The Appeal of Alternate History

HIstory Lesson

By Gavriel Rosenfeld

Published April 20, 2007, issue of April 20, 2007.
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Few subgenres of literature have been subjected to such longstanding critical scorn as alternate history. Despite the occasional publication of such masterpieces as Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel, “The Man in the High Castle,” the more frequent appearance of duds like Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen’s much-maligned 1995 novel, “1945,” has reinforced alternate history’s reputation as the domain of armchair historians and literary hacks.

Of late, however, alternate history’s appeal has begun to grow. Historian Niall Ferguson’s 1997 edited volume of counterfactual essays, “Virtual History,” lent the genre new credibility within the field of history, while Philip Roth’s best-selling 2004 novel, “The Plot Against America,” greatly enhanced its reputation within the American literary establishment. Now, Michael Chabon’s provocative new novel, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” (HarperCollins), promises to help the genre of alternate history take yet another important step toward mainstream legitimacy. But while Chabon’s novel is an intricately plotted, wonderfully imaginative and ultimately successful work of literature, it is a weaker exercise in counterfactual speculation. Indeed, the novel resembles a “lite” version of alternate history that may leave connoisseurs of the real thing less than satisfied.

The best literary examples of alternate history — like Ward Moore’s 1953 novel, “Bring the Jubilee” (where the South wins the Civil War), or Robert Harris’s 1992 best-seller, “Fatherland” (where the Nazis win World War II) — combine a variety of elements: a clear point of divergence from the established historical record; clever and well-paced exposition of the reasons for history’s altered course; a convincing degree of plausibility, and a discernible stance on the question of whether the altered past is better or worse than the course of real history.

But whereas the most convincing works of alternate history tend to concentrate on a single point of divergence (the South wins the Civil War; JFK survives his assassination attempt), “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” features several: The United States decides in 1940 to establish a territorial home for European Jewish refugees in Alaska; the Russians are defeated by the Nazis in World War II (though the Nazis ultimately lose to the Americans anyway); the Cold War never ensues, and the state of Israel is never created, as the Jews lose the 1948 War of Independence and are “driven into the sea.” Aficionados of alternate history will probably carp at the implausibility of the United States staying in the war for very long against a victorious Nazi Germany without the Soviet Union doing most of the heavy lifting on the eastern front. Others will view with skepticism the ideologically fanatical Nazis permitting millions of Jews to leave Europe, unmolested, for their Alaskan refuge.

But perhaps the most telling weakness about “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” as a work of alternate history is the fact that arguably, its basic plot could have unfolded in nearly the same way as a conventional work of historical fiction. While Chabon’s basic allohistorical premise certainly lends the novel its distinctive mood, it is inessential to its basic plot — a noirish, detective-drama-cum-political-thriller whose fundamental contours (as most readers will deduce) have been inspired by today’s real historical headlines.

Few of these criticisms will bother Chabon’s many devoted fans (I remain an enthusiastic one). Most will be absorbed by the book’s engrossing narrative and won’t be bothered much by its diluted allohistorical dimensions. But devotees of alternate history will probably dissent. However much they may welcome the fact that some of America’s most celebrated writers are beginning to appreciate alternate history’s allure, they will likely insist that the genre still awaits its contemporary masterpiece.

Gavriel Rosenfeld is an associate professor of history at Fairfield University and is the author of “The World Hitler Never Made: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism” (Cambridge University Press, 2005).


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