Inventing the Past:
A Brief Background of
the Alternate History
The history of the alternate history dates to 1836, though I suspect that as scholars continue to do research, new texts will be discovered that, in retrospect, are deemed to be alternate histories. In Robert Silverberg's introduction to Worlds of Maybe, an anthology of alternate history stories, Silverberg mistakenly asserts that the first alternate history written was “Hands Off,” by Edward Everett Hale (Silverberg, 8). The story appeared in the March 1881 issue of Harper's (Pinkerton, 168; Schmunk; Silverberg cites the wrong year of publication). The nexus moment of this text is Joseph's slavery in Egypt: in this text, Joseph was not sold into slavery. The narrator observes as the Phoenicians take over the Mediterranean and the world descends into barbarity. Jan Pinkerton, less given to sweeping generalizations than Silverberg, cautiously calls “Hands Off” “the first known story-length example of this genre in English or American fiction” (170) — though this is not true either. It is, however, the first example known to date of a work that deals with the time-travel paradox: a backward-traveling time traveler who causes the events he or she went back to study.
The alternate history did not exist in Western literature until 1836. This year saw the first novel-length alternate history, Louis-Napoleon GeoffroyChateau's Napoleon et la conquete du monde 1812–1832, Histoire de la monarchie universelle, better known simply as Napoleon apocryphe. This text follows Napoleon as he crushes all opposition and becomes emperor of the known world, finally dying in 1832. The next text of interest to