Simon Schama Critical Essays

Introduction

Simon Schama 1945-

(Full name Simon Michael Schama) English historian and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Schama's career through 2000.

A popular English historian distinguished for his engaging narrative style and an unconventional historical approach, Schama won a large mainstream audience with Citizens (1989), his best-selling chronicle of the French Revolution. Though he established his scholarly reputation with earlier works on the Dutch Golden Age—Patriots and Liberators (1977) and The Embarrassment of Riches (1987)—Schama is recognized as a generalist in an age of academic specialization. His narrative approach, influenced by both nineteenth-century historiography and postmodern fiction, is characterized by elaborate journalistic detail and anecdotal digression. Drawing heavily upon art history and stories of individuals rather than theoretical paradigms, Schama prefers to study interesting personalities and key events in his works. Even small or seemingly inconsequential matters become important in Schama's studies, as he shuns large-scale demographic shifts, economic factors, and other issues traditionally analyzed by historians.

Biographical Information

Born in the West End of London in 1945, Schama gained a sense of history from his father, Arthur Osias, and his mother, Gertrude Clare Schama. His parents taught him the importance of his Jewish ancestry and the history of his forbears who emigrated to Britain from Eastern Europe near the end of the nineteenth century. Schama was educated at Christ's College, Cambridge University, and was mentored by historian J. H. Plumb. He received his bachelor's degree in history in 1966 and master's degree in 1969. Schama taught history at Christ's College from 1966 to 1976, then at Oxford University from 1976 to 1980. After publishing his first book, Patriots and Liberators, which won the Wolfson Literary Prize for History and the Leo Gersloy Memorial Prize from the American Historical Association, Schama taught at Harvard University in 1978 as Erasmus Lecturer in the civilization of the Netherlands. He published a second work on Dutch history, Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel (1979), then returned to Harvard in 1980, where he remained until 1993 as Mellon Professor of Social Sciences and senior associate at the Center for European Studies. In 1994, Schama began a new appointment at Columbia University, where he continues to teach. Several of his books, including Landscape and Memory (1995), Rembrandt's Eyes (1999), and A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World: 3500 B.C.–1603 A.D. (2000), have been adapted into BBC television documentaries hosted by Schama. He has received numerous awards, including a 1983–84 Guggenheim fellowship, the NCR Book Award for Citizens, and the W. H. Smith Literary Prize and American Academy of Letters Award in 1995 for Landscape and Memory. Schama also is an honorary fellow at Christ's College, Cambridge.

Major Works

During his graduate studies and early career, Schama focused his attention on the Netherlands and related topics concerning the formation of national culture, the latter being a motif he has revisited in several works. Patriots and Liberators, which utilizes primary Dutch sources to examine the Netherlands during a period of turmoil spanning from 1780 to 1813, advances the notion that Louis Bonaparte's installation as a French puppet ruler was the beginning of the modern Dutch state, rather than a dark period of foreign rule. According to Schama, Bonaparte set about improving Dutch government and overseeing the completion of five vital national projects: the tax reforms of Isaac Gogel; a program of national oversight for dikes and canals; dissolution of the guilds; codification of Dutch law; and centralized administration for a system of elementary education that became the primary model throughout Europe. Schama's next book, Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel, is a study of Edward de Rothschild and his son, James, who, beginning in the 1880s, worked toward establishing a Jewish community in Palestine that eventually became the state of Israel. The Embarrassment of Riches explores two contradictory characteristics of seventeenth-century Dutch society. The first involves religion, specifically the Calvinist tenets that celebrated restraint to the point of self-denial, humility, and a general anxiety about doctrine. The second involves the sudden accumulation of enormous material wealth through global trade. The book's unifying theme revolves around how communities and individuals throughout Holland attempted to balance material riches with dour religious beliefs. Employing traditional historical methods as well as aspects of structural anthropology and social and psychological documentation, Schama constructs an all-encompassing tapestry that connects historical and political events, economic developments, and social struggles with the experiences of individuals of that time.

Citizens, one of several books about the French Revolution published during the bicentennial year, is a revisionist attempt to debunk various myths of the French Revolution, particularly those that portray the revolutionaries as high-minded and justifiably violent. For example, Schama claims that the celebrated storming of the Bastille resulted in the liberation of a mere seven individuals from a relatively comfortable incarceration, which Schama contrasts with the frenzied murder of at least fourteen hundred prisoners in Paris by the revolutionaries in September 1792. Schama's description of the Revolution's paradox suggests a flawed ideal at the heart of the turmoil. He argues that the peasants who fought in the streets of Paris were reacting against the modern economic reforms being proposed by supporters of the previous regimes. In fact, Schama asserts, “Bloodshed was not the unfortunate by-product of revolution, it was the source of its energy.” History's villains—the monarchy and upper classes—become in Schama's chronicle the individuals who were transforming feudal France into a modern state. Schama extends an argument first advanced by Alexis de Tocqueville that the Bourbon dynasty was well on its way to modernizing France in the eighteenth century. Contrary to conventional historical interpretation, Schama suggests that the Revolution hindered modernization rather than precipitating or accelerating it. Schama places the Reign of Terror—a term describing a lengthy span of trials and executions in France—rather than the National Assembly's Declaration of the Rights of Man, squarely at the center of the Revolution. The essence of the Revolution, in Schama's view, was its reliance on mass orchestrated murder to achieve political goals. Furthermore, Schama contends that France under the control of revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre was the first modern totalitarian state. Schama chronicles with significant detail the conflict between the grand rhetoric of the French Revolution and its atrocities and links the ideals of the Revolution with the modernization of war machines, culminating in the disastrous armed conflicts of the twentieth century.

In Dead Certainties (1991) Schama moved away from traditional academic history to experiment with alternative approaches to historical representation in light of epistemological challenges posed by postmodern literary theory. Dedicated to John Clive, a colleague who viewed history as literature, Dead Certainties investigates two seemingly unrelated historical deaths. The first is a heroic one: the battlefield death of General James Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham in 1759. The second, that of Dr. George Parkman in Boston in 1849, was the result of a grisly murder by a Harvard colleague. The two men are connected only tenuously; Parkman's relative, the historian Francis Parkman, wrote a book about General Wolfe. The two cases are left unresolved in Schama's book, suggesting that the discourse of history is a lived event rather than an interpreted one. Thus, Schama affirms the impossibility of presenting an objective historical account, maintaining that even the most even-handed scholarship is colored by the historian's unique set of beliefs, philosophies, and prejudices. In Landscape and Memory, Schama examines the relationship between Western culture and nature, asserting that humans have lived peacefully and productively in their natural surroundings despite numerous examples of environmental degradation. Divided into three sections—Wood, Water, and Rock—Schama uses art, historical works, and literature to illustrate his points concerning nature and culture. Paradoxically, he maintains that the myths created long ago to describe nature shape how the land is put to use and how nature is viewed and defined. In Rembrandt's Eyes, Schama presents a revisionist study of renowned seventeenth-century Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn. While reconstructing Rembrandt's life and times with characteristic detail, Schama advances several controversial ideas. He contradicts a majority of art scholarship by suggesting that Rembrandt worked not as a solitary genius but in a workshop atmosphere, and he contends that Rembrandt's self-portraits are not meant to be autobiographical. Schama also posits that Rembrandt tried to emulate the painting style and financial success of his Flemish contemporary, Peter Paul Rubens, an assertion flatly dismissed by most critics. In A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World: 3500 B.C.–1603 A.D. Schama presents a sweeping study of the people and culture of the British Isles from the Iron Age through the death of Elizabeth I and England's emergence as a modern nation. A History of Britain: Volume II: The Wars of the British 1603–1776 (2001) examines key events in British history through the year 1776, including the fall of the monarchy and the beginnings of Britain's international empire. A planned third volume in the series will cover events from 1776 to the present.

Critical Reception

Critics uniformly acknowledge Schama's vast general knowledge, his willingness to look at historical topics in original ways, and his ability to tell compelling stories. He is regarded by most commentators as an undeniably skilled writer and storyteller who, in contrast to the jargon-ridden analytic style of many professional historians, makes history interesting to read for both specialists and non-specialists alike. For this reason, he has earned great popularity among a general audience despite the daunting length of his books and their labyrinthine digressions. However, some critics believe that the literary pleasures of Schama's work are too often achieved at the expense of solid scholarship and consistency of argument. As many reviewers note, his nontraditional narrative approach often ignores current historical literature, or incorporates it selectively. Commentators also fault Schama for drawing conclusions that are not always supported by scholarly sources or logical argument. Critics also note that the sheer volume of his work makes it inevitable that factual inaccuracies appear far more often than they should in nonfiction works. While The Embarrassment of Riches and his earlier, more conventional Patriots and Liberators are generally regarded as accomplished works on their subjects, Schama's interpretation of the French Revolution in Citizens is widely criticized despite the book's enormous popular success. In particular, many scholars dispute Schama's preoccupation with the Revolution's extreme violence and its alleged failure to achieve any material advantage for the middle and lower classes. In other works, such as Landscape and Memory and Rembrandt's Eyes, Schama has drawn criticism for his overwrought narrative style, which according to some reviewers, has the effect of distorting his historical perspective to meet his descriptive needs. Though Schama has attracted a wide audience for his best-selling nonfiction works, his detractors note that his reputation as an established, “serious” historian makes his inaccurate and rhetorically indulgent historical works troublesome. Such critics contend that while an unknowing public may enjoy his engaging narratives uncritically, his academic colleagues cannot forgive Schama's errors of omission and overstatement. As a result, Schama has provoked controversy among scholars, many of whom appreciate Schama's remarkable ability to present interesting insights and to enliven the past through his narrative gifts, but find his historical works lacking in factual balance and persuasive argumentation to support his general theses.