After the Fact is written as an attempt to explain how historians do their work; at least that is the purported purpose of James Davidson and Mark Lytle's work. Rather than attempt a large-scale philosophical approach to the meaning of history, it is a case-by-case look at sixteen different research issues, each illustrated with sixteen different specific topics from American history.
Most of the text is excellent. The reader can learn both the practice and results of history, which is probably among the greater strengths of this book. It opens with a good old-fashioned mystery, which the catch being that there was no mystery at all until historians looked closely at the evidence. In the introductory Strange Death of Silas Deane, the authors show how the seemingly ordinary and unimportant death of a crooked former colonial merchant and government agent turns out to lightly cover over a great deal of cloak-and-dagger dealings in France during the American revolution, leading up to a possible murder. The authors use this intro to make several points concerning the dominant themes of the text. History is never a straightforward regurgitation of facts, middle school tests notwithstanding. Very few sources are just as they appear, and the historian must actively engage in a variety of sources to create a proper and accurate retelling; the sum of historical documents is greater than the parts when handled by competent investigators. And in the end, often no conclusions are possible (as in the Deane case), but the investigation will often make the story more interesting anyway.
From this beginning, the rest of the book follows largely the same pattern. A basic historical event or topic is introduced, and then the authors explain how various tools or styles of questioning can make a confused jumble of events start to make sense. The best example is probably with the Salem witch trials. All the accusations and convictions appear random until a village map shows that the accusers mostly lived on the West side of town and the accused on the East. Naturally, in keeping with the message, even this is but a factor among many, albeit a dramatic one.
Though the style is similar in each, there is some irregularity in quality. Some chapters are more useful than others, and the authors do not always defend their points well. Personally, I was hard pressed to see much use in their chapter on psychohistory, though the story of abolitionist John Brown was interesting. In other chapters, the authors seem to relate not so much how historians operate, but how ordinary citizens should approach historical topics. The example of mass media, and television in particular, seemed written more for ordinary viewers, though I suppose in a few centuries practicing historians will find this relevant. I'd hate to think that I Love Lucy would ever be taken as representative of American mid-century culture. Probably the most troublesome chapter was the last, purportedly about film, and again directed more at ordinary citizens rather then historians. In this chapter the authors are at their most political, and it shows. The historical topic is Vietnam, and how the war there was and still is portrayed in films. Unlike most chapters, they do not follow their own advice because they apparently take issue with any film that does not include massacres by American soldiers as the dominant theme. Thus, beginning with the admittedly awful The Green Berets, the authors work up to the only film that passes muster, Platoon, because only it shows Americans killing civilians (and as the authors are unclear on the concept, Rambo II is not a war film; it is action-adventure set in a country we happened to once be at war with). An example of their confusion is in brushing aside the statement that no journalists had heard reports of POW's forced to play Russian roulette during captivity, as portrayed in The Deer Hunter. Shouldn't this be a topic for the same sort of analysis given to Silas Deane two centuries ago? For the record, I suspect their conclusions on this matter are more correct than not, and The Deer Hunter was a horribly boring movie as well, but it had already become clear this far in the chapter that the authors were not being as careful as they should have been. They should be happy, though, that this amateur armchair historian read their earlier chapters closely enough to notice their sloppiness. Perhaps the last chapter is really a pop quiz.
Taken as a whole, however, there is a great wealth of information here. Not just for historians in training, it should appeal to any readers with interests in American history or in detective work, since that is ultimately the theme of the book. Uncovering history is an investigation, usually of a cold case, and often where nothing is initially suspected (but not always of criminal acts; plenty of less sensational material is used for background in these pages). The point is to show us the many questions and methods that go into extracting from sometimes spotty documents the rich and full histories that we like to read in finished book form. As is so often the case, the more you know about how the work was produced, the more enjoyable and fulfilling the final product.