Catherine Gallagher never worked in the history department at UC Berkeley. Her specialty was in literary criticism. Before retiring, she had a chair in the English department.
All of which meant it was something of a surprise to her when the oldest learned society in the country came calling. The American Philosophical Society, co-founded by Benjamin Franklin, named her the 2018 winner of its Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History for her book, Telling It Like It Wasn’t: The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction. She received the award in a ceremony in Philadelphia earlier this month.
“I was on the East Coast, giving some talks and I got this email about winning,” Gallagher says. “Since I’m not actually a historian and I’m a literary critic, it wasn’t an award that was really on my radar until I won it. My husband (Berkeley professor Martin Jay) is in the history department. So are some of my friends. And they thought it was a very big deal.”
Why a big deal? Counterfactualism is the study of things that never happened and wondering what would have happened if they did.
“Historians don’t like talking about things that didn’t happen,” says David Hollinger, Berkeley emeritus professor of history. “She was brave enough to be willing to write about the past in a way historians don’t like and convinced a committee that she was worthy of this very big prize. That makes this a big deal.”
So, Gallagher wrote about the Civil War — what would have happened if the South had won? And about World War II — what would have happened if the Nazis had conquered Britain?
“You ask yourself the question, like what would have happened if JFK hadn’t been assassinated?” Gallagher says. “And you look at what would have happened then in Vietnam. It’s a controversial thing to do. People in history don’t always rely on it.
“But military historians do it all the time. Economists do it all the time. It also leads into certain kinds of literature where you imagine outcomes that are quite different from those we have. Science fiction has been doing it since the 1920s, before the term science fiction was even invented. French surrealists were writing short stories about traveling back in history and described the paradoxes they faced — meeting themselves, killing their own ancestors, then being unable to return to the present. For surrealists it was a new and interesting way of thinking about time.”
Gallagher says she got to the book by accident. She wanted to read a history of counterfactualism, then found that no one had written one. So she did.
The resulting book is “sort of a landmark,” according to Anthony Cascardi, dean of arts and humanities at Berkeley and a professor of Spanish, comparative literature and rhetoric.
“The thing is, the scope of things that did not happen is infinite,” Cascardi says. “So, finding a way to present a topic where counterfactuals are meaningful is a trick when the scope is infinite. She has landed on significant turning points in history where things could have gone a different way.”
Counterfactualism has real-world applications, Gallagher says, noting that the legal system in the U.S. uses them all the time, particularly in affirmative action and reparations cases.
“And there’s climate science,” she says. “You think where we’d be without all the CO2 (carbon dioxide), then look at what damage has been done to the atmosphere based on that. It’s become prominent in policy debates and in the way we think about historical justice.”
It also comes into play in national politics.
“People told me they read the book before the election of Donald Trump, and then re-read it afterward,” Gallagher says. “I heard from a lot of them that I was too optimistic about the direction of history.
“Counterfactualism is all about unintended consequences, the irony of thinking you are getting one thing and you wind up getting another.”