieties of their own immediate era. Their staple theme continued to be the triumph of one of history's bugbears, with Hitler (who soon replaced Napoleon) and Robert E. Lee becoming by far the most popular. The frisson remained marketable (in 1960 Look magazine commissioned two essays by well-known popular historians to explore imagined Nazi and Confederate victories). But by the 1950s alternate history was largely confined to science fiction, which explored the possible themes in the genre's usual straightforward and rationalist manner. L. Sprague de Camp's 1939 Lest Darkness Fall, in which an American cast back to the sixth century A.D. attempts to prevent the onset of the Dark Ages, was an early and influential example.

THESE BOOKS were frequently engaging, and some of them, such as Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (1962) and Keith Roberts's Pavane (1968), possessed considerable artistry. But the ingenuity science-fiction writers lavished on their reconfigured histories was often naive, and their stories remained a distinctly local product.

The number of alternate histories published in science fiction nonetheless grew steadily through the 1970s and 1980s. A few examples appeared in the commercial mainstream, including The Court Martial of George Armstrong Custer by the well-regarded historical novelist Douglas C. Jones in 1976 (an early example of what would prove a salient commercial strategy: putting a famous historical figure in circumstances diametrically at odds with his historical fate) and Thomas Berger's 1989 Changing the Past. These books tended to present the concept of a novelist's changing history as itself a striking idea--which is an indication of how modestly the popular articles and genre fiction had penetrated general public awareness.