Why Do We Ask “What If?"

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The new prominence of alternate history in Western popular culture has increasingly prompted scholars to historicize it as a broader phenomenon. What has largely escaped notice until now, however, has been the question of the underlying function of alternate history as a genre of speculative narrative representation. In this essay, I argue that writers and scholars have long produced “allohistorical narratives” out of fundamentally presentist motives. Allohistorical tales have assumed different typological forms depending upon how their authors have viewed the present. Nightmare scenarios, for example, have depicted the alternate past as worse than the real historical record in order to vindicate the present, while fantasy scenarios have portrayed the alternate past as superior to the real historical record in order to express dissatisfaction with the present. The presentist character of alternate histories allows them to shed light upon the evolving place of various historical events in the collective memory of a given society. In this essay, I examine American alternate histories of three popular themes—the Nazis winning World War II, the South winning the Civil War, and the American Revolution failing to occur—in order to show how present–day concerns have influenced how these events have been remembered. In the process, I hope to demonstrate that alternate histories lend themselves quite well to being studied as documents of memory. By examining accounts of what never happened, we can better understand the memory of what did.


Copyright 2002 Wiley

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History and Theory

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Rosenfeld, Gavriel. "Why Do We Ask “What If?” Reflections on the function of alternate history." History and Theory 41, no. 4 (2002): 90-103.



Peer Reviewed