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Telling It Like It Wasn’t

The Counterfactual Imagination in History and Fiction

Inventing counterfactual histories is a common pastime of modern day historians, both amateur and professional. We speculate about an America ruled by Jefferson Davis, a Europe that never threw off Hitler, or a second term for JFK. These narratives are often written off as politically inspired fantasy or as pop culture fodder, but in Telling It Like It Wasn’t, Catherine Gallagher takes the history of counterfactual history seriously, pinning it down as an object of dispassionate study. She doesn’t take a moral or normative stand on the practice, but focuses her attention on how it works and to what ends—a quest that takes readers on a fascinating tour of literary and historical criticism.

Gallagher locates the origins of contemporary counterfactual history in eighteenth-century Europe, where the idea of other possible historical worlds first took hold in philosophical disputes about Providence before being repurposed by military theorists as a tool for improving the art of war. In the next century, counterfactualism became a legal device for deciding liability, and lengthy alternate-history fictions appeared, illustrating struggles for historical justice. These early motivations—for philosophical understanding, military improvement, and historical justice—are still evident today in our fondness for counterfactual tales. Alternate histories of the Civil War and WWII abound, but here, Gallagher shows how the counterfactual habit of replaying the recent past often shapes our understanding of the actual events themselves. The counterfactual mode lets us continue to envision our future by reconsidering the range of previous alternatives. Throughout this engaging and eye-opening book, Gallagher encourages readers to ask important questions about our obsession with counterfactual history and the roots of our tendency to ask “What if…?”

416 pages | 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2018

History: General History, History of Ideas

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory


“Readers looking for a simple review of counterfactual histories will find far more than that here. . . . [Gallagher] convincingly demonstrates that counterfactual histories and narratives often grow out of specific developments in a nation's history, such as the challenge to Jim Crow in the postwar US, the state of the nation and society in postwar Britain, and the end of the Cold War. . . .Recommended.”


Telling It Like It Wasn’t is a history that modulates into criticism (without ceasing to be history). . . Gallagher writes eloquently of ‘the vitality of the permanently unfinished’, and suggests that counterfactual stories can ‘seem enduring not because they solve problems but because they destabilise solutions.’”

London Review of Books

Telling It Like It Wasn’t is a deep and authoritative overview, suitably footnoted, of issues that are even more relevant today than in the last century and a half. . .A fascinating book for both historians and the general public.”

SF Commentary

“Masterful, fascinating, and eminently readable.”

Victorian Studies

“Gallagher’s new book is a genuinely original contribution to both the theory (and history) of the novel and the theory of history. Philosophers and historians have been debating the cognitive status of historical narratives for over half a century without taking into account the contributions to theory of narrative made by modern literary scholars. Based on a trove of ‘counterfactualist’ writings that have been little studied until of late, Gallagher’s book sheds new light on the differences between history, myth, fiction, hypotheticals, the historical romance, and fantasy writing. Moreover, her book is mercifully free of jargon, her discussion of ‘counterfactual’ history is subtle and sophisticated, and her analysis of the relation between fiction and hypothesis convincing.”

Hayden White | University Professor of the History of Consciousness, Emeritus, University of California

“At a time when fact itself is under siege, why tarry with thought experiments about pasts that didn't happen? Gallagher's answer is a historicist one: although counterfactual narratives have been with us in many forms since antiquity, their full story has remained untold. Fortunately, we no longer have to live in a timeline where Telling It Like It Wasn't has yet to be written. To read this engrossing book is to be haunted not by lives unled but by previously undermapped regions of history, philosophy, theology, legal reasoning, and literature."

Paul K. Saint-Amour, author of Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form

“This is an outstanding book. Gallagher surveys the phenomenon of counterfactual speculation in history and in fiction, drawing her examples from American, British, and French literature. She proves herself an exemplary literary critic and analyst who brings her examples to life. In addition, she is very sensitive to the theoretical issues that counterfactual speculation raises and deftly commands not only the literary field of counterfactual speculation but also the historical field. There is simply no other book like this.”

Allan Megill, author of Historical Knowledge, Historical Error: A Contemporary Guide to Practice

“A fascinating book. . .Telling It Like It Wasn't is a deep and authoritative overview, suitably footnoted, of issues that are even more relevant today. . .There is probably no other book that has mined the historical counterfactual perspective as comprehensively as Gallagher's.”

Footprint Books

". . . an important and timely text which broadens our thinking about counterfactual thought beyond the alternate history novel, military history essay, and political hypothesis to encompass theological thought, philosophical proposition, and legal argument."

SFRA Review

Table of Contents

Chapter One. The History of Counterfactual History from Leibniz to Clausewitz
Chapter Two. Nineteenth-Century Alternate-History Narratives
Chapter Three. How the USA Lost the Civil War
Chapter Four. Historical Activism and the Alternate-America Novels
Chapter Five. Nazi Britain: The Invasion and Occupation That Weren’t
Chapter Six. The Fictions of Nazi Britain


American Philosophical Society: Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History

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