Simon Schama Introduction

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 1,850 words.)