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2018 Jacques Barzun Prize

The Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History was presented to Catherine Gallagher at the 2018 November Meeting of the American Philosophical Society in recognition of her book Telling It Like It Wasn't: The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction.

APS president Linda Greenhouse (left) and prize committee chair Michael Wood (right) present the prize to Catherine Gallagher (center)
APS president Linda Greenhouse (left) and prize committee chair Michael Wood (right) present the prize to Catherine Gallagher (center) 

Telling It Like It Wasn’t is a subtle and closely argued study of instances of counterfactual history in Europe and America, beginning with the moment, represented by the work of Leibniz, when imagining alternative pasts ceased to be a rhetorical exercise and became a way of thinking about the complexities of causality and real-time possibility. Professor Gallagher is fully aware of the paradoxical nature of her project – a history of an actual interest in unrealized history – and is not concerned to refute ‘reasonable’ criticisms of the counterfactual mode, only to show that its ‘long-term development and motivations might give us insight into our ways of making history meaningful’. This note is repeatedly and eloquently struck in the course of her book. ‘Historical entities’ are seen as ‘not only solid and substantial but also suspenseful and unsettled’. ‘Examining previous historical options’ may be ‘a way to escape cycles of repetition’. The connections among ‘science fiction, alternate history, and historical activism seem enduring not because they solve problems but because they destabilize solutions’. At one point history itself, at least in its political uses, becomes the ‘preservation of alternatives’, and ‘counterfactuality, far from being opposed to actual history, seems rather a crucial mode of imagining its vitality, consequences, and ongoing significance; it becomes actual history’s champion’.

From Leibniz’s positing ‘the actual as a subset (rather than the obverse) of the possible’ to the American ‘actualizing the future of an alternate past’ and the ‘peculiarly intense, complicated, multidimensional, and politically freighted’ fictions of postwar Britain, we see again and again how what ‘never happened’ can feel ‘very real’ – sometimes more real than what did happen. The result is not a case for confusing the real and the imaginary, or refusing to see the difference between them. It is a case for not occupying, as we so often do, an over-confident standpoint from which we can see neither clearly.

The Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History is awarded annually to the author whose book exhibits distinguished work in American or European cultural history. Established by a former student of Jacques Barzun, the prize honors this historian and cultural critic who was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1984.

The selection committee consisted of Michael Wood (Chair), Charles Barnwell Straut Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Princeton University; David Hollinger, Preston Hotchkis Professor Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley; and Robert B. Pippin, Evelyn Stefansson Nef Distinguished Service Professor, Committee on Social Thought, Department of Philosophy, University of Chicago.