Simon Schama Essay - Critical Essays

Schama, Simon


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.

Principal Works

Patriots and Liberators: Revolution in the Netherlands, 1780–1813 (history) 1977

Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel (history) 1979

The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (history) 1987

Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (history) 1989

Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations) (history) 1991

Landscape and Memory (nonfiction) 1995

Rembrandt's Eyes (nonfiction) 1999

A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World: 3500 B.C.–1603 A.D. (history) 2000

A History...

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Witold Rybczynski (review date 28 June 1987)

SOURCE: “The Burgher Kings,” in Washington Post Book World, June 28, 1987, pp. 1, 13.

[In the following review, Rybczynski offers a positive assessment of The Embarrassment of Riches.]

Like all good histories, Simon Schama's masterly investigation of Dutch culture in the 17th century—its so-called Golden Age—illuminates not only the past but also the present. Which is not to say that this book makes any facile analogies; Schama—a Harvard professor—is much too serious a historian for that. But the question that he asks in The Embarrassment of Riches is one that has recognizably modern overtones: How does a culture cope with sudden economic success?...

(The entire section is 988 words.)

J. H. Elliott (review date 24 August 1987)

SOURCE: “From Bogs to Riches,” in New Republic, August 24, 1987, pp. 29–31.

[In the following review, Elliott offers a positive assessment of The Embarrassment of Riches, but asserts that Schama's account is at times burdened by excessive detail.]

“The Batavian territory,” wrote Lord Macaulay, “conquered from the waves and defended against them by human art, was in extent little superior to the principality of Wales.” One of the great enigmas of European history is how the inhabitants of this minuscule area of waterlogged land succeeded in asserting their independence from the apparently overwhelming power of Spain, and in establishing themselves...

(The entire section is 2897 words.)

Peter Quennell (review date 19 September 1987)

SOURCE: A review of The Embarrassment of Riches, in Spectator, September 19, 1987, pp. 42–43.

[In the following review, Quennell offers a generally positive assessment of The Embarrassment of Riches, but finds that Schama's account is occasionally overwrought with superfluous detail.]

In his preface to this extremely substantial book [The Embarrassment of Riches], which, with its appendices, notes, bibliography and other learned apparatus, contains nearly 700 pages and finds room for over 300 illustrations, Professor Schama, an alumnus of Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard, makes a somewhat unexpected statement. Although his subject is the...

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Norman Hampson (review date 13 April 1989)

SOURCE: “The Two French Revolutions,” in New York Review of Books, April 13, 1989, pp. 11–14.

[In the following review, Hampson criticizes Schama's Citizens for lacking coherence or “credible explanations for why things happened in the way that they did.”]

In one respect at least the very different books by Simon Schama and George Rudé have something in common: each is based on the reinterpretation of old evidence rather than on new discoveries. They incorporate a kind of tribute to their authors’ student days. In Rudeé's case this implies very heavy dependence on the French Marxist historian Georges Lefebvre: “I have followed fairly closely the...

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Lawrence Stone (review date 17 April 1989)

SOURCE: “The Dreams of Reason,” in New Republic, April 17, 1989, pp. 35–39.

[In the following review, Stone offers a positive assessment of Citizens, which he praises as “a stunningly virtuoso performance” despite its failure to provide the “serious historian” with adequate explanation, rather than description, of the French Revolution.]

This is no ordinary book [Citizens]. It is over 900 pages long and it is illustrated by over 200 plates. It has no footnotes at all (which I strongly deplore). It calls itself a “Chronicle,” a word no self-respecting historian has used in his title for over a century. It is a main selection for the Book...

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Robert M. Maniquis (review date 21 May 1989)

SOURCE: “A Revolutionary Romance with Violence,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 21, 1989, p. 4.

[In the following review, Maniquis offers an unfavorable assessment of Citizens.]

For the bicentennial of the French Revolution, Simon Schama sings no birthday songs, only litanies on the “normalization of evil.” Following some recent French historians, and ideas that go back to Alexis de Tocqueville's “The Ancien Regime and the Revolution” (1856), he argues [in Citizens] that much of what was progressive in the Revolution was already developing in the 18th Century. The revolution was not, (as many other historians point out) bourgeois, a mere...

(The entire section is 1200 words.)

William Doyle (review date 26 May 1989)

SOURCE: “French Revolution 1,” in New Statesman and Society, May 26, 1989, p. 30.

[In the following review of Citizens, Doyle commends Schama's appealing narrative style, but finds shortcomings in his focus on the upper class, exclusion of events after 1794, and lack of analysis.]

Simon Schama is perhaps best known for his massive, challenging analysis of Dutch 17th century culture, The Embarrassment of Riches (1987). But he arrived on the historical scene ten years before that with Patriots and Liberators, a magnificent portrait of Dutch history in a later period, that of the French revolution. To write that great epic, he had to steep himself...

(The entire section is 840 words.)

A. D. Wright (review date June 1989)

SOURCE: “Schama's Golden Age,” in History, Vol. 74, No. 241, June, 1989, pp. 253–55.

[In the following review, Wright offers a positive assessment of The Embarrassment of Riches, but takes issue with Schama's geographic explanation of Dutch political organization and lack of attention to marginal segments of Dutch society and provinces beyond Holland.]

The welcome publication in paperback of this acclaimed work [The Embarrassment of Riches] initially presents (as did the hardback edition) among the introductory sections of the book, the disturbing image of the beached whale. As many reviewers of the original edition noted at the time, the vase...

(The entire section is 1090 words.)

Paul Johnson (review date 15 July 1989)

SOURCE: “The Fatal Cult of Revolution,” in Spectator, July 15, 1989, pp. 27–28.

[In the following review of Citizens, Johnson commends Schama's “rich and readable narrative account” of the French Revolution, in particular his focus on the revolution's irrational ideology and violent extremes.]

So far there has been a lacklustre response to the elaborate and expensive efforts by the French government to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. Even in Paris there does not seem to be much enthusiasm. Why should there be? In our time we have had our fill of revolutions. The last one to be launched, as it were, from France was the...

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Benjamin R. Barber (review date 12 March 1990)

SOURCE: “The Most Sublime Event,” in Nation, March 12, 1990, pp. 351–58, 360.

[In the following negative review of Citizens, Barber objects to Schama's biased preoccupation with mob violence during the French Revolution, his apparent sympathy for the dethroned aristocracy, and his disdain for the democratic ideals of the revolutionaries.]

Napoleon liked to say history is fable agreed upon. Anyone who reads more than one history of the French Revolution knows that Napoleon had it exactly backward: History is truth not agreed upon. That is to say, while historical events may possess some essential core meaning, a truth visible to wholly impartial spectators...

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Susan Dunn (review date Summer 1990)

SOURCE: “The French Revolution and the Language of Terror,” in Partisan Review, Vol. LVII, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 345–53.

[In the following review of Citizens, Dunn praises Schama's examination of the Terror and his synthesis of narrative detail and conservative judgment in the tradition of Alexis de Tocqueville.]

In 1858, eight years after the publication of his book, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville recognized the centrality and the mystery of a question he had not even raised in that luminous and seminal work, the question of the virus of the Terror:

There is in this disease of...

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Steven Marcus (essay date Summer 1990)

SOURCE: “Reinventing the Revolution,” in Partisan Review, Vol. LVII, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 354–62.

[In the following review of Citizens, Marcus commends Schama's narrative skill, but finds shortcomings in his “polemical and ideological contentions,” particularly his overemphasis on irrational violence.]

Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama has made a great popular success, and it is largely a merited one. It sums up and brings to bear in one volume a generation of revisionist historical research on the French Revolution and puts it forward in spirited and sustained form. Whatever critical observations I have to make...

(The entire section is 4150 words.)

Morris Slavin (review date August 1990)

SOURCE: A review of Citizens, in Historian, Vol. LII, No. 4, August, 1990, pp. 642–43.

[In the following review of Citizens, Slavin objects to Schama's prejudiced view of the French Revolution as a needlessly bloody and futile historical episode.]

Robespierre chided his moderate opponents for “wanting a revolution without a revolution.” Simon Schama [Citizens] wants no revolution at all. In “shaking off the mythology of the revolution” (see the interview by Mervyn Rothstein in The New York Times, 27 April 1989), Schama has created his own mythology. He admits that he does not believe in “pure objectivity”—what historian does?...

(The entire section is 896 words.)

Raymond Carr (review date 1 June 1991)

SOURCE: “A Novel Approach to History,” in Spectator, June 1, 1991, pp. 26–27.

[In the following review, Carr offers a positive assessment of Schema's body of work]

‘You can't find out truth by writing history. You can only get at it by writing novels.’ This was Gerald Brenan's advice to me as I was about to embark on a history of modern Spain. What on earth did the man, who had written in The Spanish Labyrinth the best history of contemporary Spain, mean by this surprising admonition? Dismayed and depressed. I brooded long over his words. I think he meant that the ‘professional historian’ cannot make any statement, risk any suggestion unsupported...

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Andrew Delbanco (review date 3 June 1991)

SOURCE: “The Fog of History,” in New Republic, June 3, 1991, pp. 39–41.

[In the following review, Delbanco offers a favorable assessment of Dead Certainties.]

Simon Schama has become one of the very few contemporary historians who are read as much for themselves as for their subjects. In quick succession he has published two books. The Embarrassment of Riches (a study of “the moral ambiguity of good fortune” in Dutch culture of the seventeenth century) and Citizens (which he calls a “chronicle” of the French Revolution), to popular as well as critical acclaim. They are long books, written in a prose that is both an efficient engine of...

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Roy Porter (review date 7 June 1991)

SOURCE: “The History Man,” in New Statesman, June 7, 1991, pp. 42–43.

[In the following review, Porter offers a positive assessment of Dead Certainties.]

As small books go, this one is receiving an avalanche of attention. Is it all a publicity hype, or a genuine happening? No one would pretend that Dead Certainties is the most momentous work of history to have hit the shops in recent memory. If Schama's own The Embarrassment of Riches (1987) and Citizens (1989) had epic intentions, this reads more like an experiment and (in the Graham Greene sense) an entertainment.

It's constructed as a string of subtly interconnected...

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Gordon S. Wood (review date 27 June 1991)

SOURCE: “Novel History,” in New York Review of Books, June 27, 1991, pp. 12, 14–16.

[In the following review of Dead Certainties, Wood provides an overview of Schama's career and offers a positive commentary on his scholarly abilities.]

It was bound to happen. Sooner or later a distinguished historian had to cross over, had to mingle the writing of fiction with the writing of history. The circumstances were ripe, the pressures were enormous. Everyone else was doing it. Novelists had long been blending fact with fiction without apology. They not only set their invented characters among real historical figures, but they had these authentic historical figures...

(The entire section is 4903 words.)

David Castronovo (review date 13 September 1991)

SOURCE: “Contending Narratives, Plausible Truths,” in Commonweal, September 13, 1991, pp. 519–20.

[In the following review, Castronovo offers a positive assessment of Dead Certainties.]

Simon Schama's Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, published in 1989, is a sweeping, dramatically presented story reminiscent, in its style of telling, of the great narrative histories of the nineteenth and twentieth century: Macaulay on England in the late seventeenth century, Michelet or Carlyle on revolutionary France, Barbara Tuchman or Edmund Wilson on political currents in the early twentieth century. Like them or not, you cannot deny their mastery of...

(The entire section is 1279 words.)

Clayton W. Lewis (review date Winter 1992)

SOURCE: “Reports of War,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. C, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 147–53.

[In the following excerpt, Lewis offers a positive assessment of Dead Certainties.]

Simon Schama, a distinguished historian, assumes in Dead Certainties—correctly I think—that history is the product of human imagination. Interested not only in how the history of war is shaped, Schama is also fascinated by how these historical accounts become underwritten by a nation's values. (His subtitle, Unwarranted Speculations, indicates that he understands his view as a counterstatement to the process of entangling national identity with accounts of war.)


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Alan B. Spitzer (essay date March 1993)

SOURCE: “Narrative's Problems: The Case of Simon Schama,” in Journal of Modern History, Vol. 65, No. 1, March, 1993, pp. 176–92.

[In the following essay, Spitzer examines Schama's historical interpretation of the French Revolution in Citizens.]

The immense outpouring of works occasioned by the bicentenary of the French Revolution—many of them devoted to criticizing the event while celebrating its two hundredth anniversary—has begun to subside and to be succeeded by its “echo effect,” a critical reconsideration of the historical literature it has produced. The reevaluation of the influential contributions of François Furet, for example, has in itself...

(The entire section is 8614 words.)

Rosemary Hill (review date 7 April 1995)

SOURCE: “On the Forest Path,” in Times Literary Supplement, April 7, 1995, pp. 3–4.

[In the following review of Landscape and Memory, Hill commends Schama's revealing insights, but finds shortcomings in his cliched generalizations and occasionally rapid pace.]

From the top of Mont Blanc you can see all the way to the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, or at least you can if you go with Simon Schama. He takes us to the summit in the boisterous company of Albert smith, ex-medical student and mountebank with an eye to the main chance. Smith made the journey in 1851 provisioned with four shoulders of mutton, ten cheeses and numerous other comestibles, none of which...

(The entire section is 2710 words.)

Raymond Carr (review date 8 April 1995)

SOURCE: “Tongues in Trees,” in Spectator, April 8, 1995, pp. 30, 32–33.

[In the following review, Carr offers a positive assessment of Landscape and Memory.]

How on earth does Professor Schama do it? To the despair of his more orthodox professional colleagues he has produced yet another blockbuster based on a superhuman mastery of a vast and varied array of specialist studies, ranging from the diet of Alpinists to hydraulic engineering. In his previous books on the Dutch Republic and the French Revolution, this master image-maker illumined a limited topic over a limited period of time. Landscape and Memory escapes such conventional confines to wander at...

(The entire section is 2049 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 16 April 1995)

SOURCE: “Where History and Nature Collide,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 16, 1995, p. 3.

[In the following review, Eder offers a mixed assessment of Landscape and Memory, noting that the work is burdened by excessive detail and anecdotal reference.]

Landscape is more than a nourishment that the earth provides to our imaginations. It is a nourishment that our imaginations provide to the earth. Against the extreme ecological notion of a primal state of wilderness sullied by human civilization, the historian Simon Schama writes:

“The wilderness, after all does not locate itself, does not name itself. It was an act of Congress in...

(The entire section is 1228 words.)

Patrick Curry (review date 21 April 1995)

SOURCE: “The Shaping Spirit,” in New Statesman and Society, April 21, 1995, pp. 37–38.

[In the following review of Landscape and Memory, Curry objects to Schama's implicit liberal humanism and corresponding view of nature as a passive resource, both material and aesthetic, available for unrestricted use by mankind.]

It is symptomatic of our times that one of the most popular living historians writing in English, and an impeccable liberal humanist at that, should turn to the subject of nature. Schama's new subject is landscape, historical memory, and—supplying the missing term in his title—the “immense and venerable stock of responses to nature”...

(The entire section is 991 words.)

Boyd Tonkin (essay date 21 April 1995)

SOURCE: “Big Trees, Tall Stories,” in New Statesman and Society, April 21, 1995, pp. 20–21.

[In the following essay, Tonkin provides an overview of Schama's career, historical writings, and critical reception.]

I first met Simon Schama last week, but he shocked me deeply more than 20 years ago. Already a rising star, the young Cambridge historian had come back to his old school to give a talk about Napoleon. For some reason, I didn't attend, but the reports next day had me worried. With all the assurance of a know-it-all teenager, I had grasped that the smart money in history now went on process, not personalities: the spinning jenny and the grain-price cycle,...

(The entire section is 1823 words.)

Anthony Grafton (review date 7 August 1995)

SOURCE: “The Forest and the Trees,” in New Republic, August 7, 1995, pp. 37–42.

[In the following review, Grafton offers a positive assessment of Landscape and Memory, which he praises as “a work of genuine originality.”]

We rush across the gleaming surface of the ocean, moving rapidly but smoothly above the untroubled beauty of the dark waters. Jagged cliffs and wild surf, rugged hills and lush grass pass beneath us. Music plays. Finally we reach our destination, where the action begins. It may be a prison from which a psychopathic bomber prepares to break out, or a clearing where poor Scottish farmers will discover the hanged bodies of their chiefs,...

(The entire section is 5813 words.)

Keith Thomas (review date 21 September 1995)

SOURCE: “The Big Cake,” in New York Review of Books, September 21, 1995, pp. 8, 10–12.

[In the following review, Thomas offers a favorable assessment of Landscape and Memory.]

In the first paragraph of this extraordinary book [Landscape and Memory], Simon Schama reveals that his favorite childhood reading was Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill. Fellow-enthusiasts of this enchanting idyll will not be surprised to learn that it fired his historical imagination. Kipling's story tells how, through the magic of Oak, Ash, and Thorn, the fairy Puck provides the two children, Dan and Una, with a series of enthralling brief encounters with Roman centurions,...

(The entire section is 3944 words.)

Barbara Ryan (review date Spring 1996)

SOURCE: “Academic Persuasions: On Sahlins and Schama,” in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, Spring, 1996, pp. 387–98.

[In the following excerpt, Ryan commends Schama's erudition and engaging narrative in Landscape and Memory, but finds Schama's thesis and unconventional scholarship problematic.]

I admit it: the two books brought together here are not obviously connected in any way. They weren't written to confront each other, since Simon Schama is an historian and Marshall Sahlins is an anthropologist; and they don't discuss related issues or even share a theme. What intrigues me, then, is the two writers’ rhetorical approaches, particularly...

(The entire section is 3129 words.)

John Taylor (review date Fall 1996)

SOURCE: “Calling All Browsers,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. CIV, No. 4, Fall, 1996, pp. lxxxi–lxxiv.

[In the following review, Taylor offers a mixed assessment of Landscape and Memory.]

Landscape and Memory, all 664 learned pages of it, establishes Professor Simon Schama and his work as the smart-money alternative to the Internet. This new offering, priced at a mere forty dollars, already threatens to eclipse the computer and may yet deliver us from Microsoft and the toils of the World Wide Web. Browsers now enjoy a choice. And those who choose to sound the professor's seemingly bottomless fund of oddments will echo Sydney Smith on the opulence of Macaulay's...

(The entire section is 1007 words.)

Kay Ryan (review date Winter 1997)

SOURCE: “Looking under the Landscape,” in Kenyon Review, Vol. XIX, No. 1, Winter, 1997, pp. 153–57.

[In the following review of Landscape and Memory, Ryan finds shortcomings in Schama's wide-reaching thesis and apparent affinity for “boldness” and human domination over nature.]

It is Simon Schama's thesis in Landscape and Memory that it's no good trying to sweep the primitive workings of myth under the rug of culture because the rug of culture is woven of myth as well. The simplicity of Schama's idea—that we must always and forever take myth with us and have never been able to plant a tree, set a stone, or divert water into fountains without...

(The entire section is 2485 words.)

Lisa Ford (essay date Fall 1999)

SOURCE: “Heroes, Villains, and Wicked Priests: Authority and Story in the Histories of Simon Schama,” in Clio, Vol. 29, No. 1, Fall, 1999, pp. 23–46.

[In the following essay, Ford examines Schama's historiographic approach in Citizens and dismisses claims that his work is postmodern or subversive.]

Simon Schama is perhaps the most widely read historian of the decade. While the historical merit of his work is beyond doubt, the most interesting facet of Schama's work is his use of anecdote and story as vehicles of historical argument.1 It is on this basis that critics have read Schama as both “Literature” and as exemplary postmodern...

(The entire section is 8632 words.)

Philip Hensher (review date 30 October 1999)

SOURCE: “Not a Lonely Genius,” in Spectator, October 30, 1999, pp. 54–56.

[In the following review, Hensher offers an unfavorable assessment of Rembrandt's Eyes.]

Simon Schama's enormous and exhausting book [Rembrandt's Eyes] is a wilfully old-fashioned examination of the life of this greatest of painters. He has made a career out of immense narrative histories, whose selling point is that they debunk the received wisdom of historians. In his previous books, I think this approach has often paid off handsomely. Citizens, for instance, his history of the French Revolution, successfully spoiled the appetite for the bicentennial with its emphasis on the...

(The entire section is 2286 words.)

Jonathan Israel (review date 5 November 1999)

SOURCE: “Driven to Greatness,” in Times Literary Supplement, November 5, 1999, pp. 3–4.

[In the following review, Israel offers an unfavorable assessment of Rembrandt's Eyes.]

Rembrandt's Eyes is about the artist and his world, a crucial part of Simon Schama's thesis being that Rembrandt, one of the greatest artists, was less a product of, than a rebel against, the milieu in which he lived and worked: “the isolated artist, eccentric in habits, mercurial in temper, embattled with the callow vulgarity of contemporary taste or the conventions of academic mediocrity, straining against the expectations of his patrons, was not a modern, nineteenth-century...

(The entire section is 3615 words.)

Svetlana Alpers (review date 14 November 1999)

SOURCE: “Making It,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 14, 1999, pp. 1–2.

[In the following review of Rembrandt's Eyes, Alpers praises Schama's descriptions of Rembrandt's life and art, but finds shortcomings in his links between the works of Rembrandt and Rubens.]

Why is it that Rembrandt's works continue to have a hold on our feelings and our imagination? It is largely a matter of a profound human engagement. His works make what is distant and strange—Amsterdam burghers and their wives, biblical figures and Rembrandt himself—seem present and familiar, depicted in a most singular manner. So it is that, when one catches sight of a Rembrandt in...

(The entire section is 2159 words.)

Richard E. Spear (review date 28 November 1999)

SOURCE: “Picturing Himself,” in Washington Post Book World, November 28, 1999, p. 5.

[In the following review of Rembrandt's Eyes, Spear praises Schama's “wonderful evocations of history and art” but finds flaws in the book's “unconvincing” thesis.]

Reflecting on Rembrandt's career, Andries Pels, a 17th-century dramatist, concluded that his fellow Dutchman was “the first heretic in painting.” “What a shame for the sake of art,” Pels lamented, “that so able a hand made no better use of his inborn gifts.”

Simon Schama, a cultural historian at Columbia University and author of books including Landscape and Memory and...

(The entire section is 1210 words.)

David Freedberg (review date 6 December 1999)

SOURCE: “The Bosom of History,” in New Republic, December 6, 1999, pp. 44–46, 48–51.

[In the following negative review, Freedberg finds serious factual errors and interpretative distortions in Rembrandt's Eyes.]


Page after page in this large and sumptuous book, Simon Schama offers some of the finest and most vivid prose by any history writer of our time. Schama's study of Rembrandt is crowded with notions that are smart, witty, and moving. Might the excesses of his writing have been restrained? Perhaps not. Much of the achievement of Schama's book is owed to its excess, its abundance, its learned luxuriousness. Rembrandt's...

(The entire section is 5298 words.)

Raymond Carr (review date 28 October 2000)

SOURCE: “Our Island Story,” in Spectator, October 28, 2000, pp. 64–65.

[In the following review, Carr offers a favorable assessment of A History of Britain.]

We once learnt our history by reading books as active collaborators with the historian, turning the printed world into mental pictures of the past. Television has altered all this. With historians turning to writing television scripts we are now passive spectators of ready-made images of the past. Simon Schama's TV version of his Landscape and Memory was rich enough in images. Yet it did not provide his viewers with what they wanted: a narrative history of great events and of the personalities who...

(The entire section is 1255 words.)

Scott Lucas (essay date 30 October 2000)

SOURCE: “Simon Says,” in New Statesman, October 30, 2000, pp. 40–42.

[In the following essay, Lucas offers an unfavorable assessment of the BBC television adaptation of A History of Britain, hosted by Schama.]

So now we have “our” History of Britain. “A passionate and epic 16-part journey marking the crucial turning points in the nation's history,” gushed the voice-over woman in such a breathy tone that I feared she would hyper-ventilate. “This is just the beginning,” she advised, and the BBC2 logo emerged like Excalibur from a watery background.

Then, after a camera sped along the surface of a lake, the voice of Simon made...

(The entire section is 2146 words.)

R. F. Foster (review date 4 November 2000)

SOURCE: “The Storyteller,” in New Republic, November 4, 2000, pp. 48–52.

[In the following review, Foster offers a mixed assessment of A History of Britain and its BBC television adaptation, hosted by Schama.]

The Problem with British history is that there is so much of it: “a great heap of Himalayas,” as J. H. Plumb once put it, looming behind each other to infinity. and the peaks have so often been scaled, their approaches investigated, their contours mapped: how can the story be told anew? Norman Davies recently tried one kind of reconnoiter in The Isles, disaggregating the usual combinations, “restoring” his versions of original names,...

(The entire section is 2850 words.)

Further Reading


Adams, Julia, and Ann Stoler. Review of The Embarrassment of Riches, by Simon Schama. Contemporary Sociology 17, No. 6 (November 1988): 760–62.

Adams and Stoler offer a positive assessment of The Embarrassment of Riches.

Barrell, John. “The Argument from Design.” London Review of Books (24 August 1995): 21.

Barrel offers a mixed assessment of Landscape and Memory, in which he praises Schama's entertaining and erudite narrative, but finds fault in his expansive approach and tendency to overwrite.

Brown, Jonathan. “High Point in Low Countries.” New York Review...

(The entire section is 829 words.)