Simon Schama

Start Free Trial

Witold Rybczynski (review date 28 June 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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?

We are all fascinated by the lives of the rich and famous, and in the 17th century nobody was as rich, or as famously rich, as the Dutch. Everything they touched, from Japanese porcelain and malacca pepper to herrings and cheese, turned to gold. Their banks were the most dependable in the world. Their flourishing cities were cleaner, and their homes were better appointed than those of their European neighbors. They ate finer food—and drank more—their children were better looked after, their workers better paid, even their poor were less poor. Such good fortune was hardly universally appreciated, as we are reminded by the numerous Hollandophobisms that entered the English language during that period—Dutch uncles doled out Dutch consolation, parsimonious hosts offered a Dutch treat, out of the bottle came Dutch courage, and naughty children didn't get in trouble, they got in Dutch.

There is no indication that the Dutch paid much attention to these slanders; theirs was a remarkably self-contained culture, and in any case one that had its own preoccupations. Holland was what would be called today an “emerging” nation—it was brand new, having broken away from the Spanish empire in 1609. Like all “new” countries, poor or rich, it had to devise a set of social beliefs and behavior on the fly. It is this process of cultural bricolage that Schama sets out to examine. And what an examination. In an unhurried, scholarly fashion, but always with wit and humor, he scrutinizes diverse aspects of 17th-century everyday Dutch life: not only such obvious things as food, clothing, the home and the family, but also manners and behavior, the relations between men and women, homosexuality, medicine, money, prostitution, law, the treatment of criminals and much more.

We learn about the Tulip Mania of 1636, when a speculative market in tulip futures drove up the price until frenzied burghers mortgaged their homes and sold their furniture to buy a single exotic bulb. And about a corrective punishment for idlers, which consisted of a chamber, equipped with a hand-pump, that slowly filled with water; the hapless prisoner was obliged to pump, quite literally, for his life. Or of the curious relationship between Calvinist society and vice, especially spirits and tobacco, which were, paradoxically, more popular in Holland than elsewhere. The Dutch were assiduous record-keepers, and Schama presents us with a wealth of original information—shopping lists, bankruptcy inventories, dinner menus and lottery prizes. One of the most engaging sections is based on the diaries of Catharina Schrader, a Friesland midwife who kept a meticulous journal until her death at 91.

Material things matter, but so also do ideas, individuals and historical events, something that Schama, no annaliste, never lets us forget. He situates his description of social beliefs and behavior in the broader context of Dutch political history, which makes for a long book but a satisfying one, not the least because it is so well written. But it is not only the author's engaging prose,...

(This entire section contains 988 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

or his unearthing of the unexpected and the forgotten that holds our interest. “The most extraordinary invention of a country that was to become famous for its ingenuity was its own culture,” Schama writes, and indeed there is something very attractive about the homely, 17th-century Dutch. We sympathize with their obsessive domesticity, with their demonstrative love of children, with their cult of the family, even with their sweet-tooth. We are charmed—not shocked, as were most foreign visitors—that courting couples held hands, or that Dutch women publicly displayed affection towards their husbands. Even their preoccupation with cleanliness, hardly their most appealing trait, seems a harmless enough fixation.

If this seems familiar, it is probably because we have “seen” so much of it, in the work of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, Steen, Metsu and countless minor masters and lesser genre painters. The Embarrassment of Riches has an embarrassment of visual delight, over 300 illustrations drawn from the art of the period. These play an important role in the development of the author's thesis, for below the materialistic surface of Dutch painting is an abundance of symbolism, allegory and emblematic imagery. Gerard ter Borch's Soldier Offering a Young Woman Coins is ambiguously erotic, “the sensuousness of the outer world—of fabric, fruit and flesh—is in unresolved contention with the inward world of reflection.” Jacob Cuyp's portrait of a little girl holding a pretzel turns out to represent “the theater of the contending powers of good and evil.” Jan Steen's The Burgher of Delft and His Daughter, which was commissioned to celebrate the philanthropy of the sitter and hence includes a group of beggars, portrays the uneasy relationship between wealth and poverty. The painting suggests a distinct lack of intimacy between the father and his richly dressed daughter, that contrasts with the evident affection between the begging mother and son.

That was the Dutch dilemma—how to be rich and moral at the same time. They never quite managed to reconcile the two, and, as a result they found themselves “adrift between the fear of the deluge and the hope of moral salvage, in the tidal ebb and flow between worldliness and homeliness, between the gratification of appetite and its denial, between the conditional consecration of wealth and its perdition in surfeit.” As I said, this book has modern overtones.

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 during the first half of the 17th century as a dominant force on the European scene.

They had, it seemed, broken all the rules. In a monarchical Europe they had apparently managed to create a viable state based on republican institutions. In a world that took it for granted that political survival depended on the preservation of religious uniformity, they showed that a plurality of religious faiths was not, after all, a recipe for disaster. Here was a society visibly prosperous in the midst of a Europe mired in recession; a society that, defying all the laws of political gravity, had managed in the course of two generations to become the center of a worldwide empire; a society that, without the alleged benefits of a princely court and a high aristocracy, was proving pre-eminent in the arts both of war and peace.

What was it about the Dutch that enabled them to achieve such spectacular successes? And who, indeed, were the Dutch? They were, as Simon Schama sets out to show us in his massive and scintillating book [The Embarrassment of Riches], an invented nation, a community that fashioned itself in the course of a prolonged and hard-fought struggle with man and the elements. The kind of community that they were, and that they became, is explored by Schama in a series of chapters that are, in effect, extended and highly suggestive essays around a central theme; and these illustrative essays are illustrated in turn by a vast array of plates drawn from the paintings and engravings of the Dutch Republic's Golden Age.

The adducing of national character as a major source of historical explanation has not found favor among 20th-century historians. The process was discredited by the antics of some of their 19th-century predecessors, all too prone to find in supposedly unchanging national characteristics excessively easy answers to complex historical questions. The modern tendency has been to look elsewhere, to almost everything except national character, for the cause of historical change. The success of the Dutch, for instance, has been generally ascribed to their affirmation of “bourgeois” values in an essentially aristocratic world, and to their Calvinist “ideology,” itself seen as a repository of bourgeois ideals. This approach will probably seem as crude to future generations of historians as the nationalist approach of the 19th-century historians has appeared to those of our own times. It is one of Schama's major achievements that he has not been afraid to confront directly the problem of national character and to bring it back to the center of the historical stage.

But national character for Schama is not the immanent national character of the 19th-century historians. It belongs, instead, to the 20th-century world of the social anthropologists, who reconstruct a society's value systems and collective beliefs through its cultural manifestations. Schama's aim is to uncover for us the collective consciousness of the inhabitants of the Dutch Republic in the 17th century, but it is a collective consciousness that, far from being congealed or frozen in time, evolves and adapts itself in response to changing historical situations and challenges. In other words, he approaches his task as a historian, profoundly conscious of change over time, while seeking to identify those common elements in the Dutch mentality that made the 17th-century republic such a dynamic cultural and economic force. This is a challenging assignment, and, even if he cannot entirely carry it through, Schama approaches his task with high intelligence and a degree of panache that will sweep all but the most refractory readers along in his wake.

He is fortunate to have as his subject of study a society that created and left behind for future generations a vast array of evidence offering a multitude of clues to the way in which it thought about itself and about the world. In this respect, historians of the Netherlands are unusually lucky. There is the evidence, first of all, provided by the land itself, the lush tracts of pasture sheltering behind the dikes that allowed them to be reclaimed at such high cost from the sea. There is the architectural evidence: the splendid Amsterdam town hall, the luminous churches with their unadorned white interiors, the comfortable brick houses with their well-scrubbed doorsteps. There is the literary evidence. And above all, there is the visual evidence of an unsurpassed richness in the 17th-century world.

Schama draws heavily on the visual evidence, on familiar, and less familiar, genre scenes, on the Steens and de Hoochs, but also on a wide range of engravings, particularly from the copious moralizing works of Jacob Cats. On some of these pictures and engravings he has illuminating things to say. There is a nice analysis, for instance, of a solemn portrait by Jacob Cuyp of a little girl holding a very large pretzel. Schama carries us persuasively through the symbolism of pretzels in Dutch iconography, to reach the conclusion that her parents wanted to represent their daughter as a theater of the contending powers of good and evil.

The interpretation of 17th-century Dutch painting is currently the subject of vigorous debate. Schama's kind of pictorial analysis might at first sight seem to place its author squarely in the ranks of those for whom the painting carries a heavy symbolic freight. But he is not to be easily pinned down. As between the descriptive and prescriptive schools of interpretation, he takes a relaxed, indeed an agnostic, view. The very dichotomy for him is artificial and unnecessary. Netherlands society happily combined a long tradition of close observation with the moralizing concerns of Northern humanism; and he sees, to my mind convincingly, a calculated ambiguity in the intentions of many of his artists, leaving the beholders to extract what they wanted from the scenes of low life.

But Schama's book, for all its wealth of illustration, is not intended to be a study or a reinterpretation of Dutch painting in the Golden Age. His concern is with the society that produced the art. Essentially he is using the visual records as an additional source of documentary evidence about the character of the society under review. This is the conventional historical approach; but it is not always followed with the flair and discrimination displayed by Schama, who shows himself well aware of the pitfalls awaiting those who would see in the evidence of art a literal rendering of 17th-century Dutch “reality.” A girl with a pretzel is a girl with a pretzel—but she is also, as Schama shows, something more.

Why she is something more is in essence the theme of Schama's book. The Embarrassment of Riches is a cleverly ambivalent title, which reflects the ambivalence of a society confronted with the phenomenon of its own success. The story begins with the wresting of effective independence from Phillip II of Spain. The Dutch Republic that emerged from the struggle was essentially a new country; and as such it was faced with the immediate task of fashioning a new national identity in order to mobilize and maintain the loyalty of its citizens. In his first chapter, on “Moral Geography,” which provides a good sample of Schama's distinctive (and occasionally bizarre) approach, we begin, somewhat unexpectedly, with the Amsterdam House of Correction, which allegedly contained a cell where prisoners could save themselves from drowning only by vigorous pumping. The theme of the chapter, in other words, is water. The prisoner in the drowning cell becomes a metaphor for a society that had learned over the centuries the need for constant vigilance and self-reliance in order to save itself from the encroaching ocean. The ocean in turn becomes a metaphor for Spanish absolutism; and we find the Dutch under William the Silent struggling simultaneously against the tyrant Spain and the tyrant sea.

Schama has a remarkable eye for the apt illustrative detail, and it is this that gives his book much of its freshness and immediacy. But it should be said that some readers may well find themselves almost literally engulfed. Detail is piled upon detail in baroque profusion, until the illustration itself threatens to become the central theme. This is a self-indulgent form of historical writing; and if Schama entertains and delights his readers with his ready wit and his throwaway aphorisms, he is equally liable to submerge them beneath a cascade of words, witticisms, and illustrative examples that may require of them heroic exertions if they are to save themselves, like the Dutch, from drowning.

Still, amid the turbulent swirl of the waters significant shapes can be detected, and major themes periodically emerge, rather like the great whale that beached itself in 1598 on the coast near Scheveningen—thus providing Schama with the opportunity for a splendid excursus, in the 17th-century manner, on the literal and symbolic importance of stranded whales. Having revealed the Dutch, in his first chapter, to be the inhabitants of a “Christianized diluvian culture,” he uses his excellent second chapter to examine the nature of their patriotism. In particular, he shows them identifying themselves with the ancient Batavians, struggling heroically against imperial Rome, and also with the Children of Israel going up from captivity.

Such identifications, historical or biblical, were common currency in the Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries. The Exodus metaphor, as Michael Walzer has recently reminded us, exercised a powerful fascination, with Spaniards, English, and Dutch alike all seeing themselves as peoples chosen of the Lord. The doctrine of exceptionality, therefore, was by no means exceptional; and if the self-evaluation of the various European nationalities is taken at face value, the crossing of the Red Sea assumes something of the character of a multinational enterprise. This in turn raises the question of whether the distinctiveness of the Dutch, the elusive subject of Schama's research, was quite as remarkable, after all, as he would have us believe.

To judge from a passage in his introduction, Schama himself has some hesitations on this score. “In trying too hard to suggest the peculiarities of the Dutch world,” he writes, “I probably exaggerate its distinctness.” But he goes on to defend himself by arguing that “there was something special about the Dutch situation … that did set it apart from other states and nations in baroque Europe. That something was its precocity.” The essence of his argument is that in a mere two generations the Dutch Republic became a world empire. The unparalleled prosperity it brought in its train could be regarded as setting upon the Dutch the seal of divine approval, but at the same time it represented a sinister challenge to the values and virtues that had made the Dutch what they were. Riches, in effect, were something more than an embarrassment. They were a dangerously corrupting influence, threatening the moral fiber of the young republic and drawing God's chosen people away from the straight and narrow path.

For the 17th-century Dutch, therefore, the enemy within presented an even greater danger than the enemy without. It is the resulting ambivalence in the face of their own success that is, for Schama, the key to 17th-century Dutch civilization. Greed and guilt went hand in hand. The Dutch, in consequence, were perennially engaged in the attempt to reconcile contrary impulses. This is a valuable insight, and Schama makes use of it to explain and interpret salient aspects of Dutch culture. The notorious Dutch obsession with cleanliness, for instance, becomes a moral reaffirmation of quintessential Dutch values against encroaching impurity. Similarly, the girl with the pretzel symbolizes the struggle between the competing forces of good and evil, of redemption and damnation. In doing so, she almost becomes the Dutch Republic in microcosm.

Schama's thesis about the ambiguities that lay at the heart of 17th-century Dutch civilization is attractive and plausible, but it does not seem to me to go very far in explaining that civilization's distinctiveness. The tension between greed and guilt has been a persistent theme in the history of Western societies, and it was not confined to the countries of the Protestant north. Take, for instance, the case of the archenemy, Spain. Here, too, was a society that, a hundred years before the Dutch, had risen in the space of two generations to become the center of a global empire. Like the Dutch, the Spaniards also saw the imprimatur of divine approval in their miraculous run of successes. But again like the Dutch, the riches of empire left them troubled and uneasy.

More insidious than any foreign enemy, the ease and sloth that came in the wake of gold and silver began perverting Spain's scale of values, and threatened the country with ruin. Ironically, even the Spanish response was similar, although it assumed a different manifestation. Spain, too, acquired an obsession with cleanliness, but not exactly in the manner of the Dutch. The vision of an army of Spanish housewives forever polishing, scrubbing, and sweeping does not exactly ring true. For Spaniards, cleanliness (limpieza) meant above all cleanliness of blood. The national obsession with cleanliness took the sinister form of an attempt to exclude from society all those contaminated by the taint of Jewish ancestry.

For the 17th-century Dutch, this kind of purification by exclusion was unthinkable. They had set out on the adventure of independence as a tolerant and pluralistic society; the adoption of racial or religious uniformity would have represented a denial of everything for which they had fought. If Schama is right in seeing the Dutch preoccupation with cleanliness as a moral imperative, as I believe he is, the very absence of other, more drastic options may have helped to channel it into the benign forms that he so vividly describes. There can surely be few more harmless ways of confronting the challenge of moral pollution than scrubbing a doorstep.

It is a testimony to the richness and the variety of Schama's exuberant book that his discussion so often raises in the mind of the reader questions that go beyond Dutch experience and touch on the nature of the historical process itself. But in the attempt to identify and explain the singularity of the Dutch, I think Schama might have helped both himself and his readers if he had been a bit more willing to glance at other societies. In particular, the neighboring territory of the southern Netherlands, which had remained loyal to Spain, would have offered a wonderful controlling device. Here was the Dutch Republic's twin society, but a twin that followed a diametrically different path to maturity. The southern Netherlands in the 17th century was everything the Dutch Republic was not. It was a dependent, and not a free, state; a Counter-Reformation, not a Calvinist, society; absolutist rather than libertarian; and culturally dominated by the Brussels court. One of these societies produced a Rembrandt, the other a Rubens. If ever the southern Netherlands find their Schama, we shall be in a better position to understand the singularity of the Dutch.

What Schama has done for us, however, and with extraordinary flair, is to recreate with enormous vividness some of the most striking characteristics of 17th-century Dutch civilization and life. In his final chapters, for instance, he has fascinating material on family life and children, and suggests that the Dutch provide the first sustained image of parental love in European art. His explanation for this is characteristically imaginative, although again it needs testing against the experience of other societies. While the ethos of other 17th-century states, he argues, was built around the aura of a dynasty or the historical privileges of a city commune, for the Dutch the family household was the focus and center of national life. The mind moves at once to Puritan New England, another society in which the authority of the state was weak.

For the Dutch Republic that Schama has evoked for us was not so much a state as an anti-state. Authority was devolved and fragmented. Many of the institutions of public life were absurdly archaic by the standards of 17th-century Europe. But somehow, in ways that Schama never quite manages to explain to us, the Dutch contrived to make these institutions work, and to work in a manner that made an apparently anachronistic community a pioneer of modernity. It was an extraordinary feat, and by the later 17th century the strains were beginning to tell. But what a miraculous achievement it had been! And indispensable to that achievement was the fashioning of a self-image that enabled the republic to hold its own against the encroaching flood tides of a hostile world. It is this self-image that Schama has recreated with great erudition and imaginative verve. At times the erudition threatens to overwhelm, but the final image remains that of the author himself, the exact reverse of Stevie Smith's poetic figure, not drowning but waving, as he hauls us breathless to the shore.

Peter Quennell (review date 19 September 1987)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 17th-century Dutch Republic during the age of its greatest power and prosperity, his description omits, or lightly passes over, some important aspects of the scene. ‘There is nothing here,’ he warns his readers, ‘about theatre or poetry or music, and if there are images in abundance, they are summoned as impressions of mentality, not vessels of Art’.

Should he write of culture, he explains, ‘I don't mean Culture’. What then is the vision of Holland's Golden Age that he provides for the English reader's benefit? He sees in it, he tells us:

an allegiance fashioned as the consequence, not the cause of freedom … defined by common habits … a manner of sharing a peculiar—very peculiar—space at a particular time … the product of the encounter between fresh historical experience and the constraints of geography.

Thus his approach to his theme is sociological rather than cultural or aesthetic; and, although Dutch painting is among the noblest contributions that Holland has made to the imaginative wealth of Europe, he has evidently chosen his pictures much more often because they enabled him to underline a social point than for their own artistic worth. True, in his index we find numerous references to Rembrandt; but they are considerably outnumbered by tributes to that second-rate artist Jan Steen; while Vermeer's dazzling genius only thrice receives a brief mention. We learn, for instance, that, like Steen, he was eventually converted to Catholicism, and that he painted ‘exquisite parlours,’ whereas Steen preferred whorehouses and ‘rowdy kitchens,’ but little of the technical methods Vermeer employed, such as the complex window that, it is said, he had built to give his sitters the gently revealing light he needed.

A previous writer who has inspired the present treatise is, oddly enough, Henry James, who in 1874 watched a Dutch housemaid scrubbing a pavement that was very obviously clean with a thoroughness that struck him as ‘compulsive,’ since it served no practical purpose, but was no doubt, James thought, dictated by ‘her own temperament’. ‘The mysteries of that temperament,’ Professor Schama writes, ‘are the subject of this book of essays.’

Amsterdam is a modern metropolis with which he is evidently well-acquainted: and he sharpens his researches by lively glimpses of the city that he knows today, where during summer months the narrower streets, he says, are redolent of frying oil and shag tobacco. Is excessive smoking still a Dutch vice? In the 17th century it was certainly so regarded; and the professor devotes much of a whole chapter and a host of illustrations to current abuses of the habit, emphasising its link with other vices and pointing out the sexual symbolism of the pipe in Jan Steen's pictures of contemporary kitchens and brothels. It seems probable, he rather unnecessarily adds, that ‘the act of blowing smoke at a woman was already a sexually insulting jest’.

At the same period, however, the rich and pleasure-loving Dutchman might also be an expert horticulturist: and ‘Tulipomania,’ the passion for rare tulips, which would afterwards spread to England, became in the years 1636 and 1637 an alarming speculative craze. By those who pursued it, fortunes were won and lost; a farmer paid the equivalent of 2,500 florins for a single precious specimen; and new variations of this delicate Turkish flower regularly reached the market. Here as elsewhere, Professor Schama is endlessly informative, though the information he supplies on a range of different topics—crime and punishment, feasts and festivals, the education of children, ‘housewives and hussies,’ the homosexual underworld and the effect of geography on the Dutch character—may sometimes be laid on a little too thick; and the author's prose style is occasionally awkward. The embarrassment of riches as a basic theme encourages now and then a superfluity of words. This is, in fact, just the kind of book that proves all the more enjoyable with the help of some judicious skipping.

Norman Hampson (review date 13 April 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 arguments of G. Lefebvre”; he is “greatly indebted” to Lefebvre's “masterly portrayal” of Napoleon; “the best work on the outbreak of the Revolution is still G. Lefebvre's”; for the social and economic history of the Revolution one should consult “above all, … the work of Georges Lefebvre.” What influences Simon Schama is not so much a man as a syllabus. As one reads his book [Citizens] one hears the roll call of the old Oxford University “special subject,” in which the student has to read, among other books, the memoirs of the Marquis de Ferrières, the correspondence between Mirabeau and the Comte de La Marck, the letters exchanged between Barnave and Queen Marie Antoinette, Morse Stephen's selections from the French revolutionary orators.

There is nothing in the least reprehensible about this. Lefebvre was an excellent historian and primary sources have a perennial value. But anyone writing in 1989 needs to take account of more recent research. Both authors are rather hit-and-miss about this. Rudé's bibliography [in The French Revolution] is better on old books than on those published within the past twenty years. Schama is more familiar with recent work, but he seems to have read very selectively. When Rudé mentions a book that contradicts his argument—which is not often—he is invariably courteous to its author even if he does not always seem to have understood his message. Schama acknowledges his debt to the authors of recent studies on matters of detail, but he is rather fond of admonishing unnamed “historians” for distorting the evidence to fit their preconceived conclusions.

Neither writer has anything substantial to say about Jacobin ideology as a force inclining the Revolution toward totalitarianism, and they fail to see that peasant society was largely motivated by a conception of the world that had little in common with the enlightened abstractions of the revolutionary legislators. These are things that have come to appear in a new light as a result of the work of historians such as Francois Furet, Robert Darnton, Donald Sutherland, Colin Lucas, and Peter Jones. If Rudé and Schama are aware of such work, they do not pay much attention to its conclusions.

In all other respects their books are as different as one could imagine. Rudé writes as an old professional who has been on active service in the field since the publication in 1959 of his book on revolutionary crowds. Schama is certainly not an apprentice historian, but this is his first venture on the embattled terrain of the French Revolution. Rudé's book is somewhat austere and very short: he hustles us through the Revolution and Napoleon and well into the nineteenth century in a mere 182 pages. After three hundred lavishly illustrated pages of his own, Schama has barely reached 1789, and he never goes beyond 1794. Rudé is mainly concerned with analyzing the political behavior of social classes; Schama spends much of his time on personalities, and in his account of events it is people that makes them happen. Whereas Rudé sees men essentially as cognitive animals Schama is more aware of the role of emotion and the power of symbols.

When it comes to the basic question of what the Revolution achieved and why it evolved in the way it did, the two men flatly contradict each other. For Rudé, despite all its blemishes and frustrations, the Revolution left behind a glorious message of social progress that was to inspire future generations. The liberal revolution of 1789 was only consolidated with the help of urban artisans or sans-culottes, which meant that it already looked forward to a socialist future. Schama sees the Revolution as a total disaster, in which the violence and chauvinism of a reactionary mob put an end to an ancien régime that was already liberal in essence and fully committed to technological progress. With the best will in the world it is difficult to see how they can both be right, and the reader is faced with the question of what to make of the situation when two serious professional historians study the same events and arrive at such incompatible conclusions. This calls for a careful examination of each book in turn. …

Simon Schama does not seem quite sure how he wants us to take his book. He calls it a “chronicle,” which suggests a narration of events that takes their casual relationship largely for granted. In his preface he suggests that the dogmatic certainties of the positivists and the Marxists have given way to a view of the Revolution as “a thing of contingencies and unforeseen consequences.”

Along with the revival of place as a conditioner have come people. For as the imperatives of “structure” have weakened, those of individual agency, and especially of revolutionary utterance have become correspondingly more important. Citizens is an attempt to synthesize much of this reappraisal and to push the argument a stage further.

What we are to expect, therefore, is not so much a chronicle as an argument. Schama promises that his book will develop three themes: “the problematic relationship between patriotism and liberty,” “the belief that citizenship is the public expression of an idealized family,” and “the painful problem of revolutionary violence.” Rather surprisingly, he then goes on to say that if he has chosen to present his argument in the form of a narrative, “it differs from the pre-Tocquevillian narratives in being offered more as witness than as judgment.”

This suggests a certain confusion of targets that may not make for accurate gunnery. Witnesses are expected to describe what they saw, rather than to push arguments a stage further, and, as we shall see, Schama's disavowal of any intention to judge is not always reflected in what he writes. Any narrative implies some sort of judgment about the connection between events, but he goes much further than that and never shows any hesitation about reaching for the moral thunderbolts.

Most of the chapters of his book follow a roughly consistent pattern. He begins by evoking a scene, usually one that has little direct relationship to the subject. “One morning in August 1776, a rather shabbily dressed, stout gentleman stood on the dockside at Rotterdam …” “In July 1789 Mme La Tour du Pin went to the spa at Forges-les-Eaux in Normandy. …” “On October 23, 1789, the National Assembly met the oldest man in the world. …” This is a journalistic device for seizing the attention of the reader and giving him the impression that he himself is witnessing what happens. It is none the worse for that and Schama uses it very well—but it is not the best way of conducting an argument. It is not even a very good way of investigating in depth how a particular man conceived of a situation and why he acted in the way that he did. It is more effective in the early part of the book, which deals with the state of French society before 1789, than with the maelstrom of events when the Revolution was in full flow.

After a few descriptive pages of this kind Schama switches to narrative. Once he is past 1789 this becomes a rapid summary of events that offers few surprises to the expert and will raise more questions than it answers in the mind of anyone who is not already familiar with the story. We are shown what happens, but we do not learn much about why, Schama's argument—his three themes and his more general conclusion that the Revolution was a bloody and violent retreat from reason and orderly progress—tends to get tacked on to this narrative, rather than to emerge as its organizing principle.

His technique may best be illustrated by an example. Chapter 18 is called “The Politics of Turpitude,” which seems to savor more of judgment than of witness. It begins with a lively description of life in a revolutionary jail, as experienced especially by Marie Antoinette; the wife of a Girondin politician, Mme Roland; and Louix XV's old mistress, Mme Du Barry. The rest of the chapter consists of a rapid review of revolutionary politics in the winter of 1793 and the spring of 1794. Schama's thesis is that the government was looking for pretexts to exterminate any political group that might appear to be challenging its authority. In actual fact things were a good deal more complicated. When the radical members of the Cordelier Club, including their leader Jacques Rene Hebert, played with the idea of starting an insurrection, the first reaction of the revolutionary government was to try to talk them out of it. Only when this attempt at conciliation failed did they resort to repression.

For Schama, “The killing of the Hébertists [or Cordeliers] had always of course implied the end of the Indulgents [Danton's friends].” Schama evidently thinks the fate of Danton and his friends was tied to that of the Cordeliers. This was not the impression of Robespierre's ally Couthon, who hinted to his constituents that the Indulgents could be frightened into silence. Nor does it explain why Robespierre, when the arrest of Danton was first proposed, denounced it as an attempt to destroy the best revolutionaries. We still do not know why the government suddenly decided to turn the trial of some of Danton's swindling friends into a major political crisis by pretending that Danton was one of them. Even if one cannot arrive at a positive conclusion, the question calls for detailed argument and an admission that other explanations are possible. Schama rushes ahead as though the explanation were known and all that the historian has to do is decide in how much detail to describe it.

There is also some evidence of hasty writing in Schama's book. One gets the impression, especially in the later chapters, that he was racing the clock and his writing becomes wilder: “Bagging whole ancien régime families was coming to be a matter of honour for the revolutionary committees and tribunals.” That probably relieved his feelings, but it does not help us to elucidate the policy of the government, which, incidentally, had rejected the concept of honor in favor of that of patriotism.

The importance of Schama's message is not necessarily invalidated by the impressionistic way in which he treats his evidence, and it deserves careful examination. In the first part of the book he argues that what is usually regarded as the legacy of the Revolution was already to be found in the highest levels of French society before 1789. He thinks this was especially true of French economic development, in which “the great period of change was not the revolution but the eighteenth century.” There is much truth in this, but, as Schama himself more or less admits in his preface, he overdoes it. “New enterprises involving mechanisation,” he writes, “seemed to spring up almost every month in the 1780s.” There are times when his France begins to look like nineteenth century Lancashire.

Standing Rudé on his head, he also argues that “the revolution drew its power from the … attempt to arrest rather than hasten the process of modernisation.” Agriculture as well as industry showed “the unmistakeable pattern of rapid growth and modernisation in almost all sectors, disastrously disrupted by the revolution.” This is much less plausible. It was certainly not the view of the English writer Arthur Young, who was both a contemporary and an expert observer of agricultural developments. Schama also asserts that French society was becoming more mobile and that noble status was easily available to the successful. He could be right here, but many distinguished historians have suggested the contrary, and the case needs proving rather than asserting. On the strength of one or two examples, he affirms that a new concept of patriotism, involving the cult of French rather than Greek or Roman heroes, had spread among the nobility well before 1789. The government is said to have been active in pursuit of innovation for the public good.

All this seems to add up to a convincing explanation of why the Revolution did not happen, and it leaves Schama with something of a problem: if everything was working to the general satisfaction, where did the Revolution come from? The Revolution's immediate cause was actually the insolvency of the monarchy, about which he is rather vague. If, as he suggests at one point, those with privileges were reluctant to pay their fair share of taxation, this seems to imply that the upper ranks of society were rather less forward-looking than he would like us to believe. In fact, their representatives accepted their fiscal obligations; what they wanted was to trade their willingness to pay taxes for the kind of political representation that their peers enjoyed in Great Britain. Schama, who cannot very well pretend that ancien régime France had a modern constitution, ignores altogether the demand for representative institutions and civil rights which provided the Revolution with its initial impetus. The only motive that he can find for discontent is impatience with the vacillation of the government which looks rather feeble. His long account of pre-revolutionary government and society is not so much wrong as unbalanced, exaggerating its dynamic aspects and tending to ignore its tensions and weaknesses.

When the States-General met in 1789 and transformed themselves into a constituent assembly, they were dominated, Schama thinks, by the kind of enlightened nobles who had been responsible for France's progress under the ancien régime. For reasons that he never satisfactorily explains, these people came into conflict with a royal government that had been pursuing virtually the same objectives. This forced the reformers to turn to working people for support. He replaces the “popular movement” beloved of “progressive” historians with the old-fashioned mob, whose leaders, he insists were not working men but declassé bourgeois, presumably out for their own power. He is emphatic that the sans-culottes—and presumably the peasantry—besides being men of violence, were resolutely backward-looking and the enemies of economics progress.

The French declaration of war in April 1792 generated a flood of patriotic emotion that reinforced these atavistic and emotive forces. This seems a little odd if patriotism had originally been the monopoly of the nobility. The panic created when it looked as though allied armies might threaten. Paris in September 1792 led to the massacre of more than a thousand unfortunates in the jails of the capital, who were suspected of plotting to break out of jail and hold the city until the invading troops arrived. The way in which these massacres have sometimes been glossed over in history books offers Schama another chance to indulge in some lofty condemnations of his fellow historians. “The Anglophone tradition in this century … has a particularly egregious record of silent embarrassment.” Has it? M. J. Sydenham, in The French Revolution, wrote of “butchery,” “bestiality,” “atrocities,” and “horrors,” which suggests rather more than mild disapproval. The present reviewer, twenty-five years ago, made no attempt to excuse the “dreadful work” and the “horrible business.” Schama, as usual, is in too big a hurry to make qualifications of the generalizations he proposes and too sure of his own judgment.

From 1792 onward Schama's explanation of events becomes very confused. The forces of popular unreason become more strident, but he insists that their leaders could only mobilize them when they had the support of the gentlemanly revolutionaries in the Jacobin Club. It is never clear what has happened to the enlightened reformers of 1789 or what we should make of their Jacobin successors. The latter were educated men who did not share the ignorance and blood lust of the mob, but we learn that they were “anti-capitalist.” If that was the case they should according to Schama's own argument have gotten on well with the sans-culottes. In order to win the war the revolutionary government he writes, “put an end to politics,” and enforced its despotic rule all over the country.

The contradictions multiply. If the government was in complete control, why did it not put a stop to popular violence? When revolts occurred in some provincial towns, why were moderates able to enlist against Jacobin extremists the poor who were baying for blood in Paris? By now Schama seems to have abandoned his theme of educated modernizers fighting ignorant reactionaries, in favor of the argument that the government was intent on the invention of “a new kind of prodigious warrior state.” At the same time he suggests that Carnot, who was responsible for the deployment of the warriors, was less keen on the Terror than people like Robespierre—who was uneasy about the extension of the war.

All this is not very helpful. If one excludes the ideology of the revolutionaries, as Schama does, and makes no sustained attempt to unravel their politics, all that remains is evocative tableaux and a narrative of events. In his epilogue he poses the question of why the Revolution was so extraordinarily violent—one of the main themes of the bicentenary article by Robert Darnton in The New York Review of Books of January 19—but he offers no explanation. He is an intelligent historian and a perceptive observer. He raises some interesting questions, and his determined pursuit of originality leads him to ideas that are worth examining in more depth than he has time to do. He does well what can be done quickly. His description of people and situations restores some of the color that used to make history compulsive reading for non-historians. Anyone who wants to know what the French Revolution looked like and felt like will enjoy the first sections of his chapters.

There are times when this sort of evidence is an integral part of the explanation, as when he brings to life the fear created by the political mobs. More often the narrative is merely picturesque. What he has not succeeded in doing is to construct a systematic or credible explanation of why things happened in the way that they did. In default of this, his “chronicle” is episodic. One thing may seem to lead to another, but the narrative does not add up to a coherent story. He begins by defining his three themes—patriotism, citizenship, and violence—but the first two appear only intermittently and he does not seem to know what to make of the third.

What Schama has achieved is to convey a vivid impression of the French Revolution as pageant. That was worth doing; it is an important part of history that tends to be neglected by the more analytical historians, and it should make his handsomely produced book attractive to the general reader. What Schama has not succeeded in doing is to offer a convincing explanation of why the Revolution occurred and why it went the way that it did.

Lawrence Stone (review date 17 April 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 of the Month Club, which means that it already has a guaranteed sale of half a million copies, while the first printing of the trade edition is 40,000 copies. It is, therefore, already the best-selling American book of the year to commemorate the bicentennial of the French Revolution.

What is this book that has generated so much early excitement? The first 332 pages are not a chronicle at all, but a stimulating ramble around the Ancien Régime, going back to 1778, when the French state got itself irremediably in debt because of its successful intervention in the American Revolution. The rest is nothing more nor less than what it says it is: that is, a dazzlingly written and constructed chronicle of the French Revolution from its beginning in 1789 to the end of the Terror in 1794, when it somewhat abruptly comes to a grinding halt.

In his preface and prologue, Schama boldly throws down the gauntlet to the profession of history, which for over half a century has been preoccupied with deep structures and long-time causes and consequences, rather than with the ebb and flow of day-to-day events and the random clash of personalities in high places. He goes back behind the new social history, behind Tocqueville's magisterial analyses of all that was structurally wrong with the Ancien Régime by 1789, behind Marx and his vision of a bourgeois revolution, behind the liberal credo that the Revolution was the crucible of modernity, “the vessel in which all the characteristics of the modern social world, for good or ill, has been distilled.” According to Schama, the Revolution was none of these. It was, in fact, conservative in its aims: “Much of the anger that fired revolutionary violence arose from hostility towards that modernization, rather than from impatience with the speed of its progress.” He argues that “a patriotic culture of citizenship” had already been created in the two decades after 1760, that it was a cause, not a result, of the Revolution.

The central justification for Schama's choice of a chronological narrative of high politics in Paris from 1789 to 1794 is thus that the Revolution was a wholly unnecessary and disastrous accident. Like all the revolutions of the 20th century, in Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, or Nicaragua, the revolution in France was, in its political outcome, a tyranny; in its processes, an act of auto-genocide; and in its economic consequences, a catastrophe. The French economy, society, and polity were, he argues, well on the way to modernization before 1789. Industrial production was close to that of England, and foreign trade was booming; professionals, scientists, and intellectuals were holding positions of influence and respect; Enlightenment ideas were commonplace, despite the strict censorship of the press: the aristocracy had already largely discarded its feudal trappings, and the state was run by a group of exceptionally talented and enlightened rulers such as Turgot, Calonne, and Necker. King Louis XVI was well intentioned, and in his way enlightened (his main hobby was the technological one of a locksmith).

If this is true, then the Revolution can indeed be reduced to a chronicle of high politics, a product of the mistaken policies of an ever changing cast of characters, from Louis XVI and Necker to Malesherbes and Sieyès to Danton and Robespierre. But is this analysis correct? High political narrative is admirably designed to deal with day-to-day events such as the outbreak of World War I, or the trajectory of the French Revolution. The trouble is that, although it can trace the evolution of a crisis, it cannot explain it. And this is where, for the serious historian, Schama's book, for all its surface brilliance, fails.

It is true that the French economy was not doing badly, but it is not true that the French state, dependent as it was on a maze of privileges, tax exemptions, immunities, and hereditary office holdings, was capable of modernizing itself without a mass abolition of all these special favors granted to one group or another. Nothing short of a violent revolution could have achieved that end, as Tocqueville long ago demonstrated, and as Turgot and Necker had already discovered the hard way.

Nor is it true that the nobility had largely freed itself from feudal ties and aristocratic attitudes. The story is more complicated. Admittedly many were modernizers in their economic activities, and a number were armchair supporters of the Enlightenment. But as a group they clung tenaciously to their privileges, except during one night of hysteria, which they immediately regretted. Nor were the clergy any more ready to enter the modern world; and the bulk of the peasantry was positively hostile to change—except for the abolition of tithes and feudal dues. If ever a social, administrative, and political system was totally blocked, it was surely that of France before 1789. It could not more in any direction without first destroying privilege, but the numerous holders of privileges and immunities were unwilling to surrender them. Traditional wisdom is right, therefore, to believe that the chances of moderate reform without a violent upheaval were nonexistent, particularly at a time of harvest failure and rocketing food prices.

By adopting the chronicle approach, moreover, Schama is incapable of explaining the ideological passions that drove the Revolution. Whence came all that heady rhetoric about liberty and equality, not to mention fraternity? The Revolution, as Schama is at pains to explain, was constantly torn between the cool modernizing statesmen and nation-builders, and the excitable rhetoricians in favor of liberty, equality, and the control of grain prices, and against the nobles, the priests, and the rich. But why was this so, and what were its antecedents?

That second unanswered question is why hatreds between classes or status groups in France ran so extraordinarily deep. Schama cannot explain the ferocity of the French mobs, not only in Paris but also in the provinces. As early as the fall of the Bastille, the mobs were parading around in the streets carrying the heads of their fellow countrymen on spikes, something that the English and the Americans never did. It was no accident that when a madman tried to assassinate Louis XV, his body was slowly, publicly, and excruciatingly torn to pieces, a spectacle of cruelty that lasted for most of a day. When a madman tried to kill George III, by contrast, he was quietly put away in a lunatic asylum for life. The difference surely tells us something not only about concepts of monarchy in England and France, but also about attitudes toward cruelty.

Similarly, when Voltaire was beaten up by the lackeys of a nobleman, he had no recourse but to flee to England. But whenever an English nobleman took a cane or a horsewhip to a bourgeois, he found himself sued for damages at once in the Court of King's Bench, and fined large sums, which were accompanied by a boastful lecture from the judge about how no man in England was above the law. Surely this also tells us something important about the relative strength of privilege and the law in the two countries, which goes some way to explain the passionate hatreds and the propensity to violence already boiling in France in 1789. These are deep structures and mentalities that no chronicle can reveal or explain.

Schama does not merely reduce the part played by the bourgeoisie in the story, which fits in with much modern revisionism, he goes out of his way to deny it almost any role at all. All his examples of liberal thinkers turn out to be noblemen. He even turns Robespierre—quite accurately—into a product of “the old regime's characteristic meritocracy.” At one point he calls the alleged role of the bourgeoisie in the Revolution “wholly imaginary.” But this ignores the fact that so many of the leaders of the revolution were bourgeois; that the main beneficiaries from its were the well-to-do yeomen and bourgeois who purchased the confiscated property of the monarchy, nobility, and clergy; that the Napoleonic governing class was drawn from the bourgeois and professional classes of the old regime and the Revolution, who now at last had access to high administrative office. Surely there is at least some truth in the hoary legend of a “bourgeois” revolution against privilege.

When he gets to the Revolution itself, however, Schama is at his best. He stresses three features. The first is the incompatibility of the desire for a powerful, efficient state and the desire for individual liberty. The second is the power of the ideology of equality, involving the abolition of all privilege and the leveling of all French men and women to citizens of the state. The third is that “violence was the Revolution itself,” not merely an accidental or incidental accompaniment of it. Blood, cruelty, and death were its self-defining characteristics, not chance accompaniments to the main action or unfortunate necessities for victory. Given these premises, Schama has no hesitation in choosing to write a book that, he admits, “runs the risk of being seen as a mischievously old-fashioned piece of story-telling,” a book that opts for “chaotic authenticity over the commanding neatness of historical convention.”

Schama succeeds brilliantly in his chosen role as a narrator. He has ransacked the 19th-century secondary literature and retells an oft-told tale with verve, enthusiasm, and great literary skill. His story reads like a film script, with unforgettable descriptive passages, especially of massacres and executions, great public festivals, oratorical feats of grand, high-flown—and often sinister—nonsense, and vividly memorable pen portraits of the leading actors, their lives, their characteristics, their loves, their physiognomies.

Schama offers us also a narrative for our times. His chronicle is informed by Hitler's Holocaust, Pol Pot's auto-genocide in Cambodia, and Stalin's Gulag. For the most part he remains calm and detached, reserving his rare flashes of anger only for those sycophantic, ideology-blinded, or willfully perverse scholars who have tried to explain away or ignore events such as the September massacres, the Terror, and the civil war in the Vendèe. He rightly points out how difficult it was in the 18th century to kill large numbers of people quickly. Hence the invention of that neat and speedy device, the guillotine; hence the mass drownings by the boat load; hence the discovery (used again by the Germans and Russians in World War II) that the easiest way to dispose of large numbers of people in a short time is to shoot them while they are standing on the edge of pits to contain their corpses; hence requests by the revolutionary authorities to the scientists for a poison in liquid or gas form, which might facilitate the process of mass killing. There can be little doubt that if the scientists had come up with an efficient gas chamber, the French revolutionary authorities in 1792–94 would have been only too pleased to use it.

Schama does not merely write brilliantly about people, about events, about the use or abuse of rhetoric, and about festivals and executions. He also begins his chronicle with a dramatic burst of poetic imagination. He starts his story with an elephant, a huge three-story creature made of plaster, erected in 1814 on the site of the Bastille, so large that the watchman lived in a leg. It was a mock-up of a projected bronze image of “Revolutionary Oblivion”—presumably a reference to the now demolished Bastille—but it degenerated into a squalid nuisance, as it slowly rotted away in lugubrious decay over the next 30 years. It turned black, became covered with dandelions and thistles, was occupied by stray cats and overnight vagrants, and was teeming with rats. To Schama, the fate of the plaster elephant symbolizes the decay of the Revolution itself.

His story ends with a real lion, which had started in the royal menagerie, and ended, still caged but just alive, in the Jardin des Plantes. At the height of the Terror, the lion had been mocked and spat upon as “The King of the Beasts,” being regarded as emblematic of monarchy. Now, after it was all over, “He looked at the English spy who wrote about him (and perhaps sympathized with his fallen heraldic royalty) with a yellow golden eye.”

Schama enlivens the start of his story with a dazzling rhetorical trick. Instead of beginning in 1789, he opens on a morning in 1830, when two old gentlemen were awakened by their servants, bearing news that another revolution had broken out and that the king had fled. One was Lafayette, Washington's adopted son, and an incurably romantic lover of revolutions. On hearing the news, the still spry 73-year-old jumped out of bed, ransacked his wardrobe for his old uniform, put on a bright red wig, and rode into central Paris to resume the role he had occupied in 1789–90 as head of the National Guard. He entered the Hotel de Ville in high excitement, kissed everyone in sight, and propelled himself on to the balcony to receive the plaudits of the crowd.

On that same morning, another old gentleman, 75, was awakened by his servant who told him the news. Even in his youth, Talleyrand had never had much time for revolutionary zeal or rhetorical display. He was, above all, the great survivor. On hearing the news, he groaned heavily. His only move was to tell his servant to unscrew the nameplate from his front door, to avoid any danger of recognition by the mob. “In their own persons,” writes Schama, “Lafayette and Talleyrand embodied the split personality of the French Revolution.” Even Schama's severest critics will have to admit that this is an inspired way to begin a chronicle of the French Revolution.

The very great virtues of this book do not lie in its profound insights, or in the truth of the underlying premise, or in the depth of the research, but rather in the coruscating brilliance of Schama's style, his dazzling display of erudition and intelligence, his unusual stress on the sheer ferocity and brutality of the events. Readers will not soon forget the head of Foulon, hay stuffed in its mouth and stuck on a pike, a gory object that was thrust before his son-in-law with the admonition to “kiss papa,” before he too was strung up and mutilated. Or Theobald Dillon, a defeated general, who was torn from his coach by the mob, slashed in the face, bayoneted to death, and his body hung from a lamppost. His left leg was then cut off. Carried around town as a trophy, and eventually thrown on a bonfire. Or the massacre in cold blood after the surrender of about 600 Swiss Guards, who were stabbed, stoned, and clubbed. Limbs were hacked off, genitals scissored out and stuffed in gaping mouths or fed to dogs. The guards were literally torn to pieces.

Bloodshed, comments Schama, was to the Revolution “the source of energy.” Worst of all were the September massacres of 1792, in which 1,400 prisoners of all sorts, including 19 under the age of 15, suffered similarly ferocious murder without trial at the hands of a bloodthirsty mob, while the leaders of the regime, Roland and Danton, turned a blind eye on what was going on. For Schama, this event “more than any other exposed a central truth of the French Revolution: its dependence on organized killing to accomplish political ends.”

But the killings went on, to the horror of the English caricaturist Gillray and the disillusioned fugitive Talleyrand. A whole region, the Vendèe, was drowned in blood. First the peasants rose and slaughtered some 500 townspeople and Jacobins, a deed to which the forces of the Republic responded by systematically laying waste the whole countryside, killing all living things. The Republican general reported, perhaps boastfully, that “I have crushed children under the feet of horses, massacred women who at least … will bear no more brigands.” It is now thought that, when it was all over, the deaths totaled 250,000, or a third of the prerevolutionary population of the area.

By 1793 the Terror was in full swing. Lyons was punished by the destruction of 1,600 upper-bourgeois houses, while 2,000 persons were guillotined. A barber surgeon wrote to his brother, “What pleasure you would have experienced if, the day before yesterday, you had seen national justice meted out to two hundred and nine villains. What majesty! What improving tone! How completely edifying!” As this quotation suggests, there was something more than a little mad about the rhetoric that accompanied all this killing. St. Just declared that “the Republic consists in the extermination of everything that opposes it.” Desmoulins, following Mirabeau, observed that “liberty is a bitch who likes to be bedded on a mattress of cadavers.”

Schama is careful to point out that these killings were not universal, that they were interspersed with great national festivities of love and unity attended by ecstatic crowds of hundreds of thousands. The first took place in the summer of 1790, with the huge Festival of Federation, designed to be a symbolic gesture of revolutionary unity. The show took place in the Champs de Mars, where the sacred oath was taken on the “Altar of the Fatherland,” after the skeptical Talleyrand, still bishop of Autun, had blessed the ceremony with a mass and benediction while the rain dribbled off his miter. Meanwhile utopian orators issued a “Declaration of Peace to the World.”

Another such episode, symbolizing fraternity amid the mutual purges of the rulers and spontaneous massacres of the ruled, was the Festival of Unity and Indivisibility in the Place de la Bastille in August 1793. It was carefully choreographed by David to imitate the taking of the sacrament in a cathedral, but it was addressed to the incarnation of Nature rather than to God. Other spectacular ceremonies took place elsewhere the same day, one to a stature of Liberty in the Place de la Revolution, another to a gigantic statue of Hercules on the Invalides, representing “The French People Crushing Federalism.” As Schama points out, by 1793–94 David had become the Albert Speer of the Revolution, drawing up fantastic plans for a colossal domed amphitheater for the massed spectacles and patriotic displays so beloved by Robespierre.

These joint efforts culminated in June 1794 with the “Festival of the Supreme Being,” a new religious creed invented by Robespierre only a month before, and now displayed before a bemused public. The oratorio was sung by a massed choir of 2,400, the key moments being the singing of the new “Hymn to the Supreme Being” and the old “Marseillaise.” To conclude the proceedings, Robespierre made a speech in favor of Liberty and Virtue, and finally burned the effigy of Atheism, from which emerged (slightly sooty) the statue of Wisdom. Schama remarks sardonically, “While banks of roses perfumed the air at one end of Paris, puddles of blood contaminated it at the other end,” to which the guillotine had been moved. Nor was this the end of such displays, for Robespierre had already decreed other festivities to celebrate Truth, Justice, Modesty, Friendship, Frugality, Courage, Sincerity, Liberty of the World, and other such improving and inspiring concepts.

For the postmodern sensibilities of the late 1980s, as displayed by Schama, the Revolution has become, then, little more than a prolonged of irrational display, composed of irrational rhetorical bombast, scenes of massacre and executions, and gigantic public rituals—mere talk, blood, and circuses, comparable to the Iranian revolution of the late 1970s. The only apparent result of the Revolution, Schama argues, was to hinder the advance of the economic and social modernization of France and the rise to power of the already emergent bourgeoisie. It is reduced by him to a sideshow, a bloody accident on the highway of history, although one that he describes with magnificent brio and conviction.

But one may legitimately argue that there is more to be said about the long-term consequences of these cataclysmic events than Schama is willing to allow. If today we are celebrating the bicentenary of the French Revolution, it is not for its evident political failures from 1789 to 1794, or for its appetite for blood. We celebrate it because we believe that most of the elements of the modern world were first adumbrated in the 1790s in Paris.

It was, above all, a revolution of words, offered to the world in a sudden outpouring of pamphlets and newspapers unleashed by the lifting of censorship. Among these words there emerged ideas such as the equality of all citizens before the law; liberty; the Declaration of the Rights of Man; manhood suffrage; republicanism; the abolition of titles, privileges, and monopolies; state-supported education at all levels; the encouragement of science; the granting of divorce on demand; the triumph of reason over superstition; the separation of Church and State; the modern bureaucratic state; mass mobilization for war, and a cult of patriotism to sustain it. (The last ideology became so extreme that the writers of sex manuals began urging their readers to use a “patriotic position.”) We are fascinated not by all the madness and horror, but by Wordsworth's ecstasy and enthusiasm on hearing of the fall of the Bastille: “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive …,” an emotion based on the belief that a new age of freedom, reason, and happiness was struggling to be born.

The Revolution from 1789 to 1794 was certainly short on achievement. Indeed, it was largely the disaster that Schama so relentlessly portrays. But it was also long on innovatory ideas and institutions, many of which are still cherished by us today. Those ideas, propagated by the printing press, tend to get lost sight of in the rush to chronicle all the accompanying atrocities. Even if it was drenched in blood, the French Revolution was fueled by ideas and words: emotive, heavily charged ideas and words that still move us today. It would be unfair, however, to end on such a downbeat note. Schama's chronicle is, after all, a stunningly virtuoso performance. It deserves to win the 1789 sweepstakes.

Robert M. Maniquis (review date 21 May 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 fantasy of Marxists. Rather, it interrupted the bourgeoisifying of France, impeded modernization, and established human rights only to suppress them. The revolution was a bizarre process of demanding human rights only to suppress them. Worst of all, it was a vast spectacle of horror held together from beginning to end by popular savagery and official atrocities—“bloodshed was not the unfortunate by-product of revolution, it was the source of its energy. … Violence is what made the revolution revolutionary.” Violence of the streets and of the state, then, is Schama's central subject, which he confronts with both high moral seriousness and appalling superficiality.

If during the revolution there was a “brutal competition” between “the power of the state and the effervescence of politics,” Schama suggests we analyze the “problematic relationship between patriotism and liberty.” If “revolutionary behavior” is what he suggests it is—a kind of madness—then perhaps we shall find a “clue” in the “eighteenth-century belief that citizenship was, in part, the public expression of an idealized family.” Patriotism, liberty, the family and revolutionary violence are connected ideas to be analyzed in an explanation of violence, but nowhere does this explanation convincingly materialize. Schama simply yokes these ideas loosely together and leaves us to make the connections. He warns us that his book “may well strike the reader as story rather than history.” But the reader should also be warned that Schama's considerable literary gusto dissolves at the end of this huge tome into a few meager ideas.

The Citizen becomes collectivized (Schama often uses 20th-Century concepts in describing 18th-Century France) and is set against the “Uncitizen.” The main means of doing this are spectacle, rhetoric, and exterminating violence. Why did this happen in the way it did? Here Schama falls back upon two huge words—reason and romanticism—which he bounces off each other hoping that their resonances will pass for explanation.

Schama chronicles a good deal in nearly 900 pages. And much can be learned here about the idea of the citizen, France's sophistication in scientific research, and its commercial energy in the late 18th Century. Entertaining chapters lead off with fascinating subjects, events, or things—Napoleon's pompous elephant fountain, the survival strategies of Talleyrand (Schama's intellectual hero), Palloy as demolisher of the Bastille and souvenir promoter, the Bastille in legend and fact, mini-biographies of Mirabeau, Lafayette, Robespierre, Louis XVI and many others. But after Schama has told some very good anecdotes and rounded up the usual historical suspects, these satellite narratives tend to fall away as the rhythm of horror accelerates halfway through the book at the year 1793.

For Schama, the Terror completes the transformation of the idealized citizens of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” into bloodthirsty brothers of a State Family. He accuses most Anglo-American historians of moral cowardice—for not facing up to the true horrors that begin with the Fall of the Bastille, continue into the September Massacres of 1792, the Vendée massacres and the mechanization of the “police state” of France, the first example of modern totalitarianism. Schama's sermonizing of other historians is unfair and tendentiously ignores some of the historiography of the French Revolution since the 19th Century.

Others have condemned what Schama condemns, while trying also to avoid the loaded rhetoric common in French sources Schama cites, many of which are implicated in contemporary French political battles. And some historians even use the facile analogies Schama is fond of. Saint-Just's ideas, for instance, he blends metaphorically into Leninism. Robespierre's republican festivals he turns into anticipation of the Nazis. Describing Jacques-Louis David's and Hubert's idea of a national park with “an enormous domed amphitheater at its center crowned by a statue of Liberty, suitable for … mass spectacles and patriotic games.” Schama says that “Albert Speer was not, then, the first to plan an architectural ideology around this kind of colossal collectivism.”

Intellectual laziness always leads to this kind of fast and loose analogizing. Could we add to Nazi massification and the popular assemblies of Robespierre the giganticism of the Houston Astrodome, another sinister Romantic center of collective patriotism? How about Forest Lawn where in Los Angeles a vast assembly of dead citizens is gathered under the flag and architectural imitations from revolutionary days. Schama's glib analogizing is not any less annoying for his implicit excuse that “the modern political world coincided precisely with the birth of the modern novel.” The word precisely is typical of the imprecision in Schama's historical thinking, which rests on an appeal to the novelist's license to extinguish, whenever he needs to, all historical distinctions and differences.

Schama's moral concern seems to be of the highest order. But it is because his subject is so morally important that his ideas are so disappointing. Alert readers will grow suspicious as the author begins to rely regularly on the idea of romanticism, which produces notions such as this: “It was just because the “new patriotism was in effect a Romantic reworking of much older theses of history—blood, honor, and soil—that it was so irresistibly arousing”—a jejune begging of the question if there ever was one. Romantic and romanticism are the kinds of worlds writers like Schama use when they want to psychologize history but are not exactly sure what they mean.

For all his berating of other historians for their supposed silence on the Revolutionary Terror, for all his promised explanation of evil normalized and savagery officialized, all we really learn is that the Terror was probably just a matter of Romantic style:

“… It was perhaps Romanticism, with its addiction to the Absolute and the Ideal, its fondness for the vertiginous and the macabre; its concept of political energy as, above all, electrical; its obsession with the heart; its preference for passion over reason, or virtue over peace, that supplied a crucial ingredient in the mentality of the revolutionary elite; its association of liberty with wildness.” This vague idea becomes, a few lines later, virtually a principle of historical explanation called the “Romanticization of violence.”

Madame Roland, it was said, cried out before being guillotined, “O! Liberty, what crimes have been committed in thy name!” The story is apocryphal but the legendary cry rings with truth. And Schama is obviously right—those horrors must be condemned and despised. But in 1989, in a world of official and technological terror, it is important to try seriously to understand all early forms of modern violence. In this task Schama is of little help. Worse, he confuses the issue and for many readers he may even diffuse the importance of past horrors in historical cliches disguised as just another good story.

William Doyle (review date 26 May 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 in French as well as Dutch archives and sources, so he is well qualified to chronicle the awesome upheaval whose bicentenary is being commemorated this year. No bigger book is likely to enjoy more popular success, for Schama writes with verve, style and colour and his text [in Citizens] is generously illustrated with hundreds of contemporary pictures.

The text is generous, too, in every sense—long and expansive, with no scholarly carping or sniping, and acknowledging debts in full in an extensive and useful bibliography. The technique will also appeal, if we can judge from the sustained success of Claude Manceron's The Men of Liberty, which is clearly one of Schama's models. Topics are introduced through the experience of individuals, some of whom, like Talleyrand, Lafayette and Malesherbes, keep reappearing throughout the story to highlight its human realities and lend it continuity. But whereas Manceron's multiple volumes never rise beyond anecdote and narrative, Schama, despite his disarmingly modest subtitle, attempts throughout to explain and analyse as well as chronicle.

In this he achieves considerable success—more, oddly enough, than in many of the narrative passages, which are often curiously bald and breathless. Where he excels is in setting a scene, capturing a mood and evoking a significant detail. The pictures, too, are always related to the text, and often analysed in depth, with all the stimulating insight familiar from The Embarrassment of Riches. And, despite a number of minor factual errors, Schama's judgments are usually informed by the latest scholarship and interpretations in a field increasingly bewildering to all but the most precise specialists.

What, then, will those specialists think? They will admire the ambition, the sweep and the range. They will be stimulated at every turn by the aphorisms and one-line insights into problems they may have spent years hopelessly pondering. They will particularly appreciate the sure touch with which, in the first third of the book, Schama anatomises the old regime—or at least the upper reaches of it. But they will be worried, too, about how little he has to say about the majority of the population. Schama's old regime, like Reagan's America in which (and largely for which) the book was written, enjoys surging prosperity but has little place or thought for the poor or the unsuccessful. When the people, to whom so much scholarly attention has been given, do enter the story, they come in late, and they are scarcely made welcome. In fact, they spoil what otherwise might have been a splendid and relatively bloodless affair.

And this scarcely-veiled distaste for the populace makes inexplicable the biggest surprise in a book otherwise so firmly in the modern scholarly mainstream. It stops in 1794. All the classic histories did so, of course; but that was because their authors mostly saw the fall of Robespierre as the tragic end of the popular republic, after which little worth recording occurred. But since the 1960s some of the best work on the revolution has focused on the Directory, and one might have expected Schama to draw on this to show how popular savagery was at last tamed and an attempt made to get back to the true principles of 1789. There is plenty of colour and drama in the Directory, too, to be exploited by his outstanding descriptive talents. But no coherent explanation is given for ending at Thermidor, and in the absence of that we are perhaps entitled to speculate. He simply seems to have run out of space, or time.

Incapable, as he admits in the preface, of writing a short book, he takes too long to get into his stride. The Bastille, for example, only falls on page 403 of the 875-page text, and by the spring of 1794 everything is moving at a breathless gallop, suggesting that a publisher's guillotine was falling. As to the overall, long-term significance of the revolution, it is dispatched in a 25-page epilogue which, stripped of Schama's normal colourful imagery and human-interest vignettes, amounts to even less.

This resolute refusal to stand back and assess what is being described recalls the technique of J. M. Thompson, father of the modern study of the French revolution in England. Thompson's own general history of the revolution also stopped abruptly in 1794. Written 45 years ago, that highly idiosyncratic survey has never gone out of print: a tribute to its warmly human qualities. Now at last it has found a worthy successor, destined doubtless to last as long.

A. D. Wright (review date June 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 spread of the volume is portentous, its contents rich with unexpected resources. The theme of presumption averted is also much illustrated here, and it is notorious that a few critics, highly qualified in either Dutch or Art History, were conspicuous for their refusal to join the chorus of praise which accompanied the first appearance of this study. With the passage of time an appraisal more conforming to the supposedly golden mean of Dutch Republican culture may be attempted; for it is certainly one of the book's greatest strengths that it seeks to interpret the Dutch culture of the Golden Age not retrospectively from the period of Patriotic Revolution which the author first studied, but from the Christian Humanist perspective, inherited by the independent Dutch and only partially alloyed by Calvinist prescription. In such an expansive work, it is perhaps inevitable that in a few rare cases inconsistencies of description or interpretation remain. But the author might indeed point the lesson of the ambiguities with which, as he shows, the Dutch themselves lived. More seriously the eclectic insights of the learning here displayed, in a material manifestation of text and illustration which reflects the Dutch delight in innocent profusion and liberality of spirit, occasionally run not deep but into shallows of frothy verbiage. Other passages, however, contain a truly moving response to Dutch experience, not only with reference to a contemporary society beloved of the author, but precisely in relation to the religious inspiration which fortified the original Republican response to the dangers which threatened from Nature and from the tyranny of men. Yet it is with the author's interpretation of the Dutch reaction to geographical situation which a reviewer might first take issue.

The initial insistence that local opposition in the Northern Netherlands to the attempted centralisation of Spanish-controlled administration arose above all from objection to the overriding of local expertise in the vital management of sustaining or devouring water is most timely. Yet the apparent implication that this neatly explains the painful genesis of a reluctant set of communities into a defensive association and ultimately into a supposed Republic, however much in fact still an unstable alliance of barely compatible societies and interests, surely disguises and historical problem. Although the author does at times introduce the comparison of other states, not least Venice, it is not necessary to be a follower of the enthusiasms of the New Right to notice that other historical examples of the meticulous regulation of water systems produced markedly more authoritarian government than that of the so-called United Provinces, whether truly despotic or (as in the Venetian case) explicitly oligarchic. Beyond this initial problem indeed there lies a source of wider disquiet for the reader. The punctilious reminders of the author that the Exodus of the Dutch was marked by the retention not the abandonment of the particularism which made them not a single race but a family of local tribes nevertheless conceal a sleight of hand. For the undoubted brilliance of the textual discourse tends to distract from the fact that many of the illustrations, on which the text substantially rests, are drawn from one single province, often indeed from one exceptional city, and usually from the world of one particular class. In other words there is a perpetual danger in this work that the Dutch Culture of the Golden Age becomes once again the culture of Holland, or that peculiar to Amsterdam itself, and most commonly that of burgher society. Obviously this does not arise from the neglectful assumptions of undergraduates. But rather it is the very brilliance of the visual analysis which seems to have been captivated by the temptations of abundant imagery: a moral which Calvinist as well as Jewish commentators might themselves have drawn. Nor, it may be suggested, is this perfectly counteracted by the important emphasis on some contemporary publications in more popular editions, with cheaper and in that sense more accessible illustrations.

The marginal categories in Dutch society, whether distinguished by criminality, poverty, age, gender, racial distinction or sexual orientation, do indeed receive sympathetic consideration. But they remain marginal precisely because the chosen line of argument, chiefly from visual evidence, even in a society where access to works of art was unusually extended, is not balanced by equivalent attention to other evidence, above all archival. Such documentary evidence is, of course, not entirely absent, and for both specialist and more general readers the Notes and select Bibliography will surely prove most fruitful. But in an argument which so distinguishes the achievement of a precarious but ultimate balance as the chief character of Dutch Republication society, it is decidedly odd to read so very little about the non-maritime provinces, so little indeed about Friesland, and so relatively little even about Zeeland. Perhaps more important still, the fundamental clash within the Calvinist Church, between Arminians and their opponents, to which contemporaries gave so much importance on an international scale, is only faintly echoed here. The partly related political violence within the Republic receives more attention; yet it is possibly from its decidedly singular approach that the work derives its real brilliance. On many specific topics, such as the positive appreciation by the Dutch of Old Testament precedents for their own miraculous history, going far beyond a negative reaction to much traditional imagery of Christological, Marian or hagiographic inspiration, this volume is undoubtedly rich in wisdom. The author's sympathy with such parallels also allows him the truly educative structure which leads the reader, not through formal chronology, still with sure footing from the first dangers of the Netherlandish rebels to the relative harmony of independence, with its subsequent price of gentle decline form the heroism of an over-exposed triumph. Other valuable insights include comment on the precise treatment of bankers by the Calvinist Church or the personal and moving concluding discussion of infant mortality and survival. The work is impressively brilliant in its undoubted richness, even if the golden mean of historical analysis is missed.

Paul Johnson (review date 15 July 1989)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 Ayatollah's ‘Islamic Republic’. That bloodthirsty old man was allowed to return from his French exile to complete the destruction of the Shah, regarded in Paris as a British stooge. A decade and a million corpses later, what is there to show for it except intolerance, cruelty, poverty and the almost complete destruction of Persia's creative life? The Algerian ‘revolution,’ inspired by the events of 1789 as well as Marx, has produced similar moral and economic bankruptcy. As one of its begetters confessed, the result had been ‘totally negative,’ the country was ‘a ruin,’ its agriculture had been ‘assassinated’ and its industry reduced to ‘scrap iron’. The Libya of Gaddaffi, another ‘1789 man,’ tells the same story. Castro's Cuba, Ho Chi Minh's Vietnam, two more revolutions inspired by the Paris mystique, are notable for political prisoners on a huge scale, a complete absence of liberty of any kind, grotesquely low living standards and the highest percentage of the population in uniform of any societies on earth.

The cult of revolution is, indeed, one of humanity's great self-inflicted wounds. One can think of few that have achieved anything positive for the commonweal which could not have been secured by peaceful means. That is why the British have been right to treat the revolution of the 1640s as a tragedy and to play down even the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688: our national mythology has always revolved around ‘the Constitution’. France, by contrast, has been landed with a revolutionary tradition, which soaked the country in blood as recently as 1944–45 and might well have done so again in 1958. For this, as Simon Schama points out [in Citizens], the historians are at least in part to blame, for failing to give due weight to the darker side of events from 1789. His rich and readable narrative account is not exactly an attempt to de-mythologise the French Revolution, but the factual evidence he presents demonstrates its appalling cruelty and its ultimate futility.

France in the 1780s was fundamentally a free-and-easy society in the process of becoming yet more liberal. It had few of the characteristics of a despotism, even an enlightened one. It had overstretched its resources and was going through a recession, but it was a potentially rich country crowded with gifted and original people. It could so easily have taken the path of constitutionalism, prosperity and peace. Instead, it fell into the hands of men with an appetite for violent change, who put ideas before people. Most of them were intellectuals or pseudo-intellectuals, professional men with a taste for verbal extremism. Schama notes that the 1792 Convention was largely composed of lawyers (47 per cent), ‘patriot clergy,’ civil servants and doctors, with a strong contingent of journalists, writers and pamphleteers, who exercised a disproportionate influence. ‘These writers,’ he adds, ‘transferred into the debating chamber the kind of histrionic, accusatory style they had perfected in their journalism’. They generated an atmosphere of intense verbal violence in debate, with orators ‘shaking their fists at each other and screaming to be heard from opposite ends of the hall’. This atmosphere eventually took over the real world outside. The French Revolution is the classic demonstration of the capacity of words to kill.

We tend to see the epitome of revolutionary violence in the guillotine, a good example of humanitarian idealism turned into terror and of culture lending itself to brutality—the prototype was fabricated in a week, in April 1792, by a German piano-maker, Tobias Schmidt. But most of those who died in the Revolution were killed in a much more aimless manner. Schama rightly dwells on the ‘September Massacres,’ in which about 1400 people were murdered in cold blood. They have been sanitised by pro-Revolutionary historians. Indeed Schama accuses Pierre Caron, the leading authority on the episode, of producing ‘a monument of intellectual cowardice and moral self-delusion’. He puts the blame where it belongs, on the Interior Minister, Roland, on Danton, and on such enthusiastic killers as Stanislas Maillard, who claimed to be the hero of the storming of the Bastille, and who led a band of paramilitary cut-throats.

The victims were in almost every case harmless men and women who happened to be in prison charged with a variety of ‘political’ offences. Many were priests, taken out into courtyards and gardens and hacked to pieces with a variety of knives, axes and swords—one of the killers, a butcher by trade, used a carpenter's saw. The executioners, paid for their travail as they called it, worked in ‘profound and sombre silence’. Many of those chopped to pieces, especially at three of the prisons, were common criminals, including beggars, and adolescent boys who, under the rules of the old régime, could be held in custody at the request of their families. Of 162 inmates slaughtered at the Bicêtre prison, 43 were boys under 18: two of them were 13 and one was only 12. The tally at La Salpêtrière prison included 40 wretched women who had been arrested for prostitution.

The notion that the Revolution was in some way a noble venture marred by excesses does not, in my view, survive a close examination of the facts, which reveals not merely atrocious crimes but endless petty-minded cruelties at every stage. Most of the chief actors were pretty worthless. Schama gives a sardonic account of the death of Mirabeau, from natural causes, which contemporaries attributed to his gross sexual antics. The precise nature of his disease is in dispute but, just before the final phase of violent intestinal cramps came on, the great verbalist had spent a night with two girls from the opera. On his death bed, he had the revolutionary last rites, as it were, administered by Talleyrand, that merde en bas de soi as Buonaparte later called him. At the autopsy, rumour had it, the corpse produced ‘an imposing erection’.

It is spine-chilling to read again the wicked fatuities mouthed at the revolutionary rostrum. Madame Roland proclaimed that the wars which the Revolution unleashed and which were to engulf Europe for a generation would be ‘a school of virtue’. Robespierre, to do him justice, was the only one to try to refute this insensate notion. ‘No one,’ he remarked shrewdly, ‘likes armed missionaries’; he saw that a war to promote revolution would most likely produce a military dictatorship, as indeed it did. In other respects, however, Robespierre, with his cruel moral relativism, embodied the cardinal sin of all revolutions, the heartlessness of ideas. Equally chilling was his disciple Saint-Just, electrifying his hearers in a brilliant icy speech explaining why it would be wrong to give the king a fair trial. ‘Tresses of black hair fell on his shoulders,’ Schama writes, ‘a single golden earring hung from a lobe and [his] habitual expression was carefully arranged into a manner of unapproachable aloofness’. We have come across this type in our own day, alas.

Schama, who has a good eye for the telling detail, gives an excellent account of the assassination of Marat, another repellent creature. Marat had his defenders, of course, at the time and after. His younger brother, who taught Pushkin, explained how kind he was, taking him as a boy to the ward housing the wretched victims of tertiary syphilis, as a warning against promiscuity. But many will find this story as off-putting as Mirabeau's loathsome orgies: one is always left undecided, after reading an unvarnished account of the Revolution, as to which were the worst—the unconscionable libertines, out for what they could get, or the self-righteous fanatics, imposing their virtue at whatever cost. It is satisfying to be reminded that Marat allowed Charlotte Corday into his room because he could not resist her shouted claims that she had a list of people to inform on. His last words seem to have been: ‘Good. In a few days I will have them all guillotined’.

Corday, indeed, is the nearest to a heroine the revolutionary ranks produced. Most of the women were dreadful: one, Schama relates, said she would like to chop ‘the monster’ (Corday) up and eat her filthy body, piece by piece. A German, Adam Lux, who had joined the ‘patriots’ in Paris but became infatuated with Corday and wrote a poem comparing her to Brutus, was guillotined. So the killings went on until outright tyranny took over, as it always does. The French Revolution is without any redeeming feature. ‘A bottomless pit of sorrow and confusion’ is the phrase Schama uses of one of its episodes, which will serve for all. It was made possible, like most revolutions, by the excessive liberalism and indecision of authority. It might have occurred in Britain, not in the 1790s but in the years 1816–20. Happily, Lord Liverpool had actually been present at the storming of the Bastille and had imbibed its lesson as he saw it. Hence, when the trial came, after the so-called Peterloo Massacre in August 1819, he backed the magistrates and put through the Six Acts, three of which effectively ruled out an armed uprising. We have no revolutionary tradition here in consequence, and we should leave the French to celebrate their high-minded bloodbath on their own.

Benjamin R. Barber (review date 12 March 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 (the Estates-General were convened in Versailles in 1789; Louis XVI was subsequently tried and executed), there are and can be no impartial spectators and thus there is no such thing as historical truth. For however wedded to impartiality historians may be, they always live in two worlds: a world of the past, which may be conceived of hypothetically as having some unitary meaning, and their own world of the present, which imbues them with values, preferences and biases from which historical meaning can never be entirely disentangled. (Was Louis “tried and executed by patriots” or was he “framed and assassinated by traitors”? Did his execution define or betray the Revolution?)

In America the history of the founding as mediated by the Progressive historians and their Lockean critics from Louis Hartz to John Patrick Diggins has mirrored the profound contest over the meaning of America waged by ideologues and politicians: Are we a nation of conflicting classes or a nation of centrist consensus? Is the relationship between property and liberty adversarial or complementary? In answering such questions the American historian has, in Louis Hartz's own words, “tended to be an erudite reflection of the limited social perspectives of the average American himself.” Alas for truth, there turn out to be as many perspectives on the founding as there are average Americans (that is to say, quite a few).

History is not exactly fable, then, but the multiplicity of historians and the variety of their histories make it endlessly contestable and hence unavoidably fable-like. In the case of the French Revolution, one of those stellar compound happenings that, in Louis Blanc's phrase, made it appear to its early chroniclers as “the most sublime event in history,” the histories number in the hundreds. The chroniclers were at work before events could run their full course, denigrating them (Burke) or celebrating them (Paine, Condorcet and, following the fall of Napoleon, Mignet and Thiers) with little less zeal than had been displayed by their historical subjects. On the two-hundredth anniversary of the capture of the Bastille they show not the slightest sign of tiring—re-revisionists resolutely revising the revisionist accounts of still earlier revisers in a battle not simply over the meaning of history but over the meaning of modern France, modern democracy, modernity itself.

This is not to suggest that history is a matter of political whimsy or wholesale ideological invention. Positivist and Marxist historians uncovered and utilized village records and demographic data that enabled them to take the measure of social forces that were nearly invisible to the early chroniclers. Careful review of these and other data by revisionist historians like Alfred Cobban and Richard Cobb compelled Marxists to acknowledge that the human costs of repressing counterrevolution had been far greater than they had allowed, and made some of their “explanations” of revolutionary violence look like whitewashes. But finally, numbers are just numbers, and meaning can scarcely be decided by counting. If “only” 4 million instead of 6 million were killed in the Holocaust, if 250,000 rather than “just” 40,000 died in the suppression of the counterrevolution in the Vendée, are these events more or less grave? more or less despicable? forgivable? astonishing? explicable? The numbers alone will never tell us.

Each age since the 1815 Treaty of Paris has enjoyed its own French Revolution, based in part on the political needs of the time. Thus the Romantics of the first half of the nineteenth century, still chasing the ideals of revolution in a Europe in the throes of ongoing political and social struggle, told a story of awesome men pursuing Rousseauist ideals to the death. The Great Tradition celebrated the Revolution uncritically, rationalizing the overthrow of the Girondins and the appalling excesses of the Terror, turning the aggressions of revolutionary armies into crusades of liberation and assuming that but for the revolutionaries, France would have remained aristocratic, hegemonic and feudal into the nineteenth century and beyond. None were so fulsome or convincing as Jules Michelet, to whom (in his monumental history, written over a period of twenty years and completed only in 1868) the Revolution appeared as a Hegelian consummation of history itself: “The spirit of the Revolution … contains the secret of all previous times,” he wrote. “Only in it did France become conscious of herself.”

Romantic and idealist celebrations of the Revolution as the triumph of liberal nationalism gave way in midcentury (as Norman Hampson suggests in an excellent essay on historiography in George Best's The Permanent Revolution: The French Revolution and Its Legacy) to Positivist and Marxist accounts emphasizing, in the spirit of Auguste Comte's new science, objective social forces rather than individual men and their parties. The new history saw in men like Necker, Mirabeau, Lafayette, Danton and Saint-Just bearers of class standards and economic interests rather than idiosyncratic individuals; the Revolution became a forge of class rather than national identity. Nonetheless, history remained on the side of justification, leaving the Revolution on the side of history.

Yet the revisionist tradition of the past twenty-five years, starting with Alfred Cobban's reassessment in the early 1960s, actually began with Alexis de Tocqueville's The Ancien Régime and the Revolution, published in 1856. Tocqueville argued that the Bourbons had already gone a long way toward destroying feudalism along with its aristocratic local liberties by centralizing and modernizing France, and that the Revolution therefore had to be regarded as part of rather than an alternative to those powerfully paternalistic, modernizing tendencies. Thus was established the core interpretive dilemma of the Revolution: Did it interrupt and perhaps even overthrow an old regime wallowing in feudalism, and thereby initiate France's (Europe's) democratization and modernization, as its fans, scientific as well as romantic, wish to think? Or did it merely reinforce and continue a modernizing process already under way? Or perhaps, as radical revisionists like Simon Schama insist, did it even contradict and try to roll back those emerging forces of modernization? Was the monarchy part of the ancien régime that needed to be overcome, or was it an instrument of modernization that had contributed to the liquidation of France's feudal liberties and federalist autonomies—with, for example, the abolition of the parlements—and therefore could be attacked by revolutionaries only at the cost of progress?

The dispute was not to be quickly resolved. On the eve of World War II, the great Georges Lefebvre could still believe, in his The Coming of the French Revolution, that France's most potent symbol of modern liberty was its revolutionary tradition, which could be a bastion of liberal and egalitarian ideals that might motivate the war against National Socialism. After the war, with the triumph of democracy and the defeat of Vichy (the last gasp, so to speak, of the Vendée counterrevolution), the French lost a certain interest in the need to uphold the revolutionary legacy. Marxists like Albert Soboul (the postwar occupant of the chair of revolutionary studies established at the time of the centennial celebration and previously occupied by such Marxist titans as Mathiez and Lefebvre) have continued to refine their celebratory thesis, using the Revolution to defend an egalitarian agenda, but British and American historians entered the debates in the 1960s with a more critical perspective, one that spelled the end of the Great Tradition. This new perspective has increasingly been employed to take the revolution out of the French Revolution.

In recent years revolutionary historiography has responded to the millennial spirit that has been seeping into academic discourse and then bleeding back out again in the form of teleological terminalism (“The end is at hand!”) disguised as unitarianism (“Everything is converging!”) and manifested as hope (“All conflict is over!”). We have arrived at (take your pick) the end of ideology, the end of nature, the end of communism, the end of the cold war, the end of war itself, the end of historical progress, the end of history itself (again Hegel). No wonder, then, that historians of the French Revolution have come to accept François Furet's conviction that at long last one can say, “The French Revolution is over,” in historiography no less than in history [see Daniel Singer, “Dancing on the Grave of Revolution,” February 6, 1989]. And so, the old battles finished, the time for serious clinical analysis has finally come.

Or has it? There is plenty of contradictory evidence. As liberty pops up here, it vanishes there, eroding in Manila, emerging in Prague; threatened in San Salvador, reborn in Buenos Aires; crushed in Beijing, rediscovered in Moscow. The ideological bickering manifested in Margaret Thatcher's curmudgeonly remarks at the official celebration of the Revolution in France last summer suggests the Revolution isn't over yet for some people. Not at least for the Catholic Church, which not so long ago beatified ninety-nine martyrs from Angers who were victims of the Revolution.

Even stronger evidence against Furet's claim can be found in the latest entry in the French Revolution's scholastic sweepstakes: Simon Schama's voluminous Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. (No historian can enter this contest weighing in under a couple of reams; “the most sublime event in history” calls for more than a monograph and often elicits multivolume efforts.) On the face of it Schama's book, the most widely reviewed and certainly the most widely read of the torrent of bicentennial publications on the Revolution, is nominally in the mood of Furet. Schama is a spoiler, a realist, a deconstructionist and demystifier who is unwilling to celebrate a Revolution that by the revised standards of class identification and attitude seems so antimodern and by the revised numbers of the Revolution's casualties seems so costly.

Schama is, however, no scientistic heir to the pretensions of nineteenth-century social and economic analysis, with its focus on forces rather than individuals and social structures rather than events. On the contrary, Schama quite prefers the methods of the oldest kind of history: history as un-self-conscious prephilosophical chronicle. And, let it be said, Schama has unquestionably assembled and stylishly embellished the most entertaining, readable and absorbing compendium of anecdotes, stories and gossip about the Revolution that has been seen, at least since Carlyle.

But that Citizens is any more dispassionate than the ancient chronicles of Herodotus or Livy, or that its author grinds no axes and stands impartially before the “truth” of history, will be believed by no one who actually reads his book. Far from being over, with Schama the battle for the French Revolution is rejoined with unprecedented gusto. Skepticism also has an affirmative agenda: When arguments that once were used to criticize and undermine men and institutions (say, of the old regime) are “demythologized,” these men and institutions are miraculously rehabilitated and relegitimized. The radical critique of radicalism, intentionally or not, rationalizes status quos—a lesson radical advocates of deconstruction seem not yet to have learned. Even David Hume, that champion of rational skepticism, noted that skepticism was but the first step toward becoming a sound, believing Christian.

Now, Simon Schama has unquestionably written an extraordinarily readable and provocative chronicle of the French Revolution. A Harvard historian who previously published an equally adroit study of the famously prosperous Dutch Republic, Schama is not just a revisionist. Nor is he just a conservative who dismisses the Revolution's emancipatory rhetoric as window dressing for what were in his eyes profoundly anticapitalist and antimodern tendencies among the revolutionaries (the Revolution, writes Schama, “was as much the interruption as the catalyst of modernity”). His is a more timely and fashionable skepticism: the facile cynicism of the Reagan 1980s, combining Reagan's secular moralizing with youthful anti-Reagan cynicism-cum-nihilism. This is yuppography, less anti-political than uninterested in politics, less ideologically neutered.

Schama's story of the French Revolution reads as if Tom Wolfe had happened upon the Minutemen at Lexington and taken gleeful notice only of the dirt on the farmer's hands and the narrow, peasant glint of their rebellious eyes, as if Jay McInerney had captured the struggle for civil rights by writing a snappy tome on Sammy Davis Jr.'s career in Las Vegas. Like other fashionable writers of the 1980s, Schama comes on like a precocious whippersnapper: breezy, acute, sassy, brilliant, sneering, facile, wise-ass, dismissive and terminally glib. How's this for a facile account of the Bastille: “Conditions were by no means as bad as in other prisons. … For that matter, compared with what twentieth-century tyrannies have provided, the Bastille was paradise.” Sure. And compared with the Holocaust, the repression of the counterrevolution in the Vendée, about which Schama and the revisionists are so exercised, was a picnic. So what? But then, this is style that is in large part about having a style, and when it comes to style, “So what?” simply is not a pertinent question.

Indeed, style often seems to take the place of argument in Schama's scheme of history. In the chronicler's drama, violence plays better than politics. Peace and happiness are, as Hegel reminds us, blank pages in history's bloody book; Schama thus prefers to devote his attention to the slaughterbench. Although professing an equal interest in liberty and citizenship (the other two of his three major “themes”), Schama's chief concern is with violence. His book might have been called more suitably Violators. For he is among that cheerful tribe of modern debunkers who seem to think that it is revolutionaries who invent violence, and that the French Revolution can be understood exclusively by reference to that cruel invention. “In some depressingly unavoidable sense, violence was the Revolution itself,” Schama informs us, almost before he has begun his story. By the time he gets to the excesses of the Committee of Public Safety, he is certain that “the Terror was merely 1789 with a higher body count. From the first year it was apparent that violence was not just an unfortunate side effect from which enlightened Patriots could selectively avert their eyes; it was the Revolution's source of collective energy. It was what made the Revolution revolutionary.”

Are we really to believe that there was never an act of political violence in France until a crowd assaulted the Bastille? That arbitrariness and brute force are born of revolution alone rather than of the repression against which revolution conspires? Schama thinks so. Like those who are forever exposing some “outside agitator” to explain social turmoil, Schama discovers history's villains not in its acting victimizers but in its reacting victims. The problem lies with the protesters rather than with the conditions they protest. Schama seems not to know what Douglas Johnson has said everyone must really know, namely, “that there were many examples of injustice and tyranny under the ancien régime, that the Saint Bartholomew massacre did take place, that people starved, were tortured, imprisoned, impressed, expelled from their small-holdings or dismissed from their positions.” Instead, Schama writes “as if violence, oppression and injustice are only associated with the Revolution.”

François Mignet was one of the first great representatives of the Great Tradition, and as such he wrote history that has a Panglossian ring for readers today. But he was being something more than a Pollyanna when he observed that the Revolution had “replaced arbitrariness with law, privilege with equality; it freed men from class distinctions, liberated the soil from provincial barriers, industry from the impediments of the trade guilds, agriculture from feudal burdens and the imposition of tithe, property from the restrictions of entail, and restored everything to a single state, a single law and a single people.” It also ended slavery in the French colonies, emancipated women (to a point) and wrote a model Declaration of Rights. It is all very well to add up the costs of revolution and to shudder at the arithmetic. But one must also know what is being purchased, and how much it is worth. In Schama's math, only violence gets counted. And it is in his account of violence that his biases, his heavy-handedness and his remarkable selectivity emerge most clearly. Just as Paul Fussell, in his book on World War II (Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War), focuses on the capacity of gunpowder to rend and fragment flesh and the propensity of steel to maim and kill men, and thereby concludes naturally enough that the war could not possibly have been justified, so Schama focuses on the endless horrors and multiplying corpses of the Revolution and thereby concludes naturally enough that the Revolution could not possibly have been justified.

Now the condemnation of all war—the “good” ones included—is a powerful moral position, as the example of consistent pacifists reminds us. There is much to be recommended in a healthy skepticism toward the putative achievements of war, violence and revolution; indeed, toward all of what both politicians and revolutionaries claim are the benefits of their ideas and policies. The human costs of order, justice, equality, property and other noble human ideals, progressive and conservative, are often far higher than anticipated. But this is not Schama's position. Yes, he abhors violence, but he abhors violence selectively. What counts as violence in Citizens appears to be a matter of political taste. It is “their” violence (in this case the revolutionaries’ violence) not “ours” (for Schama “our” side is the modernizing monarchy's).

Take the appalling bloodshed at the Tuileries in August 1792. Schama himself tells us that there was confusion aplenty, with the revolutionaries massacring some of their own troops accidentally (their uniforms were red-hued like those of the Swiss guards), and he acknowledges that the vehemence of the slaughter was “largely produced by the impression … that a deliberate trap had been laid for the attackers.” Having said this, however, Schama nonetheless manages to conclude that

the carnage of the tenth of August was not an incidental moment in the history of the Revolution. It was, in fact, its logical consummation. From 1789, perhaps even before that, it had been the willingness of politicians to exploit either the threat or the fact of violence that had given them their power to challenge constituted authority. Bloodshed was not the unfortunate byproduct of revolution, it was the source of its energy. … Means had become ends. [Emphasis added.]

This is a non sequitur nonpareil. Again and again, violence that is circumstantial, explicable by reference to particular conditions Schama himself often alludes to, is turned into generic evidence of the bloody-mindedness of the revolutionaries, of revolution as such.

The pertinent question that must be asked about violence, at least by anyone who is not a consistent pacifist, is, By whom? And to whom? In the opening passage of Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault offers an excruciating eyewitness account of an execution that involves a victim whose “flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and calves with red-hot pincers, his right hand … burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire.” No doubt Schama would have noticed and included this famous execution had it been a product of the Terror. But as it happens, it was the execution of the regicide Damiens by the Crown thirty-two years before the Revolution—and, as Foucault notes, a symbol of the monarchy's awful exercise of hegemonic power over the bodies of men. The awful exercise of the Crown's hegemonic power over the bodies of men lies outside Schama's purview, however.

Our choosy historian is a fastidious observer of the details of victimization, but only when the victimizers are revolutionaries. His casualty lists are intended to support his “demythologization” of the Revolution rather than to give a full account of history's callous evenhandedness: how we pay in blood when we tolerate tyranny, and how we pay in blood when we resist tyranny. Schama is less than evenhanded, however. As in Burke's account of the Revolution, there is ample detail concerning the unhappy fate of the King and Queen. Schama actually abjures glibness in his affecting portrait of the King in extremis: Here the condemned monarch is “responding with husbandly gallantry to the grotesque libels of the press” against Marie Antoinette, expressing “forgiveness to his enemies”; and here the pitiful family, right before the execution, is together for “an hour and three quarters … weeping, kissing and consoling each other as best they could, the little boy [the Prince] clinging to his father's knees.” Nowhere in this 948-page book is there an analogous portrait of a starving peasant, an abused fishmonger, an imprisoned debtor, that rivals this poignant, some might say syrupy, passage. Indeed, Schama's chronicle style necessarily focuses on the story of kings and queens rather than on the life and death of lesser folk. In this sort of history, revolutionaries also die, but for the most part deservedly, and in a fashion Schama tends to mock rather than regret, to explain away rather than condemn. When a 12-year-old boy is gunned down by a royalist platoon at Grenoble, it is only because the regiment has been “goaded beyond endurance.” No one, in Schama's account, is ever “goaded beyond endurance” by the Bourbons.

Tom Paine once objected that Burke's compassion for the Queen managed to pity “the plumage, but forget the dying bird.” For Schama, however, the bird isn't dying, so there is presumably no reason not to fuss over plumage. Actually, Schama's insistence that all was well until the revolutionaries stumbled into history's modernizing way creates an embarrassment of the first magnitude for his general argument. If the bird of state was so game, why did it fall prey to revolutionaries? If the course of events from 1789 was countermodernizing, what was driving history forward?

There was of course the famine, bad weather and all, in the summer of 1788 and the winter of 1789; and then, despite all their confidence in modernizing ministers like Necker, the Bourbons had somehow managed to exhaust the French treasury and send the French debt spiraling upward quite out of control, creating horrendous cash-flow problems. But according to Schama, the “feudal” nobility of the ancien régime putatively “wallowed in plutocracy,” while the old regime was itself actually full of “dynamism and energy.” Indeed, “from the King downward, the elite were less obsessed with tradition than with novelty, and less preoccupied with feudalism than with science.” Despite the pathetic reputation Louis XVI has been lumbered with by historical iconographers of the Revolution, who have unjustly focused on such impertinences as his supposed preference for the hunt above all things and his notorious journal entry on the day the Revolution began, which read, in its entirety, “Nothing,” Schama is persuaded that Louis had displayed an “engaged and lively concern in much of his public business,” taking particular interest in “a special school for blind children.” And though Schama acknowledges the indictment leading to the King's trial and execution offered “a damning chronicle of subterfuge and bad faith” (which, one might have thought, was a goad beyond all endurance), and though only 361 of 721 voting deputies, one-half plus one, actually voted for the King's execution (suggesting it was an agonizing and controversial decision), it is explicable to Schama only as a manifestation of the Revolution's irrepressible taste for violence. Since there was no other good reason for the Revolution to have taken place, Schama's logic necessarily and conveniently concludes that violence was its essence—its meaning and its end.

Now, there is certainly an argument worthy of debate which suggests that certain kinds of violence and certain pathologies of modernity have a common genesis in the Enlightenment, and that this common birth has afflicted modern democracy with a special vulnerability to new forms of tyranny: the dictatorship of the majority and what some like to call totalitarianism, for example. From the time of Tocqueville, observers have noticed that under the rubric of enlightened despotism, the Age of Reason engendered a peculiar alliance between science and dictatorship and between rationality and persecution. In his defense of the Bourbons, Schama is presumably reminding us of just how enlightened the despotism occasionally could be. Unfortunately, this seems to blind him to how despotic the despotism regularly was, and so leaves him unable to explain why the Revolution occurred at all, other than as an aberration, a mistake, an attempt, as we have quoted him, “to arrest, rather than hasten, the process of modernization.”

Some of this bias derives from the paramountcy of economic arguments in the revisionist position. Although Marxist analysis ultimately failed to win the debate about the Revolution, it did succeed in setting the terms; hence much of the controversy about the Revolution now turns on its socioeconomic successes or failures. Since recent research seems to demonstrate fairly conclusively that the Revolution did not do a great deal for capitalism and wreaked the greatest damage on new burgeoning port cities like Marseille, Bordeaux and Toulon, and on bustling manufacturing towns like Lyons and Nantes, the conclusion seems irresistible that, as class war, the Revolution failed. That is, if politics and political ideas are to count for nothing.

Yet the classic celebration of the French Revolution has been a celebration of political rather than class emancipation, and economic arguments are hardly at its core. The Bourbons may have been a modernizing force, but no one has yet claimed they were a democratizing force. The other side of Tocqueville's argument was that modernization entailed centralization, which in turn required that the Bourbons attack and annihilate whatever vestiges of local autonomy and regional democracy had survived the Middle Ages in a system of parlements and provincial government. What united the aristocracy and the emerging bourgeoisie at the outbreak of the Revolution was a common concern for liberty, if of their own distinct kinds. What animated the zeal of the more radical elements in the Revolution was a hatred of privilege, which quickly transformed the aristocracy from an ally into an enemy.

The Revolution, then, was first and foremost a political assault on privilege, as manifested both in the monarchy and in the aristocracy. Schama cites a number of examples of Bourbon hubris, but seems unaware how odious and, in time, how intolerable such behavior and rhetoric might seem to eighteenth-century merchants, farmers, guildsmen and shopkeepers (not to mention aristocrats and churchmen, whose own hubris was being encroached upon). Take this, a typical utterance of Louis XV circa 1766: “In my person alone resides the sovereign power, and it is from me alone that the courts [parlements] hold their existence and their authority. … The whole public order emanates from me since I am its supreme guardian. My people and my person are one and the same.” Even if it could be shown that Louis was a monarch as enlightened and beneficent as Voltaire's favorite despot, Frederick the Great, it would not change the facts of his despotic politics, which assumed his rule originated in heredity, history and ultimately a divine mandate. The challenge of Shakespeare's Richard II is the one to which the revolutionaries rose: “The breath of worldly men,” proclaimed Richard, “cannot depose / The deputy elected by the Lord.” The revolutionary response came in the language of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen: “Men are born free and equal in their rights and social distinctions are founded wholly on convention and utility.”

To Schama, we have seen, the Revolution was ultimately about violence. I would suggest that it was about the rights of kings versus the rights of citizens, about the source of political authority, about what constitutes legitimate government. Hence, when the famous question was posed at Versailles in 1789—whether the old estates should meet separately, according to ancient convention and natural hierarchy, or as one body, united as the incarnation of the French people—it was the political question that was being raised. And to this question there was only one answer—the one offered by Sieyes in his explosive tract What Is the Third Estate? The third estate, Sieyes asserted, is everything. It is freemen born free and equal, it is the people in common, the whole nation, the independent patrie. It is all the political authority there rightfully is, all there legitimately can be. The principle is among the first enunciated in the Declaration of Rights: “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation; no body, no individual, may exercise authority which does not emanate expressly from it.” This, Mr. Schama, is the French Revolution. These words, enunciated first in America and in France, have been the battering rams of emancipation around the globe ever since. They are no less alive in Budapest and Berlin today than they were in Philadelphia and Paris then.

It will come as no surprise that a historian oblivious to politics and fixated on violence should provide almost no substantive discussion whatsoever either of the Declaration itself or of the deliberations that conceived it; or should fail completely to take the measure of how emancipatory the rhetoric of rights could become. Although Schama, like François Furet, emphasizes the significance of rhetoric and ideas, he is mostly silent about the ideals of the Revolution or the democratic aspirations of the rebels—except when he is pillorying hypocrisy along the lines of, And these murderers were supposed to be democrats! When he does confront the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen it is to decry its licentiousness. It brought forth, he concludes, “a political culture in which the liberation of disrespect knew no bounds … a polemical incontinence that washed over the whole country.” What this makes the American Bill of Rights one can only guess (a linguistic bed-wetting that inundated an entire continent?). But then (thank heaven) America is not Schama's subject.

Schama's revolutionary subjects have ideas and beliefs, but the wrong ones. Where the “convictions that fired the [counterrevolutionary] rebellion” that took place in the Vendée are characterized by “depth and simplicity,” the fiery convictions of the revolutionaries turn out to be so many shuddering echoes of Jean Jacques Rousseau's personal psychopathologies. Schama shares with writers like J. L. Talmon and Lester Crocker the happy belief that much of what was wrong with the Revolution intellectually was Rousseau's fault. The best way to arrive at this belief is to ignore most of what Rousseau actually wrote and take the word of those who claimed to act in his name. This was Heinrich Heine's tack when he called Robespierre “the hand, the bloody bloody hand of Rousseau.”

Rousseau himself would have smiled and retreated into one of the reveries through which he escaped the stupidities of the race he eventually recognized had no desire to be instructed by him. Departing, he might have pointed out that by 1793 just about everyone in France was misusing his writings. It was hard to find a Jacobin, a Brissotin, an aristocrat, even a monarchist who had not asserted Rousseau's paternity for his own favorite schemes—revolutionary and counterrevolutionary alike. And he certainly would have cited the passage in his Dialogues where he had written, ever so clearly, that “the bad faith of men of letters and that silly vanity which forever persuades everyone that he is being thought of, caused great nations to apply to themselves what was meant for small republics; and, perversely, one wished to see a promoter of subversion and troubles in the man who is most prone to respect national laws and constitutions, and who has the strongest aversion for revolution.” To be sure, Robespierre was as oblivious to these futile protestations as Schama, both preferring to honor their revolutionary inventions that turned the pursuit of virtue (which in Rousseau was an argument for moderation) into a license for every excess. Rousseau's actual historical pessimism and his deep distrust of large-scale states or revolutions is simply ignored. Demythologizer that Schama claims to be, he might have troubled himself to spend some time reading Rousseau with care and helping to rescue him from his rampaging fans rather than give currency to their convenient (for them) distortions. If ideas are to be treated as significant in historical debate, as Schama rightly insists they must be, surely they should be treated with as much fastidiousness and accuracy as historical facts. Rousseau's texts endure and can be read and reread. Schama hasn't, doesn't and apparently won't. He is content to assimilate them through the eyes of later users and abusers.

Yet for all these distortions, there is a piece of Rousseau's soul in the animus of the Revolution. In its fierce battle against privilege we can detect the fury of Rousseau's war for equality. The cry to men in 1789 was not simply “Feed us!” That could have been done by better economic managers. It was, “Empower us to feed ourselves! We are your equals! Give us control of government, of the powers that control the economy!” Rousseau's voice was Beaumarchais's; it was Figaro raging at the count he serves so well and by whom he is served so wretchedly: “Nobility, fortune, rank, position! How proud they make a man feel! What have you done to deserve such advantages? Put yourself to the trouble of being born—nothing more!” Political equality, political representation and political rights—the rights not simply of men but of citizens—these were the common themes of the American and the French rebellions, the themes that made men like Paine and Jefferson and Lafayette patriots on both sides of the Atlantic. It was the radical and leveling ideal of government by consent that ultimately led to the overthrow of the monarchy; and it was the refusal of the King and his party to abjure the veto that made the King's survival improbable as well as intolerable. The Revolution was a rebuke to privilege, an assault on hierarchy, a cry for emancipation. The proscriptions against privilege written into the American Constitution had come relatively easily to Americans living in a land where class had never taken root, but in a nation as steeped in class as France they had to be secured by blood. Here, Robespierre was brutally correct when he demanded of his adversaries, “Do you want a revolution without a revolution?”

That would seem to be what Schama requires. He not only wants the Revolution to be over, he wants it to have been a revolution without a revolution. But it was a revolution, and a revolution, and a revolution, as the out-of-fashion Mao Zedong once said, is not a tea party. Nor is it over—not for historians and (same thing) not for ordinary men and women. For the historians it will be over when there is nothing more at stake in interpreting the French Revolution than some hypothetical academic standard of historical truth. That will only happen when the Revolution is over for the rest of us: when women are nowhere homeless, men nowhere persecuted, children all well educated, everyone enjoying equally the rights that we claims arise out of our common humanity. It is not just a matter of ideals. The strange, consoling notion that the Revolution is over collides frontally with reality, with the real world of today, in which revolutions in the name of liberty or justice or property, even revolutions in the name of capitalism and of shopping, are raging with little less fire than they raged in 1776 and 1789.

It is quite astonishing to watch those same conservative and revisionist critics who savage the French Revolution exalt over the revolutions in Budapest, Prague and East Berlin being carried on precisely in the name of its liberating ideals. To be sure, the French paid a terrible price to embroider the potent words “liberty, equality and fraternity” into history's fabric. Nor has the struggle for liberation been costless to those who followed the French. Even the students in Beijing killed some soldiers last June, burning and eviscerating a few before being massacred by the army, though revisionists here (with the exception of Henry Kissinger) seem to have taken little notice of those excesses.

Is it not, then, a little ungrateful, if not more than a little hypocritical, at a moment when we are bathed in ecstasy over the vitality of revolutionary democratic principles in the modern world, to be excoriating them in the nation that helped give them birth? And are we seriously to believe that the Revolution is really over in a world where democracy is so fragile, freedom still so precarious and the rights of men and women still more often the stuff of aspiration than of reality? Of course, ideas always take a generation or so to catch up with reality. One supposes that sometime in the first decade of the third millennium the revisionists will finally catch up with the revolutions of the late 1980s. And revisionism, revising itself, will finally take the full measure of what can perhaps still claim to be the most sublime event in human history.

Susan Dunn (review date Summer 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 the French Revolution something very strange that I can sense, though I cannot describe it properly or analyze its causes. It is a virus of a new and unknown kind. There have been violent Revolutions in the world before; but the immoderate, violent, radical, desperate, bold, almost crazed and yet powerful and effective character of these Revolutionaries has no precedents. What produced it? What made it so effective? What perpetuates it? I am exhausting my mind trying to conceive a clear notion of this object and seeking a way to depict it properly.

Tocqueville died the following year, and we shall never know what insights into political violence and revolutionary dictatorship he may have had. In The Old Regime, violence never occupied the center stage; it was a given, beneath contempt. A lethal dose of it was all that the Revolution had added of its own to the progressive trends already set in motion by a modern, enlightened, energetic, and conscientious monarchy.

For two centuries, historians have grappled with the problem of the Terror, hypothesizing either two quasi-independent Revolutions, idealistic and humanitarian 1789 and merciless and self-destructive 1793, or only one—an essentially violent phenomenon, whether the violence was spontaneous and popular as in 1789 or institutionalized as in 1793. In one way or another, 1793 had to be accounted for, as a product of or an aberration from 1789. A few profoundly conservative historians, such as the ultra-reactionary Joseph de Maistre, considered the Terror the essence of a satanic Revolution. Others, liberals like Madame de Staël and Benjamin Constant, who were among the first historians of the Revolution, regretted the Terror as an unfortunate but not crucial accident of history. Still others, such as Mignet, made excuses for the Terror by claiming that it was the result of political necessity, a forced reaction to desperate circumstances such as the Counterrevolution. According to this view, the Revolution's failure to establish stable republican institutions could be blamed on counterrevolutionary opposition and not on the Terror. In the mid-nineteenth century, Louis Blanc added a new dimension. His originality, as François Furet remarked, was in discerning in the Jacobin dictatorship the annunciation of socialism—a strong protectionist state that could prevail over individualism and protect workers from capitalist exploitation.

According to this implausible yet influential interpretation, the Terror was the renaissance of state power in service of the disadvantaged. The opposing theory was offered by the liberal republican historian, Edgar Quinet, for whom the Terror was the fatal renaissance of the absolutist tradition, binding the Revolution to the past instead of opening the way to freedom and the future. By assimilating the Terror and the monarchy, Quinet not only gave a bad name to the Old Regime but failed to distinguish between Jacobin lawlessness and Bourbon legitimacy. In Jacobin ideology, Quinet could find neither a denunciation of despotism nor any justification of the Terror—no civilizing purpose, no meaning, no goal other than hatred and violence. It was simply the cynical recourse to the traditional methods of force and power. The negation of 1789 was 1793, a doomed return to the past.

It was Jules Michelet, probably the greatest nineteenth-century historian of the Revolution, who, more than anyone else, established the narrative elements of the history of the Revolution. His colorful, profound, empathic “resurrection” of the past identified characters, fathomed souls, developed plots, created myths, and articulated for his century the heroic legacy of the Revolution. His vision of a humanitarian and idealistic Revolution became the foundation of nineteenth-century republican ideology. It tormented Michelet to have to deal with the Terror, which he described as a desert where pity was mute and only horror spoke. But his commitment to narrative obliged him to describe it fully and meditate upon its significance. It was not possible to treat the Terror as in any way inconsequential, and yet he was loath to associate his cherished Revolution with 1793. His strategy was therefore to portray Jacobinism as a phenomenon produced by a minority with no popular support and which owed its success to the manipulation of an ideological orthodoxy. Unlike the Girondins who publicized their internal differences, the Jacobins emphasized unity, bending all positions and circumstances to fit their ideological canon. The Terror borrowed nothing from the Old Regime nor did it have roots in the humanitarian idealism of 1789: it belonged solely to the Jacobins.

Since Michelet, the Marxist school (Jaurès, Lefebvre, Soboul) has fused Mignet's idea of the Terror as an understandable and necessary reaction to compelling circumstances and Blanc's praise of a strong protectionist state. Marxists defend the Terror as a dictatorship that succeeded in cleansing the nation of socially nonassimilable elements, restoring authority to the government, developing a sense of national solidarity, and controlling the economy.

Historians of the political right have always been able to criticize the Revolution while remaining within the parameters of counterrevolutionary thought. It has been a far greater challenge for pro-republican historians like Michelet and Marxist historians to voice doubts about the Revolution, for they risked calling into question the legacy and myth of the Revolution as well as the republican system of values and beliefs. In our own century, political terror emanating from the left of the political spectrum has led modern historians to abandon such inhibitions and reevaluate and reinterpret the Terror, to fathom the relationship between revolutionary, humanitarian ideology and political persecution. Criticism of the French antecedents of totalitarianism and political violence is no longer the sole province of the right.

Simon Schama's marvelous and monumental work, Citizens, deliberately places the Terror at the center of the Revolution—it is its motor, its energy, its driving force. His is a complex and original vision of a Terror emanating not only from institutions such as the Comité des Rapports and the Comité des Recherches, that were already set up by the end of July 1789 and would come to represent the centralized and arbitrary powers of a revolutionary police state, but, in a more profound sense, from the very language of revolution. By examining the rhetoric of violence—idealistic, histrionic, enraged, and paranoid, Schama is able to portray the Terror, not as a mistake, an aberration, a policy compelled by circumstances, or the acting out of Jacobin ideology, but instead as the essence of the Revolution itself.

During the first months of the Revolution, the time of the Estates General, the two dominant and opposing trends in revolutionary thought were already apparent: rationalists, like Talleyrand and Condorcet, were exponents of modernity, constitutional monarchy, a liberal economic and legal order. Their language was reasonable and their tempers were cool. On the other hand, there were those who were guided neither by rationality nor by modernity but by passion, virtue, and patriotism. Their language, tuned to a taut pitch of elation and anger, was visceral rather than cerebral. From the beginning, this kind of revolutionary rhetoric divided the nation into patriots and traitors, citizens and aristocrats, categories which allowed for no human shades of gray. The new community of citizens would be tender to its children, but punitive and pitiless to its foes. For Schama, “the notion that, between 1789 and 1791, France basked in some sort of liberal pleasure garden before the erection of the guillotine is a complete fantasy.” The language and politics of paranoia that would eventually engulf and drown the entire Revolution can be traced to its first months.

During the summer of 1789, moderates were alarmed not just by spontaneous popular retribution and murderously festive crowd actions but by the verbal and journalistic violence that seemed to encourage such demonstrations. The protection of free speech, publication, and assembly enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man brought forth a political culture whose vituperation and boundless disrespect reached an unprecedentedly broad audience. Schama stresses that this necessarily unsatisfied rhetoric, suffused with the chronic obsession with exploitation, conspiracy, and public punishment, mobilized angry and powerful crowds, decisively affecting the course of events and ultimately making revolutionary government unworkable.

Political compromise and sage deliberations about practical government, in the manner of the American Constitutional Convention, never took place in revolutionary France. “Croaking toad,” shouted the deputy Guadet in one heated exchange. “Vile bird,” yelled back Marat. Another deputy had demanded that the tribune de disinfected after every speech by Marat, who then returned the compliment by characterizing his enemies as charlatans, hypocrites, maniacs, and stool pigeons. Reasoned debate, self-restraint, civility, and discipline were, in France, entirely beside the point.

Power resided in words, in oratory skill, verbal abuse and intimidation. Public utterance and the ability to sway audiences made the difference between life and death, triumph and disaster. Conversely, failure to be heard could be a death sentence. When Robespierre was shouted down and his arrest called for, the standard devices of his rhetoric were ridiculed. He was struck down by the one weapon against which he was helpless: laughter. Public diction was public power. Schama perceives no real difference between verbal violence and the real thing, between screaming for blood and its copious shedding. The Vendée war and the September massacres, were products of the Manichean language that everywhere identified monsters and incarnations of evil. The drownings and mass exterminations of the Terror were the logical outcome of an ideology that verbally dehumanized its adversaries.

At the end of Citizens, Schama poses the fundamental question of why the French Revolution was powered by brutality, why violence was its motor. He offers the hypothesis that, in a sense, the revolutionary elite were “rash geologists, gouging open great holes in the crust of polite discourse and then feeding the angry matter through the pipes of their rhetoric out into the open.” His emphasis on discourse and rhetoric leads him to wonder if it “was perhaps Romanticism, with its addiction to the Absolute and the Ideal … its concept of political energy as … electrical; its obsession with the heart, its preference for passion over reason … that supplied a crucial ingredient in the mentality of the revolutionary elite: its association of liberty with wildness.” Schama strangely locates French Romanticism in the eighteenth rather than the early nineteenth century, attempting to associate the revolutionary mentality with themes and delusions. The trouble is that, although Rousseau is considered a pre-Romantic, the first two generations of writers in France—Chateaubriand, Constant, Lamartine, Vigny, Balzac, Hugo—not only wrote years after the Revolution but were liberals or pro-royalists, for the most part antipathetic toward the Revolution. One would be hard put to discern an attraction for “liberty” and “wildness” in their nostalgia for the Old Regime. But despite this incorrect view of French Romanticism which surfaces throughout the book, Schama's intention is nevertheless important and valid. His aim is to depict the Revolution as a phenomenon created, not by impersonal trends or forces in history, but by individuals who succeeded in creating political power through personality, style, and rhetoric as much as through action and violence. It is this vision of history that has led him to subtitle Citizens a “chronicle” and to narrate it, in many engaging ways, like a novel, in terms of characters self-consciously acting on the stage of history.

Schama's refreshing goal is to return the Revolution to human beings, extricating it from the analytical concepts and ideological paradigms that appear to explain the Revolution while only illuminating or obscuring a single aspect of it to the exclusion of all others. History, for Schama, is not a preordained event but a thing of contingencies, unforeseen consequences, and especially individual agencies. This magnificently illustrated and exuberant book is the story of the Revolution: its narrative form is not an anachronism but is essential to the author's concept of the Revolution as a haphazard and chaotic event, the product of arbitrary decisions and idiosyncratic individuals. The Annales School for one loathes narrative history: a genre that concentrates on human agents who have control over their lives is anathema to those who believe that history is determined by impersonal forces, such as long-term trends in demography, economics, and ethnology. But in Schama's text, history consists in dramatic accidents and the actions of exceptional human beings. Only the narrative form that allows for the complicated twists and turns of action and reaction can make the whole tableau intelligible. Following the lead of the theorist of history David Carr, Schama agrees that the historian's use of narrative does not necessarily impose a literary structure on the flow of events, but rather can reveal a structure already immanent in the unfolding of human activity. Like his teacher Richard Cobb, Schama regards the Revolution not as a march of abstractions and ideologies, but as a human event of complicated and often tragic outcomes.

And, as Schama himself notes, narrative form corresponds perfectly to his view of the historical figures themselves, self-conscious heroes and actors who fully realized that they were shaping their destiny and the destiny of France. These were public men aware of being on the stage of world history, men who had an overdeveloped sense of past, present, and posterity, who looked to Cato, Cicero, and Junius Brutus for models. An appreciative sense of the theatricality of revolutionary politics suffuses Schama's vision of the Revolution. Even before July 1789, theater had moved from its customary space onto the street where it imposed its serious drama on the world of mere divertissement. Audiences were now required to give the Revolution their full attention. Although the National Assembly was, in principle, committed to giving France new institutions of government and representation, it functioned as political theater: the place where oratory and gesture would dramatize the principles of the Revolution. The Revolution's leaders cultivated rhetorical devices, consciously and effectively using them to wield power. Robespierre rehearsed a distinctive style of righteous indignation always accompanied by an account of his personal life, an “oratory of the ego” that corresponded brilliantly to the confessional manner invented by Rousseau. Saint-Just cast himself in the role of the Roman stoic. Danton employed his great, deep voice to testify to resources of virile power that republican culture associated with virtue. Marat, in addition to being pathologically profane, attended to his costume, affecting ostentatious simplicity: bare-throated, unkempt black hair, an old ermine scarf thrown over his shoulders. Even his assassin, Charlotte Corday, a descendant of Corneille, seems to have self-consciously cast herself in the tragic role of patriotic martyr. In a final gesture of self-dramatization, she asked to have her portrait painted before her execution. From Mirabeau to Marat, Schama views the cast of revolutionary characters as theatrical beings who felt themselves framed within a brilliantly lit Historical Moment.

In his great novel, Ninety-Three, Victor Hugo conceptualized the Revolution not as the product of the activity of free agents, something one might expect from a novelist, but rather as irresistible process and the will of God: “Revolution is an action of the Unknown. Events spend, men pay. Events dictate, men sign. July 14th is signed Camille Desmoulins, August 10th is signed Danton, September 2nd is signed Marat, January 21st is signed Robespierre; but Desmoulins, Danton, Marat, and Robespierre are mere clerks. The immense and awful author of these great pages has a name, God; and a mask, Fate.” But Schama's revolutionary actors, unlike Hugo's, wrote their own script—they controlled the course and outcome of the Revolution, and the crucial decisions they made were personal and arbitrary. For example, one of the most important decisions affecting the origin of the Revolution was Louis XVI's willingness to support the Revolution in America. This policy had profound economic and social consequences in France, and yet it was anything but preordained. Turgot had argued bitterly against intervention in America, predicting that overwhelming costs would force the postponement of necessary reforms. But the case was won by the powerful Foreign Minister Vergennes, whose foremost goal was the embarrassment of the British crown in America. Ultimately, the consequences of French involvement in the American Revolution were subversive and irreversible.

Schama attributes unusual importance to the flirtation with armed freedom of a section of the aristocracy that was powerful and influential. And, of course, the American affair was also the source of more debt for a regime already plagued by grave financial problems. In a single year, 1781—the year of Yorktown—225 million livres were spent on America, five times the amount customarily allotted for the peacetime navy. Here too, Schama views the debt not as an immutable problem inherent in the structure of the institutions but rather as the result of particular decisions made freely by individuals. Taking issue with Tocqueville, for whom French institutions were themselves intrinsically incapable of solving the regime's fiscal problems, Schama believes that there were a number of possible approaches in coping with French finances and that the trouble lay in the political and psychological difficulties in sustaining policy decisions rather than in the regime's institutional and operational structure. He takes the approach that, in August 1788, it was Brienne's government, not France, that was bankrupt, as the speed with which his successor, Necker, raised loans of all kinds amply bore out. Ultimately, the cause of the downfall of the monarchy was the politicization of the money crisis that dictated the calling of the Estates General. However, this very calling of the Estates General also hinged on personal decisions. In describing the last hours of Malesherbes, the King's Minister and, in 1793, his defense lawyer, Schama goes so far as to leave history's text to invent his own: “Of all the cruelties visited on the old man, the most painful was the likely reflection that by not heeding his younger daughter's advice to emigrate he had somehow … destroyed his family. And did he ponder whether, if Louis had listened to his counsel and had abandoned the Estates General altogether in favor of an entirely new constitution that might have avoided the polarization of the orders, the worst calamities of the Revolution might have been averted?” “Likely reflection”; “… did he ponder?”; “… if Louis had listened”; “… might have been”—this is Schama as novelist-historian, insisting upon his actors’ free will and fallibility, humanizing history's march and persuading his readers that in history, as in the novel, alternative texts are possible.

This narrative of the Revolution permits Schama not only to emphasize the central role of agents acting freely, self-consciously, and arbitrarily, but also to create an underlying impression of continuity in time. Like Tocqueville, he sees the political aspirations of the Revolution not as the sign of a new beginning but rather as the continuation of policies and reforms initiated by the Old Regime. The Revolution merely accelerated the process, crystallizing trends that were begun under a dynamic and energetic Old Regime. From the king downward, the elite under the Old Regime was less obsessed with tradition than with novelty and less preoccupied with feudalism than with science. Well-disposed to the Old Regime, Schama considers it a conscientious government eager to busy itself with the public good.

It follows that the consequences of the Revolution from 1789 to the Terror were, for the most part, socially conservative. The effects of much of the legislation of this period played directly to the interests of groups who had done very well at the end of the Old Regime and were now given further opportunities to do even better. With the momentous exception of the expropriation of the Church, between 1789 and 1792 the Revolution produced no significant transfer of social power; it signified neither a new beginning nor a radical transformation of society. In fact, one of Schama's most interesting—although not sufficiently developed—hypotheses affirms that the Revolution was a source of antiprogressive as well as progressive tendencies. Certain key elements in the Revolution had attempted to arrest rather than hasten the process of modernization begun under the Old Regime. Though the Jacobins were great respecters of property, they feared and opposed commercial capitalism. Their incessant rhetoric against “rich egoists” and the incrimination of commercial and financial elites meant that mercantile and industrial enterprise was itself attacked. Not surprising, then, that the textile towns and great ports were the major casualties of the Revolution.

Much of revolutionary energy was fueled by gloom and foreboding over modernization and capitalism. The hatred of the Old Regime was paradoxically directed not against what it preserved, but what it had destroyed. For people such as the independent artisans ruined by machines, the onrush of a modernizing monarchy had aggravated, not alleviated, their condition. Many of the Convention decrees, such as the one voted to regulate the grain trade, went straight back to Old Regime paternalism, a classic instance of the French Revolution's yearning for security over freedom, for the values of paternalism over those of individualism. Much of the radicals’ anger had been a reaction against the unpredictable and impersonal operation of the market. Far from wanting the state to dismantle all customary protection, they wanted a more interventionist policy and were presumably satisfied with the economic Terror. (It was this authoritarian, anticapitalist, and protectionist aspect of the Terror that Louis Blanc had so admired.) Some revolutionaries were therefore not only indifferent but hostile to many of the modernizing and reformist enterprises embarked on, first by the monarchy and then by successive revolutionary regimes.

It is unfortunate that Schama does not develop in more depth this intriguing and original theme of antimodernism. One can only speculate as to the reasons. Perhaps in a work that is chiefly synthetic rather than based on original research, he lacked the evidence to develop this point further, or perhaps he feared that, had he continued along this line of argument, he would have found himself trapped by his own hypothesis in a Hegelian model that emphasizes a dialectic of economic forces controlling history, a paradigm at odds with his preferred vision of random individual agencies. At any rate, the implications of his theory of an antimodernist revolution are potentially far-reaching. I wonder whether this reactionary spirit is not the other side of the idealistic and humanitarian tradition of the Revolution and whether these two trends, one regressive and one progressive, both rooted in the Revolution, do not continue to characterize French political life. Here categories of left and right mislead rather than elucidate; the antimodernist spirit can belong to the Revolution, as Schama has shown, as well as to the most counterrevolutionary elements in society. The protectionism and paternalism that Louis Blanc praised as the harbinger of socialism implied, in the 1880s, nationalism, xenophobia, the cult of the French soil, as well as anticapitalism disguised as and nourished by anti-Semitism. Mid-nineteenth-century socialists on the left as well as late nineteenth-century conservatives on the right, allied with a petty bourgeoisie hostile to capitalism, could both appeal to a similar nostalgia for the past and similar fear of a future determined by a free international marketplace economy dominated by mercantile Anglo-Saxon nations.

Nevertheless, the breadth and depth of Schama's achievement are remarkable. In essence, he has succeeded in masterfully fusing the two principle traditions in the historiography of the French Revolution—Michelet's narrative strategy of resurrecting the past in all its color and particularity and Tocqueville's analytic examination of institutions and trends. Bringing together Michelet's emphasis on individual lives and personalities and Tocqueville's conservative reflections, Schama has written a brilliant and compelling chronicle of a Revolution in which change was an illusion and violence the reality.

Steven Marcus (essay date Summer 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 in what follows, and they are considerable, should not be regarded as ingratitudes but as the questionings and perplexities of an improved and sympathetic reader.

Schama's intention, he lets us know from the outset, is to present his work “in the form of a narrative.” Instead of arguments embodied as “structural” analysis, he presents us with arguments imbedded in accounts of human behavior—speech, action, dress, manners, writing, painting. And since the Revolution was in such considerable measure a “haphazard and chaotic event,” he does not actually write a single, encompassing narrative as he at first appears to claim. The book is a kind of immense mosaic, put together out of highly selected but brief narrative-like episodes, many disparate stories aspiring to become something larger than a connection of anecdotes. Schama's descriptive subtitle, A Chronicle of the French Revolution, requires similar commentary. Citizens does indeed in general pursue events in chronological order, but it is not a chronicle in the traditional and slightly archaic use of that term, in which chronicles stood somewhere along a developmental line between annals (which were driven by chronology alone) and fully evolved and conscious historical writing. Schama's work is in fact largely made up of exceptionally dense and often elliptical verbal representations. Its narratives are frequently occluded, and the book would have profited from the chronological charts of dates, names, and events that earlier histories sometimes included as an aid in dispelling the opacity of historical action. Hence, despite its fleeting disclaimers, Citizens is a full-fledged historical reading of the French Revolution. It argues a thesis, or set of theses, by means of its truncated or fragmentary narratives; and if, unlike its nineteenth-century precursors, it is not epic in either form or intention—indeed it is a kind of anti-epic—it nonetheless conveys an elaborate and self-conscious historical interpretation and is a work of considerable ideological impetus. Although Schama pays due lip service to the “contingencies” of historical phenomena, there is not enough contingency in his accounts of them. He is all certitude and polemical fervor, often though not always to startling effect.

Schama begins in the conventional way by setting the general pre-Revolutionary scene, which was characterized by unremitting and intractable fiscal crises. As a result of an accumulation of myriad circumstances, notable among them the wars fought by France in North America, the French government was more or less going broke. Deeply in debt, the government was unable to borrow new money to keep itself going or to service the interest on what it already owed. Repeated efforts at fiscal reform were uniformly unavailing. At the same time, however, pre-Revolutionary France was the scene of both social and cultural changes that were revolutionary in magnitude and implications. The sources of social change were located not in a rising middle class or unenfranchised bourgeoisie but in a relatively youthful and disaffected aristocracy. This aristocracy was also liberal, rationalistic and modernizing in its attitudes. Such a nobility had already been thoroughly “colonized by what modern historians think of as ‘bourgeois’ values: money, public service and talent.” At the very heart of the French elite, then, was “a capitalist nobility.” This group, for all practical purposes indistinguishable from the opulent bourgeoisie, was will-nilly going to lead France toward revolution; in its commitment to reform it would unconsciously prepare the way for the dismantling of the old order of which it was itself a leading element.

In the illimitable realm of culture, changes of analogous substantiality were occurring. France was becoming a vast, open, public theater. There was a pervasive shift in taste toward styles and behavior that were taken to be expressive of inner “sensibility,” tenderness of emotion and “naturalness” of responsiveness and self-representation. The chief causal agency in this context is to be found in the figure, writings and cult of Rousseau—from the public campaign urging mothers to breast-feed their infants to the new ideas of child-rearing, education, religion and public virtue, Rousseau was the symbol of a proto-Romantic tidal flow of feeling and intensity that was also to be revolutionary in its influences. This tendency, essentially counter-or anti-Enlightenment in its impulsions, was to become dominant in the life of the Revolution itself, and it occupies the forefront of Schama's account as well. That account does not in effect regard the Revolution as in some superordinate sense an outcome of the Enlightenment. For in Schama's view, the Old Regime was itself the Enlightenment's chief institutional embodiment; it was, all things considered, progressive, reformist and modernizing, and was convinced of the superior usefulness of the capitalization of property and the overriding efficacy of economic rationality. The Revolution, however, was on this score antimodern in the sense that it was at key movements of decision opposed to the specific kinds of reforms that modernization required. Put in this way, one can already apprehend certain doctrinal leanings.

In any event, by 1787, according to Schama, it was fairly clear that reform from above was not going to work. The economic crisis that focused upon the government's inability to raise additional revenues joined with a political crisis that had at its center demands for broader “representation” in elected political bodies and created together a situation of continual instability. And the error then, as the error today similarly continues to be, was to think that a solution of the political crisis through an increase or democratization of representation would in any way lead to a quick, or even not-so-quick, alleviation of the economic calamities that afflicted the nation. In addition, the political troubles had a life of their own, for their continuous exacerbation symbolized the circumstance that the Old Regime was gradually being delegitimized. Nevertheless, right up through the early phases of the Revolution two collective voices remain poised in potential conflict among the forces that pressed for change: one was rational, cool, liberal, moderate, capitalist, and reformist; the other was passionate and moralistic, and articulated desires for justice, community, fraternity, fairness, and virtue. Put in larger terms, these may be thought of as Liberal versus Radical, Instrumental versus Expressive, Rationalistic versus Romantic, or as the ethic of responsibility versus the ethic of ultimate ends. Because the latter term in each of these oppositions was given unexampled free play, the French when they came to register their grievances and elect their first representatives in 1789 were able to connect “social distress with political change. That had not happened in Britain in 1688 nor for that matter in American in 1776, and it would prove the crucial difference.” This connection, of course, created the explosive mixture that made the French Revolution into an event of world-shaking importance, and Schama allows that although “social structure did not cause the French Revolution, social issues did,” which seems somehow both to concede and finesse the question. Nevertheless, because of this connection, Schama goes on, it was bound to happen that whenever long-term economic policy needs came into conflict with immediate social distress, the demands of the latter succeeded in gaining priority, and the antimodernizing and antimarket forces and sentiments impelled the Revolution along increasingly Radical lines. Why this should unfailingly have occurred goes more or less unexplained and unexplored.

The first great climax comes, naturally, with the 14th of July, 1789. Schama writes a fine chapter of vignettes and moments of dramatic action about that day. He is not very clear or coherent on the continuous determining pressures that eventuated in particular groups of occurrences—his narrative is not old-fashioned in that sense. He is, however, exceptionally good on the drama, the theatricality, the spectacularity and public display of the great Revolutionary journeés—and on the liberalization in people's behavior of the drama of history and the state on which these actors self-consciously played out their momentary parts. They are indeed momentary, and Schama specializes in the presentation of fragments of discontinuous action. Here, for example, is a moment from the extremely bloody day of August 10, 1792. Early in the morning, before the fighting had begun in earnest, the King went to the Legislative Assembly, which was meeting in the Manège near the Tuileries, to place his own person in its trust:

Once in the Manège, where a handful of deputies remained … the King was left waiting while a place was found for him and his family compatible with the prohibition on his presence during debates. Together with his sister Elizabeth, Marie-Antoinette and their children, they were finally rushed into the little caged space of the Logographie, assigned to reporters recording the proceedings. Inside this stuffy little hole, their faces shadowed by the cell-like grille, what was left of the French monarchy waited, helplessly, on its fate.

This paragraph is a representative sample of Schama's narrative style. It may not be excessive to suggest that it owes something substantial to television broadcasting, and that it is a TV news-spot in prose, a kind of image bite. Indeed in its unself-conscious emphasis upon the intermittent in its representations of extended action, there is something of what might be called academic postmodern history attaching to the book as a whole.

With the fall of the Bastille the Revolution emerges into its most significant symbolic life. The bloody fighting in Paris and the public display of “punitive sacrifice[s]” that it entailed constituted “a kind of Revolutionary sacrament.” Even more, it was the event in which for Schama there was sealed “the modern compact by which power could be secured through violence.” It isn't evident what is specially or particularly “modern” about this circumstance. Violence exists at the heart of organized political life, particularly as we observe that life in the nation-state and those associations which have been its predecessors. And it exists as well at the center of the political theory upon which Schama entirely and inexplicitly depends, the theory of Max Weber. The state, Weber writes, is “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” It is “a relation of men dominating men, a relation supported by means of legitimate (i.e. considered to be legitimate) violence.” On these terms Schama understands the great events of the Revolution as exposing a “vacuum of authority … at the heart of the French government.” In other worlds, the Revolution was, among countless other things, an immense and protracted crisis of legitimacy. But having said this, Schama then goes on at once to declare that it was “violence which made the Revolution in the first place,” which is to curtail and obscure the sequential relations between the breakdown of legitimate authority and the breaking out of revolutionary violence.

And he does this repeatedly. One great question, he writes, dogs the French Revolution through its entire history. “What is the relationship between violence and legitimacy? … Only when the state restored to itself a monopoly of force—as it was to do in 1794—would the question go away. In this sense, at least, Robespierre would be the first successful counter-revolutionary.” Fair enough, one responds, if not too clever by half—as Schama plays hob (not to say Hobbes) with certain received notions. Yet two pages later he asserts, “The Terror was merely 1789 with a higher body count. From the first year it was apparent that violence was not just an unfortunate side effect from which enlightened Patriots could selectively avert their eyes; it was the Revolution's source of collective energy. It was what made the Revolution revolutionary.” Like Lady Macbeth's spot, this won't wash. To begin with, violence in this context tends to expand and become everything, both revolutionary and counter-revolutionary, in its destructive inclusiveness. In addition, Schama attributes to violence, both here and elsewhere in the book, a kind of mysterious autonomy, or sovereign causal potency, that he simply asserts but neither explains, argues, nor tries to demonstrate. Through such an ascription, Schama virtually makes violence into the content of the Revolution rather than the decisive or specific means for politics itself that it is. And this maneuver permits him as well to avoid having to deal with the role of violence, implicit and overt, in everyday political life as well as in the historic life of the Old Regime, and indeed of European political society as a whole in the eighteenth century.

To be sure, Schama cannot entirely overlook such actual revolutionary transferences of social power as those that were entailed in the expropriation and sale at auction of the enormous properties of the Church, although he makes very little of them. Nor does he direct much attention to such other Enlightenment-inspired reforms as the changes in the calendar, in weights and measures, in the geographical redistricting of France, or in the system of assignats. Instead he focuses upon the public drama and the heightened rhetoric, the spectacles and collective self-displays of revolutionary France. If in a social sense the Revolution “merely accelerated trends that had been taking place over a longer period of time,” in the sense of political behavior the changes were much more radical, and brought forth “a political culture in which the liberation of disrespect literally knew no bounds.” A “polemical incontinence” washed over, or flushed through, the entire nation. If this makes the French Revolution seem like an early, large-scale preview of the 1960s, it is no accident; such teleologies are integral to Schama's design. For him, the Revolution was both inevitable and revolutionary, but it was almost without exception for the bad and the worse.

Part of the problem with such an extraordinarily uniform view is to be located in Schama's conception of the modern and the antimodern. He regards the modern in the context of 1789–1794 as those views that would have led to further physiographic and capitalist reforms and to a “rational,” market-governed economy and society. And he sees antimodernism as expressed in those radical groups that strove for short-term “economic and social justice,” and who used the rhetoric of Rousseau against the financiers and plutocrats who had come to power during that epoch. One difficulty with this reading has to do with the restricted notions of both the modern and Rousseau that it conveys. For it is at least equally true to say that Rousseau was one of the first of modern thinkers as it is to say that he was opposed to modernizing tendencies. Like Burke, who was of course antagonistic to him on other grounds, Rousseau was intransigently hostile to certain Enlightenment and rationalistic tendencies that were often carried to excess in the eighteenth century. His modernity is in part to be found in the circumstance that—again like Burke—he is one of the first writers of transcendent intellectual gifts consciously to enlist the powers of the mind against the mind itself—to use his exceptional literary powers even to excess against the powers of rationalism and its excesses. Because Schama underemphasizes on overlooks the hypertrophic rationalism of certain tendencies in the Revolution (“The Sleep of Reason Gives Birth to Monsters”) and concomitantly regards its course as essentially a series of Romanticist effervescent outbursts, he gives us a view of that immense development that is both teleological and in part misleading.

This discrimination may to a certain degree explain the otherwise inexplicable independent power that Schama insistently attributes to the role of violence in the Revolution. “Bloodshed was not the unfortunate by-product of revolution,” he typically reiterates; “it was the source of its energy.” We understand these unsupported sentiments better if we recognize that for Schama the French Revolution leads directly to modern totalitarianism, and not so much to Stalinism as to Nazi Germany—his analogies almost uniformly tend in this direction. For example, the Terror and the massacres in the Vendée involve a whole set of “sinister anticipations of the technological killings of the twentieth century.” The industrialization of mass murder has really only one modern referent. Similarly, the case against Marie Antoinette and those who followed her to the guillotine during the Terror was based on the idea that she was essentially “impure” in body, thought, and deed. The idea of purity resonates with the myth of racial purity rather than with Revolutionary orthodoxy or loyalty to the Party line. Jacques Louis David's plan for relandscaping the Champs Elysées as a Jardin National for mass spectacles and patriotic games brings forth the comparison to Albert Speer. And Fouquier-Tinville, the methodical hatchet-man of the Revolutionary Tribunal, is compared to the inevitable Eichmann: “twentieth-century readers will recognize an ideal instrument of mass killing in the mild-mannered family man who pleaded that he had always obeyed the law and done his duty.” These comparisons are telling because they emerge out of Schama's fundamental interpretation of the Revolution, which is to read it as primarily a sequence of momentary triumphs of irrational impulses and not as well as a series of rationalisms gone desperately astray.

Modern opinion in general has held that if there is a mediated line of inheritance that descends from the French Revolution, it issues in our own century in the Russian Revolution and in its subsequent monstrous perversions not only of the ideals of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, but also of the entire tradition of radical, secular, social, and socialist idealisms. Schama is of course no apologist for tyranny of any sort—and he is, of course, anti-Marxist—but his book tends on the whole, though not altogether, to skirt this filiation. Because he depicts the French Revolution in the main as an enormous conglomeration of woeful disasters and tawdry, bloody messes, he is unable to imagine it as a historical tragedy. Accordingly, Schama is at his best in his accounts of the most radical period, from August 1792 to July 1794, when the Terror ends in Thermidor. We get a very good sense of how through the Committee of Public Safety a strong, centralized authority substituted the violence of the revolutionary state for the popular violence of the revolutionary street crowds. We do not, however, get much sense of how France was actually governed during this period, as we do from such a volume as R. R. Palmer's Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution. Instead we get a gripping set of descriptions of trials, judicial and nonjudicial murders, beheading, desperate speechifying and hysterical last hours, and of the gigantic, and mostly shabby, public festivals of the civil religion of the Revolution that also marked this unexampled historical era. Schama creates an extraordinary rendering of the murder of Marat by Charlotte Corday and of David's super-spectacular production of Marat's posthumous rites. He surveys the new “empire of images” that Robespierre and his associates attempted to realize in their “Rousseauan cultural revolution.” Yet it is telling once again that in his discussion of the revolutionary calendar, the most arresting bit of evidence that Schama brings forward is “the voluptuous incarnations of Salvatore Tresca's illustrations,” namely, the first calendar girls.

What was it all in aid of? It was certainly not in behalf of the “bourgeoisie,” since that class, “which Marxist history long believed to be the essential beneficiaries of the Revolution was, in fact, its principal victim.” If one has to find a beneficiary it is that problematical creation of the Revolution, “the juridical entity of the citizen.” Such a creature is problematical for Schama because “no sooner had this hypothetical free person been invented than his liberties were circumscribed by the police powers of the state.” And that state, which was a new “military-technocratic” entity of “immense power and emotional solidarity” went along with “a political culture” that simultaneously challenged it. What happened between 1789 and 1793 was “an unprecedented explosion of politics—in speech, print, image, and even music.” Frenchmen (and some women) found their voice, but they did so finally through violence, “which was the motor of the Revolution.” The theatrical posturing of 1789 made the public atrocities of 1793 possible. The political culture of both was tinctured with “the same morbid preoccupation with the just massacre and the heroic death … with the Romanticization of violence.”

These less than satisfactory closing remarks are more in the way of summarizing repetition than they are conclusions to a persuasively coherent narrative/analysis. Schama's work is, as I have said, the first widely popular example of a reorientation that has occurred during the past twenty years among historians of the French Revolution. A generation ago there was something like a consensus among historians on the correctness of a fundamentally social analysis of the Revolution. That convention has been largely eclipsed—particularly through the works of such writers as François Furet and Norman Hampson—and has been replaced by an agreement on the primacy of a fundamentally political analysis. This shift has been described as representing a movement from Marx to Tocqueville, and it has also been understood as a refraction of alterations in the ideological climate of the present. I see no reason to doubt the reasonableness of such suppositions or to impugn the importance of the contributions that this change in perspective has enabled historians to make. In the instance of Schama's book, however, the matter is less certain, in part at least because the shift of perspective in it is so much in the foreground. But such an emphasis serves only to bring forward another problem.

For this kind of thing has been done before, and since it was achieved in the work of the same great historical analyst whose political categories have proved decisive for Schama, the coincidence is doubly telling. In 1904–5, Max Weber published the first version of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. This work was also in some important measure undertaken as a polemic against and corrective to certain Marxist views of both the Reformation and the formation of modern capitalism. At the end of his famous chapter on Luther's notion of the calling, Weber pauses to expound his conceptual and analytical aims:

The following study may thus … form a contribution to understanding of the manner in which ideas become effective forces in history. … [W]e are merely attempting to clarify the part which religious forces have played in forming the developing web of our specifically worldly modern culture, in the complex interaction of innumerable historical factors. … At the same time we must free ourselves from the idea that it is possible to deduce the Reformation, as a historically necessary result, from certain economic changes. Countless historical circumstances, which cannot be reduced to any economic law, and are not susceptible of economic explanation of any sort, especially purely political processes, had to concur in order that the newly created Churches should survive at all.

On the other hand, however, we have no intention whatever of maintaining such a foolish or doctrinaire thesis as that the spirit of capitalism … could have arisen only as the result of certain effects of the Reformation. … In view of the tremendous confusion of interdependent influences between the material basis, the forms of social and political organization, and the ideas current in the time of the Reformation, we can proceed only by investigating whether and at what points certain correlations between forms of religious belief and practical ethics can be worked out.

If Schama's work is devoted to recreating the political culture of the French Revolution, then Weber's project was to analyze the spiritual and intellectual culture of the capitalist revolution. In addition, Weber's essay is one of the preeminent early examples of the kind of discourse analysis that Schama and other contemporary historians sometimes seem to assume was invented in the late 1960s. I introduce this example at such length in order to demonstrate that a historical analysis which disagrees with certain Marxist interpretations of the past need not be as one-sided as the readings it aims to replace. For one of the points about Weber's interpretation is that it provides room within itself for the perspectives that it is also disputing. Schama's does not, and in the degree that it does not falls short of the highest standards as either narrative account or historiographical argument. In being bound so closely to polemical and ideological contentions, his history loses some of the additional distinction which it might otherwise have attained. An event of such incomparable magnitude and depth as the French Revolution requires from its historians a larger amplitude and generosity of intellectual spirit.

Morris Slavin (review date August 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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? But the reader has the right to expect of him a fair treatment of the revolutionaries as they undergo a profound social and political crisis. Unfortunately, as Thomas Paine said of Edmund Burke, “He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.”

Schama sees the Revolution as a series of scandalous events. In this respect his narrative is less a popular expose in the traditional sense and is more a sensational story. He seldom looks at the events from the revolutionaries’ point of view and never with sympathy for them. Instead, he judges the movement from the victims’ outlook. In addition, his book is badly skewed. The text is 875 pages long, but the fall of the Bastille does not begin until page 369. Part 5, entitled “Virtue and Death,” which covers the most important, and, in some respects, the most meaningful developments for modern times, is a mere 170 pages. Yet, this portion attempts to recite the dramatic events from the winter of 1793 through the fall of Robespierre in the summer of 1794. Moreover, Schama writes that “asking for the impossible is a good definition of a revolution” (322). This definition tells more about the author's approach, however, than it does about his theme.

Schama, like so many of his “revisionist” contemporaries, never doubts that the Old Regime was “modern,” or “bourgeois,” but that in any case, it was no longer feudal. Until the advent of the “revisionists,” historians always believed that one reason the events of 1789 were called a “social revolution” is precisely because one social class, loosely termed the “bourgeoisie,” replaced another, the “nobility” (the upper echelons of the Church were, with hardly an exception, noble). Schama, on the contrary, argues that no significant transfer of social power occurred, except for its loss by the Church. But if there was no transfer of social power, why did so many nobles emigrate? And why were “aristos” so execrated? Was the “Restoration” limited to the return of the Bourbons?

The trend, writes the author, was from “nobles to notables.” And who were the latter? He replies as follows: “As landowners, state functionaries, departmental administrators and professional judges and doctors, bankers and manufacturers, they constituted a knot of influence and power that would effectively dominate French society for the next century” (521). But these are “bourgeois” within the meaning of the term. And the real question is: did they dominate French society the century preceding the Revolution? Furthermore, if Schama can demonstrate that a seigneurial estate, encumbered and limited by the law of entail and primogeniture, worked by unfree labor, is no different from a landed estate that can be bought, sold, or split up—in short, to use a Marxist term, is a “commodity”—then, indeed, there is no difference between nobles and notables.

Although Schama is interested in symbols (literary and pictorial), and even blames the romantic movement for encouraging the revolutionaries by stressing “passion over Reason” (861) and going from “euphoria to terror” (354), he cannot see the Bastille as a symbol of despotism. Moreover, he is at pains to demonstrate throughout his narrative that it was violence that characterized the Revolution and “made the Revolution possible in the first place” (436). Violence, according to him, “was the Revolution's source of collective energy,” and it was “what made the Revolution revolutionary,” And again: “Bloodshed was not the unfortunate by-product of revolution, it was the source of its energy” (615). Furthermore, in a statement that would have made Burke blush, Schama pronounces that “the Terror was merely 1789 with a higher body count” (447).

Schama concludes his book with the feminist revolutionary Théroigne de Mericourt in the mental institution of Salpêtrière. A sketch of her disturbed and pathetic visage is the last illustration in the book. Since the author is keen on symbols, it is obvious that Théroigne's end is a fitting close to the Revolution as well. Still, it is regrettable that such a capable historian as Schama, whose style and expression are enviable, who can tell a fascinating story with verve and drama, and who rivets the reader's attention on the narrative should be so prejudiced against the Revolution. Why is this so?

Schama is a product of the reactionary twentieth century in which revolutions turned out badly. The hopes aroused by the Russian Revolution and by Social Democracy turned into Stalinism and Hitlerism, respectively. The French Revolution, too, failed to establish the reign of “Virtue.” Goya's famous painting The Dream of Reason Brings Forth Monsters reminds the viewer that between dreams and nightmares there is a thin line. Yet, the recent events from Beijing to Moscow are proof, yet again, that humanity continues to dream and to strive for liberty, equality, and fraternity. These noble ideals of the French Revolution will continue to inspire men and women everywhere. In this respect the Revolution lives on.

Raymond Carr (review date 1 June 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 by his sources; the longer the footnotes citing them the better the history. He is tethered to his sources: his imagination hobbled by them. Yet history is the imaginative reconstruction of the past or it is nothing.

Simon Schama is the most imaginative historian extant. His chosen device in Citizens, his great work on the French Revolution, is the set piece that, like some flash of lightning, lights up a landscape of the past: the decaying plaster elephant never to be cast in bronze that was intended as Napoleon's reminder to Parisians of the imperial glories that would eclipse memories of the Great Revolution; Louis XVI watching the great wooden cones—like the elephant, they would fall to bits—being dragged out to sea in order to make an impregnable harbour at Cherbourg.

Schama is not only concerned with the exercise of the imagination as part of the historian's craft. He faces squarely the question every historian confronts. Can we construct an ‘objective’ version of the past? Of course, Schama does not deny the existence of ‘hard’ facts, nor does he fall into some naive relativism that would leave every reconstruction of the past equally valid. Rather, he asserts the ‘banal axiom’ that what we write about the past ‘must always be fatally circumscribed by the character and prejudice of its narrator’.

How do historians write history? They labour away at their sources and, with luck, a picture of the past emerges. But that picture must inevitably reflect the way the historian looks at life in general, his view of human nature. The Victorian liberal, confident in man's capacity for progress, will paint a different picture from a realpolitiker like Hobbes, convinced that man's bestiality demands a Leviathan state to control the war of all against all. We must all do our spadework; but no amount of archival hard labour will dig up some objective picture of the Spanish Civil War or the French Revolution that will not reflect our prejudices, our outlook on politics and society in general.

Dead Certainties explores these problems in what Schama calls two novellas. One concerns the death of General Wolfe on the Heights of Abraham; the other the murder, in 1840, of the eccentric Bostonian Brahmin, Dr George Parkman.

In both, where the verbatim sources are silent, Schama, in an exercise of controlled imagination, invents circumstantially plausible substitutes—for example, the fictional letter of a soldier writing home to describe the scaling of the Heights of Abraham and the subsequent battle for Quebec.

The basic facts of the Parkman murder seem clear. Dr Parkman was hacked to pieces and partially incinerated by John Webster, Professor of Chemistry at Harvard. Webster, in his efforts to live up to the social life then expected of a Harvard professor, and to satisfy a collector's mania—he spent $1000 on the skeleton of a mastodon—had borrowed money from Parkman and, unable to pay his debt, was subjected by his creditor to a humiliating and public persecution: to escape from his torturer, he murdered him.

But as soon as the murder became public property in Webster's trial the picture becomes confused. Different versions of the ‘truth’ flourished in a Boston polarised between the grandees of Harvard and the surrounding barbarians—the Irish and the Jews. To the hoi polloi Parkman became, not a Shylock after his pound of flesh, but a benevolent philanthropist; they delighted when Webster, member of a proud intelligentsia, stood in dock revealed as a beast and a liar. New Yorkers believed that Webster's conviction on the strength of circumstantial evidence reflected Boston's tepid patriotism: circumstantial evidence allowed in the courts of Massachusetts was a relic of English common law, spurned by honest-to-God sons of the Revolution.

Webster's trial was a journalist's field day and is a gift to Schama as a purveyor of history as drama: the conflicting evidence of rival dentists on the length of Parkman's jaw equipped with patent spring dentures; the diagrams of the bits and pieces of his dismembered corpse circulated in court to illustrate the mumbo jumbo of medical experts; expositions of the kind of fuel necessary to ensure an odourless incineration; macabre descriptions of Parkman's excessively hirsute back; the fatal blunder of Webster's defence lawyer in pleading that if there was murder, it was unpremeditated and therefore should be treated as manslaughter.

The interest of Schama lies precisely in this. Are we to accept the verdict of murder, which those outside the charmed circle of the Brahmins believed was Boston's way of sweeping a disgusting embarrassment under the carpet as expeditiously as possible? Or must we listen to Webster's plea, after the trial, that his action was unpremeditated: that he had struck Parkman with a stick in a moment of uncontrolled passion, or ‘ebullution’ as he called it, set off by his creditor's threats? But can a man be killed stone dead with a stick? What Schama is doing is using the discrepant opinions that arise in any trial as a paradigm of the differing versions that confront the historian.

The novella on Wolfe's death presents, I think, a different problem: not the puzzles of conflicting testimonies or the workings of social prejudice, but the creation of an imperialist myth. Wolfe was an ambitious, neurotic invalid, obsessed by death and the fear that he would die before he could win the crowning victory that would bring him glory and justify his boasts to a fellow neurotic—Pitt. (He probably did read Gray's Elegy to his troops before the battle: its conclusion ‘the paths of glory lead but to the grave’ must have satisfied his private obsessions rather than steeled his men for battle.) He died lying by a bush attended by two men. Yet in one of the great masterpieces of historical painting, Benjamin West's Death of General Wolfe, he expires surrounded by his officers and soldiers with a Red Indian kneeling in mute homage at his feet. This is pure fiction. Wolfe considered Indians as enemies—they fought for the French; as depraved beasts who stuck slivers of wood up his soldiers’ penises. West, a brash American, thought of them as noble savages, symbols of the ‘raw vigour of the New World’.

Yet it was not the historical record but West's fiction that fixed the image of Wolfe's death for my generation of schoolchildren who on Empire Day celebrated that the Union Jack waved over an Empire on which the sun never set, just as in West's picture it is furled above the dying general. Wolfe died two deaths: one on the Heights of Abraham and another in West's pictorial stage-set.

Dead Certainties is dedicated to the memory of Professor John Clive, ‘for whom history was literature’ and not a branch of the social sciences or the retrospective sociology embraced by exponents of the New History. Professor Peter Smith, himself a political scientist, has recently confessed that the political scientists have made recent Mexican history look ‘flat and one-dimensional,’ i.e. boring. Professor Schama may at times go over the top at the risk of exposing himself to the fire of the pros: but he is never boring. Residual Marxisants have left the discovery of ‘structures’ as the essential task of the historian: like that earlier buzz concept, the class struggle, structures somehow push history forwards towards a design pre-ordained by inexorable forces of social change. Yet as Schama writes in Citizens, much of history is accident, ‘a thing of contingencies and unforeseen consequences,’ its course littered with the corpses of politicians trapped and engulfed in their own rhetoric. For Schama, the French Revolution was a haphazard, chaotic event, ‘more the product of human agency than structural conditioning'—a bold conclusion to which another fine historian of that awful event, Richard Cobb, would assent. People, from the obscure provincials whom Cobb resurrects to his villain Robespierre, are back-centre stage. A sense of place in Schama replaces structures. We are back where Gibbon, a member of Dr Johnson's Literary Society, left us in 1778: with history ‘which will delight and instruct’.

I will end as I began, with a personal memory dragged up by the novella on Wolfe's death. As a child in Bath I hunted rats with a stick, on one occasion I have always believed, in Wolfe's house which then seemed to me in a very dilapidated condition. When, almost 70 years later, I found a splendid building, my rat hunt seemed as improbable a fiction as West's great battle scene.

Andrew Delbanco (review date 3 June 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 narration and a medium for self-reflection. Schama likes to pause to make analogical connections, and he writes with a wicked wit: it was, we learn in Dead Certainties, Harvard's President Walker, “arthritic and stone deaf” by the end of his tenure, who “established music in the college curriculum.”

Seventeenth-century Dutch publishers, Schama tells us in The Embarrassment of Riches, were “entrepreneurs of armchair calamity” who churned out books on providential disasters for a public hungry to know that God cared enough to punish them. In his new book, Schama remarks that in New England, where public submission to the punitive wrath of God also has a venerable tradition, certain spectacular crimes (including the recent Stuart murder case) have been followed by “Calvinist sound-bites”—exhortations to collective soul-searching from politicians and pundits who find general moral rot beneath incidental events. These phrases are the inventions of a serious but puckish writer who lifts us out of his narrative whenever he wants to connect it to contemporary times, and then returns us undistracted to the immersion in the past.

Much shorter than its predecessors, Dead Certainties consists of two loosely related stories of death in North America—one from the eighteenth century, one from the nineteenth—and the Schama style is in high gear. The first story is concerned with the battlefield death of James Wolfe, British commander in the North American campaign of the Seven Years’ War; the second with the murder ninety years later of a Harvard Medical School professor, George Parkman. Wolfe's death became the subject of a famous painting by Benjamin West, an eighteenth-century American artist who both scandalized and titillated his English patrons by defying the rules laid down by the Royal Academy for proper history-painting. He presented the dying Wolfe in disheveled contemporary dress—a violation of the convention that heroic figures must appear in classical costume—and placed a mostly naked Indian a few feet away. He filled the far background with images of the Royal Navy as the ultimate projector of British power, the middle distance with battle scenes leading up to the fatal encounter, and the foreground with officers bent in prayer. West's painting became a tableau of universal history built around Wolfe's transfiguration, or, in Schama's words, a “secular passion scene.” A century later Wolfe's sacrifice became the subject of what is perhaps the greatest historical work ever composed in North America—Francis Parkman's account, in Montcalm and Wolfe, of the imperial death struggle between France and England for control of the continental interior.

Schama's second subject—the sordid murder of George Parkman, uncle of the historian—was an event out of which grand history has never been composed in words or paint. Following Parkman's disappearance on a November afternoon in 1849, shortly after he had been seen chatting on Washington Street in Boston, posters offering a reward for clues to his fate went up all around the city. A few days later body parts were discovered by a suspicious janitor whose apartment adjoined the laboratory of John Webster, the Erving Professor of Chemistry at Harvard, whom Parkman had been hounding for an unpaid debt.

During the subsequent trial, the triumphant janitor, Ephraim Littlefield (one of Schama's best-drawn characters), disavowed any claim to the reward and explained, in a nasty bit of character illumination, that he had decided that something was amiss when the usually stingy Webster presented him with a Thanksgiving turkey. While his wife roasted and basted the bird, Littlefield followed his hunch and dropped into the professor's lab through an open window. He returned to his wife convinced that there had been foul play in the basement. After dinner, from a crawl space beneath the professor's privy, he broke through the brick wall and found bone, bits of flesh, and an entire pelvis “with the doings all hanging down from it.”

Subsequently Parkman's dentist identified the charred dentures pulled from the corpse as the same porcelain-and-wood contraption that he had installed a month before in the doctor's jaw, though a rival dentist called by the defense dismissed the suggestion that there was anything distinctive about it. Parkman's brother-in-law countered that the thickly haired torso found putrefying in Webster's tea chest was the same he had seen when the doctor had pulled up his shirt to boast how little he needed to wear in the cold. The defense never conceded that the victim's body had been found, and discrepancies remained between Parkman's height and the size of the reconstructed skeleton.

Webster, whose good character was attested to by a parade of Brahmins that included Jared Sparks and Oliver Wendell Holmes, and who maintained his innocence throughout the trial (which was attended in ten-minute shifts by nearly 60,000 persons), was convicted after short deliberation by the jury. He had speculated to his lawyers that Littlefield himself, who was practiced at obtaining cadavers for medical students, had planted the incriminating corpse on his premises, and had chosen a close fit for the missing doctor. But the story that eventually prevailed was that Webster, in a rage at his creditor's implacability, had struck Parkman with a piece of stove wood and—either to secure his victory or, in the more generous version of the story, in a gruesome panic—had sliced him up with a dissector's skill and then, with less skill, burned the remains.

Justice Lemuel Shaw charged the jury for nearly three hours, elaborating the niceties of what constitutes malice aforethought, and giving a strangely impassioned endorsement of the legality of conviction based on circumstantial evidence. After the trial Webster broke down and confessed, pleading for clemency from the governor. Much of the national press sided with him, and, accusing Shaw of “judicial murder,” protested that he had goaded the jury to convict. Pains were taken to keep the exact date of execution from Webster's family, who believed him innocent until the end.

Schama tells both stories with gusto (especially the grisly second one), but he only hints at their connections beyond the Parkman genealogy, and there are aspects, such as the public outcry after Webster's conviction, that he treats only glancingly. This is a book, he says, concerned with “the teasing gap separating a lived event and its subsequent narration.” Written as if to invite us into the blank space between events and the many ways in which they can be reimagined. Dead Certainties oscillates between the first-person voices of participants and an informal third-person historical commentary on the limitations of their, and our, awareness. It is a kind of ciphered postscript to the big books that preceded it.

I say this because its real subject is not the imperial conflict of which Wolfe's death was the culminating symbol, or the shock to New England civility entailed by the violent death of one Harvard man at the hands of another. Such subjects might lend themselves to extended narration or analysis as in Schama's previous work, but what we have here is entirely different. After two strongly interpretive books (Citizens came in for some harsh attacks on its sympathy for the brutalized aristocracy), Schama seems to want to leave the elements of his new book deliberately unintegrated. His point, as his title announces, is to kill all putative certainties by breaking off each part of the story just as it threatens to build enough pace to overwhelm alternative lines of narration. It is as if he is making a retrospective apology—in the justifying, not the self-repudiating, sense—for the masterful narratives he previously composed.

As all good writing does, Schama's carries a certain inherent claim to authority, and the present book, without resorting to a merely fashionable relativism, is a kind of disclaimer of such authority. It is a pastiche of competitive, and in some instances contradictory, monologues drawn from letters, legal transcripts, diary entries, and newspaper reports by participants and observers separated from one another by caste and prejudice and experience. Schama wants this book to feel open and unresolved, more like messy experience than like rationalized history.

The result for the reader is vertigo of the pleasurable sort delivered by a virtuoso performance. Schama signals this objective from the beginning, with an entirely imagined account of a British infantryman clawing his way up a cliff as, by night, Wolfe's army makes its desperate move to cut off the French supply lines from the west. We “feel the scare of the battle crawling through his uniform,” and each pelting “shower of sort dirt” adds to his fear of being beaten by his own officers if he falters. Although the rest of the Wolfe section is more documented than imagined, the opening sets the tone.

Schama writes almost always from inside the tightly circumscribed consciousness of some individual actor within the swirl of events, and the dominant mode of the writing, first-person or third-person, is speculative. We enter into the mind of a British soldier who hears Wolfe gurgle thanks to God for the victory as blood oozes from his abdominal wound; or into the mind of the general himself, whose body is failing under involuntary sieges of diarrhea and voluntary bloodlettings; or into the bitterness of the woman to whom he is engaged, who writes to his mother (who she knows disapproved of her) asking for any token or message he may have sent to her among his private effects. Finally, we are brought into intimacy with Francis Parkman, who, more than 100 years after the event, shields his failing eyes from the pain of sunlight by drawing drapes across his Beacon Hill window, and devises a bizarre mechanism of wire and wood to guide his hand across the paper so that he can write the story of Wolfe's heroism without straining to see what he has written.

Schama's prose is evocative and immediate. We hear the “fractured Boston-Irish French” in which Francis Parkman's hired girl reads to him; and we smell the putrid sweetness of George Parkman's corpse as the lid of Webster's tea chest is pried open. Sometimes the writing relaxes too much and relies on its own momentum. I am not sure that a prison cell can “smell of dust and despair”; and sometimes the technique of interior monologue becomes more predictable than revealing. But in general this is distinguished prose, and what makes it interesting is the way that it resists itself at the same time as it propels its stories forward. Schama interrupts himself continually—by reminding us, for instance, that the apocryphal tale of Wolfe reciting Gray's Elegy to his troops before the fatal battle might well be true, or by interjecting an archly professorial question (“Was this not admirable, Michel Foucault?”) into his report that the young Dr. Parkman studied under a French neurologist who freed the insane from their shackles in the Salpêtrière.

These are calculated interruptions timed to break the spell of the tale, and to wrench us back to the candid idiosyncrasies of the teller. In these ways each story, just as it seems to be settling into some analytic structure, is made to swerve away. There are hints that the guilty verdict of the Webster-Parkman case is to be understood as an act of class resentment (the jury was all blue collar, the defense witnesses mostly starched Harvard men); or that it was somehow a geographical contest between “the reptiles of the [Boston] penny-press” and the prudent men of Cambridge. But these sorts of arguments, usually the ponderous stuff of academic historiography, are never allowed to generate a context of their own. There are really no “conclusions” in this book, only a few peppery suggestions of how one might, if one wished, make personal sense out of the chaotic phenomena it reports.

It is in the afterword, where Schama speaks of “the metaphysical mystery” by which the past becomes present, that he lays his cards on the table:

Without this convenient epiphany, historians are left forever chasing shadows, painfully aware of their inability ever to reconstruct a dead world in its completeness, however thorough or revealing their documentation. Of course, they make do with other work: the business of formulating problems, of supplying explanations about cause and effect. But the certainty of such answers always remains contingent on their unavoidable remoteness from their subjects. We are doomed to be forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner and out of earshot.

It is the virtue of Schama's book that it teems with so much imaginative life as to awaken us to stories he does not tell. Literary scholars, for instance, have recently raised the tantalizing possibility that the Webster-Parkman murder case may have figured in the imagination of Herman Melville, whose father-in-law was the stern presiding judge, and who wrote, forty years later in Billy Budd, a tale of a sudden deathblow delivered out of one man's inexpressible horror at the cruelty of another. More than likely we will never know if this imaginative appropriation, without which our culture would be inestimably diminished, was one more accidental consequence of the quarrel between two Harvard scientists in a Boston cellar. But the wild improbability—more significant for Schama, the essential unknowability—of such a connection is, I think, what he wants us to feel history is about. In his hands the past loses its remoteness and takes on the noise and clutter of experience—a transformation performed by a magician confident enough to remind us before, during, and after the performance that it is all an illusion.

Roy Porter (review date 7 June 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 essays. A reconstruction of the death of General Wolfe at the Battle of Quebec in 1759, wresting Canada from the French, leads on to a vignette of the life of Francis Parkman, the 19th-century Harvard biographer of Wolfe, who devoted his life to the study of Anglo-French rivalry in North America, and developed a fascination with the forest and the frontier. And Francis Parkman takes us on to his uncle, George Parkman, another Boston worthy, whose murder by the Harvard Medical School professor, James Webster, scandalised the New England great and good in 1849.

Unusually for a history book, this is a rattling good read. Like Jack Higgins, to whom his title pays homage, Schama adores adjectives and tells stories with gusto. If the past is a foreign country. Schama is a terrific time-traveller, blessed with an eye for piquant details, indeed, for the “thinginess” of different cultures—in this case Boston, the upright, uptight, puritan city on the hill, newly beset and beleagured by fresh waves of immigrants, above all, the Irish.

As with his blockbuster Citizens (significantly subtitled A Chronicle of the French Revolution), one of the true pleasures of the text lies in Schama's talent for interweaving distinct narrative threads, and for dramatising the black comedies that fate scripts for its actors. A doctor, Parkman Senior was an aficionado of the new science of comparative anatomy and its seemingly magical ability to reconstruct entire extinct vertebrates from just a fossil bone or two. How apt that, after Webster had chopped poor George up and burnt him to cinders in the chemistry lab furnace, the only bit by which his mortal remains could be identified were his dentures! Amid the dull debates as to whether this book constitutes some theoretical innovation (or is just a dead-cert bestseller), it would be silly to forget that it is fun and funny, and all power to Schama's elbow for that.

Schama's sights are, of course, also aimed higher. For one thing, he constantly invites us to ponder the dialectic of the historian and his subject, the involvement of past and present. James Wolfe was a self-doubting self-dramatiser, perhaps a manic depressive, driven by a demonic desire to conquer death with glory. Wolfe's historian, Francis Parkman, was a near-blind arthritic, barely able to hold a pen, but lost in the heroism of the frontiersman. What does this say about our motives for reliving the past? Compensation, consolation? Schama—now biographer of Wolfe and Parkman—has said that history is necessarily autobiographical, that historians speak through their history. What does this tell us about this present Harvard professor?

The question of memory, that contract between the past and the present, is the watermark on this work. Why is the hypochondriac Wolfe remembered as a hero? Partly because of Benjamin West's grandiose canvas of The Death of Wolfe. But that was wholly an imaginative reconstruction. Artists are licensed to paint fictions, yet, asks Schama, isn't what really happened always beyond the scholar's grasp? Isn't the historian like someone hailing a person who is ever striding out of earshot?

No accident, then, that the centrepiece of Dead Certainties is a courthouse scene. Did Webster murder Parkman? There was no eyewitness, no confession. The felony had to be reconstructed from fragments (the teeth!), and from imaginative projections of motives and circumstances. It is history itself, the ultimate campus crime, that is here in the dock. All that is certain about the objects of its attention is that they are dead. The rest is speculation, perhaps unwarranted. Hence Schama's decision to write some of his book in the fictional mode. A daring innovation? Or simply what, in truth, most historians are doing most of the time, though, unlike Schama, without coming clean?

People will argue whether Schama's book marks an epistemological epiphany, symptomatic of the postmodernist collapse of fact and fiction into “discourse,” or at least the willingness of history and literature departments to be on speaking terms once more. Schama doubtless wants a rapprochement between the scholar and the writer, but his real concerns lie elsewhere, and are far more personal to him: for example Schama's unashamedly individual voice, in conversations with people long-departed.

The Embarrassment of Riches recreated the ambience of the golden age Dutch republic from the viewpoint of the burgher as family man: domestic, decent, yet the great-grandfather of consumer man. Citizens was the human tragedy of the French Revolution: while histrionic heroes indulged their taste for violent ego-games on the political stage, ordinary people suffered in the grand bloodbath—for what? Dead Certainties is yet more small-man history, mucky and muddled private lives played against the backdrop of Bostonian public high-mindedness.

Schama peddles no simplistic quietism. But he is acutely aware that the myths men make and manipulate—myths of Providence, Manifest Destiny, the Fatherland, liberté,egalité et fraternité, myths even of Harvard—are fictions, and often fatal ones at that.

In an afterward, Schama quotes Henry James's view that the historian is like a soldier who goes behind enemy lines to recover the dead and give them a decent burial. Schama is not for entombing the past. Like Michelet, one of the Romantic historians he admires, he entertains a different vision: l'histoire: c'est la resurrection! Bringing the past back to life is a preferable job-description of the historian. It is an art Schama does very well.

Gordon S. Wood (review date 27 June 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 do and say things they had never done. When E. L. Doctorow was asked whether Emma Goldman and Evelyn Nesbit had ever actually met as they did in his novel Ragtime, he replied. “They have now,” Journalists and TV writers have been doing it, creating hybrids called “faction” and “docu-drama.” Television even began simulating the news, adding made-up pictures to otherwise apparently lifeless words.

These examples, however important, are merely the manifestations of a larger, more significant force at work. The blurring of fact and fiction is part of the intellectual climate of our postmodern time—dominated as it is by winds of epistemological skepticism and Nietzschean denials of the possibility of objectivity that are sweeping through every humanistic discipline, sometimes with cyclonic ferocity. Historians are usually the last to know about current fashions, but so powerful have the postmodern, deconstruction theories become that even historians can no longer remain ignorant of them.

Most historians are not yet ready to admit that they simply make up the past as a fiction writer does or to deny outright the possibility of representing a past reality, but the signs of doubt and anxiety are in the air. Hayden White and the journal History and Theory have of course long been writing about the fictional character of historical narrative and urging historians to recognize the complex nature of what they do. Peter Novick in a recent important and widely acclaimed book. That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (1988), has offered his fellow historians an elegiac and anguished account of the demise of the founding ideals of the discipline of history with little or no hope for their rebirth. Literary scholars have been very busy bringing their postmodern, deconstructionist theories onto the historian's turf and calling themselves “new historicists” while further undermining the old-time faith in an objective past reality. Although historians have scarcely begun to experience the kinds of epistemological quarrels that have torn apart the literary disciplines over the past decade or so, the signs of change are ominous. And Simon Schama's new book, Dead Certainties, is the most portentous of them.

Dead Certainties, which loosely combines two separate stories about the past—one about the death of General Wolfe at the battle of Quebec in 1759 and the other about the murder of George Parkman by Professor John Webster of Harvard in 1849—is a self-proclaimed experiment in narration. In his storytelling Schama has avoided neat chronological sequences and has in fact “deliberately dislocated the conventions by which histories establish coherence and persuasiveness.” Both stories “begin with abrupt interventions … and end with accounts at odds with each other as to what has happened.” He has given us what literary scholars would call interior monologues, shifting voices and multiple points of view: and if these were not enough he has even invented whole passages, including a fictional account by one of Wolfe's soldiers of the battle of Quebec and a made-up dialogue between two of the figures in the Webster trial. It is an extraordinary book, with important implications for the discipline of history, especially because of who Schama is.

Schama is no small-time renegade in the historical profession. He is not a philosophically inclined critic of history, like Hayden White, who carps at the margins of the discipline and preaches skepticism and subversion to the halfway converted but writes no history. Schama is a prominent practicing historian. Indeed, at the outset of his career he was marked by his mentor J. H. Plumb as “the outstanding historian of his generation.” Whether or not he is that, he has certainly risen rapidly to the top of the historical profession.

He was born in London in 1945 (“the night we bombed Dresden”), he says, educated at Cambridge University, and taught at Cambridge and Oxford until moving a decade or so ago across the Atlantic to Harvard, where he is currently Mellon Professor in the Social Sciences and senior associate at the Center for European Studies.

Though only in his mid-forties Schama has already published (before Dead Certainties) four highly acclaimed history books, the two most recent of which sold widely in several nations and languages. Not only have these books brought him professional acclaim, but they have made him something of an international celebrity. Earlier this year the London Sunday Times Magazine devoted its weekly feature “A Life in the Day of” to this university professor—a bit of fame usually reserved for politicians and film stars. Even in Boston local television stations have occasionally invited Schama to comment on current events, including the upheavals in Eastern Europe, about which he presumably knows not much more than the rest of us.

So that when a professional historian of Schama's status and significance deliberately decides to mingle fact with fiction and try an experiment in narration, the result can be no trivial matter. In writing this book, however, Schama seems to have no hidden political purpose or dark schemes in mind. Indeed there is a certain guilelessness about him. He explained recently to The Guardian that he is being “held currently guilty of committing a fiction,” saying this, according to the interviewer, “with a big pleased grin …,the bad boy of the class enjoying the trouble he didn't quite mean to cause.” He doesn't want to change the world. He wants to tell stories. He has said that “all history tends toward autobiographical confession,” which his experiment in fictional history confirms. It is no momentary aberration for him; it is the natural development of his work.

Schama is a born storyteller. From the beginning of his career he has had a powerful desire to write something more aesthetically pleasing and imaginatively exciting than the prescribed rules of history writing currently allow. To be sure, his two earliest books were more or less traditional historical studies, heavily footnoted and based on intensive archival research: but they were certainly more narrative than they were analytical, and big narratives at that. His first work, Patriots and Liberators: Revolution in the Netherlands, 1780–1813, published in 1977, began, he admits, “as a trim monograph” but “came to assume proportions of … indecent corpulence,” 745 pages worth—a problem of volubility Schama has continued to struggle with. Telling the story of the complicated process that destroyed the Dutch Republic and established the Kingdom of the United Netherlands under William I required Schama's mastering the Dutch language and the Dutch archives, and that alone was an awe-inspiring achievement.

Most reviewers believed that there was nothing to rival Schama's study of this important period of Dutch history—in any language. Still, even in this very scholarly work dealing with a relatively recondite subject for an English-speaking historian, Schama nevertheless expressed an aspiration to break out of the “pedantic specialisations” of the historical profession. “It is time, perhaps,” he wrote in his preface to the book, “to poke our heads above our several molehills and to take in a view, however nervous and blinking, of the broader historical landscape.” He knew too from his teacher J. H. Plumb that “history must at least strive to be art before it can pretend to be a science.” Already this early book revealed the richness and garrulousness of his narrative style, where words and sentences seem to spill out as fast as the storyteller can speak. One reviewer said that Schama's writing sometimes “approaches the ripeness of late eighteenth century prose, but it never goes beyond the bounds of decency.”

His second book, Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel (1978), dealing with the contribution of Edmund and James de Rothschild to the creation of a Jewish community in Palestine, was an even more traditional history than his first book, based as it essentially was on the single archive of the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association. The book grew out of an informal seminar on Jewish social and intellectual history that Schama had been teaching to undergraduates at Cambridge University in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a very personal story, which at one point in his life he felt he had to tell, but one he says he would never have finished except for the “goading of those two kindly but purposeful bullies, my mother and father,” especially his father who was “a passionate enthusiast of Jewish history.”

His move from England to Harvard in the late 1970s allowed fuller scope for Schama's deep desire and remarkable ability to tell stories, an activity that in origin is after all an oral process. At Harvard, unlike Oxford or Cambridge, he became, as he says, the examiner of his own curriculum and thus became free to develop his lecture courses at will. “I do anything I want to,” he says. By his own count his courses now number twenty or so, ranging in subject from baroque art and architecture and eighteenth-century French politics and painting to Dutch art and Pieter Brueghel, and most recently to the reading and writing of narrative history, which, he says, has become “a major concern” of his. This Dead Certainties bears out. Nearly all of Schama's courses combine art with history and so rely heavily on the showing of slides. He says he never has a prepared text for his lectures, only his slides, “just a series of shuffled images.” His very popular lectures at Harvard thus become awesome feats of extemporaneous speaking, extraordinary displays of the ancient art of oral storytelling with the modern addition of pictures.

His third book, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (1978), revealed fully Schama's remarkable talent for telling stories and shuffling images, and it brought him to the attention of a wide public. Like his first book, Embarrassment of Riches was huge—698 pages—but it was not old-fashioned linear narrative history: as Schama admitted it “strayed a good deal from the straight and narrow of the historical method.” The book was essentially a cornucopia of stories, dozens if not hundred interspersed illustrations. Schama roamed all over seventeenth-century Dutch society, gathering what he called “bits and pieces of culture,” incidents and anecdotes, curiosities and delights, paintings and engravings, on a wide variety of subjects, from criminal punishments to dike building, from Calvinist patriotism to beached whales, from Dutch eating, drinking, and smoking habits to tulip sales, from cleanliness to child-rearing—all designed to reveal a collective self-portrait of the Dutch people. The “shameless eclecticism” of the study was very controversial, one critic calling the book the “triumph of ingenuity over evidence.” Some experts in Dutch history or art history were reluctant to praise this eccentric and imaginative book, but many others did. Still, Schama himself expressed concern that the collective image of the seventeenth-century Dutch people that he had tried to recover “might at best be fugitive and ghosty.”

His next book, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1989), carried Schama even closer to pure storytelling. “Citizens came tumbling out of me—it poured out,” he says: “I was even writing it in the shower!” The book, which is 948 pages long, has no pretensions to being scientific or dispassionate. Unlike Embarrassment of Riches, which retained conventional documentation. Citizens has no reference notes. Although the book was “in no sense fiction (for here is no deliberate invention),” Schama realized that “it may well strike the reader as story rather than history.” It represented “a deliberate turning away from analytical history” and an unabashed revival of an old-fashioned nineteenth-century narrative “with a beginning, middle, and end that tries to resonate with its protagonists’ own overdeveloped sense of past, present and posterity.”

Schama rejected the objectivity that historical distance presumably confers and opted for the proximity of the historical participants. Like a novelist, he concentrated not on society and impersonal historical forces but on the contingent thoughts and actions of particular individuals—allowing what they said and did “to shape the flow of the story … year after year, month after month.” Consequently, he comes close to viewing the past reality of at least the period of the French Revolution as simply a story waiting to be told. “It is not in the least fortuitous,” he says, “that the creation of the modern political world coincided precisely with the birth of the modern novel.” His rejection of the “conventional barriers” of history writing is clear: he had learned that “to write history without the play of imagination is to dig in an intellectual graveyard. so that in Citizens I have tried to bring a world to life rather than entomb it in erudite discourse.”

Thus Schama's rendezvous with fictional history in Dead Certainties was ordained almost from the beginning. He begins his first story, entitled “The Many Deaths of General Wolfe,” with a six-page monologue by an imaginary soldier involved in Wolfe's scaling of the cliffs of Quebec, which resulted in Wolfe's death and the British victory over the French in Canada. With this device Schama certainly captures the tone and language of an eighteenth-century character. But his invented soldier's account, though it contains nothing that is untrue, ultimately lacks verisimilitude: no ordinary soldier in the ranks could have heard about or experienced all that he describes about the battle of Quebec. Which is why Stendhal's description in the opening chapters of The Charterhouse of Parma of Fabrizio's bewildering experience in the battle of Waterloo is so wonderfully effective: it undercuts the view, which is the basic premise of Schama's book, that participants have a privileged access to knowledge of the events they are involved in. The opposite is in fact true: it is the historian removed from the events who is in a better position to put together the confused, disparate, and sometimes contradictory accounts by the participants into a plausible whole. This problem runs through Schama's entire experiment in fictionalized history.

Schama next shifts to a brilliantly concise twelve-page “Life of General Wolfe” written from Wolfe's point of view: sometimes in fact the account enters directly into Wolfe's mind. Then in the second chapter Schama jumps to the opening of the exhibition of Benjamin West's great painting The Death of General Wolfe at the Royal Academy on April 29, 1771. This is followed by an incisive essay on West and the significance of his decision to paint Wolfe in contemporary dress. West's deliberate deviation from the conventions of history painting was not done, however, for the sake of realism but, as Schama is at pains to point out, for the sake of rhetorical effect. Indeed, the effect was so great that for future generations of British children

drilled in the pieties of imperial history, it was West's scene they imagined rather than any more literal account. … After West, nothing could dispel the odour of sanctity that lay over Wolfe's memory. … What more could possibly be said?

With this question hanging in the air Schama then dramatically takes the reader to the Massachusetts Historical Society on November 21, 1893, on the occasion of a memorial tribute to the great historian Francis Parkman, who had recently died. Next, Schama moves back in time into Parkman's house and mind in 1880, concluding the chapter with a brief summary of Parkman's life, which concentrates on his pain in both body and soul as he struggled to write his multivolume masterpiece. France and England in North America, whose climax is the battle of Quebec. In the end, says Schama, Parkman wrote of the neurotic and disease-ridden Wolfe on the eve of the battle as if he were Wolfe himself. “Past and present dissolved at this moment. He became Wolfe and Wolfe lived again through him.”

Schama then resumes the imagined first-person account of the battle of Quebec by the anonymous soldier, which had begun the story. The soldier recounts the rather sordid and inconspicuous gurgling and groaning death of Wolfe, whose “face had gone stiff and greenish” with blood from his wounded belly “oozing through his shirt and coat.” Schama's story ends with a poignant letter (presumably authentic) written a month after the battle by Wolfe's betrothed, Katherine Lowther, to Wolfe's mother, who had disapproved of the match, begging to have any messages or marks of endearment Wolfe might have left sent to her.

This story, “The Many Deaths of General Wolfe,” takes up less than a quarter of Schama's book: the remainder is devoted to the “Death of a Harvard Man,” which has no relation to the first story, except that the murdered man, George Parkman, was Francis Parkman's uncle. For Schama this is enough: “the Parkman inheritance. …” he says, “deeply colours both stories.”

This story opens cinematically in 1850 with Governor George Briggs of Massachusetts pondering the possibility of commuting the execution of John Webster, a Harvard professor of chemistry, who had been found guilty of murdering George Parkman after Parkman had demanded that he pay back a loan of $483. Schama has the governor shuffling through the piles of letters arriving at his desk from all over the country, letters that both affirmed and denied Webster's guilt. “Yes, yes. folly and lies, fairy tales and fables,” he has the governor think to himself.

But where lay the truth, the real history of George Parkman and John White Webster? Much as he respected the stern proceedings of the trial, he was too much of a lawyer himself (or perhaps too much of a smithy's son) to imagine that it told the whole story. [Webster's] defence, after all, had opened with one account and closed with another—a fatal strategy; even the prisoner's own confession could not wholly be credited. Indeed, confessions were two a penny. …

From this beginning, characteristic of Schama's novelistic technique throughout, he proceeds to tell the whole fascinating and macabre story. George Parkman disappears one afternoon just before Thanksgiving in 1849. A week later pieces of a body are discovered at Harvard Medical College. The corpse is identified from barely recognizable false teeth by the dentist who swears he made them. Professor John Webster of Harvard is arrested and tried for the brutal murder. It is a story so sensational that a century and a half later it still makes present-day Boston murder cases seem tame by comparison.

Using the same novelistic devices he used in the first story—interior monologues, shifts from one mind and point of view to another, and straight third-person narratives interspersed with the printing of presumably authentic documents—Schama develops his exciting tale with great skill. He introduces us to the principal characters and develops them fully and imaginatively as a sensitive novelist would: the victim, George Parkman, eccentric real-estate speculator and landlord whose early desire to establish a modern and humane insane asylum in Boston had been thwarted; the accused, John Webster, whose income was insufficient to support the style of life of a Harvard professor and who had therefore been compelled to borrow money from Parkman; Ephraim Littlefield, janitor at the Medical College, who was suspicious of Webster and discovered the cut-up remains of Parkman in the basement of Webster's laboratory; the prosecuting attorneys, especially George Bemis, who kept a diary; the defense attorneys, who could never quite agree on a consistent defense for Webster; the marshal who arrested Webster; the chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, Lemuel Shaw, whose mountainous presence overawed all courtrooms; and a host of lesser figures who fade in and out of the narrative. It is a tour de force of storytelling, but is it history?

Schama concedes in the end that it is not. “Though these stories may at times appear to observe the discursive conventions of history,” he writes, “they are in fact historical novellas.” Nevertheless, despite this disavowal, Schama seems to believe that he is doing something more than writing historical fiction like Sir Walter Scott or Kenneth Roberts. It is not clear, however, just what his experiment in narration is designed to accomplish.

No doubt Schama believes that his new novelistic techniques and his deliberate violation of the conventions of history writing allow him to tell a better, more convincing story. But is it a better and more convincing story than a novelist could write? And if not, then why the experiment? Schama cannot have it both ways. He cannot write fiction and still assume that it will have the authenticity and credibility of history. His problem in mingling fiction with fact in history writing is similar to that of mixing simulations with authentic documentary material in television news. The readers or viewers are never sure which is which, and therefore come to doubt the truthfulness of the whole. One reads Dead Certainties with admiration and credulity until suddenly something in the narrative provokes the question of whether or not there is documentary evidence for it. Maybe Schama actually has a diary or a letter he could point to that would clinch his point, but in his fictionalized account there are no references, no conventional proof, and the purely invented parts taint the credibility of the whole. In retrospect, even Schama himself seems to have some doubts. “I have a slight pang that I did invent anything at all,” he told an interviewer. “I could see a genuine nonfiction book that would have a lot of immediacy without narrative invention.”

The loss of credibility far outweighs any aesthetic gains that Schama might have gotten from his narrative experiment. Indeed, his violation of the conventions of history writing actually puts the integrity of the discipline of history at risk. Those conventions of history writing, like any conventions, are fragile and always vulnerable to challenge; they are scarcely more than a century old. Of course, there is no inherent reason why these conventions of objectivity and documentary proof should continue to guide and control the writing of history; they certainly did not control much of the history in other cultures. But they have been painstakingly developed in the Western world and have respectable justifications for their existence; they ought not to be abandoned without a fight either to postmodern skepticism or to Schama's playful experiments in narration.

In an eight-page “Afterword” Schama attempts to explain why he tried his experiment in narration. Although he is far from a postmodern deconstructionist and does not “scorn the boundary between fact and fiction.” he does seem to share some of the epistemological Angst that is so prevalent these days. Events did actually happen, he has admitted on another occasion, but they “can't be very clearly determined even with the resources we have available.” Since historians can never truly enter into a past world, they “are left forever chasing shadows, painfully aware of their inability ever to reconstruct a dead world in its completeness, however thorough or revealing their documentation.” We are unavoidably remote from our subjects, he says, and therefore “we are doomed to be forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner and out of earshot.”

In both of the cases he has dealt with in his book, “alternative accounts of the event compete for credibility, both for contemporaries and for posterity.” Thus both of his imaginative stories, he explains,

end with accounts at odds with each other as to what has happened, as to the significance of the deaths and the character of the protagonists. … Both dissolve the certainties of events into the multiple possibilities of alternative narrations. … Thus, General Wolfe dies many deaths, and though a verdict is rendered and a confession delivered in the case of John Webster, the ultimate truth about how George Parkman met his end remains obscure. … These are stories, then, of broken bodies, uncertain ends, indeterminate consequences … flickering glimpses of dead worlds.

All this seems a bit overdrawn and overwrought—as does much of the epistemological doubt currently being expressed by scholars. We know a good deal more about these events than Schama implies; he is certainly not the first historian to write about them. We know about the difference between Wolfe's actual death and West's rhetorical portrayal, and we know, too, where Parkman has been superseded by new research. And we have more than a shadowy sense that John Webster killed George Parkman. We know in fact more about these events than any of the participants could or did, which may suggest that Schama has got it backward: that it is the participants in the events who chase shadows and the historians who have a more comprehensive grasp of past reality. Of course, as Schama says, there are multiple points of view and alternative ways of recounting these events. But it is no good for the historian to wring his hands and simply lay out as Schama says he has done in this book, “all the accidents and contingencies that go into the making of an historical narrative.” It is the historian's responsibility to analyze and evaluate all these different views and narrations and then arrive at as full and as objective an explanation and narration of the events as possible.

Still, the question remains: What did Schama hope to accomplish with this experiment in narration? Did he want seriously to affect the writing of narrative history, or simply fulfill a personal aesthetic desire to tell stories in a richer and fuller manner? Maybe he has become too enamored of the visual arts he spends so much time teaching and writing about. Paintings after all are no longer judged on the basis of the accuracy with which they represent reality but on other bases. Some postmodern philosophers of history like F. R. Ankersmit would like historical narratives to be judged in the same way—on the basis of their style or other aesthetic features and not on their capacity to represent past reality accurately. Whether he intends to or not, Schama is certainly playing into their hands.

Or perhaps Schama is too much affected by his recent reading of imaginative fiction. He tells us in The Sunday Times feature that he is a “voracious” reader, much of it apparently in modern experimental fiction. “Jeanette Winterson's views on time are so like mine—it's quite spooky,” he says. He also admires “Julian Barnes's mixture of fiction and nonfiction,” and he found Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger, which moves back and forth between the past and present of its historian-heroine's experience, “wonderful.” What he really likes about these modern novelists is “the attention they pay to ghostly echoes and the historical perspective.” “All derivative, all in the mind—the confection of fact and fantasy that is how we know the world,” says Lively's heroine. If historians ever really do take seriously as models for their work the fiction of new experimental novelists like Patrick McGrath who say that they “don't want to be constrained by the actual—there's more freedom to invent when the fiction is not accountable to a reality,” then they surely will put themselves out of business.

Schama apparently believes that because naive nineteenth-century positivism—“the certainty of an ultimately observable, empirically verifiable truth”—is dead, that all we have left are ghosts and shadows and indeterminacy. If we cannot recover the truth about the past with finality and completeness, then must we resort to the techniques of fiction in order to fill in the shadows and embody the ghosts? Are those the alternatives? If we cannot have old-fashioned positivist history, then must we write historical novellas?

Although, says Schama, both his stories “follow the documentary record with some closeness, they are works of imagination, not scholarship.” These are not contraries. Historical scholarship should not be set in opposition to imagination. History writing is creative, and it surely requires imagination: only it is an imagination of a particular sort, sensitive to the differentness of the past and constrained and constricted by the documentary record. Schama in his better moments knows this, knows that “even in the most austere scholarly report from the archives, the inventive faculty—selecting, pruning, editing, commenting, interpreting, delivering judgments—is in full play.” He does not deny the existence of a past reality. But he “does accept the rather banal axiom that claims for historical knowledge must always be fatally circumscribed by the character and prejudices of its narrator.”

That “fatally” is mistaken: and it has led Schama into his experiment in fictional history. One can accept the view that the historical record is fragmentary and incomplete, that recovery of the past is partial and difficult, and that historians will never finally agree in their interpretations, and yet can still believe intelligibly and not naively in an objective truth about the past that can be observed and empirically verified. Historians may never see and represent that truth wholly and finally, but some of them will come closer than others, be more nearly complete, more objective, more honest, in their written history, and we will know it, and have known it, when we see it. That knowledge is the best antidote to the destructive skepticism that is troubling us today.

David Castronovo (review date 13 September 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 storytelling. Filled with personalities, highly developed intellectual and social contexts, and juicy anecdotes, Schama's Citizens—like those classics of readability—is what first-rate historical narration used to be like before our own age of academic scholarship, bar graphs, elaborately deployed methodologies, and endless qualifications couched in jargon.

Schama is the Mellon Professor in the Social Sciences at Harvard, and his gifts as writer as well as his deep learning make him an extraordinary figure in the scholarly world, someone with boundless enthusiasm for everything connected with modern history—manners and morals, debt management, art, curiosities and ironies of behavior of the powerful and the obscure. In Citizens he brings his humane and rather conservative intelligence to bear on the topic of revolutionary violence; he looks at people more closely than abstract forces and shows how their delirious idealisms, misreadings, and impulses led to several years of horror that point directly to the events of the 1930s and 1940s. Trusting to the biographical approach and keeping faith with Alexis de Tocqueville's skeptical, tragic sense of events, he seems to want little to do with contemporary ideologies or methods, preferring to immerse his readers in the “chaotic authenticity” of textured stories.

Since Citizens is so beautifully paced, the reader may wonder what's going on in Schama's latest volume, the brain-teasing Dead Certainties. Its chapters are unevenly proportioned; its episodes seem jagged; it jumps from passages that employ authorial interference to sections that are fabricated interior monologue assigned to people in the past. And Schama deals with two stories that seem quite distant from each other. One is about General James Wolfe, the fallen leader of the English forces in the French and Indian War and a martyr to the British idea of empire in the New World. The other is about a mid-nineteenth-century Harvard chemistry professor, John Webster, who doubtless killed another Harvard man, Dr. George Parkman, an eminent physician and exacting landlord, in a quarrel over a loan payment. The first death was heroic, worthy of historical paintings and panegyrics; the second was surrounded by ugly details, on both sides, that threatened to cling to old Harvard—Parkman's miserly fanaticism, snobbish Boston Brahmin denial, and the grisly matter of Dr. Parkman's (probably) dismembered body.

The connection between these two dead certainties—which soon emerge as quite uncertain in the reader's mind—is Francis Parkman, George Parkman's nephew who became a renowned historian specializing in the British-French conflict in Canada during the eighteenth century. Francis Parkman, a scholar who lived and breathed the destiny of General Wolfe, is in many ways the central figure of Schama's book: a chronically ill man who wrote a monumental work while contending with family tragedy and his own depression, he stands as an emblem of intellectual conquest, a hero who grappled with mountains of documents and emerged with his story—a masterpiece about the tormented General Wolfe. But the story of Wolfe, entangled with the fate of Parkman, soon makes us wonder about accuracy, versions of the truth, identification as distortion.

These curious plots thicken as we become aware of the fact that the book is about “the teasing gap separating a lived event and a subsequent narration.” Schama presents an oftentimes unsettling search for “alternate accounts,” a polyphonic recounting of stories about a hero and a criminal that “compete for credibility.” In one chapter he uses Benjamin West's epic painting, The Death of General Wolfe (1770) as a document, analyzes its histrionic qualities and its uses of the imagery of Christ's descent from the cross, and shows how the work in effect created one of the British Empire's finest hours. Always a dissolver of certainties, Schama points out the falsifications in the canvas, including the use of a contemplative Indian in the foreground. General Wolfe, in real life an Augustan racist, would hardly have liked this emphasis on the noble savage in the midst of his transfiguration.

The thematic link between Wolfe and Webster, never quite made explicit, involves the nature of violent death, how we record our impressions of it, create it as an event, and store it in our communal memory. By extension the book also explores mythmaking and stigmatizing, rituals of celebration and degradation, varieties of exoneration and mudslinging. Part 2, called “Death of a Harvard Man,” is a concatenation of voices—people who felt sorry for the Webster family, President Spark (“Harvard professors do not often commit murder”), attorneys (with agendas and sometimes with consciences), and a large cast of Brahmins and ordinary working people. One of the aggressive instincts studied in the book is the status drive of the learned people in Cambridge: it amounted to their fastidiousness about the penny press and its “enthusiasts of the gallows,” yet its accompanying Unitarianism—so much more genteel than old time Calvinist fulminating about sin—may have blind Brahmins to the nature of the evidence against Webster and perhaps made them forget that they themselves shared in his colossal sin. Money obsession, keeping up professorial appearances, and the Brahmin idea of the gentleman may well have driven Webster crazy. In any event, the culpability of the case adhered to the prosecution side as well. Schama delineates the character of a judge who in effect helped the prosecutors by sermonizing, telling moralistic tales, and interpreting the events rather than the law. Webster, who was probably guilty as hell, nevertheless was convicted on very soft evidence. Attorneys, clergy, teachers, and doctors will unquestionably be absorbed by Schama's weaving of accounts: was Webster's trial and conviction, as one journalist put it, “a hunt of expiation and defamation” or a matter of justice served?

Two major ideas emerge from this cat's cradle of conflicting stories. The first is the responsibility of the historian. Telling stories about the past is a matter of piecing together fragments—“hailing someone who has just gone around the corner out of earshot.” To forget this is to be seduced by scientific exactitude or ideological righteousness, both dangerous temptations for people entrusted with evaluating the plausibility of narratives. The fact that all documents and evidence from the past are in a sense imaginative constructs should not make investigators despair. Schama's point—embodied in his work—is far from the anything-can-mean-anything double talk one hears these days. It's a revolt against dead certainty without being a rejection of truth; it questions without eroding our sense of coherence. By the end of the volume Schama is slipping in another idea, essentially an affront to smug determinists of every stamp. Basically he's implying that the age of Romanticism—with its legends, myths, and tales—ended at the time of the trial of Webster in 1850. And with it came a disrespect for listening to all sorts of accounts and an inordinate respect for hard facts. Schama quietly laments this tendency, and, like Herodotus, prefers to be the kind of historian who collects seemingly fanciful bits and pieces in order to arrive at his version of the past. One can only admire him in our time of relentless surveys and endless unitary interpretations of why we are, like Wolfe and Webster, caught in a violent story.

Clayton W. Lewis (review date Winter 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.)

Schama takes up British General Wolfe's famous death in battle at Quebec on September 13, 1759. Writing from various points of view, including Wolfe's Schama renders with fact and imagination the complexity of both that battle and Wolfe's character—e.g., his family difficulties, his quirks including hypochondria, and his probable recitation to his troops on the eve of battle of Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard. Skipping then to 1770, Schama gives us Benjamin West, the American painter then in London, as he completes and first shows his great painting, The Death of General Wolfe. The painting renders the events we have witnessed in Schama's accounts. In the painting “mere fact is overwhelmed by inspired, symbolically loaded invention.” It is a “grandiloquent lie” that stirs George III and, after huge numbers are engraved, becomes an “icon of the British Empire.” Indeed, when children of future generations were “drilled in the pieties of imperial history, it was West's scene they imagined rather than a more literal recall.” The complex events of war, which we witnessed, are now charged with strong national values.

But this palimpsest extends further. In the mid-1860s Francis Parkman, an eminent and eccentric Bostonian already well-known for his Oregon Trial, undertook his epic account, France and England in North America. At the climax is the Quebec battle and Wolfe's death. When Parkman writes of Wolfe, “Past and present dissolved at this moment,” according to Schama, and Parkman “became Wolfe and Wolfe lived again through him.” There is “metaphysical mystery” in this identification that allows mortals to cross the gaps between one era and another; without these crossings, history, memoir, biography and other accounts of the past would be inert. Justifications of Wolfe's death become, through “metaphysical mystery,” what justify Parkman in his labors. And just as Parkman and West find themselves in Wolfe, so does Schama find himself in their activity of representing Wolfe. And he completes his conception of war writing by demonstrating how such historical accounts entail—and therefore celebrate—a nation's sense of identity.

In 1849 Francis Parkman's brother, George, equally eminent and eccentric, was apparently murdered by John W. Webster, the Erving professor of chemistry at Harvard. (Schama is also a Harvard professor.) The trial had scandalous irregularities, including the judge “becoming a third prosecuting attorney.” As a result, the “verdict (not to mention the sentence) was an outrage. … What was truly at stake here … was the self-esteem of an entire community and the urgency with which they wanted a disgusting embarrassment put out of the way.” Webster was executed. War writing is inclusive of those who live that history (Wolfe), those who render it (West, Parkman), and—once historical accounts of war embody a nation's values—those who epitomize (the Parkmans) and those who are crosswise of that nation's “certainties” (Webster).

This perspective illuminates the reports considered here; it also completes Robert Penn Warren's description of war writing. Each author, looking back at war through memory and the labyrinths of public representations, confronts the “teasing gap separating a lived event and its subsequent narration.” Schama draws on Henry James to clarify these relationships. James, using a military metaphor, describes the “habitually insoluble quandary of the historian”—“how to live in two worlds at once; how to take the broken, mutilated remains of something or someone from the ‘enemy lines’ of the documented past and restore it to life or give it a decent interment.” Allowing for the memoirist as the historian of the self (and thus for Begley and Hathaway), all the authors struggle within James's terms—to restore life and decently to inter. In addition those who write the history of war (Klinkenborg, Ross, and Schama) of necessity must wrest their accounts from prior accounts entangled in national values. To write of war is to write of human loss and to call forth the most profound (and therefore absolute, “certain”) of a nation's justifications. If successful, these will transform losses—that “nothing”—into national sacrifices. War's wasting the substance of life drives the endeavor, as it drove Lincoln's meditation and Warren's.

Alan B. Spitzer (essay date March 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 become a minor genre in the historiography of the Revolution.1 This essay is intended as a contribution to critical reflections on the recent literature with reference to the phenomenally successful narrative history of the Revolution by Simon Schama [in Citizens].

Schama's blockbuster has enjoyed a mixed response from academic historians—not always, I suspect, for avowable reasons. It is a best-seller that is fun to read, written by someone who has published on the period but has not been a lifetime toiler in the vineyards of the Revolution. Not one of the familiar authorities but a specialist in Dutch history has turned out the big book of the bicentenary that will grace the coffee tables of the upper-middlebrow reading public.

But Schama's Citizens is considerably more than a well-written retelling of a familiar tale crafted to the taste of the literate public. Its subtitle, A Chronicle of the French Revolution, scarcely does it justice. Celebrated as a “work of rare brilliance” and as “an intelligent book for intelligent readers that is also a delight to read,” it has been received in some quarters as something like the authorized version of the Revolution.2 Therefore it deserves serious critical consideration.

Schama says both that his narrative “does not pretend to dispassion” and that it is “offered more as witness than judgment.”3 It is, in fact, a strongly argued interpretation of the revolutionary era that has taken the revisionist line at full tide.4 Methodologically, it reflects the pervasive influence of the linguistic turn, promising in its preface an emphasis on “revolutionary utterance.” The promise is certainly fulfilled in Schama's representation of the Revolution by way of political discourse and symbols of ritual and ceremony.

In this essay I will argue that it is not Schama's conclusions that are most vulnerable to criticism (although I disagree with many of them) but the manner in which he supports them—that is, through the tendentious manipulation of sources and the facile disposal of alternate interpretations that demand consequential refutation.

Recent contributors to the venerable controversy over narrative as an intellectually reputable mode of historical discourse have criticized an excessive distinction between narrative and “problem-oriented” history.5 The strongest version of this criticism recognizes no such distinction: inevitably, as in all historical writing, what is ordinarily called narrative embodies some sort of explanation as well as the values and interpretive perspectives of the historian.

To a considerable extent Schama's interpretive perspective is integral to his narrative. It is conveyed by rhetorical effect, by emphasis and exclusion, by the mining of a wide range of primary sources for the telling anecdote and the evocative vignette, by the ingenious selection of appropriate illustrations—but also by argument, in the conventional sense of posing and refuting other interpretations. Therefore an evaluation of such a work will tend to shift its grounds according to the form of discourse selected by the author. I have chosen three issues central to Schama's reading of the Revolution that entail somewhat different critical perspectives.

The first of these has to do with the viability of the Bourbon state in general and its failure to solve the fiscal crisis in particular—an issue that confronts anyone who wishes to argue that Louis XVI's monarchy was an essentially healthy system and at the same time tries to explicate its cataclysmic destruction. Such an interpretation requires the careful assessment of evidence and of contrary interpretations, whether set off in an analytic passage or embedded in the narrative.

Second, I will consider Schama's narration of the revolutionary experience, which locates the meaning of the Revolution in its violence and identifies a moral judgment in that meaning. Here the interpretation is carried by selection and exclusion, by the dramatic characterization of certain indubitable events and the cursory treatment or omission of others. One might think of Schama's technique as argument by synecdoche, skillfully exploited to personify in an individual or symbolize in a striking event general interpretations and fundamental judgments.

Finally, I will speak to Schama's assessment of the immediate and distant consequences of the Revolution. His assessment is clear enough—both implicitly in the choice of what to narrate and explicitly in the brief summary at the end of the volume—and it is clearly negative. The question of consequences has a great deal to do with what phenomena are emphasized in the course of the narrative and at what point in postrevolutionary chronology one chooses to assess the effects of the Revolution.

Academic historians rightly object to historical narratives that pass over “problems” featured in the recent literature because such narratives take for granted what ought to be argued. The problem for the historian who wants to write reputable history as story—as a sequential narrative—is that the story can easily bog down in the disposition of significant problems.6 Schama is well aware of this and handles it through the quite appropriate technique of weaving references to controversial issues into the discourse and supporting his own conclusions with references to selected significant contributions to the recent literature bearing on what the French call the state of the question. This is no easy task, and Schama carries it out with a skill that is not the least contribution to the readability of his work. However, the dexterity with which he introduces the reader to a particular problem of explanation or interpretation and its attendant literature is also applied to the disposition of the problem according to his lights—and therein lies the legitimate grievance.

I have chosen as an example of Schama's polemical dexterity his treatment of a problem central to any interpretation of the Old Regime, and therefore of the Revolution, and one that speaks to the assumptions of the “revisionist” school to which Schama subscribes. This issue can best be introduced by his own lucid and succinct formulation of the interpretation he must contest: “A phenomenon of such uncontrollable power that it apparently swept away an entire universe of traditional customs, mentalities and institutions could only have been produced by contradictions that lay deep within the fabric of the ‘old regime.’”7 Schama repudiates this emphasis on “structural faults,” as he must to sustain the cumulative force of a narrative that recounts the tragic destruction of an essentially healthy, indeed modernizing and reformist, regime.

As Norman Hampson said in his review of Schama's book, “if everything was working to the general satisfaction, where did the Revolution come from?”8 This is not Schama's problem alone; it has been perennial since the outbreak in 1789 and has been perennially answered—from the Abbé Barruel to Taine to Cochin to Furet—by reference to the corrosive effect of critical discourse. Contemporary historians prefer to eschew any reference to conspiracy while retaining some conception of the destructive role of ideas, or ideology, or, to be completely up-to-date, “language.”

Still, the universal solvent of language does not dissolve the evidence of specific problems whose intractability led to the fall of the Bourbon state. This is especially relevant to the fiscal crisis, identified almost universally (there is no perfect consensus in this historiography) as a consequence of the systemic failure of the old order and as the precipitant for the terminal crisis of the regime. Therefore, Schama devotes a chapter to the crisis and to interpretations that cut against the grain of his entire work. Here again he effectively summarizes the argument he intends to refute:

Historians have been accustomed to tracing the sources of France's financial predicament to the structure of its institutions, rather than to particular decisions taken by its governments. Heavy emphasis on both institutional and social history at the expense of politics has reinforced the impression of administrations hopelessly trapped inside a system that, some day or other, would be doomed to collapse under the strain of its own contradictions.

As we shall see, nothing of the sort was true.

In fact, Schama argues, “it was the domestic perception of financial problems, not the reality, that propelled successive French governments from anxiety to alarm to outright panic. The determining elements in the money crisis of the French state, then, were all political and psychological, not institutional or fiscal.”

Schama grants that the immediate cause of the collapse of the monarchy was a “cash flow crisis,” but one, he argues, that was not in principle insoluble. Rational solutions were frustrated by bad judgment and the pressure of a self-serving opposition—“It was the policies of the old regime rather than its operational structure that brought it close to bankruptcy and political disaster.”9

This interpretation is laid out in a section of the chapter “Blue Horizons, Red Ink” and supported by citations to recent works, or, rather, by a sort of capsule annotated bibliography, with some reference to authors opposed to, as well as supporting, Schama's thesis. My objection is not to the absence of conventional footnote apparatus but to Schama's appeal to sources, not all of which are prima facie correct, and some of which actually contradict his conclusions.

To Schama's credit, he does refer to important works such as the classic institutional history, “now somewhat dated,” of Marcel Marion, C. B. A. Behrens's Society, Government and Enlightenment: The Experience of Eighteenth-Century France and Prussia, and John Bosher's Government Finance, 1770–1795—works that, as he says, emphasize “the structural and institutional blocks to solvency” and therefore weigh against his general interpretation.10

His own case depends on other recent works, especially two articles that, taken together, “make an overwhelming case for revising traditional assumptions about the incidence and burden of taxation.”11 These are “Taxation in Britain and France, 1715 to 1830,” by Peter Mathias and Patrick O'Brien, and “Budgets de l'état et gestion des finances royales en France au 18e siècle,” by Michel Morineau. In addition, Schama cites as a corrective to Behrens's and Bosher's emphasis on the structural and institutional blocks to solvency the “exceptionally powerful if rather technical” work on the Seven Years’ War by James Riley.12 These are all well-documented and tightly reasoned works, but their conclusions do not unarguably settle the issue in Schama's favor, nor are they prima facie correct.

Mathias and O'Brien plausibly qualify the traditional assumption that the per capita incidence of taxes was heavier and the burden more repressive in France than in England. Their complex and to some degree conjectural calculations do not speak to issues central to an understanding of the collapse of the French fiscal system. They ignore the effect of ostensibly local taxes that actually financed royal expenditures and admit that they do not consider questions regarding “the wide gap between payments made by taxpayers and revenue eventually received by the public exchequer” or the conditions for borrowing in the international money market.13

Michel Morineau's essay is indeed a root-and-branch refutation of the traditional assumptions of a “tragic flaw in the [fiscal] administration of the ancienne monarchie.” Contrary to the classic critique of Marcel Marion and other historians of finance in the Old Regime, Morineau argues that the Old Regime administration did have a budget that calculated ordinary receipts against expenses, that disorder was not a fundamental attribute of the system, and that mistakes of individual servants of the crown had no really significant effect. He concludes that the inability to solve the problem of the heavy burden imposed by extraordinary expenditures on the century's wars was due to “the invasion of political factors that suddenly at a certain moment totally transformed the problematic.”14

James Riley's book bears on the question of whether impediments to fiscal solvency were built into the system, particularly with reference to specific decisions regarding the debt. Riley concludes that responsible French officials assumed a considerably larger burden of debt service than that assumed by the governments of England, Sweden, and the Dutch Republic, which adopted more rational and effective principles of debt management. From this perspective, the failure of the regime was an intellectual failure, not only on the part of ruling circles but also, according to Riley, among those publicly concerned with the issue of fundamental reform.15

Although the approaches of Schama's authorities are by no means identical, and to some extent incompatible, they do share an emphasis on an issue that is central to any serious consideration of the actual possibilities available to the fiscal administration of an eighteenth-century state. This is a comparison with England, which also had to deal with the crushing burden of the century's wars—a burden that could never be handled by the “ordinary” budget. The fact that must be faced or disposed of is that England must have done something better. Schama himself makes this point: “The real difference between the British and French predicaments following that war [the American War of Independence] was that William Pitt could raise revenue from new taxes without threatening a major political crisis, an option that was not open to his French counterparts.”16

The articles by Mathias and O'Brien and by Morineau and Riley's book approach this issue from different angles. Mathias and O'Brien show that the British fisc was more dependent on indirect taxes, which, however regressive, were not as politically damaging. Morineau's interpretation is political. The British government had only to deal with the “handful of venal representatives sent to Commons by a few rotten boroughs,” whereas the French had to confront the parlements who construed themselves as identical with the nation and “drew down their rentes with their left hand while covering their heart with their right.”17 Riley emphasizes the intellectual failure that somehow kept the French from applying rational means of debt management.

None of this really disposes of J. F. Bosher's observation that the fiscal system of England's parliamentary monarchy had developed into “a truly public administration” in which government borrowing was no longer “a haphazard private enterprise. And by means of an annual budget the government was charting the course of finance more and more accurately.”18 The contrast in the operation of the two financial systems does reflect a different balance of political forces, but the political possibilities for and constraints on fiscal reform were built into the institutional structure of the Old Regime.

Schama also cites several works that essentially contravene his line of argument as if they supported it. François Hincker's Les Français Devant L'Impot sous l'ancien régime, a clear and helpful survey of the problem, according to Schama, describes how the French experienced and responded to Old Regime taxation. To the extent that the subject entails a discussion of the fiscal structure, Hincker accepts the traditional view of the system. Fundamental reforms were effectively resisted by those whose privileges were threatened by reform, because “the king had an endless immediate need for money and that inhibited reforms requisite for a system in which he would no longer have his back against a wall.”19

There is an even more striking discrepancy between Schama's interpretation and the conclusions of three American historians whose work he praises.

Gail Bossenga, whose research demonstrates how a variety of local taxes were actually extorted in the form of disguised loans or payments into the royal treasury, presents an incisive discussion of the contradictions inherent in the system of extraction of national income for the purposes of the state.20 She concludes: “The ancien régime did not die from a lack of absolutism, that is, the inability of a reform minded government to force privileged groups to accept increased taxation. It died from its inability to extricate itself from a structure of credit backed by privileges that were incompatible with a rationalized tax base.”21

Schama cites George T. Matthews as his authority for a long and highly readable passage on the history of the Farmers General. He follows Matthews's excellent analysis almost, but not quite, all the way to its conclusion: “In the mid-eighteenth century all of the ways in which tax farming could be used as a source of credit were not only exploited but distorted in such a fashion as to make the elimination of tax farming an impossibility short of a total reformation of the entire fiscal and financial system of the Old Regime.”22 Indeed, the point at which technical solutions must amount to a total reformation is the point at which solutions became intrinsically political and potentially revolutionary.

Schama concludes the notes to his subchapter on the debt with reference to “the important contribution” on venality of office by David Bien in the recent influential volume, The Political Culture of the Old Regime, edited by Keith Michael Baker. Bien's is indeed an important contribution whose central argument is that the state increasingly extracted money from the constituted corps of those who had invested in various offices, taking advantage of the ability of the corps to borrow on better terms than those afforded the state. Bien concludes that the administration “would have preferred not to reinforce venal privileges by borrowing through them, but the system was in place and essential to dealing with the harsh financial reality that dictated its use to the end. From this follows a third point now so obvious as scarcely to need stating—within the existing framework reform was never a real alternative to revolution.”23

My agreement with Bien does not extend to his conviction that the point is so obvious as scarcely to need stating. “The point,” which speaks not only to venality of office but also to the extraction of funds from the peasant communities and the urban corporations described by Hilton Root and Gail Bossenga in the same volume, as well as to the operation of the General Farms characterized by George Matthews, is not taken by those who believe that the fiscal problems were simply technical or that the elements determining the money crisis of the French state were political and psychological rather than institutional or fiscal.

But the works just cited support the conclusion that the eventual failure of the French financial system was inherent in the attributes that guaranteed its long history of success. The French government was financed not so much by taxes directly applied to the needs of the state as by an immense apparatus for the mobilization of credit, a complex of procedures and institutions that had paid for more than a century and a half of expensive government and even more costly war, without recourse to representative institutions on a national scale, and that by its very nature was unable to fulfill its functions in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.

From this perspective one might wish to substitute for Edmund Burke's metaphor of the French constitution as a dilapidated structure needful of repair but built on “the foundations of a noble and venerable castle” Jack Hexter's evocation of Galloping Gertie—the bridge across the Tacoma narrows that was destroyed by its own oscillations.24 All of which is to say that fiscal history cannot be separated from its social, institutional, and political matrix.

Against this interpretation, which amounts to a version of the thèse de circonstances, Schama will argue the contrary-to-fact conditional implicit in any assertion of the essential soundness of the French fisc, to the effect that the monarchy could have sailed through the financial crisis into calm waters were it not for more or less understandable errors at the top and the self-fulfilling exaggeration of the crisis by self-serving elements inside and outside the government. This is certainly a reputable interpretation widely accepted at present, but it raises vexed issues that cannot be waved away by polemical sleight of hand.25

Schama's characteristic technique is to pose the arguments for the position he is bound to oppose and to counter them by appealing to the authority of recent works, not all of which actually support his position. Where the criticisms of Old Regime finance are incontrovertible, he will raise the specter of the anachronistic fallacy: “The French system was no worse, and in some respects better, than that of contemporary states; to apply present standards of bureaucratic rationality to eighteenth-century society is to indulge in a ‘superior form of hindsight.’”26

Now the anachronistic fallacy is no venial sin, but simply to assert it is not to guarantee that it is self-evident. To give an example of Schama's appeal to anachronism as an all-purpose debating point, twice in passing he refers to Prussia in order to provide a comparative perspective, implying that the image of the Prussian state as a model of bureaucratic rationality owes more to twentieth-century preconceptions than to eighteenth-century realities and affirming the actual superiority of the French financial administration over the Prussian system. The only authority that Schama cites who has something substantial to say about Prussia is C. B. A. Behrens, who scarcely supports this interpretation. Indeed, she quotes with approval a contemporary assessment of Frederick the Great's financial administration as “more orderly and more honest” than any other. Behrens believes that Frederick's policies, however flawed, “were designed to prevent, and succeeded in preventing, the practices which powerfully promoted a revolutionary situation in France.”27 Schama's suggestion of the superiority of French fiscal institutions to those of Prussia rests on two examples—the “importation” of the French system of tax management called the régie and the superiority of the French corps of intendants to comparable Prussian local officials.28 Actually, he is referring to the French institutions that were staffed by salaried officers—that is, relatively modern and “bureaucratic” exceptions to the prebendary structure of tax farming and state finance that reformers then, and critics ever since, have identified as the canker in the French fiscal administration.

Schama's dismissal of criticisms of the French system as anachronistic is undermined by the emphasis he and his sources place on comparisons with England. The very comparison indicates that there were contemporary alternatives to the French system. The French were well aware of these. Indeed, contemporary critics of the monarchy, including its own servants, raised virtually all of the objections remarked in two centuries of historical hindsight.

One historian's anachronistic hindsight is another's bar of legitimate judgment, before which Schama does not hesitate to summon self-deluded intellectuals, revolutionary crowds, and radical politicians. For example, the eighteenth-century sentimental style is treated with mild contempt: Rousseau's “heroes and heroines, beginning with himself, sob, weep and blubber at the slightest provocations”; Desmoulin's tract, La France Libérée, is a fine example of the “breast-beating, sob-provoking declamation then in vogue at the Palais Royal.”29 The ideal of the free market is the timeless economic standard against which all policies are measured; therefore the institution of grain storage silos as insurance against times of dearth was “another great step backward,” and all demands for state intervention in the interest of urban or rural lower classes are “reactionary.”30 Revolutionary violence and tyranny is directly linked to the political horrors of the twentieth century: the draconian decree of 22 prairial was “the founding charter of totalitarian justice”; Saint-Just is described as “the very clay from which Leninism was to be shaped”; in the Vendée there were “still more sinister anticipations of the technological killings of the twentieth century.”31

Schama's assumption of the historical teleology of totalitarian democracy is an aspect of his general interpretation of the Revolution, which locates its essential meaning in its violence. Violence is, variously, what made the Revolution possible, the motor of the Revolution, what made the Revolution revolutionary, and the Revolution itself. “Bloodshed was not the unfortunate by-product of revolution, it was the source of its energy.” Violence was the necessary condition of the Revolution, and that from the very beginning, from the summer of 1789.32

Here Schama takes up a familiar theme in counterrevolutionary polemic reintroduced in the current historiography by François Furet and others. In Schama's provocative language, “Terror was merely 1789 with a higher body count.”33 This is one answer to the question that Furet describes as central to the debate on the Revolution—what is the relation of 1789 to 1793?34 And the answer, which long antedates Schama, is to understand 1789 in the light of 1793.

The argument that violence was inherent in the revolutionary project also contains a venerable explanation for the demise of the old order, refurbished in the era of the linguistic turn. Schama strikes the appropriate chord with his reference to “the deadly legacy” left by Rousseau, the “‘Divinity’ of the literary underclass.”35 While he does grant the rationality and moderation of such figures of the late Enlightenment as Barnave, Talleyrand, and Condorcet, he concludes that theirs was not the language that would prevail. Ultimately, “the stokers of revolutionary heat … were guided neither by rationality nor by modernity but by passion and virtue.”36 Schama conjectures that perhaps it was Romanticism with its fondness for the vertiginous and the macabre, its association of liberty with wildness, “that supplied the crucial ingredient in the mentality of the revolutionary elite.”37 In this version of intellectual cause and political effect, Romantic emotionalism rather than the implacable abstractions of Enlightenment rationality was the ideological source of revolutionary excess. In whatever version, the emphasis on ideological source of revolutionary excess. In whatever version, the emphasis on ideology has been the indispensable component of explanations of the destruction of the old order that argue its essential soundness and deemphasize the conflict of material interests or the economic sources of popular discontent.

Prerevolutionary rhetoric and revolutionary violence are situated on a causal continuum. After admitting that it would be grotesque to implicate the generation of 1789 in the atrocities of the Terror, Schama adds that “it would be equally naive not to recognize that the former made the latter possible.” In fact, many were to perish by the logical application of their enthusiasm.38 In answer to the argument that French popular culture was already brutalized before the Revolution.39 Schama suggests the image of “the revolutionary elite as rash geologists, themselves gouging open great holes in the crust of political discourse and then feeding the angry matter through the pipes of their own rhetoric out into the open.”40 And, inevitably, the exterminations in the Vendée were “the logical outcome of an ideology that progressively dehumanized its adversaries and that had become incapable of seeing any middle ground between total triumph and utter eclipse.”41

The emphasis on violence also establishes the axis for the history of revolutionary politics. The debates over constitutional issues in the National Assembly “boiled down to one great question: What is the relationship between violence and legitimacy? … Only when the state restored to itself a monopoly of force—as it was to do in 1794—would the question go away. In this sense, at least, Robespierre would be the first successful counter-revolutionary.”42

Schama's conclusion that “revolutionary democracy would be guillotined in the name of revolutionary government” is actually not so far from Albert Soboul's conception of the inevitable conflict between the radical dynamism of the militant sans-culottes and the requirements of the revolutionary state, but what Soboul sees as political tragedy, Schama presents as historical irony.

It is also through the lens of violence that light is focused on the behavior, motives, and mentality of the urban and rural lower classes. Schama's rather minimal contribution to history from below does touch on what might be considered the rational motives of the peasantry and the urban poor, but he rapidly turns from such questions to the “politics of paranoia” and the reactionary instincts of the masses in contrast to the modernizing ethos of the Old Regime elite. Overstimulated by the Manichaean rhetoric of the revolutionary politicos, even the deserving poor turn to violence. But this is the broom of the sorcerer's apprentice, necessary to the survival of the Revolution but inimical to the consolidation of the revolutionary state.

“Confronted with evidence of an apocalypse,” Schama says, “it does historians no credit to look aside in the name of scholarly objectivity.”43 Schama certainly does not look aside. His considerable narrative eloquence directs the reader to the real horrors of brutality in the name of abstract ideals: the head of Foulon on a pike, his mouth stuffed with straw (illustrated by the apposite engraving); the hetacombs at Lyons and Nantes in evocative detail; the chilling portrayal of the slaughter of the Swiss Guards on the day of August 10; some ten pages devoted to an unsparing description of the September Massacres.

I agree that no one should look aside in the name of scholarly objectivity and that we cannot and should not pretend to transcend the perspective of our own dreadful century. Nor is it possible for those of us who remain liberal fellow travelers in the revolutionary tradition simply to settle for Mignet's separation of the “durable benefits” of the Revolution from its “transient excesses.” That is to say, a history of the Revolution that marginalizes the random terror of urban and rural crowds or the systematic terror of the revolutionary elite is a very partial history. It is something else, however, to reduce the historical meaning of the Revolution to its violence, to read the entire history of the decade as incarnated in the year II, or (to apply a form of political discourse that Schama surely detests) to indict Condorcet or Lafayette or the Abbé Gregoire as “objective” terrorists.

To borrow the words of David Bien, “Is it true that it was the whole political culture of 1789 that best explains the Terror? No one, I suppose, would take the burning of the Albigenses, the Savonarola experience, or Jonestown for example as the reflections of the whole of Christian culture.”44

Or to consider Schama's narrative strategy from another angle, imagine a Schamaesque introduction to a history of the Third Republic by way of a portrait of General Gallifet as he decimated suspected Communards in the juste milieu's version of the political apocalypse; or a metaphor for the history of the United States in a vignette of the Cherokee Nation starting out on the Trail of Tears; or a personification of the human consequences of pragmatic liberalism in capsule biographies of Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris or General Curtis Le May.

I do not suggest these comparisons in order to normalize the Terror. One history of atrocities does not justify another. The judgment on the mass killings in the Vendée in 1793 is not mitigated with reference to the official murders in the Père Lachaise cemetery in 1871. But to locate the meaning of the Revolution in the violence is to write an even more partial history than that of the classic optimistic version. Consider, for example, Schama's characterization of the September Massacres as exposing “the central truth of the French Revolution” in contrast to Georges Lefebvre's identification of the Declaration of the Rights of Man as “the incarnation of the Revolution as a whole.”45 Lefebvre's reading is virtually excluded from Schama's history. The declaration itself is cited in a few scattered references and briefly characterized as spawning “a political culture in which the liberation of disrespect knew no bounds,” as well as “a polemical incontinence that washed over the whole country.”46 That is about the extent of Schama's discussion of the document—no analysis to speak of, not even the currently popular approach, caricatured by Conor Cruise O'Brien in the New York Review of Books, in which the declaration's reference to the general will is the signpost pointing straight to Stalin.47

The absence of attention to the declaration in Citizens is an example of interpretation by exclusion. Not only is that particular document given short shrift but in addition an entire body of legislation that laid out the democratic agenda for the next century is passed over or, where absolutely necessary, explained away.

As Schama predictably rejects any reading of the Revolution as class struggle—descriptions of the prerevolutionary conflict of bourgeois and aristocracy are “wholly imaginary”—he disputes the significance of legal reforms that seemed to transform social relationships. The abolition of privilege, for example, did sweep away certain “pre-modern” legal distinctions. “But since the general availability of titles was coming to be a matter of money and merit, not birth, eighteenth-century privileges seemed to have more in common with the honorific distinctions and forms common to all modern societies in the nineteenth and, in many cases, the twentieth centuries.” This disposes of the institution of equality before the law and trivializes the historiography of the Old Regime as a society of orders, corporations, and privileged bodies.

As for the liquidation of seigneurial dues, “if the Revolution abolished old forms of social dues on seigneurial estates, many of these dues had already been commuted into money and were simply converted into rent in the ‘new regime.’” Here again Schama seems to exempt himself from the strictures of the anachronistic fallacy, although in a subsequent passage he does concede that peasants were “thankful for the end of seigneurial exactions that imposed a crushing burden of payments on static rural incomes.” But in the event, he concludes, the imposition of rent and taxes left them as badly off as ever.48

The same assessment is applied to the abolition of the guilds. Somehow Schama assimilates these conclusions to his characterizations of the Old Regime as an essentially progressive order confronted by the reactionary instincts of the urban and rural masses. Revolutionary reforms that are usually described as contributing to modernization, and that actually satisfied contemporary demands, are dismissed as negligible or pernicious.

This resolution of apparent contradictions is also applied to the reform of the fiscal system discussed in the first section of this article: “Had the Revolution, at the least, created state institutions which resolved the problems that brought down the monarchy? Scarcely. On the one hand, Tocqueville was right; it is easier to discern continuity than change. On the other hand, the creation of a paper currency was a catastrophic change, beside which the insolvencies of the Old Regime were almost picayune.” Eventually, Schama concludes, “post-Jacobin France slid inexorably back to the former mixture of loans and indirect as well as direct taxes.”49 As it is difficult to think of a “post-Jacobin” state that has not financed itself throught that mixture, we might be led to suppose that no modern fiscal system represents an improvement over the Old Regime model. Yet no servant of the postrevolutionary Restoration monarchy, however nostalgic, proposed to return to the prerevolutionary system of state finance any more than they intended to funnel legislation through the finely meshed filter of reconstituted parlements.

An evaluation of consequences depends upon where one chooses to stop the historical film: at the Napoleonic “military-technocratic state,” as Schama does to some extent; at the political mystique of the Dreyfusards who believed that they acted in the spirit of the Declaration of the Rights of Man; at the Jacobin-authoritarian mentalité of the Parti Communiste Française; or at the millenarian idealism of the Résistance.50

Though not the most dramatic, the Bourbon Restoration (1814–30) is not a bad point from which to undertake a provisional recapitulation of what the Revolution wrought and to identify what was irreversible in its legacy to the nineteenth century.

A brief list of the most obvious institutional and legal changes represents the tip of a substantial iceberg. Because the legitimate dynasty had not the least intention of returning to a system in which it was unable to finance itself, it was scarcely inclined to reconstitute the vast nexus of corporate bodies and vested interests that had stalemated fiscal reform. The Bourbon regime had become a monarchy with a constitution. The constitution stipulated a legislature with an elected lower house, equality before the law, due process, qualified freedom of the press, and freedom of religion. The Catholic religion remained the “religion of the state,” but Protestants and Jews were free to worship without restraint and to enjoy all of the rights of citizenship. French citizens were liberated from the vestiges of serfdom and from inherited personal obligations not stipulated by contract.

There is another consequence of the revolutionary era, recognized as irreversible by the Restoration regime but granted only part of one sentence in Citizens' 874 pages. It is also unintentionally embodied in a familiar statistic on the economic consequences of the Revolution predictably cited by Schama: “In 1795, the total value of France's trade was less than half of what it had been in 1789; by 1815 it was still at about sixty per cent.”51 The Revolution certainly did have an effect on French commerce. Something like a third of the worth of total exports came from the reexport of colonial goods, and most of these were the product of the slave economy of Saint-Dominique. The Haitian revolution, the first successful slave insurrection in modern history, dealt a crushing blow to this cornerstone of the French mercantile economy.52 Perhaps the antislavery ideologues, Brissot, Condorcet, Gregoire, Robespierre, and the rest, deserve little credit for the irresistible course of events in the Caribbean, but it is difficult to imagine the success of the Haitian revolution without the upheaval in France.

The independence of Haiti was one of the revolutionary transformations that successive regimes were forced to accept after Napoleon failed to reimpose French rule, and slavery, on the island. The emperor had better luck at home against the great legacy of humane legislation, which was liquidated under the consulate and the empire but reappeared in the twentieth century as a commonplace of a decent society.53 This legislation might represent a delayed consequence of the Revolution—one delayed by a consensus of all of the elites, Bonapartist, royalist, and to some degree liberal, who wanted to preserve an effective governing apparatus in a stable social order secure from the threat of popular sovereignty and the pressure of popular discontent.

The long campaign to rationalize the overlapping and contradictory legal systems of the Old Regime into coherent civil and penal codes would be realized by Napoleon's magistrates in a far different spirit than that expressed in the legislation of the revolutionary assemblies. The institution of a more humane penal system would be replaced by the draconian measures of the imperial code. Some of the gains for due process would be consolidated in the letter of the law, if violated in practice according to the emperor's arbitrary will. On paper, at least, the lettre de cachet was gone. Schama grants the arbitrary nature of the lettre de cachet as an instrument of royal authority, then gives us that familiar list of the seven social deviants inhabiting the Bastille in July 1789 and describes in some detail the relatively benign administration of the prison regimen.54 He is not the only one to miss the point that the use of the lettre de cachet to control “family delinquency” functioned as the keystone in the system of family law consolidated by the French state to guarantee the supremacy of the male head of the household.55

The revolutionary assemblies put together a considerable body of legislation to qualify and humanize patria potestas, to liberate women and the young from total subordination to the male. Many of these reforms, including divorce, had something to do with the opening of civil space to women. Such reforms, aborted by Napoleon and his magistrates, suggest that the gender balance sheet of the Revolution should not be cast up solely with reference to Jacobin misogyny after Claire Lacombe and the Society of Republican Women supported the losing side in the factional struggles of the year II.

There is now a rich literature on the issue of gender in the revolutionary era that Schama ignores, which is not to say that he ignores the subject of sex.56 The salacious side of prerevolutionary propaganda and of revolutionary behavior is given its due—with evocative illustrations. There are analyses of “the moral politics of the bosom” and the icon of “the republican breast.”57 Along with skillful portrayals of Lafayette or Talleyrand or Mirabeau designed to convey a certain interpretation of Lafayette or Talleyrand or Mirabeau designed to convey a certain interpretation of events, we have vignettes of such women as Marie Antoinette and Théroigne de Méricourt, which virtually frame Schama's narrative.

In his early chapter “Body Politics,” one section entitled “Uterine Furies and Dynastic Obstructions” assigns seven pages to the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. There is nothing wrong with devoting disproportionate space to a fascinating tale. In this case the story of the malicious slander of Marie Antoinette for an escroquerie of which she had absolutely no knowledge is also intended to carry interpretive freight. Schama's emphasis on the scurrilous, mendacious, mean-spirited, and pornographic slander of the queen is aligned with one version of the intellectual origins of the Revolution—the version that would look less to the doctrines of the High Enlightenment than to the Grub Street pornography industry, that would locate the erosion of deference to crown and church less in the Diderots and Condorcets than in the literary lowlife and the marginal members of the lumpen intelligentsia.

The women of the Revolution proper are introduced during the “October Days,” in the subchapter “The Quarrel of Women, October 5–6.” With the women of the October Days we meet the “stunningly beautiful” Théroigne de Méricourt, sporting a plumed hat, a bloodred riding coat, armed with pistols and a saber, hailed as the “Amazon” of the Revolution, destined to be “the incarnation of a particular kind of pathetic revolutionary career.”58 She is seen again in a salient role at the storming of the Tuileries on August 10, 1792, and is included in other brief references to that list of militant women such as Olympe de Gouges, Pauline Léon, and Etta Palm d'Aelders who regularly appear in brief surveys of revolutionary feminism.

The relationship of sex and revolution is recapitulated in the epilogue to Citizens, in which Théroigne de Méricourt reappears in the last vignette. After suffering a beating from female Montagnards in 1793, Théroigne seems to have shown increasing signs of mental derangement and was ultimately confined in various asylums until her death in 1817. Schama's last page, illustrated with an engraving of the sunken face and shaved head of Théroigne as she appeared at La Salpêtrière (ca. 1810), sums up the Revolution in her pitiful person. By now completely mad, refusing to cloth herself against the cold, torturing herself by soaking her straw bed with ice water, she is periodically heard to mutter imprecations against those who have betrayed the Revolution. “Sympathy seems out of place here,” he concludes, “for in some sense the madness of Théroigne de Méricourt was a logical destination for the compulsions of revolutionary Idealism. Discovering, at last, a person of almost sublime transparency and presocial innocence, someone naked and purified with dousings of ice water, the Revolution would fill her up like a vessel. In her little cell at La Salpêtrière, there was at least somewhere where revolutionary memory could persist, quite undisturbed by the quotidian mess of the human condition.”59

And these are Schama's last words on the Revolution.

Whether or not Schama's last vignette is to be read as a metaphor for the Revolution, its tone is characteristic of the entire book. If that immense effort at human amelioration on which revolutionaries staked their lives and in the name of which they committed their crimes was in the light of our hindsight a failure, it was a tragic failure. In Schama's version the Revolution is emplotted not as tragedy but as melodrama.


  1. See, e.g., the symposium, Robert Forster and Timothy Tackett, eds., “François Furet's Interpretation of the French Revolution,” French Historical Studies 16 (Fall 1990): 766–802; Isser Woloch, “On the Latent Illiberalism of the French Revolution,” American Historical Review 95 (December 1990): 1452–70; Suzanne Berger, “The French Revolution in Contemporary French Politics,” French Politics and Society 8 (Spring 1990): 53–64; Claude Mazauric, “Sur le Dictionnaire critique de la Révolution françois de F. Furet et M. Ozouf,” Stanford French Review (Winter 1990), pp. 85–103; William Scott, “François Furet and Democracy in France,” Historical Journal 34 (1991): 147–71.

  2. Jim Miller, “So Glorious Yet So Savage,” Newsweek (April 3, 1989), p. 71; Eugen Weber, “Violence Made It Happen,” New York Times Book Review (March 19, 1989), p. 33. Weber grants that the book “has its biases.” George Steiner sums up his New Yorker review, “As a whole, however, once the evident fact is accepted that Schama's work is not intended to provide new theoretical or scholarly material, ‘Citizens’ is a formidable, often heartwarming achievement” (“Two Hundred Years Young,” New Yorker [April 17, 1989], p. 135).

  3. Schama, pp. 6, xvi.

  4. For criticism of Schama's position, see Jack Censer, “Commencing the Third Century of Debate,” American Historical Review 94 (December 1989): 1322—“Schama intemperately condemns the entire affair, veering toward the extreme views of Pierre Chaunu and company. Cobban and Cobb never went so far.” See also Norman Hampson, “The Two French Revolutions,” New York Review of Books (April 13, 1989), pp. 11–14.

  5. For an emphasis on the distinction, see François Furet, “From Narrative to Problem-oriented History,” in his In the Workshop of History, trans. Johnathan Mandelbaum (Chicago, 1982), pp. 54–67. See also Laurence Stone, “The Revival of Narrative: Reflections on a New Old History,” Past and Present, no. 85 (November 1979), pp. 3–24; J. Morgan Kousser, “The Revivalism of Narrative,” Social Science History 8, no. 2 (Spring 1984): 133–49; Hayden White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” in his The Content of the Form (Baltimore, 1987), pp. 1–25; David Carr, “Narrative and the Real World: An Argument for Continuity,” History and Theory 25, no. 2 (1986): 117–31; Arthur C. Danto, Narration and Knowledge (New York, 1985); W. H. Dray, “Narrative versus Analysis in History,” in Rationality, Relativism and the Human Sciences, ed. J. Margolis, M. Krausz, and R. M. Burian (Dordrecht, 1986), pp. 23–41; “Supplement: The Representation of Historical Events,” History and Theory 26, no. 4 (1987), pass.; Allan Megill, “Recounting the Past: ‘Description,’ Explanation, and Narrative in Historiography,” American Historical Review 94, no. 3 (June 1989): 627–53; and Andrew p. Norman, “Telling It Like It Was: Historical Narratives on Their Own Terms,” History and Theory 30 (1991): 119–35.

  6. According to G. R. Elton, narrative histories need to be built around “lumps of analysis” (Political History, Principles and Practice [New York, 1970], p. 165).

  7. Schama, p. xiv.

  8. Hampson, p. 13.

  9. Schama, pp. 63, 65, 66, 70.

  10. Marcel Marion, Histoire financière de la France depuis 1715, 5 vols. (Paris, 1914–28); C. B. A. Behrens, Society, Government and Enlightenment: The Experience of Eighteenth-Century France and Prussia (New York, 1985); J. F. Bosher, French Government finance, 1770–1795 (Cambridge, 1970). Bosher's conclusion certainly supports an opposing interpretation: “When change came it did so in the course of the revolution and this fact may well lead us to think the financial administration an intrinsic and inevitable feature of the monarchy. Perhaps an efficient system of public finance was possible only in conjunction with other fundamental changes in the regime. It may well be that a republic, in the eighteenth century sense of the rule of law, was necessary to bring about the administrative reforms which eventually came in the French revolution” (p. 22). Bosher's recent general history of the Revolution is much closer to Schama's viewpoint. See Bosher, The French Revolution (New York, 1988). Quotation is from Schama, p. 881.

  11. Schama, p. 881.

  12. Peter Mathias and Patrick O'Brien, “Taxation in Britain and France 1715–1810,” Journal of European Economic History (Winter 1976), pp. 601–50; Michel Morineau, “Budgets de létat et gestion des finances royales en France au 18° siècle,” Revue Historique 264 (October-December 1980): 289–336; James Riley, The Seven Years’ War and the Old Regime in France: The Economic and Financial Toll (Princeton, N.J., 1986).

  13. Mathias and O'Brien, p. 602; see also Morineau, p. 300.

  14. Morineau, pp. 331–35.

  15. Riley, pp. 193, 207, 221.

  16. Schama, p. 67.

  17. Morineau, p. 331.

  18. Bosher, French Government Finance, pp. 22–23.

  19. François Hincker, Les François Devant l'Impot sous l'ancien régime (Paris, 1971), p. 34.

  20. Gail Bossenga, “Taxes,” in A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, ed. François Furet and Mona Ozouf, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, Mass., 1989), pp. 582–89, and “City and State: An Urban Perspective on the Origins of the French Revolution,” in The Political Culture of the Old Regime, ed. Keith Michael Baker, vol. 1 of The French Revolution and the Creation of Modern Political Culture (Oxford, 1987), pp. 115–40. Schama writes, “Gail Bossenga has extended David Bien's methods to create a fresh and exceptionally illuminating approach to the social and political history of institutions in this period” (p. 884).

  21. Bossenga, “Taxes,” p. 588.

  22. George T. Matthews, The Royal General Farms in Eighteenth-Century France (New York, 1958), p. 248.

  23. David D. Bien, “Officers, Corps, and a System of State Credit: The Uses of Privilege under the Ancien Régime,” in Baker, ed., p. 111.

  24. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (New York, 1955), p. 40; Jack Hexter, “Galloping Gertie and the Insurance Companies, or Analysis and Story in History,” in The History Primer (New York, 1971), pp. 110–48. For another borrower of Hexter's metaphor, see Paul W. Schroeder, “World War I as Galloping Gertie: A Reply to Joachim Remak,” Journal of Modern History 44 (September 1972): 319–45.

  25. See, e.g., the recent article, Eugene Nelson White, “Was There a Solution to the Ancien Régime's Financial Dilemma?” Journal of Economic History 29 (September 1989): 545–68.

  26. Schama, p. 71.

  27. Behrens (n. 11 above), pp. 81–82.

  28. Schama, pp. 65, 67.

  29. Ibid., pp. 150–51, 380.

  30. Ibid., p. 757.

  31. Ibid., pp. 836, 767, 789. For a discussion of the recent French historical literature that reads, “the meaning of the Terror in the light of the death camps and Gulag,” see Berger (n. 1 above), p. 62.

  32. Schama, pp. 725, 859, 447, 615, xv.

  33. Ibid., p. 447.

  34. François Furet, “La Révolution sans la Terreur?” Le Débat 13 (June 1981): 40. “Car l'exécution de Robespierre a poséme du jacobinisme en des termes qui vont dominer pour longtemps, peut-être jusqu’ à nous, la réflexion politique et intellectuelle sur la Révolution; problème qui peut s'exprimer en termes chronologiques sous la forme: qu'est-ce qui lie ensemble 89 et 93? Ou bien, en termes philosophiques, à travers l'interrogation sur la nature du rapport entre la révolution libérale et la terreur jacobine.”

  35. Schama, pp. 665, 161.

  36. Ibid. p 291.

  37. Ibid. p 861.

  38. Ibid. p. 859.

  39. This issue has been reopened by Daniel Roche, “La violence vue d'en bas: Réflexions sur les moyens de la politique en période révolutionnaire,” Annales, Economies, Sociétés, Civilizations 44 (January-February 1989): 47–65.

  40. Schama, p. 860.

  41. Ibid., p. 792.

  42. Ibid., p. 445.

  43. Ibid., p. 792.

  44. David D. Bien, “François Furet, the Terror, and 1789,” French Historical Studies 16 (Fall 1990): 777–83.

  45. Schama, p. 637; Georges Lefebvre, The Coming of the French Revolution, trans. Robert R. Palmer (New York, 1957), p. 182. I believe that it is this reading of the meaning of the Revolution more than Lefebvre's qualified neo-Marxism that is what is essentially rejected by the recent revisionists.

  46. Schama, p. 521.

  47. Conor Cruise O'Brien, “The Decline and Fall of the French Revolution,” New York Review of Books (February 15, 1990), pp. 46–51.

  48. Schama, pp. 290, 185, 853–54.

  49. Ibid., p. 855.

  50. Maurice Agulhon (“Debats actuels sur la Révolution en France,” Annales historiques de la Révolution Française 279 [January–March 1990]: 3, 4) observes that in 1889 conflicting interpretations of the Revolution reflected the division between republications and antirepublicans; in 1989 the issue of the Republic is closed and the Revolution is criticized qua revolution.

  51. Schama, p. 185.

  52. Fran¸ois Crouzet, De la supériorité de l'Angleterre sur la France: L'économique et l'imaginaire, XVIIIe-XXe siècle (Paris, 1985), p. 29.

  53. For a survey of this legislation, see the grand old work of Philippe Sagnac, La législation civile de la Révolution française: Essai d'histoire sociale (Paris, 1898).

  54. Schama, pp. 389–99.

  55. James Traer, Marriage and the Family in Eighteenth-Century France (Ithaca, N.Y., 1980); Sarah Hanley, “Engendering the State: Family Formation and State Building in Early Modern France,” French Historical Studies 16 (Spring 1989): 4–27.

  56. For a recent survey of this literature, see Karen Offen, “The New Sexual Politics of French Revolutionary Historiography,” French Historical Studies 16 (Fall 1990): 909–22.

  57. Schama, pp. 145–49, 768–69, quotes on pp. 147, 769.

  58. Ibid., pp. 462–63.

  59. Ibid., p. 875.

Rosemary Hill (review date 7 April 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 weighed so heavily on him as the desire to climb above his obscure origins and make it big in the booming Alpine business. Seven months later he treated London audiences, including an enthusiastic Prince Consort, to The Ascent of Mont Blanc. Dioramas, gaslight and specially composed music—the “Chamonix Polka” and the “Mont Blanc Quadrille”—combined to create a highly successful, if less than strictly accurate account of his adventures.

By the time Schama introduces us to Smith [in Landscape and Memory] and, through him, to the popularization of the Alpine experience, the mountains are becoming crowded. Just behind Smith, chronologically, is the arresting figure of Henriette d'Angeville, who went up Mont Blanc looking like a cross between the Lady of the Camellias and Bo Peep, in a costume of woollen trousers and feather boa. Shelley has been and gone, but Ruskin is still here, pursuing his first vision of the Alps: “The seen walls of lost Eden could not have been more beautiful … not more awful, round heaven, the walls of sacred Death.” He is, of course, appalled by the vulgarization wrought by men like Smith, as are his fellow members of the Alpine Club. But the gentleman climbers take a more muscular view of mountaineering and they are not talking to Ruskin.

Landscape and Memory proceeds largely by such congregations of events, individuals and points of view—intellectual and topographical—to consider the shifting relationship between humanity and nature. Schama's hope is to balance our present overwhelming sense of the damage we inflict on the world with an account of the ways in which “the cultural habits of humanity have always made room for the sacredness of nature,” to offer “less a recipe for action than an invitation to reflection.”

The book is full of reflections of all sorts. Sometimes it is too full, the effect dazzling rather than illuminating—so many examples, drawn from different times and cultures. Yet each adds something to Schama's argument that landscape is itself reflection: the reciprocal process whereby we map the world, physically, intellectually and imaginatively. It is our way of understanding ourselves, by interpreting what lies outside us.

The drawing of this boundary between ourselves and the world, between what we know and what we imagine, what we control and what controls us, is not simple. Like all frontiers it is a potential battle-line. Sometimes it is literally that, as Schama shows in his discussion of the forests of Poland.

The starting-point for his book is the commemorative mound at Giby, from which can be seen land that has been in turn Lithuanian, Russian and German. The mound itself is a kopiec, a pre-Christian form of tumulus, that appears to grow naturally out of the landscape. It is continuous, too, with the pagan past of one of the last parts of Europe to be brought, as late as the fourteenth century, within Christendom. The cross that stands on it is a makeshift affair. The mound commemorates hundreds of men and women massacred by Stalin's security police, for their supposed connections with the Polish Home Army. But they are not buried here. A mass grave, discovered near by, turned out to contain the bodies of German soldiers. Those who are memorialized have no grave, the rediscovered dead are unlamented.

This place and its story represent only one of the “raw chafing histories torn from decades of official silence” that abound in Poland. The image of humanity reflected in such a landscape tells us things we would rather not know, or makes us remember them as we, or others, should prefer us not to. Following the forest path through space and time, Schama finds it full of such twists, as he searches for the Jews, his own family among them, whose lives in the “picture perfect rustic cottages” have been so thoroughly obliterated that Schama himself had always thought of “the Jews of the Alte Land as … urban types.” More unsettling still, to a generation that idealizes “conservation,” often in ignorant and sentimental ways, is the discovery, further on in the forest, of that unlikely hero of the Green Movement. Hermann Goering, who preserved, albeit for his own greed, the “sacred grove” of Bialowiezca which the Nazis wanted to torch.

The experience of the Polish forest is of a quite different order from the highly self-conscious mythologizing of Mont Blanc, indeed it is almost its opposite. The ill-assorted Alpine party, Ruskin, Mlle d'Angeville and the rest have arrived at the summit of another kind of involvement with landscape which winds through the book, the explicit history of nature as artefact in the West.

This, too, is the story of boundaries, of garden walls and park railings and the imaginary mapping of the world. It begins at the end of the sixteenth century with the arrival (from the Dutch) of the word “landscape,” which came bearing no aesthetic overtones. It simply meant a unit of occupation. Gradually, as the extent of the land that could be occupied, cultivated, mapped, brought under botanical, geological or aesthetic systems expanded, landscape knew no bounds. Town walls and fortifications were removed from the beginning of the eighteenth century, bulwarks became boulevards until, as Martin Warnke tells us in Political Landscape. Goethe wrote that “one would think that universal peace had been established and the Golden Age was just outside the gate.” Of course, it was not, but the purpose of the boundary wall was reversed. Today the lines of demarcation, once intended to keep nature out, are needed to defend it. The National Park, the Site of Special Scientific Interests are nature preserved by artifice. The modern hortus inclusus is Yosemite.

Schama moves back and forth between the deliberately constructed and the accidental, or half-conscious, resonances of landscape, between Giby and Mont Blanc. He is at his best with the former, finding the points where landscape and memory—a term that seems to cover archaeology, reminiscence, myth and much else—combine in unexpected ways to reveal, just below the rational, the primitive still at work.

On television, Landscape and Memory would be something between Civilization and The Secret Life of Plants. Here is Schama, tiptoeing through the greenwood, parting the branches and revealing, of all people, Horatio Nelson. Nelson is worrying, as he thinks, about the shortage of timber for the navy but he is also, we now see (having crept up on him by the forest path), adding another chapter to the English myth of “hearts of oak,” of woodland as national identity. The French threaten invasion not only in a military sense. Their scholarship in silviculture was becoming worryingly impressive, that is what underlies the Admiralty's anxiety. “Which is not to say,” Schama concludes, “that an upstanding, beef-eating, bloody-minded, free born Englishman would ever publicly envy the craven, mincing French anything, least of all their trees. All the same, it did give one pause over the port.”

It is a scene that typifies the pleasures and frustrations of the book: an interesting and persuasive argument ends in clichés. They are used with irony, but they are still clichés. Too often, especially when he is dealing with the history of landscape consciously interpreted as artefact, Schama draws such broad lines of connection that he obliterates subtle but important differences.

The main sections, “Wood,” “Water” and “Rock,” allow him to range freely, too freely, through time and across continents. Sometimes he trips over his seven-league boots. It is of no great consequence perhaps in the context of such a wide canvas that it was Oscar Wilde, rather than Siegfried Sassoon, author of Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, who described the chase as “the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable.” But it is the kind of little accident that is unsettling, like taking a seat on an aeroplane and having the ashtray fall off: it makes you think about the engines. Later on we may wonder if someone who refers to Calvary and Golgotha as two separate mountains is entirely to be trusted, as most of us will have to trust him, on Taoism.

There is something wrong, too, with the Gothic Revival as Schama strides through it. This is more serious, for it is a major turning-point in the Western landscape tradition. The period from the middle of the eighteenth century to the mid-1830s amounts, as Warnke says, in his plainer, though no less ambitious book, to “a redefinition of man's relation to the world.” Science and aesthetics combined in Romanticism to create a new kind of boundary between humanity and nature, a new kind of landscape. That is to put it much too simply, but Schama strips it down still further by failing to take the aesthetes as seriously as the philosophers. Schlegel and Herder get their due but Payne Knight, “pontificator on the picturesque,” is rather brushed aside. A pity, this, for his book The Symbolical Language of Ancient Art marks a small but significant shift towards what Pevsner felt himself obliged to call a “psychoanalytical” approach to landscape. It is in such small moments that we can see the sensibilities of a culture shift.

Towards the end of “Wood,” we run into Horace Walpole, looking distinctly out of place in a section on “the Verdant Cross.” It is easy to laugh at “Horric” and the camp Gothic of Strawberry Hill, hard indeed not to. Schama kindly refrains from mentioning that Walpole's battlements were made of pasteboard and had to be replaced after heavy rain. But it is wrong to say that “houses like Strawberry Hill”—there were none—were “trifles” or that they were “touted as Gothic,” which makes Walpole seem disingenuous, or that with the appearance of Laugier's Essay on the Origins of Architecture in 1753 “all this changed.” Walpole only began major work at Strawberry Hill that year.

Walpole tried hard to get his Gothic right, he was a pioneer and was therefore castigated by the next generation, whose own efforts at archaeologically correct Gothic and “natural” landscape came in turn to seem ridiculous to their successors. But it is a mistake to read that contempt back, to notice the reaction more than the continuity. The strands of thought, scientific, aesthetic and philosophical, that ran across northern Europe and drew together to turn the Picturesque into Romanticism, run also through Strawberry Hill. Schama's chief point, that Walpole is still essentially a rationalist, imposing his scheme on nature rather than surrendering himself to it, is of course right. But the author of The Castle of Otranto can hardly be called a “complacent” rationalist.

The majestic sweep of Schama's book, not to mention the warning shots he fires over the heads of “vigilant art historians” who may carp, make one fear that such objections are mere quibbles. But, as he quotes Aby Warburg saying, “God lies in the details.” Not only God but a great deal of the interest. Sometimes Schama's pace is that of the Draconian tour guide who insists on the party seeing everything until, in the end, we just can't face the thought of another spectacular view or one more lovably eccentric character. Having, in a single page, shaken hands as it were with Thomas Bewick, Robin Hood, Walter Scott, John Hamilton Reynolds, Wordsworth, Leigh Hunt, Shakespeare and Keats, it is rather oppressive to have to get straight back on the bus to go and meet Augustus T. Dowd in the Sierra Nevada.

God does lie in the details, and Schama's reluctance to take Him seriously is an underlying problem in his book. For if we seek to understand ourselves through landscape, to know what we are by means of what we are not, then much depends on whether we believe in a divine creator. This, it is hardly original to say, underlies the crisis of Romanticism. It is why Ruskin cannot bear the Alpinists who want to understand the mountains only by climbing them, or Violletle-duc who seeks to anatomize them as geometry. In Schama's great sweep we find mythology, faith, fable and iconography too often tumbled together. Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers is not a masterpiece “in the same way” as his Cornaro Chapel in “demanding the suspension of the beholder's disbelief.” Bernini did not “believe” in the Rivers, he interpreted them as symbols. Not everyone, however, who worshipped in the Chapel did so in a spirit of scepticism temporarily suspended by architecture.

The West is now largely atheistic, or at least that educated, liberal section of it which will be interested by Schama's book. We like the idea of “the sacred” but are mistrustful of, or bored by organized religion. This poses a problem for the historian in dealing with the subjective responses of those for whom faith was central to their understanding of the world. Perhaps the best that can be done is to allow an imaginative space in which the reader can take seriously what we can no longer take literally. Schama often collapses this necessary gap.

There is something rather snide in his account of the “exemplary Christian” Florence Nightingale, who found at Philae, in the story of Osiris, a prefiguring of the death and resurrection of Christ. “Many others,” he tells us, “less given to piety had the identical experience of transfiguration.” But the experience of those who believe in God is not identical to that of those who do not, at least they say it is not and if we do not believe them we lose that part of the value of history, which; like landscape, helps us to understand ourselves through difference as well as similarity.

So we may wonder quite what Schama means by hoping that his book will help us to “keep faith” with a future on this “tough, lovely old planet.” Perhaps he means no more than his own faith, as a historian, in the continuity of the exchange between humanity and nature and its potentially benign effects on both. It may not be much, compared with the certainties of other centuries, but, after all, Schama promised no recipe for action.

Certainly nothing could make one forgive the occasionally over-extended range and looseness of reference in Landscape and Memory more easily than reading Martin Warnke's Political Landscape. It is in many ways a microcosmic complement to Schama's macrocosm, but Warnke is one of the “vigilant art historians” Schama has his eye on. In the course of a summary of the marking out of nature in art and landscape design, he arrives by a similar route at the opposite conclusion. For Warnke, who is often extraordinarily literal-minded (“Many monuments were set up to commemorate events that occurred at certain places”), the story of landscape is over: “Man's devastating exploitation of nature has put an end to her argumentative force and autonomous authority … the rich reservoir of motifs and experiences that once guided human action … has run dry.”

That this is not so, even in terms of art, Simon Schama demonstrates in his discussion of Anselm Kiefer. He is right, too, that we cannot ever detach ourselves from nature. There is as much metaphor as science in our debate about global warming, just as there turned out to be more science than anyone thought in Ruskin's “Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century.” As we superstitiously buy our packs of “green” washing powder of dubious environmental effectiveness, we reveal the budding of a new tenderness for the earth. We are now, most of us, alone with it. We depend on it as much as ever but are beginning to understand a new kind of reciprocity, that it depends on us.

Raymond Carr (review date 8 April 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 large over space and time. We are swept from Tacitus to Goering; from the Nile temple at Phylae to the Piazza Navona in Rome; from whitebait dinners in London's East End to Neapolitan Caserta; from the ancient forests of Poland to London Zoo, where Queen Victoria found chimpanzees ‘painfully and disagreeably human’; from The Spectator of Steele to the Sons of Hermann News of Texas.

All these diverse images are held together by a single thread:

Landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood, water and rock.

Radical ecologists see only the pitiless destruction of landscape by economic man, making a sharp division between man and nature, between civilisation and its machines that destroy nature and the cultures of pre-industrial man who held the earth sacred. Schama argues that

although we are accustomed to separate nature and human perception into two realms, they are, in fact, indivisible. Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from the strata of memory as from layers of rock.

We come to landscape with our back-pack of myths, historical memories and obsessions. Americans, devoid of a history-soaked Rhine to set their patriotism aglow, saw the heroic destiny of the New World in the immensity of the West. What Schama tries to show is that the ‘cultural habits of humanity have always made room for the sacredness of nature’. To take the ills of ecological destruction to heart does not require that ‘we trade in our cultural legacy’.

Committed environmentalists may well object that the visions vouchsafed by our cultural legacy are a luxury enjoyed only by those equipped with Schama's historical baggage and endowed with his powers of imaginative reconstruction. This is an intensely personal book. We start with the boy Schama dreaming of the English past as, from the Essex shore, he gazes at the Thames carrying its freight of history. As a schoolboy he gummed paper leaves on a paper tree which financed a real tree to be planted in Israel. This reminds him of the pagan tradition of forests as the primal birthplace of nations. An account of the great forests of Poland spins off from his search for his Jewish ancestors. He takes us with his children to visit the great trees of California. Some may find these personal intrusions otiose, the self-indulgence of the brilliant, garrulous conversationalist.

Central to Schama's vision is the persistence of myths. Sir James Frazer in his Golden Bough, little read now but a best seller in the 1930s, argued that the myth that underpinned ancient religions were the defensive creations of primitive people confronted with a mysterious universe With the advance of civilisation the myth that had haunted the pagan would vanish. Those like Nietzsche who testified to the endurance were dangerous subversives of the liberal democratic consensus. It was the great art historian Abe Warburg who made the discovery that beneath our rational civilisation lay a powerful residue of mythic unreason. Schama is a Warburgian, though whether Warburg would have recognised an instance of mythical subterranean survival in the discovery of Joel Barlow, one of those amiable eccentrics whom Schama delights in describing, that the Trees of Liberty planted during the French Revolution went back in time to the myth of the dismembered penis of Osiris cast into the life-giving Nile, is another matter. As Schama shows, the Verdant Cross of Christian iconography, where the dead wood of the cross sprouts the leaves of a new life, grows out of the soil of pagan myths of sacred trees. But Barlow's Osirian erect penis looks more like a bedding plant purchased at a garden centre run by the knowledgeable antiquarians of the 1790s.

No reviewer can do justice to this splendidly illustrated book as it examines how myths and historical memory inform our landscapes of trees, rivers and mountains. To the Polish poet Mickiewicz the great primaeval forests embody the tragic struggles of patriots against their oppressors. For German nationalists the forests are the sacred cradle of deutschtum, of German-ness. They found their ancestors in the pages of Tacitus. Uncouth tree-worshippers issued from their forests to destroy the Roman legions of Varus, a triumph of pure-blooded Aryans. Tacitus described them as ‘a race unmixed by intermarriage with other races'—over those products of miscegenation, the decadent Latins. Enthusiasm for Tacitus accounts for Himmler's obsession that the best surviving text of Germania be brought to its rightful home in Germany; he failed because his SS troopers sacked the wrong Italian house. The forests that bred these heroes must be preserved for all time. Thus, for Goering, as Reichsforstmeister of the Third Reich, ‘the extermination of millions of lives was not at all incompatible with the passionate protection of millions of trees’.

After German darkness comes English light. The New Forest, its ecology and society described in meticulous detail, is the home of liberty. Robin Hood's Greenwood is an elegy for a world of justice and freedom which never existed. For William Cowper the great oaks embodied the excellences of the British constitution. It was not only that the oaks were needed for the navy of an imperial power. Oaks became a fetish; the freedom-loving British had Hearts of Oak. When it was realised that oaks were an endangered species, the country was gripped by an oak-planting mania. The Lord Lieutenant of Cardiganshire claimed to have planted 922,000 of them. While Britain found its heart in oaks, to the Americans the big trees of California revealed the uniqueness of the American Republic. In the middle of the Civil War, Lincoln created the first national park to protect them. Was not the Grizzly Giant older than the Colosseum? Did not the great trees. Schama asks, vindicate the national intuition that colossal grandeur, sheer size, speak to the American soul?

Rivers, like trees, may mean different things to different people. The Rhine was claimed by France as its natural frontier; to Germans it was the fluvial artery of its mediaeval history. The Thames was essential England. The pastoral simplicity of its upper reaches became the great river from which heroes and merchants set out to conquer an empire. Barry's Triumph of the Thames (1784) displays Drake, Cook and Raleigh together with Nereids carrying ‘several articles of the commerce of Manchester and Birmingham’. Like his rivers, Schama meanders. We are led to the colossal heads of American presidents carved out of the mountainside at Mount Rushmore, by an entertaining account of the persistent and pathetic efforts of Rose Powell to get the feminist leader Susan Anthony included among them. This did not appeal to the sculptor Borglum, besotted with the masculine heroics of the films of W. C. Griffiths, a member of the Ku Klux Klan and an anti-Semite. His giant figureheads, the ultimate colonisation of nature by culture, by their sheer size expressed the continental magnitude of America.

Schama shows an endearing sympathy with showmen. John Taylor, Thames Waterman and bibulous bard whose doggerel celebrates English rivers, astonishes Londoners by embarking in a brown paper boat propelled by oars of stockfish tied to canes. There is Albert Smith who enjoyed what he called a ‘hit’. In 1856 he opened his exhibition ‘The Ascent of Mont Blanc’ to the accompaniment of the Chamonix Polka and the Mont Blanc Quadrille. It was a hit all right. The Prince of Wales came twice and Smith grossed £30,000.

But the ‘hit’ was not at all to the taste of the Spartan purists of the Alpine Club, presided over by Leslie Stephen. It brought ‘the genuine British cockney in all his terrors’ to St Moritz. The truth of mountains must be conquered by physical exertion, the more dangerous the better. This was not at all to the taste of Ruskin. For him, mountains were not spikes but rounded, sacred living beings. To climb them was to desecrate them by treating them as ‘soaped poles in a bear garden’.

In his last chapter, Schama brings together rocks, rivers and trees in ‘Arcadia redesigned’. But there are two arcadias. Arcadia Mark I is the bestial arcadia, its presiding deity Pan copulating with goats and taught to masturbate by his father as a relief for unrequited love. Arcadia Mark II is the peaceful, rural, ordered arcadia of Virgil. This was the arcadia that Capability Brown created for his aristocratic employers; the ha-ha kept out the beasts so that the magnate could enjoy an unbroken rural view. To the Prince de Ligne, this polite affectation of ruralism was a piece of British hypocrisy at its self-deluding worst: the pure landscape had been created by levelling hills and digging lakes. Arcadia Mark I was even more difficult to redesign. For Burke, the ‘Godfather of aesthetic awfulness,’ only a threat to self-preservation could give a true taste of the sublime. A Paris park that featured an artificial thunderstorm and ‘howls of ferocious animals’ did not fit the bill.

Arcadias had been aristocratic concerns. The first popular arcadia was a creation of another of Schama's entrepreneurial eccentrics. Claude François Denecourt who had fought in Napoleon's army became the old man of Fontainebleau forest. No one before him had moved off the beaten track, penetrating its depths. He mapped the forest, marking walks with blue paint; he invented the hiker's trail. By 1850 he had created 150 kilometres of marked trails; by 1860 100,000 tourists arrived on Sunday trains. A promotional genius, he provided the purchasers of his guides with the requisite touch of arcadia Mark I by a visit to the man who kissed vipers.

Arcadia Mark I was even more conveniently provided by London Zoo. Citizens could see snakes devouring white mice, a spectacle that shocked Dickens into writing a letter to the Times; the zoo thereafter used only house mice. The industrial marriage of iron ribs, plate-glass and forced hot-water heating—there were seven miles of pipes in Paxton's ‘Great Stove’ conservatory at Chatsworth—allowed Victorians to wander in the tropical forest of a glass arcadia. In Olmsted's Central Park New Yorkers could saunter—nowadays only in daytime—in an urban arcadia as noble and wild as any authentic American landscape.

Professor Schama's new book raises a disturbing question. Will my grandchildren carry the historical baggage, hitherto provided by conventional history, the one damn thing after another stuff of kings, wars and revolutions, that allowed Schama to see the Thames as a panorama for British history? Will they, like King George VI on passing Runnymede, exclaim, ‘That's where all the trouble began’? Will Hearts of Oak mean anything to them? It seems that the scaffolding of conventional history, if not yet in a state of terminal collapse, verges on the distinctly unfashionable. History becomes a succession of topics, an unstructured world of shifting scenes, a magic-lantern show rather than a film with a story. Lantern slides of the Paris of Proust appeal more easily to current intellectual fashions than slides of the Paris of the Commune. At this rate students may well end up knowing more about Bernini than Bismarck. Professor Hobsbawm was asked by an intelligent pupil whether his mention of a Second World War meant that there had been a First World War. No historian is more aware of the importance of poets, painters and musicians in moulding our sensibilities. But Hobsbawm reminds us of the dangers of losing contact with the public past, the history which made our century the most terrible in Western history. But don't let the musings of ageing historians like myself put you off the erudite pyrotechnics which give this book, as its blurb claims, ‘the effect of a great novel’. Quite so.

Richard Eder (review date 16 April 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 1864 that established Yosemite Valley as a place of sacred significance for the nation, during the war which marked the moment of Fall in the American Garden. Nor could the wilderness venerate itself. It needed hallowing visitations from New England preachers like Thomas Starr King, photographers like Leander Weed, Eadweard Muybridge and Carleton Watkins, painters in oil like Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, and painters in prose like John Muir to represent it as the holy park of the West. …”

Landscape and Memory is a series of forays into what Schama calls “the long history of landscape metaphors.” We are born in the world but also the world is born in us. In the 18th Century, artistic tourists used a Claude-glass, a brown-tinted mirror in which they could frame hills and forests that would contain, ready-made, the dusky romantic ambience of the painter Claude Lorrain. The Robin Hood legend provided a vision of the bucolic forest so fashionable that none other than Henry VIII led a court procession into the woods, where he was fed a venison breakfast by a green-clad “outlaw”—16th-Century greenwood chic.

Schama, whose approach to history has a cultural, social, political, economic and mythical sweep, is a writer of restless ideas and poetic insight. He is also a prodigious wielder of facts. In his books on two such solid subjects as the French Revolution and the Netherlands’ Golden Age, massiveness had its own logic and energy, and poetic insight needed to do no more than its part.

In this study of how myth and memory frame our landscapes, the subject is more elusive. Schama's insight is ravishing, but the finally unstoppable detail with which he fills it out gives it far too much to ravish. There are too many German foresters, forest mystics, Italian landscape designers, painters of the Sublime, Alps, Alpine romantics and assorted eccentrics whose anecdotal accounts disperse and often submerge the provocative connection with which Schama begins his book and all too occasionally comes back to.

This initial vision comes with the image of a child in a landscape. The child is himself; his favorite book is Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill, the hill being an ordinary English hill out of which historical and mythical figures emerge for the benefit of a dreamy little boy. Schama's “hill” was the sedgy, mucky Essex shore of the Thames estuary. Here, for the author at his best, is part of his description:

Closer to home, the little port of Leigh still had shrimp boats in its harbor and cockle sheds on the dock. In St. Clements were buried its fishy fathers: not merely Richard Haddock (died 1453) but Robert Salmon (died 1641), whose epitaph claimed he was the ‘restorer of English navigation.’ Beyond the sheds, grimy sand, littered with discarded mussel shells and hard strings of black-blistered seaweed, stretched down to the gray water. When the tide went out, exposing an expanse of rusty mud, I could walk for what seemed miles from the shore, testing the depth of the ooze, paddling my feet among the scuttling crabs and the winkles, and staring intensely at the exact point where, I imagined, the river met the sea.

English glory sailed out of that imagined point; as a schoolchild Schama produced a 12-page “History of the Royal Navy.” At the same time he was working on a different link of land and myth. Son of a Polish-Jewish immigrant, he turned in sixpence at his Hebrew school, each one buying one “leaf” for Israel's tree-planting program. He was putting history into the landscape. We knew that a forest was the opposite to a desert, he writes. “The diaspora was sand. So what should Israel be, if not a forest, fixed and tall?”

A family tradition takes him to the puszcza, the great forest between Poland and Lithuania. His forebears were Jewish loggers—we get a photograph of lumberjacks in black hats and side-curls—and the landscape contains their memory; as well as all the tormented memories of Polish, Lithuanian and Russian history in that “haunted land where the greatcoat buttons from six generations of fallen soldiers can be found.”

He writes of the bison that once roamed the forest, and the appearance of bison and forest in national epics that kept alive Polish and Lithuanian identity. He writes of the perverted twist when the Nazis invaded Poland and Goering took over the forest for his private hunts, and the forest dwellers were taken away and shot. Landscape myths can nourish, they can be corrupted, they can corrupt. Schama writes at great and ultimately oppressive length of the forest myth in German history; what started as a romantic forging of national character ended as Nazi blood-mysticism. “It is, of course, painful to acknowledge how ecologically conscientious the most barbaric regime in modern history actually was. Exterminating millions of lives was not at all incompatible with passionate protection for millions of trees.”

Schama writes of the cult of Arminius, whose Saxon warriors ambushed the Romans from behind trees and who became a hero of the Aryan cult and a special retrospective protégé of Himmler; of the dark forest mysticism of the painter Albrecht Altdorfer; and of the ferocious anti-myth, anti-forest fury of the contemporary Anselm Kiefer. He stays a long time in those dark German woods; it is a relief to get to the lighter English forest legends and to California sequoias, a symbol of the outsize American destiny.

A middle section of the book turns from trees to water. Schama goes into the Nile cycles of flood and rebirth, and the great fountains of Rome—there is a brilliant passage on Bernini's baroque masterpiece in the Piazza Navona—and on to the elaborate watercourses designed by Italian engineers. He writes of Thames watermen and the annual whitebait feast that became an obligatory calendar date for 19th-Century English politicians.

He goes on to mountains: the 19th-Century cult of Alpine tourism, the sculptures on Mt. Rushmore—with an enticing account of the long and unsuccessful struggle of Rose Arnold Powell to get Susan B. Anthony's face up alongside of the four men—and other associations of myths and crags. A final section deals with notions of Arcadia, as a place both of happy nymphs and shepherds, and of the darker legends of goatish Pans and wolf-men. He suggests the same duality for Central Park: bucolic by day, wolfish by night.

Much of the material is interesting; much of it takes on a list-like burden of small anecdotes and minor figures. Schematically, they can be made to fit into Schama's theme of how memory and myth give significance to the landscape. But they become a weary plod, a ramble whose purpose begins to fade and whose pleasure only recurs now and then.

Patrick Curry (review date 21 April 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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” that is culturally encoded, and therefore decipherable, as myth.

His thesis [in Landscape and Memory] is that all human social and political enterprises, no matter how apparently hostile to nature and its incorporation as myth, have actually been saturated with them. But the bulk of this big book is taken up with a delightful saunter through the historical evidence, richly illustrated both in art and literature. Like the art historian Aby Warburg, one of the people who comes alive here, Schama clearly feels that “God lies in the detail.”

But there is also a great sweep. It comes in three sections. The first, “Wood,” takes us on der Holzweg, the track through the ancient German Hercynian forest, with guides as various as Tacitus, the Brothers Grimm, an ecologically conscientious but humanly horrific Hermann Göring, and the ambivalently penitent postwar artist Anselm Kiefer. Then, in a twist that demonstrates the multivalence of nature as metaphor, we find ourselves in the English greenwood—the potent national symbol of liberty and yeoman resistance to such despotism as the Norman enclosures, which turned the natural/social amalgam of the “wood” into a “forest” for royal hunting. Typically, Schama lays bare the enduring mentality of the English hunt in its origin as “the most important blood ritual through which the hierarchy of status and honour around the king was ordered.”

In America, Western wilderness transmogrified into the primitive church of God's chosen land, with the Big Trees of California as its natural temple and John Muir as its prophet. The resulting “aura of heroic sanctity” was not uninfluenced by 19th-century heirs of Gothic architecture: a “vegetable theology” in stone that flowered when the ancient pagan tradition of the Tree of Life was grafted on to Christianity (or perhaps vice versa).

And so on, far beyond the limits of a short review, into the following sections of “Water” (rivers) and “Rock” (mountains). Along the way we meet Warburg, caught between his faith in Enlightenment rationality and the reality of myth that it despises; John Ruskin, passionately averring the very rocks as alive and thus sacred; the aristocratic Henriette d'Angeville, the second woman to ascend Mont Blanc, movingly meeting the first: a local peasant, Marie Paradis. Sir Walter Ralegh is equally adrift in the Orinoco and its dream of a city of gold; and Claude François Denecourt, “the entrepreneur of seclusion,” turns Fontainebleau into a Parisian people's park.

With such an embarrassment of riches, it seems almost churlish to complain. Landscape and Memory belongs alongside Keith Thomas’ Man and the Natural World, and Robert Pogue Harrison's excellent Forests. In a way that also stands comparison with Thomas, however, Schama's book is also curiously unsatisfying. I don't just mean conceptually thin, although it is; nor even a certain complacency evident from the gulf between the passion and struggles of the author's “characters” and his own detached persona.

But the latter points to the problem. Schama's is the peace of undisturbed assumptions: the same liberal humanism that, on the one hand, permits his generosity, but on the other, keeps it within strict tacit limits. In a word, you have to be “human”—within the parameters defined by Enlightenment rationality and inherited by modernity—to qualify.

Schama would probably contest this, pointing out his efforts to take myth seriously, and his assertions that nature and humanity are “coeval.” Thus, for example, “the cultural habits of humanity have always made room for the sacredness of nature.” But to extraordinarily little effect, it seems; when grand paintings of redwoods adorn the walls of pulp and paper magnates, Schama calls it “unembarrassed cultural schizophrenia,” which it is. But a few lines later he draws the equally bizarre moral that “American modernity, even in its most aggressively imperial forms … has been no more depleted of nature myth and memory than any other culture.” So much for the latter's potential as a “help for our ills”!

This passivity does not result from conservatism, or hostility to politics, so much as from the assumption that everything of interest or importance is happening within the ambit of culture. Upon entering the charmed circle, nature becomes infinitely malleable and manipulable. So nature “in itself”—even as a concept necessarily in human idiom—has no voice.

This suspicion is confirmed by various passages on landscape as the “product” of culture, and nature as “a text on which generations write their recurring obsessions.” This is not a level playing-field; there is no sense or even any possibility of “coeval” interaction and evolution with nature, because humanity necessarily retains the whip hand. (The same goes for myth. Contrast Schama's domesticated version with the wonder and terror of Roberto Calasso's.)

The image of nature as a blank tablet has something going for it—chiefly as a way to contest the power of defenders of the status quo, who claim to speak on behalf of disinterested fact and nature. The price, however, is that it retains the humanist (and latterly modernist) arrogation of all initiative and meaning. This plays right into the hands of those destructive ideologues keen to portray nature as a passive resource for us (or them) to plunder at will. Thus it is becoming increasingly urgent, for anyone concerned with the relationship between culture and nature, to break out of the humanist cultural stockade. Schama, unfortunately, stays resolutely within.

Boyd Tonkin (essay date 21 April 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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, not the intrigue of elites. Yet here was an accredited whizz-kid snooping into the Emperor's intimate ailments, like some tabloid sleaze-hound.

Perhaps he was just teasing. When he went to speak at another school, some lordly sixth-former instructed him: “Do try not to be boring; it helps to keep the boys awake.” Boring he never is. But what I had felt was the touch of a breeze from the future. Two decades on, social (and socialist) determinism in the study of the past has gone the way of the states that claimed to drive on history's one-way street. We live in what Schama terms a “post-teleological moment.” End of the Grand Narratives; farewell to progress and revolution as dynamos of change. Farewell, also, to the historian's creed that plants its faith in a firm distinction between hard sources (archives, statistics) and soft interpretation (art, gossip).

In Landscape and Memory, Schama's sprawling prairie of a book about what he calls “the long-term life of myth in the way that we experience landscape,” he sides with John Ruskin's view that climbing the Alps was “the least likely activity to yield the truth” about mountains. Ruskin thought that Turner's art took you deeper into the rock than merely scrambling up it could. And Schama's next graduate seminar will take Ruskin as its theme.

That sketches the popular (in some places, very unpopular) view of Schama's enterprise. Gifted with a narrative zest that has more in common with Victorian spellbinders than the number-crunchers and concept-spinners of our own time, he has ridden history's turn towards culture with a flair unmatched in his generation. The showman is also a shaman: a magician of the past who proclaims the power of mind over matter. Much of the TV series of Landscape and Memory takes place on studio sets: not just because “Alan Yentob didn't want me swanning around the world” at public expense, but also as a token of Schama's belief that “landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock.”

If this conjures up a vision of history as a gravity-free ether in which ideas float without root or anchor, then Schama in person plants his feet more firmly in the empirical soil. That Ruskin seminar, for instance, will tether itself to the life of “a concrete historical individual.” Schama insists that “you have to understand Victorian politics” to understand him. Then there's the case of Henry Kissinger.

Last year, Schama was asked to review Kissinger's doorstop on Diplomacy for the New Yorker. Surprisingly, he liked it (and it is a more nuanced book than you might expect from Nixon's Dr Strangelove). After the piece appeared, a couple of his students rang up, croaking “Hello?” in cod German accents.

When this happened again, he was about to slap the hoaxer down with an undeleted expletive when he realised that the man himself was on the line. “He invited me to breakfast, and you don't say no to him.” Schama went along and proceeded to rewrite Dr K's book for him, explaining how it might have laid more stress on chance, coincidence and accident: “what happened because that telephone call got rerouted,” and so on. In Dead Certainties, he quotes Henry James’ historian-hero Ralph Pendrel, who yearns for “little notes of truth” and “evidence of a sort for which there had never been documents enough.” This takes us to the core of Schama's work.

For his next book, on Rembrandt, he is eschewing “historical context” in the usual sense to look at the artist's material itself. He's concerned with “things that have to do with the paint itself, its texture and its thickness.” You can hardly get more concrete than that. For his breezy way with cause-and-effect doesn't stem from any urge to banish the real past. Rather, traditional history-writing makes itself a willing slave to rules of relevance, evidence, genre: a mesh through which those “little notes” can wriggle. The bold historian has to fish with a finer net. At the other extreme from Rembrandt's palette, Schama praises a book about Antarctica: The Ice by Stephen Pyne. It “explores the history of a place that does not appear to have any,” moving in epic circles from geological to human time.

Still, he underlines that history, even the history of nature, can never avoid its destiny as text. Fernand Braudel's great “total history” of the Mediterranean gives starring parts to the vine, the rock, the sun. Yet for Schama “the poetic richness of the descriptions” undercut Braudel's stony materialism. If winds make history, so do words. He did fool around with conjecture in Dead Certainties, but emphasises that his new book keeps to the straight-and-narrow. “If you ask me, ‘Does it represent a long march towards truth?,’ I'd say that I certainly hope so.”

Part of that truth involves the past of Schama's own family. We meet his father Arthur, an East End-bred textile merchant who scoured the restaurants of London each spring for the first plate of “crisply fried whitebait.” Then there are the “Yiddishe woodsmen” of his mother's family, deep in the old forests of Lithuania. Schama unearthed this slice of his past very late: “I hardly knew any of it. I had imagined my family as shtetl Jews, on a jetty somewhere.” In fact, they worked timber at the woods’ edge. Jewish lumberjacks? Perhaps Mel Brooks should have directed the TV series.

You are never far away from a smile in Landscape and Memory. Its cheerful vignettes of the dreamers and schemers who have shaped our perception of nature has—as many reviewers noted—little place for the anguish of the deep ecologists. Schama does finger the dark side of nature-worship with an oddly light touch. He admits he left out one “horrible” aspect of the Lithuanian story. After the war's end, the few rural Jews who survived came home to find a murderous local anti-Semitism still in situ.

He argues that historians must come “within contamination range” of the greenwood myths that gave us Reich's Hunting Master Hermann Göring as well as Robin Hood. Yet we must never obliterate the gap between tonic and toxic critiques of Enlightenment reason: “There is a difference between Nietzsche and the use the Nazis made of him.”

If Landscape and Memory accentuates the positive, Schama's most contentious work—Citizens—did just the reverse. There, he stripped off the whitewash of liberal and radical piety to show the bloodstains beneath. “From the very beginning, violence was the motor of the Revolution,” he concluded. Its upshot was that existing “fat cats got fatter,” while “the rural poor gained very little.”

Schama had a little satori, when he saw that he simply didn't swallow the all-party line on the Revolution as an escalator for the middle-classes. “I remember sitting in the University Library in Cambridge reading François Furet” (the revisionist who helped pull studies of 1789 away from rise-of-the-bourgeoisie sociology). “And I thought, ‘This is objectively true’. What bourgeoisie?’”

When Citizens came out, in the great year of revolt against pseudo-revolutionary elites, he recalls that “the hard left were more sympathetic to it than the liberal-left, where I thought my friends were. Some people didn't speak to me for a long time after.” Schama picks up mixed notices on the left (where he still places himself). The Trotskyist Alex Callinicos sneers at this “fashionable mid-Atlantic historian” in his new book Theories and Narratives (Polity). But the magisterial Perry Anderson calls Schama's cornucopia of Dutch Culture, The Embarrassment of Riches, “the one unquestionable masterpiece of the historical writing on national identity.”

In keeping with Schama's love for “little notes of truth,” Citizens uncovers those crucial wrong turnings and missed chances that end in terror and turmoil: “If God lies in the details, I sometimes think the devil lies there too,” he says. In his adopted country, he can see the same thing about to happen on Capitol Hill. The Republicans’ effort to entrench a tax-cutting regime amounts, he thinks, to “a reactionary revolution, totally contrary to the spirit of the Founding Fathers.”

Yet Le Monde called Citizens “Reaganite.” There is no French translation. “Reaganite”? The cap doesn't fit. In the course of our conversation, Schama praises Christopher Hill's “marvellous essay” on the idea of the “Norman yoke”; he places E. P. Thompson “up there in the pantheon already” with the Victorian greats. He swoons over the opening of Raymond Williams’ The Country and the City (“just a beautiful piece of writing”). He recently enjoyed Raphael Samuel's Theatres of Memory. And he even believes that socialist theory has merely gone on a sabbatical: “I happen to think that it will emerge refreshed as a result of the north-south horrors of the next millennium.”

Typically, Schama says at once: “But that's totally by the way.” In a sense, theory has for him always been by the way. He says things like: “I'm not a social scientist”; “I'm not a polemicist”; “I was very bad at political theory.” Yet Cambridge in the late 1960s and 1970s, where he came to intellectual maturity, gave a home to an array of original thinkers who shook the British humanities from their torpor.

They included Anthony Giddens, in sociology, Raymond Williams in English, Gareth Stedman Jones and Schama's friend Quentin Skinner in history. This was hardly a climate that bred artless “one-damn-thing-after-another” chroniclers. Yet Schama sank that mood of reflection on the links between theory and experience into a cinematic style that kept faith with the story-telling virtues of his mentor, J H Plumb. William Carlos Williams’ watchword was “No ideas but in things.” It would fit Schama as well.

One more influence deserves some credit. At school, his imagination was ignited (as was mine) by an inspirational English teacher, Simon Stuart, whose knowledge leaped in seven-league boots from biology to psychoanalysis. Schama says that his boundary-crossing career has, in some sense, been “one long apology” to Stuart for choosing to study history. When Citizens came out, his former teacher sent him a family heirloom. It was a letter by one of the book's few heroes: the chivalrous revolutionary Lafayette. With a writer whose histories read like novels, it seems right to end with a story that surely belongs in one.

Anthony Grafton (review date 7 August 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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, or a village where women will be impregnated by aliens. Whatever the details of the action that follows, the sequence of images—from any one of the fashionable movie openings of the last two years or so—teaches the same lesson: nature is the realm of purity and beauty, and man imports violence to this separate world from his own corrupt and frightening habitat, the city.

As soon as we recover from the state of easy receptivity that movies induce, we realize that we have bought a bill of goods with our $4 matinee ticket. We haven't experienced nature but an image of it, colored, framed and varnished to match our very human myths and assumptions. The lovely Scottish hills that William Wallace (or rather Mel Gibson) roams in Braveheart are not the natural habitat of purity and virtue. For a start, they're probably Irish; and they have been photographed from angles and in a light that makes them conform to an Anglo-American myth of mountain beauty. If we hadn't already seen too many Sierra Club calendars, we couldn't decode the animated calendar that the movie sets before us. What looked like life was art. The unbounded beauty of nature that lifted our hearts was a slick packaging job. Nature, at least in the movies, never escapes culture.

In his new book [Landscape and Memory] Simon Schama mounts a formidable scholarly expedition into the bright heart of the Construct Called Nature. He carries the reader in space from Egypt to Yosemite, in subject matter from ancient stone cult images to Anselm Kiefer's all-too-modern scorched books, in time from the second millennium BC to the present. He examines an enormous range of individuals, telling their stories easily and vividly, from the sculptor and architect Gianlorenzo Bernini and the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher, who between them created baroque Rome's most compelling urban spectacle, the fountain of the four rivers in the Piazza Navona, to Gutzon Borglum and Rose Arnold Powell, who clashed over whether a monumental head of Susan B. Anthony should appear beside the male heroic heads that Borglum carved and blasted out of the rock faces of Mount Rushmore. Schama resets all his protagonists into the social habitats in which they flourished, re-creating a grand ecology of creative eccentricity whose niches include the hunting lodges of ancient Lithuanian forests, the palaces of the late-eighteenth-century Barbary Coast, Neapolitan gardens and French sacred mountains.

Schama's energy as a researcher never flags, even when he has to quarry material from impenetrably obscure texts, such as the now-forgotten Renaissance Latin work which first celebrated for a European public, in marmoreal Latin, the appearance and the habits of the Lithuanian bison. His commentary illuminates dozens of dark places in intellectual history as well as a museum's worth of images, from paintings and photographs to the prospects created by landscape architects. Reading Schama's book, in fact, resembles a pleasant experience of cultural drowning. The entire history of the Western tradition seems to pass before the reader's eyes.

Schama long ago established himself as one of the most learned, original and provocative historians in the English-speaking world. His career began with a dazzling social and political history of Holland in the age of the French Revolution. In The Embarrassment of Riches, he offered a massive, provocative interdisciplinary analysis of the culture of the Dutch elite in the Republic's seventeenth-century Golden Age. Schama trawled a wealth of verbal and visual materials from sermons, emblem books, household inventories and popular prints; he used them to trace the fault lines in the mentality of the Calvinist burghers who wanted to combine a lavish life-style with strict self-discipline.

Then Schama began to make trouble. In a minor book called Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations) he committed a major act of transgression, trying to blur the borders between history and fiction, scholarship and imagination. He succeeded in tweaking the sensitive noses of any number of the guardians of orthodox historical professionalism. Loud did they wail and gnash their teeth at this talented young historian's refusal to equip his work with footnotes that would enable readers to distinguish between his inferences from the sources and his own inventions. Citizens, his most recent large-scale effort, a narrative history of the French Revolution that became a best-seller, made its author a celebrity, but it inflamed tempers among historians still sympathetic to the Revolution as effectively as Dead Certainties had among scholars to whom all revolutions are anathema.

All this work reached print before its author reached his fiftieth year. All of it reveals qualities of mind and craft that reappear in Landscape and Memory: immense learning, an apparently infinite store of anecdotes that point to larger historical morals, and a phosphorescent prose style, marked by the continual turning of unforgettable phrases. On almost every page the reader comes across a trademark oxymoron. “Pissing putti,” “delicious horror” and “a vast, baroque tower of coiled, curled fry, an entire corps de ballet of fish suspended in batter; agonized in oil”: these and dozens of other phrases still bright from their first coining will stick fast in readers’ memories (and may well annoy the invincibly decorous).

For all Schama's delight in making the sober-minded squirm, however, the style of this consummately stylish book matters less in the end than its substance. Schama weaves together with Ovidian artfulness a complex set of stories, epic and even mythic in character. He varies social analysis with historical narrative, and intersperses both with personal reminiscence of travel. Readers will find themselves forced to leap from past to present, Europe to Asia, elegant galleries to wild mountaintops—and forced also to see the connections among these apparently disparate places and subjects, which Schama establishes with the speed and the stamina of a telephone operator running an old-fashioned switchboard in a '40s movie.

This book is, among other things, cultural history on the bravura scale of the creators of the discipline—scholars such as Jacob Burckhardt who moved with ease from antiquity to modernity and considered it their duty to read buildings and gardens as meticulously as poems and treatises. The only way to evaluate such historical tapestries is to unpick them, to roll the diverse threads back onto their original spools. Doing so will set Schama's scholarly achievement into its own larger context, the several radically diverse ways of studying human interaction with nature that he brings together.

We may begin, as the title invites us to, with landscape, for Schama's work amounts, in large part, to a synthetic cultural history of the land, a history that weaves a series of stories, some newer than others, into a compelling new whole. One theme that Schama traces across many centuries and countries has fascinated intellectual historians and literary scholars for some generations: the creation of a visual and verbal language that seemed to evoke the pleasures and the terrors of the natural world. As late as the seventeenth century, even the most daring and iconoclastic intellectuals lacked a vocabulary with which they could evoke the charms of mountains. When Thomas Hobbes, one of the most original and resourceful writers of English prose, tries to describe mountains in verse, he sounds like the legendary Scottish poet William MacGonagall praising the Bridge over the River Tay:

Behind a ruin'd mountain does appear
Swelling into two parts, which turgent are
As when we bend our bodies to the ground,
The buttocks amply sticking out are found.

Mountains usually inspired fear and disgust. They were “Nature's Pudents,” “Like Warts and Wens,” blisters and pustules which appeared (according to one influential seventeenth-century theory) when the Flood gouged and tore the originally perfect sphere of the world. Like sin itself, they attested the loss of innocence in history. As early as the sixteenth century, however, some painters and clerics began to domesticate the high places of the world. Brueghel and de Momper showed how to represent on canvas the wild, avian points of view and multiple, minutely varied micro-ecologies that mountains offered those brave enough to scale them. Catholic orders turned mountains into places of pilgrimage, uniquely vivid stages on which to reenact the life of St. Francis or the Stations of the Cross. Schama devotes a memorable vignette to what may be the very last of these, a place called Holy Land, constructed in the aggressive days of 1950s Catholicism on a hill in Waterbury, Connecticut, but now crumbling and bisected by route I-84:

This was, both of necessity and choice, a lowtech sacred mountain. Unlike the corporately funded, industrially constructed, electronically switched on theme parks of the 1980s, Holy Land USA, was actually built by Greco and his friends, from the primitive carpentry to the concrete scale-houses, to the repainting of discarded church sculptures and architectural details, rescued from the ecclesiastical junkyard. It was chicken-wire evangelism in earnest.

In the Enlightenment and after, mountains came into their literary and artistic own. Philosophers, painters and poets discovered that mountain terrors were attended by delight; and climbers brought the summits of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn within reach, for women as well as men. Mountain poetry and mountain painting became the object of subtle and serious debates. But even as climbers’ journals reached print, climbers’ clubs spread enlightenment and empirical data proliferated, the assumptions that artists brought up the slopes continued to determine what they made of what they saw. Viollet-le-Duc knew that all mountains fell into rhomboid or trapezoidal forms, the geometric shapes from which one could read the history of glacial action that had made them. Ruskin insisted just as forcefully that mountains are really delicate and graceful in form, not jaggedly polyhedral but gently curved: “all touched and troubled like waves by a summer breeze; rippled far more delicately than seas or lakes are rippled.” Each vision found expression in memorable prose and images, and each helped to shape a vision of the wild landscape as a place of special purity and peace.

The brothers and male cousins of an English friend of mine, rock-climbers and proconsuls all, saw mountains as the realm of Nature and tried to keep them pure of the corruptions of civilization. Though all of them had read classics at public school and university, they politely murmured, “No Greek above the snow line,” when friends offensively insisted on quoting Pindar as they hung from ropes and inched their way up chimneys. As Schama shows, however, their purism rested on a misunderstanding. Greek comes to the mountaintop whether one wants it to or not: culture precedes and shapes the nature that we delude ourselves into thinking we can experience directly. No wonder, then, that at the end of his book Schama directly confronts Thoreau at Walden—and shows that he, too, shaped the New England forest, in his imagination, into the ancient bridges and noble halls of medieval Europe. Thus Schama neatly completes a circuit begun at the start of his book, where he analyzes, in detail, the rhetoric with which John Muir framed American nature as “a democratic terrestrial paradise.”

The details of Schama's investigation of these texts and images—such as his meticulous analysis of American painters’ efforts to represent the New World forest in forms that continually dissolve into Old World castles, crucifixes and cathedrals—are often sharply original. So is his insistence that visual artists often precede verbal ones in constructing the tools for describing wood and hills and water. But his general argument that cultural traditions inevitably shape human engagement with nature is not new. Pioneering intellectual historians such as A. O. Lovejoy and Marjorie Nicholson argued two generations ago and more that human representations of the natural world emerged from existing intellectual traditions and forms of sensibility, not simply from the experience of sea and mountain. More recently, the geographer Clarence Glacken devoted a large and occasionally profound book to the history of theories of natural order from antiquity to recent times. Schama enriches his story with a new range of visual and historical data; but it makes the most conventional thread in his tapestry.

More innovative, especially in the details of its telling, is Schama's second story line: how architects and planners have brought Nature and Culture together. He musters a host of examples to prove that city and country, human settlement and natural order, always penetrate one another. No scene seems more characteristically urban than the Piazza Navona in Rome, that elliptical symphony of orange, yellow and gray façades which since the seventeenth century has formed the stage for a continuing urban drama, its cast made up of peddlers and gypsies, tourists and pickpockets, cardinals and women of fashion. At its center stands a monumental work of sculpture and engineering: Bernini's fountain. A great rock, seemingly torn by an Egyptian obelisk that rises above it, is surrounded by four statues representing the great rivers of the world. Schama carefully re-creates the local debates between artists and patrons that led to the construction of the fountain; he vividly evokes the practical results, the sheer relief afforded by the Piazza's running water and summer flooding for a city that sweltered unbearably, as it still does, in summer heat and dust; and he interprets the fountain's evolution and explicates its final form with clarity and grace.

At the same time he ranges across the millennia to trace the ancient connections between rivers and fertility, water and culture, established in Egyptian religion and appropriated by Roman priests and artists, that inspired both Bernini and his learned adviser Kirchner. A whole series of connections, subtly elicited, resolve an apparent paradox: why the pagan hieroglyph on an Egyptian obelisk seemed the most suitable way to celebrate papal munificence in monumental form. Ancient myth and modern hydraulic science, mystery and practice, interact harmoniously here and in many other schemes. Schama goes on to reveal any number of the ways in which architects have succeeded, over the centuries, in weaving streams and waterfalls, fountains and reflecting pools, into the most elaborate schemes of building. Like John Ackerman, David Coffin and many other scholars who, in the last two generations, have called dramatic attention to the central role of suburban villas and urban gardens in forming European city life, Schama makes clear that urban experience can never be reduced to the rushing impressions of tall façades and busy streets that urban theorists such as Georg Simmel have seen as its essence. One of the central distinctions of modern social science, the distinction between the kaleidoscopic whirl of the modern city and the quiet calm of the country outside, is powerfully challenged by Schama's account.

A third fundamental thread that reappears throughout the fabric of the book, and often serves to hold it together, is the tale of human interaction with culture. Among the clichés for which Schama has little patience is the notion that landscapes are natural. Over and over again he shows how human actions, from setting fires to carving mountains to establishing detailed codes of forestry regulation, have shaped apparently untouched environments in culturally determined ways. In emphasizing this point, as Schama himself makes clear, this quintessentially European historian reveals the enlargement of interests that he owes to his new American home.

Environmental history has fascinated American intellectuals for a long time. Early scholars, such as Francis Parkman, the dramatist of American expansion, about whom Schama wrote in Dead Certainties, and Robert Albion, the crusty Princeton historian of navies who showed how demand for timber changed English and continental forests, knew what ancient trees looked and smelled like and how merchants and loggers shaped the woods to their practical ends. Historical geographers such as Carl Ortwin Sauer rebelled against environmentally determinist theories of European origin, insisting that pre-historic humans had already possessed technologies that could reshape forests and landscapes. More recent historians of the American West have dramatized the impact of human action on river and wilderness, the creation of new arable land and the relentless mushrooming of tract houses and condos in what had been desert—as well as the reduction of clean, fish-bearing streams into still, polluted lakes.

Schama insists that environmental historians fall prey, as a group, to the trendy temptations of political correctness. By his account, they treat every human incursion in the wilderness as the rape of an unwilling, virgin beauty and implausibly insist that Native Americans always treated their habitat with awed respect, unlike the exploitative whites who drove them from their homes. Schama, too, exults in the richness of American nature. He lovingly evokes “the urgent life of the forest floor, primordially squishy-soft, packed with fungus and seething with the vast traffic of countless beetles, earwigs and ants commuting this way and that” that fascinated his children, who were too small to take in the “fragrant, feathery and massive” sequoias of Montgomery Woods as anything but threatening monsters. But he also insists on the man-made character and context of the natural shrine, the disturbing presence of plastic vegetarian nudists, their bodies “gallantly scarred and bruised in the service of a thousand good causes,” and the even more disturbing presence of the ancient and modern loggers who had changed the area so radically.

Characteristically, Schama is being a little wicked here. In this case, though, he does an injustice to a rich body of inventive scholarship. The older environmental historians celebrated the transforming power of human effort. The best of the newer ones remain perfectly aware that all human populations change their environments, and they attend to the details of this process instead of denouncing one moment in it. Richard White's The Organic Machine, a new history of the Columbia River, shows great sensitivity to the way each group of human users in turn has drawn on its stocks of solar and hydraulic energy.

Schama certainly doesn't rival White as an analyst of the actual point at which humans and nature intersect. The skilled application of muscle, the contact of skin with rock and wood, the smell of sweat and burning and the noise of work are dimensions of the human experience of nature which are not evoked here in as much living detail as the play of paint on canvas or of words on paper. True, Schama's synthesis of environmental history with cultural history has a range and richness that his predecessors have not attained. Geographers such as Glacken and Sauer and even a brilliant historian such as White don't read texts and images with his sensitivity and depth. But the variety of ingredients, rather than their individual novelty, gives Schama's cuisine its individual flavor. His book imposes respect for its breadth, for the density and the complexity of its readings of episodes and works of art, for its subversion of some common and insufficiently examined beliefs about nature and humanity, for its critical scrutiny of images and countryside but not always for the originality of its account of how humanity has created the nature that suits it.

In its other aspect, however, Landscape and Memory offers not only a fine work of historical craft, but also something more like an ambitious work of literary art: a highly original study of the ways in which history not only shapes, but becomes inextricably embedded in, land and trees and water, and they in it. Finally the book's most memorable subject is memory, collective and individual.

Schama begins his second inquiry, not accidentally, in Eastern Europe, in a world of Polish, Lithuanian and German forests hedged about at every point by myth. These forests have been seen, for centuries, as central to the identity of nations. At the nineteenth-century nadir of Poland's fortunes, intellectuals such as Adam Mickiewicz described the rich bogs and bison-haunted forests around Wilno and Kovno as the rustic crucible of Polish identity, the groves where the ancient kings of Lithuania had worn the great ancestral fur hat and hunted freely. In the twentieth century zenith of Nazi Germany's success, Himmler and others treated the same forests as an extension of East Prussia—and as an integral part of the dark, eerie woods in which the first Germans, two millennia before, had slaughtered the Roman army of Varus. The fantastic hunting lodges of Nazi bosses staked a claim to historical and cultural continuity, to a German tradition in which hard country stood against soft city, iron against gold, wild German courage against sophisticated, urban discipline.

Schama shows, with quiet clarity, that these powerful visions of central Europe's woods were hardly rooted in historical scholarship, even if the SS made an unsuccessful attempt to kidnap something Italian that was more valuable than Mussolini, a precious manuscript of Tacitus's ancient book on Germany, in order to give them some scholarly foundation. In fact, the wild pure woods of German and Lithuanian tradition fed and protected inhabitants for whom the legends of Poles and Germans had no place. For centuries, the trees of Lithuania were felled, floated downs streams and rivers to railheads, and sold by Jewish lumber merchants—the Soltans and the Kalezkis—to the British navy, which turned them into the masts and decks of ships of the line. Not only the merchants who brought the wood to market at Danzig and Riga, Schama shows, but the workmen who first cut the trees down with long two-handled saws and rolled them into the rivers for transport were Jews. These “lumberjacks mit tzitzis” (that is, lumberjacks wearing on their garments the fringes required by Scripture of Jewish men) who guzzled vodka and played harsh practical jokes on greenhorns, wore the dark trousers, white shirts, beards and hats of practicing Jews in the depths of the wolf-infested woods.

Merely by reestablishing the presence in deep woodland clearings of these figures from a fading postcard of the Lower East Side, Schama dismantles a vast hateful structure of interlocking cultural legends. In the mental world of Central Europe, Jews stood as firmly for culture as Lithuanian bison and German foresters did for nature. Jews were urban, sophisticated, corrupt; but nature was wild, primitive, pure. So argued a thousand pamphlets and dozens of anti-Semitic agitators, and so, on his bad days, argued Mickiewicz, too. In fact, though, in the brutal, muscular fact of trees felled, work done, sweat lost and wolves chased away, the forests belonged as firmly to Jews as the shtetl. When Jewish partisans found a last refuge there in the darkest of all times, making the Lithuanian woods the stage for a bitter final battle against Christian guerrillas and Nazi persecutors alike, they were not entering a new world. They were reclaiming what had once been Jewish territory.

The forest primeval, seen for centuries as the pure germ plasm in which the Volk took shape, emerges from Schama's analysis as a cauldron, if not a melting pot. The primal woods of the Polish nation were contested ground, on which many races fought for space, resources, life. The physical signs of these struggles, the traces of whole peoples, have been expunged from the physical as well as the mythical landscape. The traveler, Schama finds, can hardly identify even the graves of Poles slaughtered by Stalin, much less the burnt bodies of the Jews slaughtered by Hitler, in the green, rolling riverine land where the Vistula flows and Treblinka stood. Only the historian's tireless work of memory can restore them, can repopulate the lonely forests, fertile fields and fairytale cottages, with their dead.

It is a powerful new aim of Schama's book, then, to dispel myths: to insist on our propensity to mistake traditions and images for the true story of human interaction with forest and mountain. But a second, paradoxically related one, is to insist that humans always do engage in such interactions—and that myths inevitably shape the land: that illusions and fantasies inevitably drive the explorers and exploiters who create what later visitors see as nature. Thus the same visions of the Lithuanian and German forest which misrepresented them as Aryan paradises also defined the development of the techniques for timber and animal management that their foresters applied.

And Schama reveals himself as implicated in myths and struggles closely similar to those that engaged the protagonists of his stories: indeed, it seems that a particularly rich set of myths and images of landscape, racial and national, familial and personal, powered his journey into forests and along rivers. Among the ironically narrated episodes and meticulously annotated texts and artifacts appear, again and again, moments of a very different kind, in which Schama himself appears, driving with an informant through the Polish countryside, taking his children to see the redwoods in California, or nostalgically recalling the disused bomb shelters that he explored as a child and the Hampstead heath that he wandered as a young man. The style of these passages differs from the style of the rest. Exploratory in tone, personal in content, rich in the local textures of condom-strewn English commons and luxurious meals in London hotels, they provide the pivots on which the main episodes of the text turn. They make clear that Schama's work emerges more from personal experience and compulsion than from the “literature” of the various disciplines he draws on.

Schama himself identifies, in some of the most moving passages of the book, two earlier inquirers whom he treats as exemplary: Aby Warburg and Anselm Kiefer, both of them, like him, personally involved in emotionally searing ways with the objects of their enquiries. Warburg, the brilliant, tortured eldest son of the Hamburg banking family, dedicated himself with obsessive energy to collecting and interpreting the complex, twisted afterlives of classical myths and forms in the post-classical world. Like other young intellectuals in the wake of Nietzsche, Warburg knew that the classical heritage included dark threatening caverns as well as bright colonnaded temples. Ancient forms, as he showed in his great study of Botticelli, could express wild movement as well as noble stillness, erotic complexity as well as an erotic simplicity. The ancients were responsible not only for philosophy, the brave human effort to master the world by reason, but also for astrology, the resigned, all-too-human acknowledgement that natural forces, cast in mythic form, control human destinies.

Human creativity—so Warburg insisted in his early work—amounted to a struggle, a continual, often doomed effort to define a free space for rationality. Warburg not only devised this theory, he also exemplified it: he followed the fighting in World War I with passionate, uncomfortably patriotic attention, desperately clipping newspapers in what now seems an almost pitiable effort to gain intellectual control over the flood of news and propaganda. At the same time, he was traveling Germany's cities, reading the unpublished letters in which the astrologers of the sixteenth century had offered their advice to other intellectuals and to rulers—and celebrating the earthy wit with which Martin Luther had rejected their counsels of existential despair.

Confined for five years to a Swiss clinic after the war, Warburg gradually collected himself. He won his release with a magnificent lecture on New Mexico Indian serpent rituals, which he had witnessed as a young man. Here he showed, with a sympathy for the devil that his earlier work sometimes lacked, how myth itself created the space in which reason could develop. The “archive of memory,” which consisted of images and metaphors of immemorial use of forgotten origin, preserved the primitive within the modern, the mythical within the rational: “[i]nstead of stressing the separation between primitivism and the modern condition, he implied its connection.” Unlike J. G. Frazer, the vastly erudite analyst of ancient myth who analyzed every ancient myth of grove and stream at length in The Golden Bough and collected the sources in a still more enormous library, “densely inscribed and reinscribed in Frazer's controlled little Scottish hand,” Warburg came to see that myths represented something more than “‘mistakes’ that primitives make about their world”: they permeated modern as well as traditional culture.

For Warburg, the photograph of a woman golfer, following through with her nine iron on a barbered modern golf course, echoed the ancient image of an orgiastic nymph, a forest maenad. The Bacchae live, even at the country club. Warburg's search for the mythical in the modern consistently underpins Schama's effort to argue “that Western culture, even while it has been busy destroying forests, has been full, not drained, of … myths,” that the bright modern, urban Europe of clean subways, nice cafés and liberal opinions known to tourists and politicians is a thin crust that barely conceals a darker, older, legend-haunted landscape. This Warburg is Schama's model: not only the tireless explorer of the classical tradition, but the clear-eyed student of the eternal vitality, the unavoidable creative and destructive power, of myth.

Schama celebrates Warburg's final, magnificent effort to embody his theories. This took the form not of expository prose but of an atlas of images, which he called Mnemosyne. It was “in effect a gigantic vertical stamp album: screens of photographs, organized by motif, and assembling (along with reproductions of paintings, prints and drawings) travel posters, advertisements, and news photographs that struck him as bearing, wittingly or not, the memory of ancient lore.” Landscape and Memory also has something of the character of a vast, idiosyncratic album or atlas. In one respect, however, Schama departs radically from Warburg. He suggests that artists not only transmit the life and the power of symbols, but also investigate them. For Schama, a visual analysis of symbolic forms may be not only more compelling to viewers, but more intellectually profound, more provocative and subtle, than a verbal one.

The contemporary German artist Anselm Kiefer ranks, in Schama's view, with the older German scholar Warburg as a profound student of how myths are enacted in the lived space of action and reflection. And unlike Warburg, Kiefer makes the memories of the land the central topic of his brushed inquiries into the German psyche and its woodland origins. No pages of Schama's book are more memorable than those in which he follows Kiefer into the Odenwald, a remaining fragment of Germany's ancient Hercynian wood, now much damaged by pollution, where the artist settled in 1971.

Schama argues, sharply, that Kiefer's early career, with its provocative re-enactments of fascist gestures and images, marked a consistent effort at protest. Kiefer rejected both West German efforts to treat 1945 as a Zero Hour, a complete break with the past, and the narcissism of the post-war avant-garde which insisted “that the only interesting subject left for art was art.” His profound efforts to explore the German past gave rise to works as diverse as photographs of himself in Nazi regalia, large-scale paintings and the haunting ink drawings of his Hermanns-Schlacht book in Boston—a coherent series of images, dark and mysterious, in which Kiefer explored the meanings of the defeat of the Roman Varus, “the Custer of Teutoburger Wald,” by the Cheruscan Arminius in AD 9. One ambitious work, the Varus of 1976, explores both the German forest and the German tradition. Close, bare trees, ranked with almost comic neatness by the parade-ground traditions of German forestry, join upper branches in what resembles a military arch of swords. They clearly refer to the deep, peaceful forests of earlier artists such as Albrecht Altdorfer and Caspar David Friedrich, who devised scenes in which minutely detailed trees played all the principal parts, dwarfing human inhabitants and pushing them to the margins.

But Kiefer's forest is permeated by the ghosts of human inhabitants, resounds with the noises of ancient slaughter. The gouts of blood on the snow, the wounds of the battered trees, and the names of the Roman Varus and his enemy Hermann, scrawled in the snow, all show that this is a place of execution, not of contemplation. Above, in smaller script, appear the names of German poets and thinkers, Hölderlin and Rilke, Schleiermacher and Fichte—and von Schlieffen. A nation of Dichter und Denker? or Richter und Henker? Is the course of German history a constricted path from a bloody forest birth to a tangled end? Or does the haunting light that penetrated between close-set trees at the path's end suggest the possibility of hope?

The painter's juxtaposition of these names and symbols, his vivid, visual exploration of the ancient connection between the German forest and the national destiny, seems to Schama hauntingly profound: not a wallowing in myths that require exorcism, but a surgical exposure of them. These myths will need to be laid bare as long as the land itself endures. And Schama himself clearly has more than a touch of Kiefer in him, in his desire to shock, his willfully provocative gestures, his firm belief that color and light may provide deeper analysis and richer information than all the statistical tables that one could assemble.

Finally, Schama seems to stand somewhere between his two protagonists, between the historian and the artist. His work falls between the distanced analysis of the scholar and the passionate juxtapositions of the painter. His erudition, his insistence on getting right the tiny detail of argument or shading that reveals a myth taking concrete and influential form, his insistence on cold clarity: all this links him to Warburg, the fanatically precise explorer and maker of archives. But his wit, his passion and his compulsive desire to shock, his will to re-enact as well as to reconstruct, put him on the side of Kiefer, the erudite artist and maker of terrifying images.

Landscape and Memory has not only the range of a great nineteenth-century work of history, but also the disorienting power of a major work of art from our own disoriented fin de siècle. And, as a form of art, this combination of visual and verbal images, narrative and criticism, as hard to describe as it is easy to appreciate, seems a far more successful experiment than the labored, supposedly novelistic segments of Dead Certainties. Schama's ability to combine the personal with the philological, the scholarly with the artistic, makes his book fall outside normal categories and transcend the necessary limitations and occasional weaknesses of its parts. Unclassifiable, inimitable, sometimes irritating and often fascinating, Landscape and Memory will inform and haunt, chasten and enrage, its readers. It is that rarest of commodities in our cultural marketplace, a work of genuine originality.

Keith Thomas (review date 21 September 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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, Norman knights, and other historical figures. Each of these reminisces about the past and then tantalizingly fades away to turn back into one of the children's present-day neighbors, like old Hobden, the hedger, or his son, the Bee Boy, “who is not quite right in his head, though he can do anything with bees.” Punctuated by memorable verse, Kipling's tale is a poetic celebration of the deep historical continuities of the Sussex countryside.

See you our stilly woods of oak,
And the dread ditch beside?
O that was where the Saxons broke,
On the day that Harold died.

It is not a long step from Puck of Pook's Hill to Landscape and Memory. For both books are concerned with the residue of the past that underlies the modern world, and they each illuminate the mythic underpinnings of present-day sensibilities. Moreover, Schama is a writer whose story-telling skills, descriptive power, imagination, and verve make the comparison with Kipling by no means absurd.

Landscape and Memory is a work of history written by an academic. It seeks to uncover the memories, myths, and cultural associations with which the inhabitants of the West over the past two or three millennia have perceived and shaped the natural world around them. But it is not a conventional work of academic history. Its vast chronological and geographical range alone ensures that. What most distinguishes it is the style in which it is written. Schama's intensely visual prose is the product of a historical imagination which is not restrained by conventional academic inhibitions about attempting to “bring the past to life,” even though the evidence is incomplete. His canvas is always crowded and there are no empty spaces. Thus, when other historians would have written, “In 1943 the Germans sent an SS unit to Fontadamo,” Schama begins, “A detachment of SS winds its way up the mountain road west of Ancona tracing a black line in the autumn gold: crows in the corn. Clouds of chalky dust rise from the road while the exhaust from the armored cars shakes the unharvested wheat.”

Similarly, Schama is not content to record that Sir Walter Ralegh planned his Guiana expedition in Durham House, London. Rather, he tells us that,

From his lofty vantage point on the north bank, where the Thames made a snaking, southern bend. Ralegh could survey the progress of empire: the dipping oars of the queen's state barge as it made its way from Greenwich to Sheen: bunched masts of pinnaces and carracks swaying at their berths; broad-sterned Dutch fly boats bouncing on the dock-tide; wherries taking passengers to the Southwark theaters; the whole humming business of the black river. But through the miry soup of refuse that slapped at his walls, Ralegh could see the waters of the Orinoco, as seductively nacreous as the pearl he wore on his ear.

And when Ralegh's ill-fated expedition gets under way, so does Schama:

A week into these cursed waters and they start to mold and stink like rancid whey. Their English broadcloth glues itself to their bodies, yet it is not stout enough armor against the stiletto-thrusts of voracious mosquitoes and the industrious burrowings of chiggers beneath their grimy dermis. Though the enclosing canopy chokes out the air, there is sun enough to scorch their necks and wrists so that their skin stripes with burns as if raked by martyrs’ coals. They are too hot to tell if they have fever. But they all shake and tremble with the river-palsy, rowing blind, their lids and corneal jelly stinging with sweat. In their wretchedness, they are sustained by alternations of cursing and prayer. They piss into the river as if their waters might kill the malevolent Orinoco. And when the heat relents in the evening darkness, they evacuate their loathing and wrath in wild brawling, the oafish roaring answered, antiphonally by the howling of monkeys and syncopated with the juddering flight of vampire bats.

It is his ability (and willingness) to write this sort of narrative prose—vivid, elaborate, unashamedly colorful, yet not departing from the evidence in any seriously misleading way—that makes Simon Schama the obvious modern successor to Macaulay. He appeals to a similarly wide readership, and, unlike his Victorian predecessor, he also can make use of television. The BBC recently broadcast a five-part version of Landscape and Memory, with the author as the insatiably enthusiastic, ceaselessly articulate, hand-waving narrator. Only just fifty, Schama has published no fewer than five previous books, including The Embarrassment of Riches, a deeply enjoyable study of Dutch painting and society in its golden age, and Citizens, a best-selling narrative of the French Revolution, which probably sold all the better for being profoundly unsympathetic to that event. Nearly all of them are original in conception and ambitious in scope. As Schama himself recently remarked, “My history is sort of greedy history. I mean it's big cake history.”1

In writing such history Schama employs in his new book some rather transparent literary devices. Apparently determined to avoid the obvious at all costs, he likes to begin his chapters or subsections of chapters by abruptly plunging the reader headlong into the middle of the narrative. For some obscure reason, many of these zanily inconsequential opening sentences are about eating. Thus:

“Please, try the bison,” said Tadeusz. “Really, it's very good.”

It was Augustus T. Dowd's big joke. On a spring morning in 1852 he had been after a wounded grizzly, meaning to finish the brute off and provide the men of the Union Water Company with fried bear for the rest of the week.

“It was one of my father's firmest beliefs that no one could know real happiness who had not, at some time, gorged on a plate of crisply fried whitebait.”

It was when his lapdog, Tory, got eaten by a wolf that Horace Walpole began to have serious reservations about Mont Cenis.

Returning to the cabin in the woods by Walden Pond, a catch of fish tied to his pole, Henry David Thoreau was seized with an overwhelming urge to eat raw woodchuck.

What these contrived openings have in common is that they force even the most reluctant reader to go a little further, if only to find out what on earth such a bizarre beginning can have to do with the author's theme.

Much the same purpose is served by the recurring passages of highly personal autobiography, in which Schama temporarily abandons the voice of omniscient narrator for a rather more confessional tone. We learn about his childhood in Essex and, in a characteristically baroque piece of elaboration, about his riverside fantasies beside the Thames:

Broad galleys entered the river with rows of grunting oarsmen. Long boats with dragon heads at the prow and dull iron shields nailed to the side slid menacingly upstream. Galliots and caravels gently rose and fell with the estuary tides, sporting on their bowsprits beaming cherubs or turbaned corsairs with goggling eyes and dangerous whiskers. Great tea clippers, their sails billowing like sheets on our washing line, beat their way before the breeze to the London docks. In my watery daydreams the shoreline itself mysteriously dissolved its ratty pubs and rusting cranes into a somber riverbank woodland where the tops of trees emerged from an ancient, funereal fog. When I took a boat trip with my father from Gravesend to Tower Bridge, the docks at Wapping and Rotherhithe still had big cargo ships at berth rather than upmarket grillrooms and corporate headquarters. But my mind's eye saw the generations of the wharves, bristling with masts and cranes as if in a print by Hollar, the bridges top-heavy and over-hung across their whole span with rickety timber houses, alive with the great antswarm of the imperial city.

We are also told about Schama's ancestors, Lithuanian Jews, who worked as lumbermen, floating logs down the rivers to the sawmills of Grodno. We hear about his family's move to London and his childhood memories of Hampstead Heath. There is an account of a not-altogether-successful trip with his children to see the giant redwoods at Orr Springs. California, when the family unhappily encountered a commune of naked bathers from Haight Ashbury; and there is a description of the view from the house north of New York City where Schama now lives: “In the hours before dawn, barely a fairway away from the inevitably manicured country club, coyotes howl at the moon, setting off a frantic shrieking from the flocks of wild turkey hidden in the covers. This is Thoreau's kind of suburb.”

Throughout the book there is a profusion of anecdote and arresting detail, dramatic, entertaining, often hilarious. Schama is a masterly narrator who spins and embroiders his yarns with unflagging zest. The book abounds in virtuoso passages, some of them reminiscent of Rabelais or Sterne—like this on the dragons of the Alps listed by a Zurich professor in 1702:

There were cat-faced dragons, and serpentine dragons, inflammable dragons and non-combustible dragons. There were fliers and slitherers; malodorous dragons and cacophonic dragons; scaled and feathered; bat-like and bird-like; crested and bald; fork-tailed and fork-tongued.

Or on the cheeses of Switzerland:

Coxe eats Swiss cheese. Ramond eats sweet, fat Unterwalden cheese; dry, aromatic Bernese Oberland cheese; a great sixty-year-old cheese at Lauterbrunnen “much like a cake of yellow wax”; even the ghastly pickled, putrid cheese of Lucerne.

What then is the story which this immensely gifted story-teller tells in so entrancing a fashion? What is the argument that runs through his very long book? These are not easy questions to answer. For it is hard to say what Landscape and Memory is not about. This is where the analogy between Schama and Macaulay breaks down, since Macaulay was nothing if not clear about his subject and his argument: that is why hostile critics have found it easy to engage with him. But Schama's purpose, in this book at least, is a great deal more elusive.

Schama's main contention is that “landscape is the work of the mind.” Our perception of the external natural world, he argues, is shaped by our inherited attitudes, myths, and traditions. It is, therefore, wrong to think that in the modern world the attitude to nature has been wholly exploitative, and it would be equally wrong to see nature as having a purely benign objective existence apart from human perceptions of it. On the contrary, our present-day perceptions of trees, mountains, or rivers are shaped by cultural traditions of great antiquity. “Whether we scramble the slopes or ramble the woods, our Western sensibilities carry a bulging backpack of myth and recollection.” In the gardens of modern suburbia we can see the legacy of classical ideas of Arcadia: in Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona in Rome are memories of ancient Egyptian river gods and when the twentieth-century sculptor Gutzon Borglum carved Mount Rushmore into the heads of four American presidents, he was following in the steps of the Macedonian architect Dinocrates, who wanted to shape Mount Athos into the likeness of Alexander the Great.

When he traces such connections Schama's book can be seen as a work in the tradition of Aby Warburg, whose great library was devoted to revealing the posthumous influence upon Western attitudes of the classical tradition and of the variety of mystical and irrational undercurrents of thought which were inherited with it. Schama conceives of the chapters of his book as excavations, digging down to the primary bedrock of the ancient beliefs which underlie modern attitudes and practice.

The difficulty of this task is that the cultural associations of the natural world are almost infinite. If Schama is writing a history of the impact of culture upon nature, where is he to start and where is he to stop? What, if anything, in human history is not relevant to his theme?

Schama's solution is to be selective. His book is divided into three main parts, Wood, Water, and Rock, a mystical trio faintly reminiscent of Kipling's Oak, Ash, and Thorn. Wood is about trees and forests, Water about rivers, Rock about mountains. In each of these three parts, Schama takes some examples of his general theme and explores them with great particularity.

It is in his choice of those illustrative episodes that Schama shows his greatest originality. The section devoted to Wood predictably has, as might be expected, a chapter on forest law, Robin Hood and the myth of the greenwood, where “young gentlemen … fleet the time carelessly as they did in the golden world.” But much less predictable is the moving opening chapter on the forests of Lithuania, home of Schama's lumberjack ancestors and scene of some of the most terrible atrocities of World War II. Schama moves from Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish romantic and apostle of national freedom, whose Pan Tadeusz, written in exile in Paris between 1832 and 1834, sees in the remembered landscape of sylvan virtue the symbol of national identity, to the hunting expeditions to the Bialowieza forest of Hermann Goering in the 1930s which were the preliminary to the later German invasion.

In another stunningly successful chapter Schama traces the place of woodland in the formation of German national identity. From the defeat of the Roman general Varus in the Teutoburg Forest in 10 AD by the Cheruscan leader Arminius (later Hermann the German) there would flow a long current of nationalist mythology which culminated in the erection of the supposed site of the battle, in 1875, the fifth year of the Second Reich, of Joseph Ernst, von Bandel's gigantic monument to Hermann, a helmeted Wagnerian colossus (another one, a hundred and two feet tall, was erected by Julius Berndt for the Sons of Hermann in New Ulm, Minnesota). The crucial document in this mythology was Tacitus’ Germania (c. 98 AD), with its picture of the primitive Germans as a freedom-loving forest people, rugged, virile, courageous, and racially pure. Schama traces the theme of the primeval forest in German nationalism from the sixteenth-century landscape paintings of Albrecht Altdorfer to the Wandervogel youth movement of the early twentieth century; and he gives a gripping account of one of the strangest episodes of the Second World War: the unsuccessful attempt by Himmler's storm troopers to seize the oldest manuscript of the Germania, Codex Aesinas lat. 8, from its hiding place in a palazzo near Ancona. The forests were crucial to Nazi ideology: “Exterminating millions of lives was not at all incompatible with passionate protection for millions of trees.”

As a further illustration of the persistence of tree mythology, Schama relates how the giant sequoias of Yosemite and the redwoods of California became heroic monuments to the antiquity of American values. Then he turns to the Christian myth of the verdant cross the leaf-sprouting crucifix. In the ubiquity of the vegetable symbols of resurrection, from the tree of Jesse to the Glastonbury Thorn, he sees the recurrence of themes of rebirth and renewal of the kind which the Romans had celebrated in their festival of Atys, the Phrygian shepherd, who was turned into a pine tree. (At times, one feels that Schama's model is not so much Aby Warburg as Sir James Frazer of The Golden Bough.) Finally, there is a section on the attempts of eighteenth-century enthusiasts to show that the origins of Gothic architecture lay in woodland groves.

Schama's treatment of Water takes a similarly unpredictable form. He begins with the American intellectual Joel Barlow, who, sent in 1795 to negotiate with the dey of Algiers, embarked on a study of the ancient mysteries of the East which resulted in the conclusion that the American Liberty tree took its origin from the amputated penis of the Egyptian river god Osiris. From Barlow we move, via Nilotic hieroglyphs and deities, to the mystical role of fountains in Renaissance gardens, the installation of obelisks in Counter-Reformation Rome, and the construction of Bernini's great monument in the Piazza Navona. Another chapter is devoted to such diverse topics as Sir Walter Ralegh (on the rather unconvincing grounds that Queen Elizabeth I nick-named him “Water” and that he was allegedly obsessed by rivers): the early seventeenth-century “water-poet” and publicist: John Taylor2, the grandes eaux of Versailles; the treatment of the Thames by the artists James Barry and J. M. W. Turner: the Hudson Valley painters; the affinity between the undraped female body and the cascade of pure water, as in Courbet's The Painter's Studio: and the equation, as in the same painter's The Origin of the World, of the vaginal orifice with the source of life. Finally, there is a graphic account of the expedition of Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke in search of the origin of the Nile and an exciting story of how Cleopatra's Needle, brought by sea to London in a specially constructed iron cylinder, was nearly lost en route in a storm in the Bay of Biscay.

After the extraordinary range of this watery miscellany, Schama's two chapters on Rock seem almost conventional. Beginning with Mount Rushmore and Dinocrates (“the alteration of landscape to manscape”), he proceeds past carved Buddhas in the hillsides of China to Shangri-La and the sacred mountains of the East. Thence we are taken to the holy mountains of Christianity and the primitive painters who “equated altitude with beatitude.” We have Petrarch's ascent to Mont Ventoux in 1336, the mountain pictures of Leonardo and Brueghel, the sacri monti and hillside calvaries of Northern Italy and the bathos of “Holy Land, U.S.A.,” constructed in the 1950s at Waterbury, Connecticut.

The second chapter on Rock starts with the eighteenth-century discovery of mountains and draws valuable distinctions between the different forms of mountain pleasure derived by travelers in different periods. The “agreeable horror” cherished by those in search of the picturesque contrasted with “the reveries and fatalistic spells of self-annihilation” of the Romantics; and those in turn differed from the “muscular, quasi-military determination” of the geologists and the belief of the Alpine Club's members that only the physical experience of climbing could yield the real truth about the relative scale of mountains and men.

In his concluding section, “Arcadia Redesigned,” Schama brings Wood, Water, and Rock together. He reminds us that, since classical times, arcadia has been alternately defined as an idyll and as a wilderness; and his account of attempts to achieve this uncertain arcadian ideal ranges from Hampstead Heath and the Forest of Fontainebleau to zoos, botanical gardens, and the landscapes of Capability Brown.

A bald summary cannot convey the riches of this book. It gives no indication of the brio and hilarity with which it is written; of its narrative excitement; or of the long gallery of eccentrics and visionaries whose idiosyncrasies the author seizes upon with such relish. But a summary does indicate the apparent randomness of the topics discussed and the absence of anything very firm in the way of unifying theme. Schama tells us early on that he has “always liked that word, meandering, its snaking run of syllables flowing who knows where?” He has chosen to make his book one great meander, flowing in no easily discernible direction. It could have been half as long or twice as long; and it has no real beginning and no real end. For if Wood, Walter, and Rock, why not Sky or Earth or Air? The landscapes of the mind are infinite.

As it is, the range of material consulted for Landscape and Memory is enormous. Schama has as much to say about art and literature as about more conventional historical sources. His endnotes are stuffed with fascinating references to works in half a dozen languages and there is a superb concluding bibliographic guide. The book is sumptuously produced, with many illustrations in color as well as black and white. It is, however, a product of extensive and imaginative reading, rather than a work of original research involving the systematic exploration of new sources or the distinctive reinterpretation of old ones. Genuinely novel insights—of the kind to be found in his account of the theme of woodlands in German history or of the different perceptions of mountains—are infrequent. Behind each discussion of an out-of-the-way subject there usually lies some scholarly monograph on which Schama has drawn and whose conclusions he has rendered in infinitely more sparkling prose. He is candid and generous in his acknowledgments.3 Yet his enterprise is a different one from that of most other scholars. He is descriptive rather than analytic, anecdotal rather than explanatory. There is more dazzle than illumination. Why were particular landscape myths influential at one time rather than another, or among some people rather than others? Why was it possible for so much of human activity, urban, scientific, and technological, to turn its back on ancient and modern myths about nature and concentrate on understanding the physical and chemical forces underlying it? Schama does not tell us. One is reminded of the youthful Max Beerbohm's remark that “to give an accurate and exhaustive account of that period would need a far less brilliant pen than mine.”

Envious pedants will be quick to point out that not even his battery of research assistants has succeeded in saving Schama from occasional error, unavoidable in a book which takes virtually the whole of human knowledge as its subject. Schama should not be judged too severely for believing that the king in the Robin Hood stories was Edward rather than Richard, that Sir Edward Coke was James I's Lord Chancellor, that the Protector Somerset's name was Thomas Seymour rather than Edward or that it was Dunsinane Forest that marched toward Macbeth. And when Schama attributes Oscar Wilde's description of fox-hunting as “the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable” to, of all people, that great fox-hunting writer, Siegfried Sassoon, we may regard his nod as Homeric. Just occasionally there is an embarrassing indication that Schama may be working at a distance from his primary sources. Thus, he says, justly enough, of that strange Renaissance allegory, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, that “the mediocrity of the text was compensated for by the haunting peculiarity of the woodcut illustrations,” but the weight of his opinion is somewhat diminished by his subsequent reference to this prose romance as a “poem.” Equally disconcerting is his description of William Camden's Britannia as a “monumental topographical-historical poem,” though the Elizabethan historian's huge antiquarian survey is as solid a piece of prose as one could imagine.

But when the pedants have had their say, other readers will continue to derive pleasure from this remarkable book, so ambitious in conception, so consistently entertaining in execution. It may not greatly advance scholarly understanding of the many subjects with which it is concerned. But it will absorb, instruct, and fascinate: and even the driest pedant will marvel at the sheer chutzpah of it all.


  1. Speaking on The Charlie Rose Show, April 26, 1995.

  2. Now given definitive treatment in Bernard Capp's new study, The World of John Taylor the Water-Poet, 1578–1653 (Oxford University Press, 1994).

  3. My pleasure in finding my own work described as “brilliant” is only slightly diminished by finding the same epithet applied to that of at least fifteen other scholars.

Barbara Ryan (review date Spring 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 because their divergent strategies have loomed large in reviews published in the middle- to high-brow press. Such commentaries also mention, quite accurately, that [Marshall Sahlins's] How “Natives” Think and Landscape and Memory offer vibrant, compendious narratives that gleam with intelligence and panache. This marked sense of style, which is echoed in rather striking book jackets, suggests that both scholars (and/or publishers) hoped to appeal to an audience that extends beyond the academy. Schama, who has already written an historical study that became an enormous best-seller, is familiar with this terrain; Sahlins, an author that few non-academic readers will recognize, is less sure-footed. Nonetheless, I first heard about his book on National Public Radio, and it isn't every anthropological treatise that gets reviewed in the daily New York Times. It is this attempt at what looks like “outreach” that makes these books’ presentational styles a matter of considerable weight, for it is never easy to bring ivory-tower ago to the extra-academic world. …

Let us now turn to Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory, a study too graceful to be readily conceived of as agonistic. It has a thesis, and is therefore participating in a directed and discernible conversation. But as one review of Schama's last book commented. “[t]he historian's habit of asking ‘what is the argument of this book?’ serves poorly here.”1 The same is true of Landscape and Memory because its proposed thesis is not new at all: thus, few thoughtful people, no matter how little absorbed in current eco-theory, still speak confidently of “untouched” wilderness, or claim that “the long relationship between nature and culture [has] been an unrelieved and predetermined calamity” (Schama 10). Some may be more surprised to hear that: “Landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock” (61). Yet the idea is hardly new to people interested in twentieth-century art, and it was reprised for literary types, some time ago, by critics such as Raymond Williams and Roland Barthes. Schama, well acquainted with such discussions, is therefore unlikely to have believed that his book on the narrative and visual construction of modern human reactions to various aspects of the great outdoors was going to startle, much less shock. This inference suggests that he had some other agenda in mind, a prominent part of which was, I think, the desire to appeal in a calm and measured, but charming, way. This strategy would explain why Landscape and Memory is composed of loosely linked stories, and divided into serious rather than sustained narratives that argue or stake a claim. Leaving aside, for the moment, the matter of conclusions, I must say that many readers will find themselves entertained along Landscape and Memory's winding route.

Saunter, for instance, through Schama's account of the English greenwood that culminates in Sherwood Forest; or peruse the story of fountains that ranges across space and time; or ponder all the Alpinists who carried more “baggage” up each mountain than they realized. These are, to borrow a Michael Palin phrase, a lot of “ripping yarns,” and the compendium that proffers them, in great profusion, would make a fine “browsing” book. In addition, Landscape and Memory is an unusually well-illustrated text, and its array of sketches, paintings, and photos enhances the book's beauty considerably. Indeed, Schama is at least as dedicated to the art work as he is to his treasure-trove of tales, and his presentation of the two together enlivens each work that he selects. Landscape and Memory is, in other words, no mere compilation of art or anecdote, for whether the topic is woodlands, cliff faces, water-systems, or Arcady, Schama's craft encourages the reader to look afresh. Some dark mutters suggest that Schama is really just a talented raconteur, but the comment is not really fair. It can be no accident, after all, that Landscape and Memory so obviously flouts the traditional rules for historical prose. Well, say I, flout away, if you are aiming at an audience that doesn't expect a sustained and substantive argument, as scholars (in their job as scholars) generally do. Flout away, moreover, if you are experimenting with genre, discipline, and narrative, and if you are certain that elucidation is a reader's responsibility.

The broad audience this book seeks could include historians and environmental scientists, and I think it will. Yet Landscape and Memory is in no way confined to this sort of readership; nor need academic fans read Schama's book as instructional, a scholarly text. More obviously, Schama's public looks like the sort who turn to “intelligent television,” and in fact the BBC has already turned Landscape and Memory into a series. It would not surprise me at all if the result turned out to be a winner, even though such an unusual presentation of a putatively historical narrative is not everybody's cup of tea. To date, most reviews suggest that Schama's book does not add up to much. No one is saying the same of How “Natives” Think, a study that insists on its central role in a wrangle with discernible ramifications in daily life. Schama's book does not so insist; indeed, it barely acknowledges that it argues anything, a stance that has left some readers feeling that this weighty tome is just a divertissement.

Thus: “Landscape and Memory is rich in excursuses that … do not quite cohere, but are immensely entertaining nonetheless.”2 Or: “There is more dazzle than illumination.”3 Or: “One often feels that the author needs something more to tie it all together, fascinating though the individual case histories are.”4 Or: Landscape and Memory “is a collection of marvellous parts. Alas, as a whole, it is less than the sum of them.”5 As one might expect, regarding a book that catalogues myths of the woods, rocks, and water, several reviews commented on not being able to see the forest for the trees. Such criticisms—which have everything to do with persuasive force and intellectual merit—are not mere quibbling or the fruit of envy. Yet they do betray some ignorance or carelessness concerning Schama's ongoing work. I will therefore recap this writer's previous projects, audiences, and track-record, the better to situate the reception of Landscape and Memory. After that, I will discuss the ways in which Schama's persuasive strategy differs from Sahlins's in How “Natives” Think.

Schama is the author of two historical studies intended for and attractive to scholars, and two historical studies that have appealed to readers outside academe. Of the latter pairing, one, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1989), spent weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, and the other, Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations) (1991), has been optioned by PBS. Citizens was, however, hammered by historians who charged that Schama had ignored two decades of scholarship; and Dead Certainties was generally greeted as a failed bagatelle. It is probably significant, then, that, after being serenaded at a French historians’ conference with a contemptuous Marseillaise (shades of Casablanca!), Schama has avoided topics that carry symposia, professorial chairs, and tuneful partisans in their wake. True, Dead Certainties still caused some offense, but no one accused Schama of ignoring scholarship; critics wondered, instead, why he made up sources to blend fiction with archival facts. A few admiring reviews, in venues like The William and Mary Quarterly, clarified and defended the theoretical framework behind Schama's unsettling experiment, especially the argument that historiography and fiction are never quite distinct. But such explanations can only make Schama's work more troubling to those historians who dislike the project, yet acknowledge this author's formidable intelligence. They are right to be worried, because Schama's oeuvre is arguably more radical, and better thought-out, than Obeyesekere's attempt to locate and privilege the subaltern voice. It's all the more interesting, then, that Landscape and Memory refuses to go the theoretical distance, especially because it looks poised to undermine the way in which most historians set to work. The result is that Schama's project is only winkled out with a degree of difficulty; so much so that I wonder whether his work will be generally condescended to, missed entirely, or ignored. In my view, this writer's unwillingness to clarify an academic agenda, much less pursue a scholarly charge, makes the latter outcome more likely than it ought to be. It is, however, very clearly a decision Schama has made, and makes, that of leaving a reader to conclude, or not conclude, each book for herself. This being the case, it's worth a moment to consider whether Schama is not a “public intellectual” of the most appealing kind. The question is, is he also one of the most important?

Comparison with How “Natives” Think provides one kind of answer to this specific query, for Sahlins clearly affirms what he sees as appropriate scholarly practice. In contrast, Schama chooses to sidestep the word “appropriate,” and shows little or no interest in the label “scholarly.” The former tactic is frequently forgiven, if the free spirit manages to educate or amuse. But what about the latter, “scholarly”; does Schama rise above this standard, or let down the side? Many professional historians see the latter, and regard Schama's work as flippant or shallow: surely this discipline, they groan, must analyze, contend, persuade. Whatever the truth of that statement, or the praiseworthy aspects of Sahlins's testy work, I see problems with both the angry and the genial book. In Sahlins, the problem is that a smart, able writer chooses to instruct readers in the tenets of an up-to-date yet traditional standard; that is, he teaches us how to do scholarship. That's fine, except that Sahlins simply ignores the critique that his favored methods have inspired. In Schama, the problem is that a bright, engaging writer does not choose to enlighten readers, but rather to shower them with vignettes that do not automatically precipitate a point of view. I find it interesting, in this context, that Landscape and Memory chooses decomposition as a central thematic metaphor: “The sum of our pasts,” Schama asserts, “like the slow mold of the seasons, forms the compost of our future” (574). I would point out that compost is the result of breakdown, a desirable outcome forwarded by the annual pitchforking of the agglomerated heap. Those who compost know that the process works most effectively not by simple (or complex) accretion, but rather by accumulation enhanced by human input, and the activity of many smaller workers, such as worms, grubs, bacteria, larvae, enzymes, and enough, but not too much, rain.

I think that plenty of readers will feel that they could have done with more pitchforking from the human worker, the fellow who piled up all these pasts and promised that it would yield fertility. It is true that Schama never lets the pile get dry or soggy; and true again that he is conscientious about his ingredients, even if some have intimated that he could have shown more self-restraint. I myself have no objection to Schama's generosity, especially if weight is really his primary aim. I do question Schama's refusal to help analyze and reduce the elements he has brought together, and thus aid in producing an enriching agent; and I might add that this is really what Sahlins does to a “T.” Many will feel, in fact, that Sahlins is the more assured and persuasive pedagogue, the sort whose ill-tempered tones can be forgiven because adherence to his program promises mastery. In contract, Schama is the imp who beguiles bright students into difficulties, then smiles that scholars do not have to solve all the questions they presume to raise. Not everyone will agree; indeed, many will feel that Teacher should be willing and able to lend guidance, as required. People who feel this way are likely to complain that Landscape and Memory does not conform to the dominant scholarly models, and that it therefore confuses, since it fails to meet expectations widely considered fair. They might add, and rightly, that it can be difficult to fight training, professional or otherwise, which inculcates the belief that scholarly work must answer the question: “So what?”

I would say to readers of this sort that I have already recommended Landscape and Memory to half a dozen friends, some of them academic historians, because I think they will enjoy the tour. I don't, meanwhile, go as far as the reviewer who found in Schama's book “the disorienting power of a major work of art,” because I'm not sure that anybody is, or will be, truly disoriented, or disoriented for long.6 The label “art” is unlikely to console those who prefer a teleological reading experience, especially when the reader anticipates the usual sort of academic history. Schama characterizes his book not as “another explanation of what we have lost,” but rather “an exploration of what we may yet find.” That's a tricky sentence, if you think about it, but it does imply future possibilities. Are such possibilities anywhere apparent in Schama's book? I would say they aren't, and add that Schama negates his own statement of purpose in a nearby paragraph: “The point of Landscape and Memory … is … by revealing the richness, antiquity, and complexity of our landscape tradition, to show just how much we stand to lose” (14). Where, in this rendering, is “the exploration of what we may yet find”? Is this book about where we've been, where we've going, the links between the two, or something else entirely?

For my money, Landscape and Memory is about where the European tradition has been, and it is quirky, personal, generous, and sometimes endearing along the route. But that was not my primary impression when I finished reading: then, I was most conscious of a dissatisfaction that resembled the sentiments of the dismissive press reviews. It was only after some time, and thought, that I began to appreciate Schama's project, and even be mildly glad that he had not produced a book to the usual academic specifications. In fact, in evading such preferences, or expectations, I think Schama has done something rather more interesting than may appear. What I see in his work, after some rumination, is a demonstration of the conviction that historiography ought to be (relatively) non-directive because life, events, and people are various, nuanced, immense. Writing, especially when pruned into narrative, tends to be tidy (or tidy-able). But Schama's history is the result of the unforeseen, the coincidental. That is why Landscape and Memory pursues a range of human responses to the natural world, some of which appear to be related quite tangentially. Schama is arguing, in other words, that responses are heavily influenced by unwitting myth-retrieval, with “unwitting” the operative word. Thus, Schama's history is necessarily a series of astounded and astonishing genealogies. I might add that this approach also explains why the word “memory” teases readers in the cryptic title, for Schama shows that identities, including those of Rome's civic monuments and Switzerland's forbidding peaks, resemble the grab-bag of rumor, legend, competition, ideals, amours and putative “science” that go to make up any other historical person, agent “self,” or actor in a time and place. From this angle, Schama determinedly rejects avowals of autonomy (“that's just what I see, when I look at Mont Blanc”), pragmatism (“a mountain's a mountain”), and even science (“a mountain is the result of repeatable geological change”), though he does so with seemingly placid regard to the “natural” world. Such a rejection is an effective counter to the notion that Nature—or anything else—is simply “out there,” and the widespread idea that things, hence ideas about things, are static steps on the road to Truth.

In sum, Schama's desire to historicize something as seemingly obvious, even eternal, as rocks, springs, and trees, is based on the idea that narratives are what we know through and by, whether “we” are Hasidic lumberjacks, recycling suburbanites, or the residents of medieval nation-states. Schama ends up, then, arguing exactly the thesis that Sahlins evades in Obeyesekere's critique, for Landscape and Memory argues that everybody thinks with their myths and memories. To put this same thought another way, Schama broaches the idea that Western people perceive their worlds, even so “obvious” an aspect as a giant redwood, through constraining/enabling structures of belief; whereas Sahlins ignores that important consideration to affirm that (right-minded) scholarship rises above culture, as if scholars could resemble disembodied brains.

If that sounds harsh, I don't mean it to; I see the value of Sahlins's work. Yet I do think he has let himself off with a rather minor book, and for the wrong reason: though passion, and even ego, may well fuel the finest scholarship, both ingredients still have to be disciplined and controlled. Landscape and Memory also stops short, though rage is nowhere in evidence; if anything, Schama's chatty “human” touches occasionally jar. I wonder, though, if Sahlins wouldn't have had a better chance of persuading readers that he has solved the conundrum he elected to sail right over, if he had managed to insinuate, rather than insist, on his quite reasonable news and views. Schama may manage rather better, in his indirect way, to query cultural effects on thought-processes. How many will notice the gentle probe? A fair few, I think, will not. The question is, will they be, nonetheless, persuaded that seeming “facts” are shifting conglomerates of perceptions, preexisting narratives, assorted myths and visions? Might they even be more persuaded of this position because they do not feel the delicate infusion, or notice its after-effects as loss or pain? I don't think we will ever be able to really know, or assess, the results of a technique like the one that Schama chose for Landscape and Memory. I'd be willing to bet, all the same, that a lot of epistemological change, and perhaps the longest-lasting, is based on a pleasurable experience, rather than a heavy mallet or an outraged yell.


  1. Louis P. Masur, “On Parkman's Trail,” The William and Mary Quarterly XLIX:1 (January 1992), 122.

  2. Gregory McNamee, “This Lime Tree Bower,” The Nation (22 May 1995), 728.

  3. Keith Thomas, “The Big Cake,” The New York Review of Books (21 September 1995), 11.

  4. Eric Gibson, “Picture This,” National Review (31 July 1995), 61.

  5. Unsigned, “Not yet Carlyle,” The Economist (6 May 1995), 84.

  6. Anthony Grafton, “The Forest and the Trees,” The New Republic (7 August 1995), 42.

John Taylor (review date Fall 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 conversation: “He not only overflowed with learning, but stood in the slop.”

Consider, for example, Professor Schama's phantasmagoria, otherwise known as Central Park: “The woods and trails of Upper Manhattan are certainly not the only lair where ancient myths and demons, best forgotten, or left to academic seminars, have returned to haunt the modern polis. In fact Central Park divides its arcadian life by the hours of the clock. By day it is all nymphs and shepherds, cupids, and fêtes champêtres. But at night it reverts to a more archaic place, the realm of Pelasgus where the wolf-men of Lykaon prowl, satyrs bide their time unsmiling, and feral men, hungry for wilding, postpone their music.”

A myth alert, is it? Never mind the browsers—better to call the NYPD, Precinct #21. Those are the folks who hustle permits for concerts in Central Park and shake down competing boom boxes. As for fauna of curmudgeonly aspect, it is indeed true that in the Big Apple no waiter in a Chinese restaurant has ever been seen to smile. But to confuse matters by attributing Confucian solemnity to visiting satyrs would seem both gratuitous and ill-advised. As a new boy in town our author should show some regard for the urgencies of tourism, without which New York City would lack incentive to soldier on.

When not stumbling into sink-holes of erudition, Professor Schama excels as a manic digressive. In consequence the observations his book offers are manifold—and all the more provocative for often appearing to be extracurricular. Tom Wolfe once posited a distinction between writers of two different kinds: the putter-inner (like himself, in emulation of Balzac) and the taker-outer. Given to thrift, Professor Schama seems never to have encountered a morsel of book fodder he didn't like or wouldn't toss into the pot. The gallimaufry thus concocted, simon-pure though it be, may cause gastric distress in orthodox historians, or at least in those who are disinclined to read—and would rather not be read either.

The lay reader, by contrast, will find Landscape and Memory an exceptional treat, full of stories that enlighten as much as they entertain. Unlike many of his colleagues, the author has throughout his career sought an audience beyond the university. To that end he insists on the primacy of narrative. Only in this instance he compounds his dissent from academic fashion by serving up a mythellany, a tidal wash of narrative curiosities, instead of a single, shipshape story line. Slop by the bucketful, glorious slop. No doubt it was this copiousness, already manifest in the undergraduate, that prompted his former mentor, Sir John Plumb of Cambridge University, to pronounce Schama “torrential.” The very word—as survivors of this book will attest.

Torrents keep the Corps of Engineers afloat, which may explain the preference for owls-in-trees that many environmentalists seem to cherish. But in Landscape and Memory they will confront a cataract that should compel their attention. For it is Professor Schama's thesis that “there is nothing inherently shameful” about human occupation of the natural world. “The landscapes that we suppose to be most free of our culture may turn out, on closer inspection, to be its product.” And this, so the author maintains, “is a cause not for guilt and sorrow but celebration.”

Yet Professor Schama is not to be taken for a feel-good tour-guide who never strays from the scenic route: “I unequivocally share the dismay at the ongoing degradation of the planet, and much of the foreboding about the possibilities of its restoration to good health. The point of Landscape and Memory is not to contest the reality of this crisis. It is, rather, by revealing the richness, antiquity, and complexity of our landscape tradition, to show just how much we stand to lose. Instead of assuming the mutually exclusive character of Western culture and nature, I want to suggest the strength of the links that have bound them together.”

Browsers with the stamina to explore those links will accompany the author through the forest, across the river, up the mountain, and down the other side, following the sequence ordained by the book. It is an outing. Along the way they will take their bearings from cairns of potted mots, such as—“Born from the oxymoron of agreeable horror, romanticism was nursed on calamity”—which stands up rather well to Hazlitt's dictum that “landscape painting is the obvious recourse of misanthropy.”

Yet some browsers may grow restive. Why, they might ask, does the ocean scarcely figure in the author's effort to “help us keep faith with a future on this tough, lovely old planet”? Compare his fantasy of a Central Park gone classical with Melville's vision of Lower Manhattan as recorded on page one of Moby-Dick: “Circumambulate the city on a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?—Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; … some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep.”

Could there be something out there Simon Schama might harvest, the makings, perhaps, of another mulligan? Browsers grab your hipboots and stand by for the next inundation, coming soon to a seaport near you.

Kay Ryan (review date Winter 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 invoking ancient forces—proves endlessly provable.

Schama strings a thousand delights on the needle of his thesis. The thread is nearly endless, loops about, and lacks a knot at the end, but these seem ill-natured observations when the reader's appetite for the curious has been so thoroughly satisfied—and when in fact the curious itself has been invested with such moral stature and corrective possibilities. For Schama insists that this Bible-sized fantasia on Western history has a high and timely purpose. At a time when critics of Western culture are calling for new myths which would correct our relationship to nature, Schama asks, “What about the old ones?” This is what he means by the word memory in the book's title—he wants to remember how our deepest stories about the world continue to control how we treat it. By landscape Schama means the whole interplay of nature and the human mind, and he will not accept the popular assertion that “the entire history of landscape in the West is indeed just a mindless race toward a machine-driven universe, uncomplicated by myth, metaphor, and allegory. …”

Schama neither denies that the planet is in an ecological crisis nor claims his book as the curative; he does something much more decent and surely more entertaining: he hopes that by looking at the fascinating tangle of roots that is humankind's relationship to nature we will feel less trapped, less sent down some cattle chute to destruction. It is a hopeful question that Schama is asking in Landscape and Memory: Is Western culture's much-deplored impulse to dominate nature somehow balanced by something else, maybe our impulse to find consolation in nature?

The question sets a refreshing tone for the book; we are not going to have our noses rubbed yet again in our vileness. Still, isn't Schama's ambition to release us from our destiny as the pigs of the universe doomed from the start? Won't we discover that the history of landscape is the history of the people who rearranged landscape, bent rivers, stacked up monuments, left artifacts and documents—in short, the history of the pigs? Pure hermits don't leave a footprint. And indeed, the fascinating array of art which accompanies Schama's text is to a great extent art commissioned by emperors, popes, and kings to celebrate their domination over the land. Since Schama keeps his narrative joined at the hip to the agencies of power, his success in releasing us from our destiny as dominators and destroyers is likely to be limited to this hoping to in the first place.

For in fact men—and that means not women in this history—fight over myths like footballs, trying to get them for their own team. Schama divides his history into three major sections which are also the basic elements of landscape—“Wood,” “Water,” “Rock”—and in each develops a great fugue which establishes certain core myths and their historical variations. His method is utterly contrived and consciously ornamental. In the first section, “Wood,” Schama does a wide-screen cinematic job of tracing the deep and dangerous cultural myth of German racial purity, showing how it's all tangled up with the German forests. By keeping his eye on the myths of the forest, he manages to move through tier after tier of appalling human suffering without quite getting lost in the trees. He shows, for example, how the idea of the forest, wrapped in poetry by the early nineteenth century Lithuanian poet Mickiewicz, becomes the imaginative refuge for Lithuanian nationalists, “a naturally fortified shelter, where … in the primitive darkness, they would be reinforced by native wood-fawns” (61). But as usual the shelter myths get hammered by the dominance myths—a point Schama does not underscore.

First the Russians and then the Third Reich come and capture the sacred groves, with Hermann Göring (a “monstrous, jewel-encrusted hippopotamus” [67]—Schama's a lovely writer) winding up the fantastical “Master of the German Forests” who razes every trace of Polish-Lithuanian habitation in order to remake the ancient forest as a “great, living laboratory of purely Teutonic species: eagles, elk, and wolves” (71). Thus myth marches on to the beat of the conquerors. While one is made to feel the emotional power the forests exerted upon the various conquering and conquered parties, it's hard to see how there was ever a “good time” when forest myths in fact bred anything but nationalism.

The idea of the pure German forest was central to the Third Reich's poisonous obsession with the idea of pure Aryan blood. Early on, the Roman historian Tacitus had described the Germanic tribes as a singular forest-bound phenomenon, “a race unmixed by intermarriage, a peculiar people and pure.” Time passed, and by the time of the Renaissance this ferocious forest-dweller image had been codified into the Germanic myth of the virtuous “wild man” who lives in rustic harmony with nature—by no accident, a figure opposite in temperament to that of the polished Italians or French, whoever happened to be the German national enemy at the time. By the eighteenth century a strange and oppressive “oak fetish” had developed in German art and literature. Schama provides a fascinating series of German paintings which works like a flip-book; the viewer sees the mighty Teutonic forest canopy loom, darken, and encroach from painting to painting, until it takes over the human foreground. It is an ominous and cheerless art which breeds the monstrous notions of the Third Reich like toadstools.

The Third Reich's corruption of German heroic myths (are heroic myths ever not corrupt?), all suckled by the original forest myth, is the great theme of the slash-and-burn contemporary German artist, Anselm Kiefer, to whom Schama devotes many pages of text and color illustration (mostly black). Kiefer is a passionate illustrator of certain ideas irresistible to Schama. Primarily, Kiefer insists that myth cannot be ignored; that the Third Reich must not be pigeonholed as a historical aberration; that it is necessary to examine how at any time mythic roots can rise out of the ground and strangle, as they did in Germany. (Schama seems remarkably drawn to this strangling aspect of myth, given the benignity of his stated intention to search out for us the refreshing wellsprings of human impulse.)

It is Schama's belief, along with Kiefer's, that myth has to be examined up close. The problem is, though one must handle myths intimately in order to “exorcise their spell” one always runs the risk of getting contaminated by them. (Apparently Kiefer's own wholesome-mindedness is much debated; he has been accused of “propagating the very mystique of ‘blood and soil’ he professes to deplore.”) Schama's contemplation of how to handle myth is one of the most interesting side-trips of his book. Or perhaps it isn't a side-trip, but in fact his deepest underground groping for the very beginnings of things. Schama asks, “How much myth is good for us?” and cites as cautionary examples the great mythographers Joseph Campbell (who “was, it now seems, not only a student but a devotee of heroic archetypes and decidedly impatient with the quotidian littleness of democracy,” [133]) and Mircea Eliade, (who has been “damningly implicated in the most brutal authoritarian politics in his native Romania” [133]). Schama concludes, rather unsatisfactorily, that myth must neither be dismissed as “sinister and irrational esoterica” (134) nor must one become “morally blinded by its poetic power” (134). Somehow myth is to be taken “seriously,” neither drying it out entirely nor jumping uncritically into the soup. Schama leaves the last word to a Talmudist who, to justify the study of mysticism, said, “Nonsense (when all is said and done) is still nonsense. But the study of nonsense, that is science” (134). And so, Schama is saying, I suppose, the study of myth is … is what? Science? History? Should be left to Talmudic scholars?

“Water” proves just as mythically inhabited as wood, but less broodingly on the whole. Schama discusses early “fluvial” or river cultures such as Egypt's, where the flood cycles are inseparable from the activities of the gods. Later in history men seize control of the waters and the gods become ornamental. Take the Renaissance enthusiasm for water gardens whose channels and spouts were meant as journeys into classical mythology (turn right at the Birth-of-Venus fountain then left at the Death-of-Adonis fountain, and so on to the grotto). This discussion and the glorious accompanying plates made me want to read a whole book on European waterworks. The hydraulic engineering behind these lavish spectacles apparently became so sophisticated (there were water organs, balls balanced on towers of water, giocchi d'acqua where you got plastered by a stream of water if you stepped on a certain stone) that the engineers began to enjoy the international status of magi. Here as elsewhere in Landscape and Memory the gizmo or notion occupying the foreground of Schama's narrative is so locally enchanting that it is difficult for the infatuated reader to rise up and ask once more, why was I supposed to be caring about this?

It's water; it's fluid; go with it. The hands down jewel in Schama's water crown is the Baroque master Bernini's ecstatic Fountain of the Four Rivers, commissioned by Pope Innocent X and completed in 1643. Bernini is a made-for-Schama character, in the sense that Bernini combines so much so enthusiastically. He is a master both of marble and of hydraulic engineering (Schama describes his “hydraulic hosannas”). He's part devout Catholic, part showman, and all synthesizer: “He was forever inventing new ways in which the unification of matter and spirit, body and soul, could be visualized and physically experienced” (299). In Fountain of the Four Rivers, Bernini brings a highly animated harmony to an impossible mess of world mythology and tops it triumphantly with an Egyptian obelisk, the ultimate lightning rod for cosmic connections. Says Schama, “Art historians seem sometimes reluctant to take Bernini's fountains as seriously, which is to say, as playfully, as they deserve” (291). This fountain should be on the cover of Landscape and Memory, it so perfectly symbolizes Schama's own playful, syncretic sculpting of history.

Most of Schama's landscapes are European rather than American, partly because he is British and Jewish and uses his own family's history as a way of traveling back along the arteries of myth; but also quite naturally because Europe has an older relationship to the myths that interest Schama. When Schama does at last turn at some length to America in his “Rock” section, he sees a country, founded to escape the “metropolitan sickliness” (395) of the Old World, which believes itself to be creating its own myths. You just know Schama is not going to let America get away with this. And sure enough, in no time we're looking up the nostrils of Teddy Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore and feeling ashamed. In Schama's view, Mount Rushmore is not finally a monument to four American presidents but to its architect, Gutzon Borglum, a card-carrying member of the “sculptor-as-god” school as well as the Ku Klux Klan. Borglum saw “territorial expansiveness” as the soul of America, and that is what he meant to convey with Mount Rushmore. Schama calls him a “naive fascist” (394) who “supposed himself a democrat” (394). And surely Borglum is the embodiment of a repulsive eagerness in American culture to mistake physical dominance for moral righteousness. Borglum's is a repugnant, swaggering vision that emphasizes man's sacred obligation to jackhammer all he beholds. And while Schama clearly disdains this particularly masculine excess—tracing the impulse all the way back to its predecessors in Roman history—we nonetheless find him subtly siding with Borglum in his portrait of Rose Arnold Powell, a feminist who attempted for decades to get Borglum (and Congress) to add the bust of Susan B. Anthony to the heroic group. As from a high place (say the brow of a president) Powell is miniaturized by Schama. He calls her “Rose” (he never calls Borglum “Gutzon”) and condescendingly characterizes her as a doughty little creature putting on her “best hat” to do battle with Borglum. Her actual quotes (“I protest with all my being against the exclusion of a woman from the Mount Rushmore group of great Americans,” or thirty years further into the battle, “Nothing is hopeless that is right” [392]) suggest someone grander than a woman who “could not cut loose from her obsession.”

Taken in the context of the nearly endless parade of daft, obsessed, visionary characters, glorious and inglorious, whom one meets in Landscape and Memory, it's a small point. I don't think it rankles me so much because it is indicative of how women fare (when they are represented at all) in this history, but because it shows how “natural” it is to take the side of the maker, the achiever; how there is something bewitching in achievement itself. Schama's book is the history of boldness, and the story of how myth is appropriated by the bold. The grandeur of our great sequoias is celebrated by their destroyers. Despite all the gorgeously deft connections Schama makes, I do not come away feeling particularly reassured by the multiplicity of the human imagination and the irrepressibility of myth.

In fact I feel no clearer about whether, as a species, we're looking at a Dead End sign or not. I now have a much larger catalog of “landscapes” and a cross-indexed file of “memories,” but I feel like the same know-nothing grumbler I was before I read Landscape and Memory—complaining again that there seems to be a myth for every circumstance and an interpretation of that myth for every predisposition. As a superficially educated and ill-traveled child of the California desert who can barely stand the racket of two thoughts rubbing together, the sheer noise of European history which Schama enjoys so naturally has left me feeling exhausted. Therefore I must doubt that the addition of a companion volume dedicated to the female line of myth and history, though called for, would help me. Let's face it: myth suggests endlessly; it connects us maddeningly to a sense of power that we cannot understand very well. Our acts are more than themselves! (But what?) It is glorious, robust, and depressing. I would no doubt be more comfortable with a slimmer volume and a thesis a historian had a prayer of working out.

Lisa Ford (essay date Fall 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 historiography.2 Hans Kellner, in particular, argues that in Citizens, Schama substitutes metanarrative with a chaos of individual stories not governed by any imposed “laws” of history. Schama himself, in his cursory allusions to historiographical debate, aligns himself casually with some aspects of the postmodern historiographical agenda.3

It is my contention, however, that Schama's histories do not work as postmodern texts. In all of his recent histories, excluding Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations), Schama highlights his authorial role in ways which emphasize historical truth claims rather than the highly mediated nature of his texts.4 Further, while Schama may reject traditional historical metanarratives, he imposes aesthetic and ideologically charged coherence in the form of metastories. In Schama's story worlds there are heroes, villains, and clear moral trajectories in which the unenlightened get their just deserts. Accordingly, his histories do not subvert the modernist pretensions of history or literature, although Schama clearly draws from both disciplines. Rather, Schama's texts inhabit the hybrid and highly marketable middle ground of popular history—a space in which history-as-history and history-as-literature both assert that “this did happen.”

Foremost amongst Schama's stylistic unorthodoxies is his self-figuration as a present narrator in the text. While, as Robert Berkhofer notes, orthodox histories tend to “conceal the personal intrusive voice so that the facts seem to speak for themselves,”5 Schama, through apologies or autobiographical intrusions, claims to be a true-story-teller with a special relationship to the historical materials. This is not an attempt to destabilize the institutional authority of historical discourse (the truth-claims attending any historical text as history). It functions as a claim to tell a better (more truthful) historical story.

Schama's claim to tell a better history is most apparent in the introduction to Citizens:

What I have to offer … runs the risk of being seen as a mischievously old-fashioned piece of storytelling. It differs from the pre-Tocquevillian narratives in being offered more as witness than judgment. But like those earlier accounts it tries to listen attentively to the voice of the citizens whose lives it describes, even when those voices are at their most cacophonous. In this sense too it opts for chaotic authenticity over the commanding neatness of historical convention.

(Citizens, xvi)

Schama continues this apology in his “Prologue”:

What follows (I need hardly say) is not science. It has no pretensions to dispassion. Though in no sense fiction (for there is no deliberate invention), it may well strike the reader as story rather than history. It is an exercise in animated description, a negotiation with a two-hundred-year memory without any pretense of definitive closure. And both the form of its telling and its chosen subject matter represent a deliberate turning away from analytical history towards Events and Persons, both long forbidden, or dismissed as mere froth on the great waves of history. It is a narrative not by default but by choice: a beginning, middle and end that tries to resonate with its protagonists’ own overdeveloped sense of past, present and posterity.

(Citizens, 6)

Schama claims for his history truth (no fiction), authenticity (by negotiation, listening attentively), and resonance with history's “characters” (whom he witnesses rather than judges, through “animated description,” “without pretense of definitive closure”). The Rankean analogy is irresistible here. Schama (like Ranke) purports, instead of “judging the past … to show only what actually happened.”6 The content of Schama's claims is less academic authority than privileged access, essentially stylistic in nature (listening, transcribing reality, negotiation). It is something more than the institutional authority attending Schama's texts-as-history.

The vehicle of Schama's privileged access is narrative: story and animated description (contrasted with scholarly neatness) accord with the chaos of nature. It is significant that Schama justifies his use of story in Citizens by explicit reference to David Carr's phenomenological theory of narrative. Carr argues that human existence is experienced as narrative. Narrative “is not only ‘a cognitive instrument' … [It is] a primary way of seeking, organising and expressing our knowledge of a part of reality. It is constitutive of our very being, it is our way of existing, of constituting ourselves.”7 Schama uses (and arguably misreads)8 Carr's naturalization of the narrative form in order to authenticate Schama's own telling of the past. The reader is invited to ignore the stylistic excesses of the highly structured narrative which follows and join Schama (the privileged host) in a direct dialogue with the past. In Barthean terms, Schama seems to reinstitute “narration as the privileged signifier of the real … at once the sign and the proof of reality.”9 Story, rather than being a suspect mediator of past reality, is an assurance that we may witness the past with (not through) the present author. Paradoxically, then, Schama has announced his presence only to downplay his mediation of the past.

Schama uses a similar strategy in the introduction to The Embarrassment of Riches. Presence is linked with venerable tradition to reassure the audience of the validity of his unorthodox methodologies.

In wandering around the Dutch city, bumping into its cultural furniture, I have strayed a good deal from the straight and narrow of the historical method. Shameless eclecticism has been my only methodological guide. The thieving-magpie approach to other disciplines may seem, superficially, to be newfangled but in fact it is very old-fashioned. It follows on from the precedent of those venerable nineteenth-century compendia of manner and mores (zeden en gerwoonten, the Dutch call them) that were part folklore, part antiquarian anthology and which for all their methodological innocence remain a rich treasure house of arcane and intricate knowledge. Before them, the eighteenth century had already produced the first great Dutch ethnographies, the product of encyclopedic social exploration.

(The Embarrassment of Riches, 8–9)

Schama inscribes himself in the book—not only as the onsite researcher, but also as the tour guide in a journey of presence through Dutch culture: “wandering around the Dutch city,” “bumping,” and “straying.” Indeed the reader does “wander” with Schama. The book is infused with the immediacy of the sights and smells of Amsterdam—an intriguing elision of present experience with the past (The Embarrassment of Riches, 15). Such “shameless eclecticism” is the price of authenticity. It is also legitimate (“old-fashioned”). Informality, here, is the hallmark of truth.

This strategy is structural in Landscape and Memory. Narrative coherence gives way to a collection of narratives framed by personal reminiscences, or by the intrusion of Schama and family (invariably in an old luxury car) driving around landscapes which hold various horrors, charms, and/or enchantments. Journey and personal reminiscence seem to dictate the path of the book—Italy, France, and Egypt being the only (and the most brief) excursions beyond locations where Schama has roots, has lived or is living. The fate of Jews in the Lithuanian forest is introduced and interrupted by Schama's personal experience of Jewishness (an experience into which the reader is admitted). The eating of rare bison meat prompts recollection of the German retreat from Poland in 1918 (Landscape and Memory, 37–38). Recollection of eating deep-fried whitebait marks the transition from Continental fountains to romanticization of the Thames (Landscape and Memory, 352–53). Arcadia is introduced with a description of a mysterious bunker close to Schama's childhood home (Landscape and Memory, 517–19). Structural and temporal incoherence invites an intimacy of sorts. As Richard Wilson has pointed out, “As with tour guides, much depended on how interesting, well-informed, and personable this man might turn out to be.”10

Rather than introducing an unstable element—author as/not as narrator and as/not as character (an ambiguity which Genette sees as fundamentally inconsistent with the historical narrative)11—this personal intrusion functions as an assertion of honesty and immediacy. Schama asserts his presence as a researcher at the sites. A poignant example is his encounter with Anselm Kiefer's Hermanns-Schlacht book: “On a hot summer's day, the dark ink glowed stickily as if made of pine tar and the curator had trouble in safely drawing back the protective interleaves. ‘It never dries,’ she said, and it did indeed look more coagulated than completed …” (Landscape and Memory, 129). To an extent, Landscape and Memory is presented as a documentary of (historical) experience. Illusions of intimacy and authoritative presence are bolstered and given a false coherence by a profusion of allusions to journey. These begin with Schama's actual journey through Lithuania and culminate in metaphors of journey at the book's conclusion. In the final chapter, he refers to “a bulging backpack of myth and recollection” and to “the backyard I have walked through—sauntered through” (Landscape and Memory, 574, 577). Note, here, the implications of control and mastery which attend both “backpack” and “backyard.”

In a recent article, Linda Orr reads subjective intrusions by Madame de Staël, Michelet, and Tocqueville, in their histories of the French Revolution, as a prospective (and somehow postmodern) challenge to the objectivist “anxieties” of modern historical discourse: “Subjectivity is not desirable in the historical text solely because it exposes the workings of historical reasoning. … These historians had both the greatest and slimmest authority; they stood on the most solid and slippery ground. Objectivity makes it appear that the reader is dispensable; subjectivity shows that the historian needs the reader's validation, now and hereafter.”12 The narrative voice putatively bridges and subverts the objective/subjective dichotomy which lies at the foundation of modern historiography by announcing the mediation of the facts by the present historian (Orr, 90). And yet, for these historians themselves, Orr notes that subjectivity operated as a valid and convincing truth-claim—to say “I was there” was an attempt to establish an authority of presence. “Despite their different ranks in history or literature, all three historians display a subject position and appear to assume that this presence of the subject advances, rather than detracts from, the historical argument. … All their energy is put into both the subtle and desperate goal: you must believe me!” (Orr, 91). The intrusion of the narrative voice, then, is a less stable, but nevertheless real, attempt to overcome the story-tellers’ anxiety to ensure that their works are read as true history. This is so despite the fact that, as Bann has noted, historians took “for granted” history's cognitive function as a truth-telling (scientific) discourse by the mid-nineteenth century.13 In a performative sense, these subjective intrusions reveal the very objectivist anxieties which Orr suggests they undermine.

In each of the texts analyzed here, Schama also establishes himself as a narrative voice in order to entreat us to believe. Situated as he is in the postmodern moment, Schama's subjective intrusions take on the appearance of a postmodern subversion of institutionally endorsed modes of historical representation which would erase the author entirely from the historical text. Schama is simply not, however, subverting the institutional authority (of truth-telling) claimed by his texts-as-history. But Schama does alert us to the fact that he (as both autobiographical and narrative “I”) has dealt with the sources differently. He takes on the character of the unorthodox historian: breaking the rules of historical research and writing, taking a personal stake in the histories he tells. By doing so, however, Schama actually re-situates his truth-claims in the warranty of his own presence. His introductory apologies function as listening shifters, “phrases … which reinforce our sense of the historian ‘listening’ to testimony,” authenticating his treatment of the sources.14 By “sauntering,” “wandering,” and “listening,” Schama doesn't qualify his conclusions or relativize his interpretations. He posits himself as an attentive, if largely passive, intimate of the sources, providing thereby the “fresher, truer vision” which Kellner associates with “the [traditional] romantic vision.”15 He claims to tell a better (not more circumscribed or uncertain) truth in a discourse which has begun to question the authority of the absent author.

If Schama's apologetics seek to reinscribe his unorthodox texts in the discourse of truth-telling, his stories appeal strongly to a metanarrative of Enlightenment-in-Western-History. This is so despite the fact that Schama situates his truth-claims in his observation rather than judgment of chaotic reality. The Embarrassment of Riches locates the Dutch genius in the Golden Age as a rational and pragmatic materialism (and the Dutch decline in their degeneration into sensuality). Landscape and Memory locates the danger of myth in radical (irrational) faith. Citizens portrays the French Revolution as a violent hiccup in liberal reform. Enlightenment is the crucial moral yardstick in these stories by which all actors and events are judged (and with which faith and violence are always juxtaposed). Enlightenment may not march forward in some inevitable teleology. It does, however, seem to explode, outwit, or outlast its inferiors. It offers a safe (and implicitly better) interpretative viewpoint from which to assess and make sense (or nonsense) of the events described.

The Embarrassment of Riches is, ostensibly, in interpretative rather than narrative form. It is a book of essays, written self-consciously in the manner of l'histoire des mentalités, which follows, nevertheless, a loose chronological progression. Schama's key argument is that the Dutch were profoundly ambivalent about their wealth. In their moral outlook, wealth corrupted and was inevitably followed by decay/decadence. While this organic paradigm is carefully objectified in the introduction—“the animate and inanimate world of the Dutch was seen in a state of organic flux” (The Embarrassment of Riches, 11, my emphasis)—Schama seems to affirm it morally in style and structure. The result is an extraordinary emphasis on organic process which overtakes its object status in the text and becomes an abstract, historical force of Spenglerian proportions. In effect, the trajectory of the book follows the Dutch through a journey of self-definition (as against the Spanish, through apocalyptic iconography and patriotic invocation of scripture) to decadence and decay. The book's parts are entitled “Becoming,” “Doing and not Doing,” “Living and Growing,” and “Watershed.” Emphasis on the austerity of nation-building gives way to an emphasis on wealth and moral contradiction. The Dutch worldview becomes the Dutch fate.

In this context it is significant that Schama goes to some pains to secularize Dutch morality. He links the outstanding aspects of Dutch morality with the tradition of Erasmian humanism and “folk fetishes” rather than Calvinist religiosity (The Embarrassment of Riches, 7, 16). Arguably, this approach allows Schama to applaud certain aspects of Dutch culture without judging them in (irrational) religious terms. International vilification of the Dutch, based on the assertion that the Dutch were greedy, “base and dishonorable,” is a “sinister,” “distorted image” (The Embarrassment of Riches, 269, 261). Dutch eating habits are described with mild amusement as healthy plenty, and juxtaposed with insistent (and largely ignored) “fulminations” from the pulpit (The Embarrassment of Riches, 130–220, esp. 159–60 and 186–88). Unlike French republican virtue (irrational faith), Dutch morality is cast in secular, common-sense terms (The Embarrassment of Riches, Part 3). Schama's text, accordingly, can maintain and advocate the position of an enlightened onlooker while encouraging readers to acquiesce in the morally charged trajectory—to sympathize with Dutch morality, ignore Dutch religion, yet sense the lowering dangers of decadence.

George Steiner has made the obvious point that the sheer opulence of Schama's style and attention to detail closely reflects the virtue/opulence ambivalence which he putatively finds in Dutch culture at its apogee and on the verge of its decline.16 The relatively few overwrought descriptive passages in The Embarrassment of Riches occur at key narrative points in the text—when healthy materialism collapses into sensual decadence. One instance is the taking of a Dutch ship by Pepys, Surveyor-Victualer to the Royal Navy. Here the character of Schama's Dutchmen spills into his description of their wealth.

As the business, both official and unofficial, proceeded, visions of the loot swam in his greedy brain. But even Pepys was unprepared for what he saw when, on November 16, he toured the holds of one of the Dutch vessels. An oriental cornucopia lay chaotically heaped about the decks, and Pepys duly succumbed to that old occidental fever: the delirium imperialis. It was, he wrote, “as noble a sight as ever I saw in my life, the greatest wealth in confusion that a man can see in the world. …” Like a child given the key to the candy store, he felt it was too much and yet not enough. Wading thigh-high through the cloves and crunching peppercorns beneath his heel, Pepys was slightly unsettled by this dazzling vision of superabundant swag.

(The Embarrassment of Riches, 257)

The style of this account is of significance, first and foremost, as an example of Schama's use of fictional effects to capture the essential narrative tension in his history. The account, like Schama's Dutchman, has the air of innocent greed: a child in a candy store. Wealth is “heaped chaotically about the decks”; the vision is of “dazzling” superabundance. The passage is set squarely in history by the intrusion of Pepys's own account, marked out by quotation marks (only part of which is reproduced in the quoted passage). This contextualization is unsteadied, however, by Schama's appropriation of Pepys's perspective in nearly every sentence: “visions of loot swam” in his brain; he was “unprepared” and “slightly unsettled”; “he felt it was too much.” Pepys's interruption is given the status of direct speech interrupting an exposé, by the omniscient author, of his secret state of mind. Pepys's unease also serves as a narrative prolepsis—it highlights the excess/decline nexus in Schama's story.

At the height of the book, Schama makes sensuality a textual paradigm:

Amidst lengthening afternoon shadows, an unhurried au revoir is in progress. A handsomely gilded and studded coach awaits its passengers before the gate of a Dutch country house. An elegant skirt is gathered as its wearer prepares to mount the carriage steps, leaving her companion with an expression of disconsolate reluctance. Men loiter over their farewells, an affectionate arm slung over a departing shoulder. Business may impend, but like the serving boy waiting uncertainly with a jug of last refreshment, it forbears to intrude.

Whatever else it may be, Ludolf de Jonghe's conversation piece is hardly a specimen of a Calvinist culture. The work ethic could not be more agreeably remote. If anything, it is a poem to the Dutch leisure ethic: an arrangement of Corinthian pilasters, rustling satin, sleek hounds and afternoon breezes. A delicious satisfaction with the material world saturates the canvas.

(The Embarrassment of Riches, 290)

Again, this passage is of stylistic significance. The second paragraph, a more formal description of de Jonghe's work of art, does not completely remove us from the laconic atmosphere created by the first. Immediacy is preserved in the predominance of lazy “s” sounds (“pilasters,” “satin,” “sleek,” “delicious satisfaction,” “saturates”) which seem both to emanate from and to capture the unhurried luxury of the world depicted.

The reader is here at a crucial turning point in the story. By the mid-eighteenth century (page 597) this benign but decadent afternoon party (au revoir is significant here) escalates into a betrayal of Dutch manners, whereby “the most well-to-do patriciate, as their portraits attest, aspired to a more international style of dress, speech, diet, and architecture, dominated by French manners and English novels and journalism.” Meanwhile, “at the other end of society, the differences that had favored Dutch artisans and workers … faded as marginal advantages” (The Embarrassment of Riches, 597). Significantly, this decline is accompanied by natural disaster. Flood strikes and pileworms riddle the dikes just as luxury and cosmopolitanism riddle its patriciate. As Schama himself points out, with something less than dissociative irony, “It was difficult to miss the apocalyptic symmetry of the two calamities” (The Embarrassment of Riches, 607–8).

Steiner laments the fact that Schama “scarcely touched upon” the possibility of cultural entropy—“the possibility that a given ethnic composite and culture has within it only a limited potential for greatness.”17 On the contrary, this theme, while not argued formally in the text, is symbolically assumed. Schama concludes that the Dutch became unremarkable (cosmopolitan perhaps), and with that lost their spirit, their tolerance, their community, and their wealth. The causation seems clear. The story moves from order to disorder, from rational morality to decadence. The book is replete with a sense of historical (and organic) inevitability that has a distinctly moral overtone.

Landscape and Memory takes a less coherent moral stance. The text tends to objectify nature myths—describing them from an enlightened, iconoclastic vantage point, but, at the same time, the power of myth is never underplayed by the text. This power is portrayed, like so many of Schama's polemic views, in descriptive narrative. The most notable examples are Schama's autobiographical intrusions, wherein he places himself at risk to the seductions of myth (perhaps an assertion of intimate knowledge, a truth-claim based on experience?). The Prologue is a prime example: “At first glance, when it flashed by the window of the ancient Mercedes, it looked nondescript, just a scrubby hill on which someone had planted a makeshift cross; another parochial fetish in a place still agitated with piety. But something about it snagged my attention, made me feel uneasy, required I take another look. We turned the car round” (Landscape and Memory, 23). There is a similar sense of uneasy realization when Schama's Mercedes seems to drive itself to the dandelion-covered Jewish cemetery (Landscape and Memory, 35). Also, the “sylvan” forest of California, this time penetrated by the Volvo, virtually speaks its unwelcome to the Schama family:

We exited hastily into the sylvan darkness. It was now about noon and not only dark but seriously cold, as stone-chill as any Gothic cathedral. The children were coaxed onward into the forest with promises of stupendous tree-wonders to come. But when they suddenly saw the redwoods, these seemed more like monsters than marvels. Their vague discomfort and irritability turned into something like fear.

(Landscape and Memory, 242)

This almost autonomous power of landscape is a corrective and a counter-thesis to the book's narrative dismissals of other more sinister or ridiculous mythologies. For the latter, Schama adopts (and encourages) a clear-eyed enlightened perspective, perhaps the very “unexamined rationalism” which he attributes to Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough (Landscape and Memory, 209). The different moral stances implicit in his accounts are exhibited by the two mini-narratives which follow.

As for Mons Pilatus, near Lucerne, with a name like that a resident dragon was only to be expected. (Though in fact the mountain was originally called, simply, Mons Pileatus, referring to the capped peak for the clouds that continually draped its summit. Only later did it somehow turn into the burial site of Pontius Pilate.) But once the execrated Roman was thought to be entombed under its rock, he generated a dragon of distinctive repulsiveness, whose presence was formally attested to, in 1649, by no less an authority than the sheriff of Lucerne. Its head “terminated in the serrated jaw of a serpent,” and “when flying it threw out sparks like a red-hot horseshoe, hammered by the blacksmith.” Scheuchzer had no hesitation in giving the story credence, seeing as how the local cabinet of curiosities at Lucerne contained a “dragon-stone” said to cure all manner of maladies from headaches to dysentery.

(Landscape and Memory, 412–13)

The tone adopted here is ironical, like a children's story: “with a name like that a dragon could only be expected.” By adopting this tone Schama puts quotation marks around the passage, denoting the characters and events recounted therein as both fictional (untrue) and ridiculous. This effect is strengthened by the absence of past participles (which assert that “this happened”).18

Naïve faith in the passage is also associated with its more sinister manifestations. Implicated in the ridicule are not just Scheuchzer and the sheriff of Lucerne, but the tradition of Christian mythology on which their hallucinations are based. Schama describes another interlude with a dragon as “A winningly naive tale of Christian knightly zeal, straight from the repertoire of the Spanish reconquista, where chivalry had a long afterlife” (Landscape and Memory, 412). Religious myth is explicitly linked with violence. Here, Schama's irony is dissociative. He ridicules the credulity of medieval Christians from an implicitly better moral and intellectual stance—enlightenment. Enlightenment is neither questioned nor relativized.

More insistent historicization and condemnation are reserved for a less charming example of mythology—Nazism.

They had come to make good on Mussolini's reckless gesture—to repatriate the Germania to the Fatherland after a millennium of exile. They were to be denied again. Once they had smashed in the door, the SS stood in the empty, echoing vestibule of Fontedamo with no one to answer their barked commands. With the help of the local Fascists, they then proceeded to take the house apart. The manuscript was not, of course, in the library; nor did there seem to be any alcoves, swinging doors, or secret closets that might be concealing the prize. And as room after room declared itself barren, what began as a systematic search turned into a violent festival of vindictive malice. Frescoes were scraped to the bare plaster, smeared with obscenities; paintings slashed; furniture ripped apart; mosaic floors smashed to shivers and ground into colored powder with the butt end of machine guns.

(Landscape and Memory, 80)

Note the change in tone here. Irony and ridicule are still paramount, but this passage is set up as a strictly historical account. The “of course” in the fourth sentence is the only overt sign of the author's presence. Unlike the dragon story, past participles predominate: property was scraped, smeared with obscenities, slashed, ripped apart, smashed and ground. Violence is implicit in all of these acts—as it is in the barked commands of the SS, and their tautological “vindictive malice.” There is, however, a certain thematic continuity between the passages. Belief (the nationalist myths surrounding the Germania) is again the subject of ridicule; it is also connected with hateful violence. The activities of the SS are consummate irrationality (evil).

The evil of the Nazi regime is evoked not only in direct accounts of its deeds but also as portent, illustrated rather than argued by the graphics accompanying Schama's account of Germany's millennium-long fetishization of Tacitus's Germania. Groups of illustrations (either as color plates separate from the text, or black and white graphics accompanied by text) invariably culminate in the disturbing Nazi iconography of Anselm Kiefer (and, by narrative implication, in Nazi atrocity) (Landscape and Memory, 84–115 & color plates following 82).

Most clearly, however, Nazi evil is apparent in the habits and appearances of Nazi leaders. Physical characterization is symbolic.

Everything about Hermann Göring would have been preposterous had he also not been so dangerous. In 1934 he was forty-one, already running to the corpulence that would turn him into the monstrous, jewel-encrusted hippopotamus of the Third Reich. The essence of Göring's personality was sensual appetite and in this he perfectly complemented Hitler, whose ecstasies were ideological. Hitler the nut-cutlet vegetarian was offset by Göring the sensualist, who liked to sink his teeth into broad slabs of bleeding meat. There was something of the child playing Pasha about Göring; the acquisition of brutal despotism in order to reach out and grab whatever his fat little heart desired without fear of opposition: a pot of diamonds carried round with him by a specially hired servant lest he feel the sudden urge to trawl his hands through the brilliant rocks; the obsession with jewelled daggers. …

(Landscape and Memory, 67–68)

Greedy, corpulent, jewel-encrusted and (of course) vulgar, Göring is juxtaposed, in his essence, with taste and humanity. Everything in this description marks Göring out as a disgusting predator—of beasts and humans. Arguably, it also casts aspersions on Göring's sexuality. Göring is obsessive about diamonds and daggers; he dresses up in jewels. His brutality is more feline (by implication feminine/dishonorable) than manly. Schama's treatment of Göring echoes (interestingly), David Irving's biography in which Göring is described variously as a murder manager and a cross-dresser whose affection for his wife Emmy “was probably not physical attraction.”19 In both accounts, excess, costume, fat, and femininity, as much as any explicit action, are Göring's crimes against humanity.

It is perhaps not fortuitous that Schama has placed his most powerful appeal to myth beside the (implicitly) more healthy landscape of the English Enlightenment. Ann Rigney has pointed out that narrative orderings have a great impact on the reception and interpretation of a historical text and are often highly significant indicators of the author's didactic intent.20 Henry Hastings of the New Forest (whose brief biography follows the brooding ambiguities of the German section) may be smelly, bad-tempered, and slightly feral, but he was a simple soul with rampant sex appeal (Landscape and Memory, 135–36). Even though the New Forest was established by deprivation of greenwood liberties, Hastings's healthy libertinism is a symbolic reassurance of liberty's endurance and English good sense. Similarly, English attitudes to their sylvan myths are cheerfully utilitarian—celebrating liberties as much circumscribed as honored in order to preserve and popularize the benign, incumbent regime (Landscape and Memory, 153). Hastings and the Germans are eloquent in their juxtapositioning.

This sense of ease (an end to disturbing ambiguity) is reinforced by Schama's autobiographical narratives. His reminiscences of England are not sylvan, they are aqueous and innocent (Landscape and Memory, 1–5, 352–53). The autobiographical dimension of Landscape and Memory can be read, then, as a spiritual movement from the dark ambiguities of Schama's Jewish ancestry in Eastern Europe to the easy morality of whitebait on the Thames. Germany had monsters; England had eccentrics. Europe in general had hermits and dragons; England had to install its hermits for the sake of good form (Landscape and Memory, 142). France had Rousseau; England had Burke and Locke. English landscape myths seem more peripheral, more pragmatic, and altogether more benign. If there is an embrace of Enlightenment as explicator and preferred position in Landscape and Memory, it is an Anglo-Enlightenment complete with the whimsical voice of the English satirist.

Hans Kellner argues that Citizens is truly “post-modern” history in the Lyotardian sense because Schama's figuration of the revolution subverts Jacobin and Marxist metanarratives, portraying, instead, “primitive terror, mere violence which is not an aspect of a much larger, totalized story.”21 Kellner writes:

Whatever the value of Citizens as a work of history, and I think it is considerable, it is worth our attention because, in restoring individuals to a pre-totalized narrative condition, a “quotidian” mess, it steps back from the civilized Terror of totalized metanarratives to the primitive terror of the historical sublime, a version of the non-sense which lies behind all sense.


As a result, “history becomes a mass of stories, and narrative, the ultimate abstracting function, impossible.” This, according to Kellner, is postmodern history (306–7).

Kellner's analysis makes sense if one reads Citizens solely in terms of its departure from traditional historiography of the French Revolution. Read as counter-historiography, Citizens certainly does systematically undermine any economic, social, or ideological basis for the events of 1789.22 As a result of its structure and style, Citizens excludes Marxist or Jacobin interpretative structures which posit the Revolution as “the great ‘beginning’ for subsequent movements for national liberation and revolutionary class transformation.”23 Read as such, Citizens does indeed seem to assert that “there is no deeper, philosophical story which can be transposed onto the events to show a future that derives from them” (Kellner, 308).

Kellner overlooks the fact, however, that Citizens is not merely counter-historiography. Instead, it occupies a corner in a well-defined and legitimate (if not hegemonic) institutional, political, and ideological space. Schama's revisionist stance and many of the tropes on which it relies were not new in 1989. In fact, many of Schama's more controversial characters and analogies seem to stem directly from the revisionist polemics of Pierre Chaunu. Schama's treatment of violence in the Vendée, for instance, bears particular resemblance to that of Chaunu.24 Schama also has clear links with the particular anti-Revolutionary discourse which began with François Furet in 1965—a discourse which, by 1989, dominated French intellectual debate on the subject.25

Revisionist discourse has a strong anti-Marxist ideological bent. This is not to say, however, that the revisionists do not have a replacement metanarrative of their own. Removing the French Revolution as a great beginning of the struggle for liberal democracy does not obviate other beginnings and endings. For his part, Chaunu favored the English evolutionary model (an alternative Enlightenment leading directly from Burke and Locke to the present) (Kaplan, 31–32). Furet was content to point out the links between revolutionary upheaval and tyranny in 1789 and 1917 (Kaplan, 95–98). An alternative (enlightened) route to liberal democracy is nevertheless also implied. Citizens (published on the eve of the Bicentennial and the collapse of the Soviet Union) was a timely participant, then, in the hugely successful commodification both of the French Revolution and the demise of Communist Eastern Europe. Comfortably situated within revisionist hegemony, however, Schama's book hardly rocks the boat and seems ill-placed to conduct some postmodern guerrilla warfare on metanarrative.

Schama asserts that his book “opts for chaotic authenticity over the commanding neatness of historical convention” (Citizens, xvi). Kellner takes Schama at his word, arguing that Schama's chaotic blend of narrative and anti-narrative (chronicle) returns us to the terror behind Jacobin/Marxist metanarrative (306–7). It is my contention that, stylistically, Citizens does nothing of the sort. Schama might reject Marxist and Jacobin metanarrative (and the stylistic imperatives they impose on the writing of history) but he merely recasts the Revolution as the story of an epic encounter between Reason (evolutionary political change) and Unreason (faith, irrationality, violence). In this story Unreason temporarily gains the upper hand … but we all know (even in 1989) who will win the day.

So much is apparent from the very beginning of the story. Schama insists on the moral value of characterization at the outset—he actually encourages synecdochic interpretations. In the introduction, Talleyrand (fastidious, self-possessed, powerful) and Lafayette (stupid, idealistic, unsightly) are cast as the “split personality of the revolution,” a synecdochic rendering of the ingredients and ambivalent product of revolutionary insanity, which is both exposed and resolved in the pathetic figure of Théroigne de Méricourt at the end (Citizens, 15):

She sat in a cell, her hair cropped, glaring at the walls. Periodically the black silence that descended on her would be interrupted by a torrent of denunciation in half-intelligible revolutionary phrases …

Oblivious of all visitors, concerned or callous, who saw her, Théroigne, it seems, now lived entirely inside the Revolution and the Revolution inside her. Sympathy seems out of place here, for in some sense the madness of Théroigne de Méricourt was a logical destination for the compulsions of revolutionary Idealism.

(Citizens, 874–75)26

This structural myth (which is, in fact, contrived and misleading—Talleyrand is a very attractive figure in Schama's story-world) is played out repeatedly in a constant struggle between faith and sanity. The latter is the exclusive preserve of the ideals embodied in the Old Regime.

Bann and Rigney have both shown that symbolism and iconography are important parts of enthymematic argument.27 The morally uncharged fate of the Old Regime is covertly allegorized in the launching of an unmanned balloon:

On September 19, 1783, at around one in the afternoon, to the sound of a drum roll, an enormous taffeta spheroid wobbled its way unsteadily into the sky over the royal palace at Versailles … When a violent gust of wind made a tear near the top of the balloon, there were some fears for the safety of the barnyard aeronauts. All, however, survived the eight-minute flight reasonably well. Once it landed in the woods of Vaucresson a few miles beyond the château, the sheep was discovered nibbling imperturbably on straw while the cock and the duck cowered in a corner.

(Citizens, 123)

Compare this extract with Thomas Carlyle's account of ballooning.

Beautiful invention; mounting heavenward, so beautifully,—so unguidably! Emblem of much, and of our Age of Hope itself; which shall mount, specifically-light, majestically in this same manner; and hover,—tumbling whither Fate will. Well if it do not, Pilâtre-like, explode; and demount all the more tragically!—So, riding on windbags, will men scale the Empyrean.28

As Mark Cumming has pointed out, Schama's allegorical turn is suggested rather than forced when compared with Carlyle's passage (which associates ballooning with the greed and inevitable decline of the Old Regime).29 Schama seems to address and invert Carlyle's imagery to serve his major polemic goal—to remove a sense of inevitability and moral righteousness from the destruction of the monarchy in France. Read as such, the incident does not signify, as Kellner would argue, a postmodern rejection of the inner logic of historical events read as teleology. The French monarchy shakily, but laudably, sought to modernize—but anti-modern and irrational forces (allegorized as wind) conspired against it. The progress of Enlightenment is temporarily obstructed. This central Schamanesque allegory highlights the nonsense of the Revolution, not the nonsense of Enlightenment as a trajectory in Western history. Schama's ballooning narrative not only establishes the trajectory of the Revolutionary story, it fixes the central dichotomy of its moral universe.

Faith and Virtue, with all of their Revolutionary connotations, are the province of villainy. Violence and faith are inextricably linked in Schama's account of the Revolution.30 Perhaps the most telling juxtaposition is the coupling of text with graphic in chapter 17. The text describes Javogues in Saint-Etienne, who, while “mauling pretty girls” and “emptying thirty bottles of beer and wine” treats a resident to the following tirade: “You're a bitch [garce], a whore, you've screwed more priests than I have hairs on my head; your cunt's so big I could get all of myself in there” (Citizens, 767). On the next page is a large and serene portrait of the lady liberty, by A. Clément, titled La France Républicaine—breasts bared, with a halo of light and a dove on her head. The implication is clear. Liberty may be lauded as the embodiment of serenity, faith and virtue, but it is founded on carnal reference and carnage.

Popular mobilization (rehearsed in mass celebration) is nothing less than a well-controlled instrument of atrocity. The massacres in the Vendée are executed with all the fervor of true believers in a master race (or a revolution). “Extermination,” “relentless slaughter,” mass drownings, plots to poison and gas, and mutilation are cast simultaneously as acts of faith and as “sinister anticipations of the technological killings of the twentieth century” (Citizens, 789). Significantly, atrocities by counter-revolutionaries are passed over quickly (in Schama's account of counter-revolution in the Vendée), or dismissed as rumor (German atrocities in the rumored invasion in the north are, of course, “the standard military nightmare,” uninvestigated and by implication, all untrue/unimaginable) (Citizens, 627).31

Perhaps the most interesting pillar in Schama's moral universe is the Republican crowd. Schama does much to dispel the myth of The People, replacing it with a rather unattractive mass. He does so by emphasizing the preoccupation of crowds—especially women—with atrocity. A participant in the march of women is reported to have said, “tear out the heart of the coquine [Marie-Antoinette], cut off her head, fricasser her liver and even then it would not be all over” (Citizens, 467). After the arrest of Charlotte Corday, “enraged and anguished crowds gathered, wanting to tear the murderess to pieces. One woman even said that she would like to dismember the monster and eat her filthy body, piece by piece” (Citizens, 737). The crowds are invariably cast as “hapless, inarticulate figures” given to violent and irrational outbursts (Citizens, 331, 613 & 633). In Schama's Epilogue they are “the angry matter” which is piped through “great holes in the crust of polite discourse” (Citizens, 860).

By demoting The People to the status of nasty crowds, Schama does much more than displace the French Revolution from its position at the inception of progress (whether it be of a Marxist, Jacobian, or liberal-democratic nature). He places the crowds as characters clearly on the wrong side of the hero/villain divide in the story. In this story, the great travesty is that the crowd has the opportunity to vent its implicitly lesser goals and unenlightened urges. The People could only act in concert with heroes. The crowds are in cohorts with villains. Schama's use of the title “Citizens” seems to be a rather nasty comment on the ludicrous worthy members of a Rousseauistic state (Citizens, xv, 858–60).

The villains themselves are easily identified. The least attractive characters in the text are the speciously eloquent, but somehow impotent, Marat, Robespierre, and Saint-Just. Notably, none of these three have aristocratic lineage—Robespierre is “a scholarship boy”; Marat, a castoff and Saint-Just, an obscurity (Citizens, 578). All there are hypocritical, ethereal, and evil. Saint-Just is cast as an inhuman creature in a sycophantic relationship with Robespierre (Citizens, 578, 651, 841). Marat is a vengeful doctor who exchanged a lifetime of ingratiating himself with aristocracy for preaching their destruction (Citizens, 731–34). Robespierre is the worst (most irrational) of all. Schama uses the words of Mercier in 1787 to illustrate “exactly the view of Robespierre”: “It is virtue that divines with the speed of instinct what will be conducive to the general advantage … Reason with its insidious language can paint the most equivocal enterprise in captivating colors but the virtuous heart will never forget the interests of the humblest citizen. Let us place the virtuous statesman before the clever politician” (Citizens, 153).

Robespierre is sexless, vain, and insanely hypocritical. Schama dwells on his (failed) aspirations to fashion: he came to Paris with “two black suits, one wool, one velour”; “immaculately curled and powdered hair and steel-rimmed spectacles” (Citizens, 576–77). He preached virtue but stayed with a wealthy family; had no experience of poverty; “invariably” wore silk stockings; and never profaned his curls by donning a cockade (Citizens, 583, 579 & 602–4). Robespierre's personality and appearance are unmanly. He is physically insignificant (“slightly bony”); has a “high-pitched metallic voice” and “it could hardly be said that he had a private life” (Citizens, 576, 579). His style of oratory is both sinister and hypocritical: an “oratory of ego” which “attracted criticism from the ironically disposed.” It is “slightly fussy”; “invariably punctuated by professions of martyrdom” and full of theatrical lengthy pauses (Citizens, 579). Robespierre's politics are the measure of extremity—when extremity is exceeded “even Robespierre blanched.” Robespierre is responsible for “crushing public opinion” (Citizens, 585, 560). All of his atrocities are acts of faith over reason.32

By contrast, attractiveness, sexual prowess, and wit are always associated with true male aristocracy. Lafayette is one of very few aristocratic characters who does not fit this mold and his difference is again marked out by his physical attributes. He is reasonably sexless (as far as we know, he was faithful to his wife), and at key places in the book we are reminded of his lack of grace and foolishness. In the Prologue, for example, he is introduced as an unseemly old man “a boyish and spry seventy-three” with “delusions of youth” who dons a red wig, rushes into Paris in 1830 and kisses everybody (Citizens, 9, 12). While Mirabeau is implicated in violence by his rhetorical skill, he is not so ridiculed by the text. He is “hare-brained” and “ugly,” but his dedication to monarchy, his lineage, and his sheer promiscuity seem to be the basis for his rehabilitation. Mirabeau is manly: “a mountain of flesh and muscle crammed with difficulty into black coat and hose,” a “shaggy brute” comparable to “Samson” (Citizens, 482, 339). He is “another Casanova,” “sublime and terrible” with “a booming baritone.” He spends stupendous amounts of money on innumerable conquests and even died with an erect member (Citizens, 341, 543). In short, he is a slightly misguided good guy.

Talleyrand, however, plays the most attractive role. His hair, like Robespierre's, is fastidiously curled, but somehow more tastefully so. Talleyrand is the embodiment of cynicism and circumspection (the opposite of faith) (Citizens, 12). His manners are more elegant than effeminate—not least because his sexual prowess is legendary (even though he is a bishop) (Citizens, 12–17, 341). His program in France is not the abolition of monarchy, but its forcible modernization (a laudable aim in the text). Above all, however, Talleyrand is a winner, a charmer and a guardian of aristocratic ideals who has a close relationship with the story's “heroine” (Citizens, 513, 861–68). In a cheerfully immoral sense, Talleyrand is the hero of a text in which, while fatherly virtue rates a brief mention (Citizens, 295, 822–27), cynicism and sexual prowess are the most lauded male virtues.

Female heroism follows a different paradigm. The most attractive female character, the intelligent and lovely Lucy de La Tour du Pin, is always juxtaposed with ignorance and irrationality—whether it be of her fellow aristocrats, peasants, or her Dutch émigré neighbors in America (Citizens, 429, 864–66). Sexual loyalty, good sense, and inner beauty are her defining features. At the end of the book, her commitment to marital piety is our parting impression: Lucy does not want to return to France, but follows sadly and obediently in her husband's footsteps (Citizens, 865–66). Théroigne de Méricourt is cast as Lucy's opposite (descriptions of Méricourt are notably proximate to those of Lucy) (Citizens, 429–65, 861–75). She is boisterous and undignified. While she is beautiful, Schama is careful to emphasize that she is used goods—a kept woman: “But beneath the glamorous plumage was a banal history. ‘Théroigne the Amazon’ was in reality Anne-Joseph Méricourt, whose well-to-do Liège family had fallen on hard times and had forced her to live by her wits and her body” (Citizens, 463).

Again, in Citizens, Schama delineates his story around the key themes of sexuality, faith, and enlightenment. He may well have discarded traditional metanarratives of the Revolution, but he has replaced them aggressively with key hegemonic social values. Recasting the French Revolution as an illiberal hiccup in the great journey to liberal democracy is something less than a postmodernist subversion of the key metanarrative of Progress-in-Western-History. By making conventional sexual politics and enlightenment key themes of his story, Schama has merely substituted one metanarrative for another. Thus Citizens, which began by promising messiness, gives us satisfying neatness, but only after endless tragedy. The endurance of Reason in contrast to the pointlessness of Revolution forms our parting image: Théroigne de Méricourt is locked in her madhouse and, in the clean countryside of the Hudson valley, the heroine and the wicked priest survive.

Schama's writing of history is engaging and unorthodox. It is not, however, subversive of orthodox historical truth claims. Schama, on the contrary, makes insistent claims to tell a true story despite and because of his novel and sometimes controversial approaches. Presence and storification, rather than subverting the institutional truth-claims attending historical texts, function as a dual assurance of the verity and immediacy of Schama's histories. Schama asserts that he is a present witness of past events. More importantly, the true stories which Schama tells adopt (and perhaps, to an extent, conceal) sometimes stridently hegemonic viewpoints. Enlightenment-in-Western History and, to a lesser extent, conventional sexual politics, seem to be the narrative standards by which characters and events are judged. Enlightenment and cynicism always stand in contrast to social evil—whether it be corruption of indigenous secular culture (the Dutch), obsession with sylvan myths of origin (the Germans), or any form of radical upheaval of which faith, Romanticism, and violence form a part (the French Revolution). In the three books discussed here, our view (in the visual and emotional sense) of historical characters and events is determined by the extent to which they fit within entirely conventional categories of thought and behavior. Thus, while Schama seems to abandon historiographical orthodoxies (with autobiographical intrusions and by skewing conventional metanarratives), his conflation of story and argument fit within a clear metastory in which secular rationality must always be preferred to radical morality or faith. Schama's supposedly innovative style turns out, on closer analysis, to be a mask for reactionary rather than postmodern history.


  1. Citations of Simon Schama's books are included in the text with the following abbreviations: C: Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (London: Penguin, 1989); ER: The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (London: Fontana, 1991); LM: Landscape and Memory (London: Fontana, 1995). I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Professors Hans Kellner and Martin Stuart-Fox in the preparation of this paper.

  2. Joanne Woolway, “Landskips,” review of Landscape and Memory, by Simon Schama, Essays in Criticism 46 (1996): 281; Jeffrey Hart, review of Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, by Simon Schama, National Review, 31 December 1989, 47; Hans Kellner, “Beautifying the Nightmare: The Aesthetics of Postmodern History,” Strategies: A Journal of Theory, Culture and Politics 4–5 (1991): 289–313; Peter Bishop, “Memories are made of this,” review of Landscape and Memory, by Simon Schama, Journal of Historical Geography 22 (1996): 214–20.

  3. See the “Afterword” to Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations) (London: Granata, 1991)—perhaps Schama's most extended discussion of historiography.

  4. I have not dealt with Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations) here because its radical fusing of story and history sets it apart from Schama's other popular histories. However, Carole Lambert has argued convincingly that Dead Certainties could be susceptible to the same kind of analysis I have undertaken here, in “Postmodern Biography: Lively Hypotheses and Dead Certainties,Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 18 (1995): 305–27.

  5. Robert F. Berkhofer Jr., “A Point of View on Viewpoints in Historical Practice,” in A New Philosophy of History, ed. Frank Ankersmit and Hans Kellner (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995), 175.

  6. Leopold von Ranke, quoted and translated by Stephen Bann in the latter's “Analysing the Discourse of History,” Dalhousie Review 64 (1984): 381.

  7. David Carr, “Getting the Story Straight: Narrative and Historical Knowledge,” in Historiography between Modernism and Postmodernism: Contributions to the Method of Historical Research, ed. Jerzy Topolski (Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1994), 121–22.

  8. Kellner, “Beautifying,” 306.

  9. Roland Barthes, “The Discourse of History,” trans. Stephen Bann, Comparative Criticism—A Yearbook 3 (1981): 18.

  10. Richard Wilson, review of Landscape and Memory, by Simon Schama, History Today 46, No. 8 (1996): 55.

  11. Gérard Genette, Fiction and Diction, trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993), 73.

  12. Linda Orr, “Intimate Images: Subjectivity and History—Staël, Michelet and Tocqueville,” in A New Philosophy of History, eds. Frank Ankersmit and Hans Kellner (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995), 105.

  13. Compare Bann, “Analysing,” 380 with Hans Kellner, Language and Historical Representation: Getting the Story Crooked (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1989), 13–21.

  14. Bann, “Analysing,” 394.

  15. Kellner, Language, vii.

  16. George Steiner, “Cornucopia,” review of The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, by Simon Schama, The New Yorker, 14 September 1987, 132–33.

  17. Steiner, “Cornucopia,” 133.

  18. Sande Cohen, Historical Culture: On the Recoding of an Academic Discipline (Berkeley: U of California P, 1986), 74–75.

  19. David Irving, Göring: A Biography (London: Macmillan, 1989), chaps. 11 and 12.

  20. Ann Rigney, “Toward Varennes,” New Literary History 18 (1986): 88–89.

  21. Kellner, “Beautifying,” 307.

  22. Alan Spitzer, “Narrative's Problems: The Case of Simon Schama,” Journal of Modern History 65 (1993): 185–86.

  23. Jack Amariglio and Bruce Norton, “Marxist Historians and the Question of Class in the French Revolution,” History and Theory 30 (1991): 43.

  24. Stephen Laurence Kaplan, Farewell, Revolution: The Historians’ Feud, France, 1789/1989 (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995), 36–37.

  25. William Doyle, “Reflections on the Classic Interpretation of the French Revolution,” French Historical Studies 16 (1990): 743–48; Kaplan, Farewell, 50–79.

  26. Kellner cites this image as the consummation of Schama's destruction of revolutionary metanarratives (“Beautifying,” 309).

  27. Bann, “Analysing,” 376–400; Ann Rigney, “Icon and Symbol: The Historical Figure Called Maximilien Robespierre,” in Representing the French Revolution: Literature, Historiography, and Art, ed. James A. W. Heffernan (Hanover and London: UP of New England, 1992), 119.

  28. Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution: A History (London, n.d.), 46.

  29. Mark Cumming, “‘Such a Figure Drew Priam's Curtains!’: Carlyle's Epic History of the Revolution,” in Representing the French Revolution, 69–70.

  30. Compare Carlyle, The French Revolution, 536–37; and Alphonse de Lamartine, History of the Girondists; or, Personal Memoris of the Patriots of the French Revolution, vol. 1, trans. H. T. Ryde (London: Bohn, 1848), 125, 127.

  31. Benjamin R. Barber, review of Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, by Simon Schama, The Nation, 12 March 1990, 353–54.

  32. Compare Lamartine on Robespierre (Lamartine, History, 31).

Philip Hensher (review date 30 October 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 Terror, its portrait of the Revolution as something which came close to genocide. It was a startling but surely useful book; the witterings of French historians on the historical necessity of the Terror have to be read to be believed, and Schama always retained a sense of the Revolution's cruelty.

Since then, he hasn't done much. Landscape and Memory looked like an ambitious book, but was really nothing more than a series of mildly interesting essays around the theme of man and nature—a theme which turned out to encompass pretty well anything at all. His reputation rests on Citizens and what, in many ways, is a far more remarkable book, his romp through the relatively unfamiliar historical territory of the Dutch ‘Golden Age’ of the 17th century, The Embarrassment of Riches. With his life of Rembrandt, he returns to the scene of his greatest triumph, and with a characteristic intention of writing against the present tendency of scholarship in the field. But, unlike his previous books, it bears a close resemblance to someone spitting in the wind.

The story of Rembrandt is a familiar one, through the romantic biographies. The most naturally brilliant artist of his generation moved, full of hope, from Leiden to Amsterdam. The society of the time initially responded to the splendid invention and richness of his mature style. He grew famous in almost every genre: his opulent portraits and self-portraits, his dramatic history paintings, and, perhaps most remarkable, the group portraits, such as The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp or The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq (the so-called Night Watch); this last, in particular, amazed his contemporaries by its complex handling of light and unprecedentedly explosive composition.

His private life grew complicated and then deplorable—he had one inconvenient mistress locked up and exposed another to the full humiliation of a church investigation for fornication. Public taste, which initially had relished Rembrandt's originality, turned against him, and he filed for bankruptcy in 1656. What could have been the masterpiece of his late period, The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, commissioned for the new Stadhuis in Amsterdam, was contemptuously returned to the painter, and he sank into total retirement before dying in 1669, poor and forgotten, painting one masterpiece after another which were meant only for the appreciation of a distant posterity. Most remarkable of all are a series of self-portraits which may be read as a pictorial autobiography, a romantic contemplation of the self without precedent in the history of art.

That, at any rate, used to be the official version. But in recent years most of the conventional assumptions about Rembrandt have been successfully challenged by a series of brilliant scholars. The self-portraits cannot possibly be read as in any sense an autobiography; rather, they are a useful and easy way for a painter-businessman to advertise his skills to the public, or to make a statement about the role of the artist in society. Rembrandt portrays himself as a successor to Giotto (the Kenwood self-portrait, with the perfect circles behind him), or, in one of the last of the self-portraits, the laughing one in Cologne, as the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis, or even as St Paul. It is not at all clear, after all, that public taste did forget Rembrandt so completely. Most strikingly, the idea of Rembrandt as a solitary genius has undergone a thorough reconsideration, thanks to the superb Rembrandt Research Project. The Project is in the process of examining every Rembrandt, and has come to the conclusion that many cherished ‘Rembrandts’ are the work of other hands. It is often presented as a rather negative enterprise, even though it has also confirmed the attribution to Rembrandt of what had previously been thought to be slightly dodgy paintings. What isn't often stated is that many contemporary painters who occupied a shadowy position, such as Govert Flinck, are emerging with firm and engaging personalities, thanks to the Project's re-attributions; now Rembrandt looks much less isolated in his time than previously.

The whole tendency of contemporary Rembrandt scholarship is against the mystical notion of genius, and in favour of Rembrandt as a deeply self-conscious painter concerned to advertise himself to a public to place himself in a line of succession from Zeuxis, and to behave as if he were the rightful heir of the great Italian masters (it wasn't usual at the time for a painter to sign his work with his Christian name; in doing so, Rembrandt was emphatically aligning himself with the early Renaissance masters, as Van Gogh, two centuries later, was also to do). Schama's book, on the other hand, might almost have been designed to make an art historian blush. It is absolutely committed to a 19th-century notion of genius, and pursues this belief largely by firmly relegating the members of Rembrandt's circle to second rank. The self-portraits are very definitely portraits of the self, and not, as most art historians now think, a commercial or professional tool.

Most alarming of all is Schama's extraordinary style. It sometimes looks quite witty if you don't pay too much attention—his description of the National Gallery's Belshazzar's Feast as ‘a party with no emergency exit’ would only be clever if that was what parties generally had. More often, it is simply purple:

And she would look at her child, eyes still shut, the delicate veins visible on the pale translucent lids which would now and then tremble and flutter in his sleep, as if he were silently, seriously conversing with himself as to how he had come to be baptised with so peculiar a name as Rembrandt.

Well, people can't help their own style and one understands this is the sort of bilge that goes down well with the American public. But what is deplorable is a constant sense that historical facts are being obliged to support ingenious insights, and groan under the weight:

Rembrandt van Rijn became a great history painter just at the moment when Peter Paul Rubens was wondering if, after all, he had not had his fill of it; history, that is.

Even if ‘history painting’ were synonymous with ‘paintings about history,’ which it is not, would Rubens have thought of contemporary events as ‘history’? And sometimes Schama oversteps all critical decorum, and says something which cannot possibly be the case. On the Rijksmuseum's Jewish Bride:

The male hand is welcomed by the woman's response with her own, a displaced consummation: a love act celebrating the fertility of marriage, the blessed abundance of the woman's body. The ‘Rebecca,’ after all, lays her right hand on the site of her womb, so that the places of procreation and of nurture are simultaneously hallowed. So should we be surprised to find that particles of egg have been discovered in beads of paint taken from the Jewish Bride?

What? Schama is perfectly entitled to speculate about the meaning of the gesture in the painting, though one might listen to his ramblings more patiently if he actually produced some kind of evidence that this is what it would mean to Rembrandt's contemporaries. But is he seriously proposing that the presence of egg in the medium in some way enhances the painting's imagery, its praise of fecundity? Does he suppose his readers know absolutely nothing about how paintings are made?

But most damaging is Schama's recurrent isolation of Rembrandt, in quality and meaning, from the artistic community in which he worked. The odd effect of the downgrading of Rembrandt's pupils and contemporaries is not to elevate Rembrandt but to deprive his paintings of a serious level of significance. On Rembrandt's circle:

Some of these knockoffs of the 1630s and 1640s are, in their way, pretty good. But even when they were performing competently, none of Rembrandt's pupils, associates or assistants ever came close to the conceptual originality which produced The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp, Jan Rijksen and Griet Jans, and the Anslo double portraits.

This, of course, is perfect rubbish—double-dyed rubbish, indeed. The one thing that Rembrandt's paintings are not is ‘conceptually’ original; there is nothing remotely original about the idea of a double portrait, and Rembrandt's greatest works, such as The Night Watch are very original versions of familiar pictorial forms, original, in short, only in execution. Secondly, the examples of Carel Fabritius or Gerard Dou show how ridiculous it is to think that only Rembrandt, and none of his pupils, can lay claim to this factitious quality of ‘conceptual’ originality. If they cannot be regarded as original painters of the very first rank, then it is difficult to think who can be.

Of course, what makes this absurd overstating of the case particularly damaging are the ongoing arguments about authorship. Schama's blunt assumption of Rembrandt's absolute superiority over all his contemporaries is exactly the same assumption which led to an extraordinary bloating of the corpus. Some of the ascriptions made to Rembrandt at the turn of the century now make the hair stand on end. Like Schama, their proponents place a great deal of trust in the idea of quality as proof of authorship; like Schama, they make a secondary assumption that Rembrandt was unarguably the best painter of the age, and, like Schama, they seem to tremble on the verge of thinking that if a painting from the period is good enough, it must be by Rembrandt. Some of the scholars associated with the Rembrandt Research Project have gone as far as questioning the authorship of The Polish Rider in the Frick Collection. It has always been regarded as one of Rembrandt's masterpieces, and this sounds like utter blasphemy. Schama says smugly that he ‘never had any doubts’ about its authorship, as if that were a demonstration of his credentials, rather than the opposite; it was the job of the Research Project to have doubts about everything, and to imply that it was improper or absurd to question the painting maybe because it is beautiful, or because it is an unusual composition, or because it's expensively lit and in the Frick Collection, shows that he hasn't really grasped the issues.

Another comment, about the 1629 Self-Portrait with Gorget in the Mauritshuis, is even more self-deluding. The self-portrait survives in two versions, one in the Hague and the other in Nuremberg. Until very recently, it was thought that the one in Nuremberg was a copy of the other. The Research Project has come to the conclusion that we've got it the wrong way round, and the one in the Hague is the work of a pupil. Schama disagrees:

A recent case in point is the unarguably beautiful Mauritshuis Self-Portrait Wearing a Gorget, which has recently been held to be a copy of the original in Nuremberg, on the grounds that under-drawing discovered in the Hague painting is inconsistent with Rembrandt's habitual practice. And so it is. But inconsistency, of itself, doesn't make for inadmissibility. Supposing that the Hague painting is indeed the work of a pupil, exactly which prodigy in 1629 is meant to have had the skill to execute something so stunning?

This, frankly, is pyramid selling. The presence of under-drawing is a very strong argument indeed against authorship, since Rembrandt just didn't do it—it was not just not his ‘habitual practice,’ which implies that he sometimes lapsed into it when no one was looking. And no one is suggesting that the copy must have been produced in 1629 alongside the Rembrandt; it is far more likely that it was lying around the studio in later years, and that Rembrandt set one of his pupils the task of copying it. (Incidentally, he wasn't quite up to the task; the highlight on the lower lip—a point ignored by Schama—is incorrectly placed in the Mauritshuis copy). No, both versions are ‘unarguably beautiful,’ says Schama, and from that irrelevant consideration he leaps to a perfectly brilliant thought, thoroughly worthy of those predecessors of his who, by the turn of the century, had brought the corpus of paintings comfortably into four figures. Could it not be that ‘both these heads are from Rembrandt's own hand?’ Well, that way madness lies.

It is infuriating to have so much that is misleading, so much unilluminating gush on Rembrandt himself, since the account of the society which produced him is often interesting, and covers a fair amount of material which will not be familiar to the general reader. If the enormous chapter on Rubens is of only tangential relevance to the matter at hand, there is a lot about the violent religious conflicts of the time which is of absorbing interest. It is absolutely right to place that armoured self-portrait of 1629 next to the siege of's Hertogenbosch, proceeding at the same time; it suddenly looks much less like a piece of fancy dress, and much more like a call to arms.

If Rembrandt's Eyes is not quite as substantial as its bulk would suggest, there is nevertheless a great deal of value in it. Schama obviously responds to a lot of Rembrandt; his enthusiasm, from time to time, is contagious. But as an account of what makes Rembrandt great it is no longer remotely acceptable.

Jonathan Israel (review date 5 November 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 invention.” The combination of history, art history and focus on individual artistic psychology creates an intriguing mix. Schama has become a major celebrity in the world of history, art history and general cultural studies, a scholar with a splendid reputation. Rembrandt's Eyes is a lavishly produced, imposing publication.

Professor Schama's great strength, unquestionably, is the quality of his writing, or more precisely his facility with words and renowned rhetorical skills. But Rembrandt's Eyes is not quite so scintillating as The Embarrassment of Riches (1987), since the earlier book's spontaneity is often lacking, while the constant striving for effect seems more laboured, at times almost formulaic. Even so, the prose is exceptionally vivid, brimming with descriptive passages remarkable for their powerful imagery. There are, however, appreciable risks attached to being, like Schama, so much stronger on rhetoric than other skills, and it seems to me that he has often failed to avoid these pitfalls. He also often simply spins out the acrobatics until one becomes weary of so much verbal dexterity, as if of an excessively prolonged firework display.

More seriously, however, Schama tends to exaggerate to heighten effect. An example would be his account of the National Synod of Dordt (Dordrecht) in 1618–19, which followed the coup d'état mounted in the Dutch Republic, in 1618, by the Stadholder, Prince Maurice, in which he overthrew the regent regime of the States of Holland headed by Oldenbarnevelt. This was certainly an important part of the background to Rembrandt's career, and Schama rightly returns to it several times. But when he describes the hearing given the defeated Remonstrants at Dordrecht as “farcical,” pronouncing this “merely preliminary to declaring the Remonstrant creed the rankest and most damnable heresy and casting all who professed it out from the body of the Reformed Church,” he is guilty of considerable distortion. Presumably, Schama knows perfectly well that not much of this is strictly true, that Catholicism, Anabaptism, Socinianism and other forms of Christianity were deemed far worse, and that practically none of the Remonstrant laity (and only a minority of the Remonstrant preachers) was actually expelled from the public Church.

Unquestionably, Schama is best at pure description, especially his sensitive accounts of works of art, for example his consideration of Rembrandt's Bathsheba, the poignancy and beauty of which is carefully conveyed. While the crumpled letter remains the dramatic focal point, Bathsheba does indeed stare beyond it: “she has already understood too well its content,” and, as he intimates, “her gaze is both concentrated and distracted, the lips soft and loose, on the verge of trembling, the eyebrows tightly arched as though battling against the onset of tears.” The rendering of Susanna and the Elders is sensitive, as is the lengthy account of the portrait of the disfigured artist Gérard de Lairesse: “for Rembrandt, imperfections are the norm of humanity.” Another instance is that of the Jewish Bride, though, here, Schama's account of the manual caress of the husband and bride is somewhat overcooked: the pressure of his hand “is light: selfless, not cupping, stroking, or fondling her breast as if busily seeking hardening excitement, but the palm raised slightly, only the length and ends of his fingers laid flat across the gentle swelling: a solemn and reverend pleasure.” Very occasionally, as in his account of the famous Night Watch, there is not just sensitivity and verve but also some pertinent social-historical comment. Such a painting is in all kinds of ways a link between the artist and the society in which he lives: “a strong element of the painting's power,” Schama points out, “is the breadth of its human ensemble, a microcosm not just of the militia but of the whole teeming city.”

But rhetorical power is not enough to keep the show on the road. Since the Embarrassment of Riches was sternly criticized for its frequent factual errors, one might suppose that on returning to the Dutch Golden Age, Schama would have made strenuous efforts to avoid more of the same. However, once again there are numerous astounding inaccuracies. While some of the mistakes are mere errors in dates, others are far more serious. In the disastrous defeat suffered by the Dutch rebels at the hands of Alva in July 1568, according to Schama, “two thousand [of William the Silent's brother's] men were killed or surrendered to Alva”; in fact, no one surrendered, since no quarter was given, and practically the entire army, far more than 2,000, were either butchered where they stood or drowned in the nearby river. “By February 1577 the new Spanish governor, Requesens, had been forced to abandon all the elements of Alva's terror”; but the good Requesens died in March 1576. In 1618, Prince Maurice did not “purge all the town councils in the Republic” but only in two of the seven provinces, Holland and Utrecht. Wesel was not an “Imperial citadel” in 1629 but a Spanish garrison, and while this may look to some like a one-line error, Wesel was actually the principal Spanish base on the Rhine in the 1620s, and such a slip can only suggest a distinctly shaky grasp of the whole later Spanish—Dutch conflict, an episode Schama rightly deems a crucial part of the backcloth to the career of both Rubens and Rembrandt.

Most often, though, Schama lapses less into outright error than over-simplification. It may not be precisely incorrect to describe Amsterdam in the age of Rembrandt as a city of “more than a hundred thousand souls,” but it is certainly peculiar, since it was close to 150,000 when he arrived in 1631 and stood at around 200,000 in his last years. Stranger still is the claim that “to move from Leiden to Amsterdam in 1631 was more than a change of address; it concentrates on conjuring up vivid, almost palpable impressions. He describes the city as a “rat-gnawed cheese: a cradle lying with its base to the southern meadows, the top open to the dark waters of the IJ; the tubby hull of a noordvaarder awaiting masts and sail, sheets and shrouds, so that it might be off about its business; a straw-filled bolster indented with the weight of heavy heads.” It is hard to fathom what this means but no doubt many will find the description in itself impressive. Two impressions Schama particularly strives to convey are of gargantuan feasting and the city's often over-powering stench. A major contributor to the latter was the “rich cargo of the dung boats” which were supposed to travel by night but nevertheless allegedly still caused those along the route “to fasten their shutters before dark, anxious lest the awesomely potent stench would find a way through vents and cracks.” Those who relished Schama's depictions of gluttony in The Embarrassment of Riches will undoubtedly enjoy the account here of the Amsterdammers’ style of devouring poultry: “the tour de force of a great feast might [my italics] be the famous pie of boned birds, each nesting cozily within the body of its bigger relative, so that the diner could chew his way from heron to lark (via swan, capon, wild goose, pintail, widgeon, shoveller duck, lapwing, pigeon, plover, woodcock, and snipe, the last with the innards removed, ground into fine paste, and then reinserted into the cavity), an entire aviary devoured at one sitting.” The “might” in the above may sound sensibly cautious but by no means deters Schama from assuring us that “three or four days of feasting (the usual form) would take its toll on even the most devoted gourmand.”

Again and again, accumulation of verbiage becomes an exercise for its own sake. Out in the markets and exchanges, we are told,

Amsterdam threatened to turn the new Jerusalem into the new Babel, Portuguese, Italian, Polish, German High and Low, Danish, Swedish, Turkish, Ladino, Spanish Flemish, Friesian; greetings, complaints, inquiries, barters, insults, felicitations; the cries of street vendors; the bellowing of actors and storytellers; the solemn assurances of quacks, the shrieks of clowns, the carefully orchestrated oohs of crowds watching a tightrope-walker; the barking of penned hounds at the Monday morning dog market; the ugly chorus of crows roosting in the plane trees.

But was any of this much different in seventeenth-century London, Rome, Venice, Constantinople, Danzig, Hamburg or Copenhagen? The innumerable students, museum and media people who have an unshakeable faith in Schama will no doubt wish to use the book as an authority. But even they will find it difficult to do so because in many cases when analyzing the political, religious and cultural context, the non-specialist reader who does not recognize the original sources is left largely in the dark as to the origins of his material. In general, the supply of footnotes is remarkably restricted, given the size of the work; an economy which has sometimes resulted in a rather inadequate acknowledgement of other authorities.

In part, this is a work of art history, yet it involves astonishingly little discussion of what other art historians have written in recent years about the context of Rembrandt's art, trends in Dutch painting at the time, and the pressures of the art market. Schama argues that there has been a tendency to exaggerate the impact of social and economic factors in shaping the career of a “genius” such as Rembrandt. Yet there were huge changes, truly massive pressures in the Dutch art market, and on the art scene, during Rembrandt's life, and to publish on Rembrandt ignoring the discussion about those shifts and pressures seems willfully and ill-advisedly unscholarly. Rembrandt trained as a “history” painter, that is, to paint large, complex, many-figured scenes, the most elaborate, highly coloured and prestigious kind of painting, which then fetched the highest prices. “History” painting, along with mythological and expensive, highly coloured, flower painting was, however, one of the main artistic casualties of the Dutch commercial slump of the 1620s, a powerful factor which had much to do with the general shift of those years, reflected in the work of many, or most, Dutch artists then active, towards painting smaller, humbler, less intricate and more rapidly executed pictures. The driving force was the compelling need, caused by drastic contraction at the top end, a need persisting through the 1630s, albeit easing after 1635, to open up a new kind of mass art market, selling large quantities of pictures to a more modest clientele at very low prices.

Schama insists that Rembrandt was a great genius whose artistic evolution was driven by its own inner logic and that social and economic forces, along with wider trends on the Dutch art scene, do not apply to him. But if one believes that Rembrandt's move to Amsterdam was not part of a survival strategy, or a resort to less artistically demanding work, then one has to justify one's argument in terms of the specific context, the real pressures at work, the facts of the situation. Since Rembrandt almost gave up painting large history scenes for some years and, on moving to Amsterdam in 1631, concentrated for a time on easily executed portrait likenesses of merchants and their wives, churning them out rapidly, the obvious explanation is that this was his way of coping with the temporary collapse of “history” painting, a survival strategy which brought him affluence and fame but, to some extent, required his delaying the more ambitious artistic project for which he was trained. Schama realizes that it was not the “Calvinist revolution” of 1618–19 which caused the great wave of artistic austerity in the 1620s. He also understands that the new trends were “certainly in keeping with the emphasis on sobriety and native virtue that marked literature as well as art in the early years of the renewed war with Spain,” describing the shift as the “replacement of a flamboyantly poetic manner with an unapologetically prosaic one: a coming down to earth.” But then he simply ignores the harsh slump, indeed drops the whole subject without making the slightest effort to relate Rembrandt's development to what he himself has just admitted was the prevailing artistic tendency.

Schama's central thrust is his claim that the evolution of Rembrandt's genius is best understood not as part of a specially northern Netherlands artistic and cultural context which, in turn, was powerfully shaped by political, religious and economic factors, but rather by the inner logic of his genius, as a psychological process arising from intensely personal preoccupations, the chief of which was his fixation on, and envy of, Rubens. This is the justification for devoting much of the work to describing the life and career of Rubens: “only when Rubens died, in 1640, and Rembrandt had indeed become the supreme master of his time. … would he throw the weight of his emulation from his back.” He “began to make himself over in Rubens’ image,” Schama holds, “around 1627.”

It is undeniable, of course, that there are illuminating parallels to be drawn between specific paintings of Rembrandt and earlier works of Rubens. Rembrandt's Descent from the Cross, for example, and particularly the poignantly twisted, drooping Christ figure, bears an unmistakable resemblance to the Rubens Descent from the Cross of which Lucas Vorsterman made an etching in 1620. But then the Rembrandt was painted for the Stadholder, Frederik Hendrik, and this prince, like his secretary, Constantijn Huygens—who was not impressed by Rembrandt's portraiture but enthusiastic about his skill as a “history” painter—were great admirers of Rubens, and the initiative for Rembrandt's emulation of Rubens in this, as in other cases, may well have originated with them. Indeed, Schama himself admits that “perhaps Huygens’ obvious adulation of Rubens, his personal contact with the Flemish master, his intense desire when the circumstances of the war allowed, to have him produce work for Frederik Hendrik's court, pricked Rembrandt's keen sense of emulation and envy.” It is more likely that Huygens simply said he wanted something reminiscent of Rubens. Certainly, the sideways glances towards Rubens are important in Rembrandt's artistic development. But whether they are enough to justify the overwhelming emphasis which Schama puts on this particular creative dialectic is another question.

Much of the argument here seems highly conjectural. As, for example, the claim that until Rembrandt consciously began to emulate Rubens he was but a mediocre artist. Rembrandt's early painting Anna, Tobit and the Kid (1626) is, at least in my view, an exceptionally beautiful, original, sensitive and moving picture. Is Schama right to claim that this painting shows that “by no stretch of the imagination is he yet a master of any significance. In 1626 all manner of artists in the Netherlands are painting more skilfully, more creatively, more beautifully than he: Esaias van den Velde and Frans Hals are in their prime.” Yet it was only three years later that Huygens, one of the most discerning critics of the age, eulogized Rembrandt and Lievens above all other Dutch artists, insisting that “to say that they alone are destined to equal the greatest of the superior mortals I have described above [including Rubens] would yet beggar their achievement.” And then there is Schama's contention that “Whatever his complicated mix of sentiments towards Rubens, the Flemish master was seldom far from Rembrandt's mind in the mid and late 1630s.” But the only evidence offered by Schama is that Rembrandt purchased a mythological picture (Hero and Leander) by Rubens, in October 1637, and embarked on a series of “big figure epics” allegedly more or less “based on models supplied by Rubens.” Certainly, there are some clear echoes. The way the contorted body of Samson is rendered in the grisly Blinding of Samson seems to owe something to the similarly contorted body of Rubens's Prometheus Bound. But there are only a few unmistakable echoes of this kind and, in any case, the general tone and sensibility of these two pictures remain quite different.

“But were Rembrandt's nudes, in fact, all that different from Rubens's,” asks Schama rhetorically, “and especially from the ample Rubensian bodies of the mid-1630s with their voluptuously fleshy overspill and their heavy horticultural ripeness?” Ruben's nudes may not have “remotely resembled fifth-century Greek Aphrodites or Dianas” but nor do they remotely resemble nudes by Rembrandt: Schama may be right to say that “Rembrandt thought brutal nakedness altogether more compelling than decorous nudity”—and that this put Kenneth Clark distinctly off his port—but it impossible to see how this supports his case with regard to Rubens. When discussing Susanna and the Elders, he suggests that Rembrandt, once again, takes his cue from Rubens. Rubens having painted several Susannas, employing a theme originally intended as “reproof to the viciousness of old men,” allegedly turns them into something approaching “aphrodisiacs to revive their jaded libidos.” But is Rembrandt's frightened Susanna then meant to exude eroticism? In what way exactly does he “take his cue from Rubens”?

Of course, as the most celebrated and successful artist of the age, Rubens attracted an international fascination of which Rembrandt, like innumerable other artists of the day, must have been acutely aware. But to argue that the example of Rubens became the psychological driving force which moved Rembrandt from mediocrity to greatness seems distinctly less than persuasive. Affinities between the two painters seem to have been far fewer than Schama is inclined to maintain. I say “inclined” because, having created the impression of a fundamental parallelism by giving so much attention to Rubens, and introducing so many rhetorical comparisons, he seldom really tries to demonstrate this parallelism by making close, rigorously argued comparisons. Indeed, the whole of Schama's epic treatment of Rubens and Rembrandt is a rhetorical ploy, something designed to impress those with limited expertise in the field, rather than a serious, sustained argument with rigorous intellectual underpinning. Nor would he have succeeded, one suspects, had he tried to be more systematic. After all, Rubens was a court artist, working in a courtly, aristocratic and Catholic milieu, while Rembrandt was a big-city artist working in a commercial, middle-class, Protestant milieu. The feel, the sensibility and the values they convey are almost always fundamentally different. Admittedly, this kind of argumentation from historical context is the very thing Schama is trying to break away from. That is why he insists on the Rubens—Rembrandt dialectic in the first place. But Schama's unhistorical approach simply does not (and perhaps cannot) work for the simple reason that historical context, the pressures and concerns of social and cultural milieux, plainly did condition, and to an extent confine, even these two surpassing artistic geniuses.

No one with any knowledge of the Dutch Golden Age could possibly find Rembrandt's Eyes substantial. On the contrary, Schama's strategy appears to be to omit as far as possible everything that is intellectually demanding, historically complex and which requires any effort from the reader. He seems almost deliberately to be trying to reduce historical writing to vivid impressions, appealing unabashedly to the senses instead of to the mind. This is a colorful supplement to the existing art-historical literature, but one to be consulted with caution. The vigorous rhetoric sometimes delivers, but I doubt whether I am alone in finding gratuitously coarse his description of Rembrandt's wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, “with her butterball chins, lopsided grin, and coppery curls … a nice Frisian girl … bred up from good solid stock like the cattle up there, famous for their copious flow of milk.” Or what does one make of the fatuous concluding section, most of which is a description of Dutch Batavia in 1673, a place where Europeans soon grew used to calling the local fruit “by their proper names of Tjamboes, Dap-Dap, Takkatak and Fokky-Fokky.” Here Schama finally seems to have succumbed to pure froth, with no content at all.

Of course, Rembrandt's Eyes will be acclaimed by media hacks, publishers’ agents and reviewers unfamiliar with the subject matter, as one more masterpiece by “one of the greatest historians of the twentieth-century” which, as the dust-jacket puts it, “by a combination of scholarship and literary skill—allows us actually to see life through Rembrandt's own eyes.” The orchestrated fanfare will be reinforced by the BBC, which, intending to feature Schama's sixteen-part series on the history of Britain next year, has reason to promote his reputation, and has lately been insisting as shrilly as anyone else on his surpassing achievement as a historian. But Schama's rhetoric, and the supporting media fanfare, raise compelling questions about the character of today's learned and literary culture as well as what currently makes successful historical writing. Increasingly, the power of commercial factors and the media generates cultural trends in our society. More and more, what is valued is the packaging, the glossy surface and pungent image-creation, with less and less emphasis on intellectual content.

Communication skills, together with glamour, are what count in the new culture, and the level of what is communicated is ceasing to matter. One would surely need to be excessively cynical, however, to believe that such forces could ever truly sweep scholarly values and criteria aside to such an extent as to finally determine what is valuable, important or great in historical and art-historical writing, and in cultural life more generally. Assuredly, much can be built on froth, but experience suggests that little or none of this will endure.

Svetlana Alpers (review date 14 November 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 a museum, one wants to confront it and, also, to be confronted by it. There is a relationship to be had, or so we imagine, with the person portrayed and also with the portrayer. In this, Rembrandt is unique.

It is hard, therefore, to believe that his reputation needs rehabilitating. He is still an exemplary genius among artists. But the aim of Simon Schama's brilliantly narrated account of Rembrandt's life and works, Rembrandt's Eyes, is to bring his genius clearly into focus once again. There is a reason.

Rembrandt has been in the news in recent years, and it hasn't been because of the discovery of a great new painting or because of the high price received for an old one. Instead, the major topic has been the dis-attributing of beloved works by a team of Dutch experts known as the Rembrandt Research Project. By now, they have changed some of their judgments: The Polish Rider in the Frick Museum is, perhaps correctly, back in, while The Man in the Golden Helmet in Berlin remains, certainly correctly, out. But in the meantime, amid all the attention to his workshop and to his painting technique, an established notion of the individuality of Rembrandt has been either threatened or complicated. It depends on your sense of things.

The painters in his workshop, who used to be thought of as students, are now seen as his assistants. And the number of works they painted that have been confused with his suggests that they were encouraged to draw and paint-like their master. That is normal workshop practice. But it is different in the case of an artist whose manner of painting, repeated self-portrayals and conspicuous signature all seem designed to display his own authority. Does what we now know of the workshop practice dilute Rembrandt's genius or suggest that we ought to think of it differently? Schama wants to combat this latter view, what he takes as the threat to his genius.

The story of Rembrandt's life is familiar because it has been told so often. He is one of those artists—Caravaggio is another—whose art tends to be accounted for with an appeal to his life. It has helped that there are some stirring events and also the element of self-depiction. Both have been featured in movies and several novels have been written about Rembrandt. The miller's son from Leyden drops out of university to paint; apprentices in Leyden and then Amsterdam; returns to Leyden, where he shares a studio with Jan Lievens, another ambitious young painter. Both are acclaimed early on by Constantine Huygens, secretary to the Prince of Orange and father of the great scientist while Lievens is off to England and the court, he moves to Amsterdam, where he joins an ongoing painting business; marries Saskia, the owner's monied niece; paints The Anatomy of Dr. Tulp and a host of other portraits; takes on a series of student-assistants; works on and off on a group of works depicting the Passion for the court at The Hague. Eventually he buys a ruinously expensive house next door; paints The Nightwatch; and Saskia dies; their son Titus survives. Rembrandt then deserts and has committed the family maid, who is displaced by his mistress, Hendrickje Stoffels, who models for him as Bathsheba. He declares bankruptcy, moves house but keeps on painting magnificently. Stoffels and Titus die before he dies in poverty in 1669.

How, one wonders, will the story be told this time?

Rembrandt's Eyes is not chronologically organized. But many stories are not. It unfolds in an order that can best be described as indeterminate. If begins (the year is 1629; Rembrandt is 23) with a long and gripping description of an early Self-Portrait. “We should apologize for daring to speak about painting.” There is a certain wit about placing this quotation from Paul Valéry at the start. A dazzling ability to conjure up what Schama calls the quiddity of a painting is repeatedly on show in what follows. The diminutive artist, his piercing eyes in shadow, stands back from a canvas that is turned away from us. The peeling plaster of his studio exposing the rosy brick beneath attracts his attention. The painting is attended to not as a display of fine feeling but as a display of high intelligence. This is a promising basis for a new account.

But would the above-mentioned Huygens have thought the Self-Portrait suitable for the court at The Hague if he had seen it in Rembrandt's studio—supposing that he did? In Schama's telling, client and artist were both pursuing genius, Huygens for the court, Rembrandt for himself. And the model of success at the time was Rubens, nearby but across enemy lines in Antwerp.

A change of scene now to New York, 1998. Some thoughts are entertained on the predicament of Genius in the postmodern world. And then the story begins. But, most surprising, for the next 150 pages or so, the story we are told is not of Rembrandt but of Rubens. The Rubens story, much of which concerns his parents, is not well known. But that is not why it is told. The reasoning is that in order to become singular, Rembrandt had to become someone's doppelgänger. And that someone was Rubens. Therefore, let's see how Rubens became Rubens.

This is a new twist in the telling of Rembrandt's life. Because the two artists never met and because their relationship was not remarked at the time, what evidence is there, as Schama puts it, that Rembrandt wanted to be the Dutch Rubens? That he worked as if he shared a studio with him? That he wanted to get a foot in a palace door and be a gentleman intellectual and have a career making angel-choked altarpieces?

The clearest evidence of an artistic relationship is that Rembrandt borrowed the format of a Descent from the Cross from Rubens and etched a Self-Portrait in 1631 that has long been recognized as modeled on an engraved portrait of Rubens.

Rembrandt's relationship to Rubens used to be described in terms of style. In the mid-1630s, Rembrandt painted some large history paintings displaying brutal, physical action. His depiction of Samson, for example, focuses not on snipping off the hair but on the violence of putting out eyes. When stylistic terms were in fashion, this used to be referred to as Rembrandt's “baroque” period. It was seen as an aberration, a detour from the inward nature of his artistry. One might call it Rubensian. But why claim that he wanted to be Rubens?

Is it Rubens’ art that Rembrandt was emulating, or was it his successful career? Schama chooses not to distinguish the two.

Given the available traditions of art in Europe, Rubens was a possible event. Even a necessary one. He brings to a culmination what is available. Rembrandt's art, on the other hand, could not have been anticipated. It breaks away. If it is Rembrandt's uniqueness that one is after—and that is surely the basis for understanding his art—then one should emphasize his difference from Rubens.

Rembrandt refused to go to Italy, never painted himself with his wife or his wife with a child, almost never collaborated with artists in his workshop, while Rubens organized a factory system based on collaboration. Rembrandt rarely copied the older art he collected and did not teach assistants to do so; he received no golden chains from courts. Rembrandt portrayed himself many times, Rubens hardly ever; Rembrandt signed almost every painting and etching, Rubens signed only five paintings in his entire career. Rembrandt drew nudes and used women in his household as models although, despite the look of his paintings, Rubens seldom drew models and surely never asked his wife to hold a naked pose for him to paint. After a failed attempt at replicative prints after his works (like Rubens), Rembrandt treated the replicative medium of etching as a way to produce individual, almost unreplicable works. Finally, though most of Rubens’ drawings are connected to a future painting. Rembrandt drew without a specific project in view. The great majority of his drawings depict enactments of obscure biblical scenes.

As art historians have replaced the old questions of style and iconography with studies of careers, however, Rembrandt has been transformed from an artistic rebel into an artist bent on making it. It is his relationship to others, not his difference from them, that is now in play. Although Schama does not put it this way, his foray into Rubens is in part a response to the important book by Gary Schwartz, Rembrandt: His Life, His Paintings (1985). It is a book to which we are all indebted even when we disagree with it. Schwartz, a dedicatee of Schama's book, framed remarkable archival discoveries about Rembrandt and his patrons with a point of view that came close to trashing the man and his art. Rembrandt is judged to have been a failure because he failed to get on with the court at The Hague and squandered his opportunities with patrons.

Schama has transformed this indictment of Rembrandt's career into a sympathetic story of wanting and failing to be like Rubens, the most successful artist of the day at the European courts. Not to succeed in becoming a Dutch Rubens is a limited kind of failure after which, in this account, Rembrandt went on to be himself.

Something like this point was previously made but in a novel nearly 30 years ago. Though Schama writes that with Rubens’ death, Rembrandt is free of his obsession, Gladys Schmidt in her Rembrandt (1961) created a Rembrandt who continues to despair of not gaining court acceptance even after his rival's death. In her telling, a visit from Lievens, his former studio-mate who had made it at the English court, brings home to him his own lack of success. As fiction, it makes for a surprisingly good read.

So, what does it do to a sense of Rembrandt to entertain a Rubens scenario? It serves to highlight ambition and to give shape to a puzzling career. But it is unsustainable from the point of view of the art. And what is more, if one aims to give a unified account of the making of art and the making of a career, Rubens does not suffice as a representation of Rembrandt's ambitions.

Schama has the great gift of bringing to life whatever he turns to. This is a matter of creative imagination and creative writing. Together they predispose him to get at art's relationship to life. In Rembrandt's case, this means that his art is taken as opening up to life in the world—like the rendering of peeling plaster in the Self-Portrait that Schama imagines to be what he actually saw on his own studio wall.

Rembrandt's Eyes is full of remarkable passages on what Rembrandt depicted, from evocations of what is shrewdly called the drama of models undressing to the countryside haunted by people and hemmed in by the profile of a distant town. There is no doubt that Rembrandt's art is life-like in many respects. What is most strange, however, and rather side-stepped here, is that aside from some landscape drawings, Rembrandt never worked from life except in the studio. He took life in and directed it himself. Even his beggars were not encountered on the street.

Schama's appeal to the real world is an attempt to keep historians who would place Rembrandt in a workshop setting from diluting his unique genius. Himself no mean describer of the working of paint, Schama has a taste for the lived world and often for the life of the world today. All historical writing is necessarily a mix of then and now. The reconstruction of the past is rendered by someone writing in the present. In this case, the tendency is to blur the two. Much of the immediacy is achieved by an appeal to the here and now. The remarkable array of people in The Nightwatch is described as being how we all are. And the Jan Six, that subtlest of portraits of a recalcitrant sitter who, soon after, deserted his painter, is said to stand before us much as we would dearly wish to imagine ourselves, with all our contradictions resolved.

Is this Rembrandt or is this Schama? Does it matter?

Richard E. Spear (review date 28 November 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 Citizens, makes wonderful use of his own able hand and inborn gifts to bring to life Rembrandt's career as well as that of his contemporary Peter Paul Rubens. Rembrandt's Eyes, whose title refers to the important role that eyes, sight and blindness play in the master's imagery, is three books in one: detailed biographies of the two titans of Northern baroque art, a rich chronicle of 17th-century Netherlandish history, and an astute critique of Rembrandt's and Rubens's art. In my view, this overly long but handsomely produced book is unconvincing in its basic premise: that Rembrandt not only had a “passionate interest in Rubens” but was “haunted by the older master.”

Rembrandt undoubtedly hoped to emulate Rubens's success (envy is one sub-theme of the book), and it is true that, for a brief period, he imitated aspects of Rubens's art in a few works. For example, he adopted the Fleming's designs in his Descent from the Cross (1631) and an etched Self-Portrait of the same year, just as later he emulated poses by Raphael and Titian in a painted “Self-Portrait.” But it does not follow that Rembrandt “borrowed the identities” of the artists he studied, as Schama suggests. It's more likely that he was engaging in heuristic imitation, intentionally revealing his models as a way of demonstrating his own work's sensitivity to and distance from them.

Schama's gift in this study, which for biographical information cannot replace Gary Schwartz's Rembrandt: His Life, His Paintings (1985) or compete with the illuminating technical analyses in Ernst van de Wetering's Rembrandt: The Painter at Work (1997), is his ability to verbalize his rich historical imagination. The book begins, for instance, with an animated account of the siege of Hertogenbosch in 1629, when “the army would awake before dawn to a July downpour that continued for days, dissolving strategy into a broth of streaming water and treacly mud. In the rear of the soldiers, a train of hangers-on remained encamped in the sopping mire … wives and whores, seamstresses and laundry-women; babes at the tit and snot-nosed urchins picking pockets or throwing back tankards of beer; vermin-catchers; piss-gazing quacks … hurdy-gurdy men; half-wild dogs rooting for bones; and bedraggled lousy vagabonds who simply stood about, hollow-eyed and watchful, like gulls at the stern of a herring boat, drawn to the leavings.”

Schama describes vividly other events surrounding the artists’ lives: the iconoclasm that ravaged Antwerp in 1566; the ill-advised liaison between Jan Rubens (the painter's father) and the wife of William of Orange-Nassau; Rubens's difficult trip to Spain in 1603 and later diplomatic missions; the bitter, violent controversies that divided Dutch Calvinism; and the biographies of many of Rembrandt's sitters.

Masterfully in control of Northern European history, Schama is less at home in the South. He mistakenly refers to an ancient muse of painting, whose absence among the nine goddesses is indicative of painting's low rank among the arts and sciences in antique thought and for a millennium thereafter. It is similarly misleading to equate “Catholic teaching” with a perfected body and simplistic to claim that in Italy “images … in baroque churches were supposed to do their work mystically, bringing the worshipper into a state of trance-like exaltation.”

Schama looked long and hard at Rubens's and Rembrandt's art and skillfully verbalizes what he saw. His portrayal of Rembrandt's Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem is a masterpiece of ekphrasis, the literary genre of rhetorical description of images. And with no less refinement (a peculiar word in this context), he characterizes Rembrandt's Ganymede, that shockingly realistic likeness of an ugly boy pissing from fright as he is abducted by the eagle-Jupiter: It “smells of little boy; from his impressive scrotum, chubby thighs; and stomach amply layered with puppy fat, to his squashed nose, puffy cheeks, and curly topknot.”

At times the prose takes over, verging on cuteness and misrepresenting works. Schama trivializes Rubens's terrifying Prometheus when he speaks of its ferocious eagle as “lunching” on Prometheus's liver, which he calls “bird food.” Nor does his description of Claudius Civilis's followers in Rembrandt's haunting image of brooding conspirators ring true when he calls them “swarthy orientals, belching dotards, a druidical priest,” contending “you can hear them yell and guffaw, smell their foul breath and unclean bodies.” Prints and drawings play an integral role in his analyses, too, though their techniques of the burin, etching needle and reed pen are less well understood.

Another theme of Rembrandt's Eyes is the painter's genius. Schama argues that he was “as much philosopher as poet,” a “scholar,” a “virtuoso of universal knowledge, every bit as anxious as Rubens to demonstrate that he was no crude artisan, but a pictor doctus, an intellectual painter,” even though in 1656 he owned just 15 books. While disclaiming Rembrandtolatry, the book inescapably partakes of the cult, which, like most extremist beliefs, leaves little room for dissension.

Hence the opinion of Andries Pels quoted above is belittled more than historicized, as are paintings by Ferdinand Bol and Govert Flinck, Rembrandt's late, more successful competitors, and the work of Rembrandt's main teacher, Pieter Lastman, whose vocabularies of affective gestures, which certainly were meaningful to their audiences, are called “comical.” A consequence of this bias is that Rembrandt's paintings of the Passion, which are among his most “Italianate” images, are considered failures, indicative of Rembrandt's “career as a pseudo-Rubensian maker of angel-choked altarpieces.”

Even when it is entirely enthusiastic, style criticism of this sort is ahistorical and threatens to shut down the reader's response. Is Rembrandt's “Portrait of Jan Six really “without any question the greatest of all his portraits … the greatest portrait of the seventeenth century”?

“We're overly accustomed to thinking of the lives of painters as an odyssey of self-discovery,” Schama warns, but “for all the excesses of Romantic imaging, we should not be entirely wrong in charting this course for Rembrandt.” Thus he is not wary of becoming an analyst, credibly linking biography to imagery, notably in the later works when the artist's life had fallen apart. In light of Rembrandt's dire financial needs, “no wonder” he worked “fast and furious throughout 1654.” Was Rembrandt, he speculates, “indulging in a case of tragic projection” in some of his “most originally conceived and hauntingly powerful paintings,” designed “while the creditors were knocking at the door”? The most disputed proposition concerning autobiography-into-art, Rembrandt's lifelong, obsessive self-imaging, is accepted by Schama, and explained as the expression of the painter's “experimental dissolution of his self into countless other personae.” The great series of self-portraits thus reveals Rembrandt identifying with the “personification” of us all, casting himself as Everyman.

Despite its wonderful evocations of history and art, this book does not measure up to The Embarrassment of Riches, Schama's earlier, brilliant interpretation of 17th-century Dutch culture.

David Freedberg (review date 6 December 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 Eyes has something in it of the voluptuousness and the humanity not so much of Rembrandt as of Rubens, the other hero of this vast canvas—particularly the domestic Rubens, the lover of children and of the comforts of home, the painter of sumptuous altarpieces and abundant female flesh. The largeness of this book is not least a measure of the largeness of its author's heart.

Rembrandt's Eyes opens with a stunning set piece about the siege of's Hertogenbosch in 1629. Who besides Schama could have thought of opening a book about Rembrandt with such an account? Or of footnoting a reference, in the very first sentence of the book, to the nightingales heard fluting over the artillery? Certainly nothing in recent historical writing even begins to match the vivacity of Schama's description of the sounds, the sights, and the smells of war, its putrid terrors and its noisy pleasures. It is Spielbergian in its attention to the telling detail.

Nobody else delivers page-turners like this. No reader could fail to be swept along by the narrative drive (where no connection, however remote or unexpected, is ever missed), or by the great word-pictures, the passages of fabulous description, each one studded with words that you have never heard before, or phrases that make this particular historical moment or that strange and long forgotten individual achingly present. The great ancient writers of ekphrases, or descriptions of lost or non-existent paintings, would have had much to learn from Schama. All this rests on an impressive command of the material. And Schama's scholarly courtesy is rare and exemplary; he thanks everyone who ever helped him or gave him a suggestion, from established scholars to students still working on their dissertations. Not a note of ill temper crosses these 750 pages.

The book is an extraordinary achievement, above all in its rich and convincing portrait of everyday life in Holland in the seventeenth century, in peace and in war, in commerce and in art, in public and in private. Schama tells the affecting stories of Rubens, Rembrandt, and their families; it is in his allusions to domesticity, and to the interactions between the artists and their wives, that Schama is at his most passionate. And how beautifully he frames his stories! After the wrenching bankruptcy of 1658, for example, and the sale of his house and his possessions, Rembrandt's beloved son Titus manages to redeem a large ebony and silver mirror, of which they were all evidently rather fond, from the city pawnbroker. Anyone who knows Amsterdam will understand how difficult it must have been to lug such a thing across the narrow bridges over the canals. Inevitably, the mirror falls—and “there it was in front of Titus, shivered into a thousand pieces, the shards and slivers glittering on the brick paving, leaving the boy to carry back to his father a frame without a center, a picture of nothing.” Only Schama could have conjured up a sentence like that—even if you wonder how a picture comes into it.

There is a struggle in Schama's book. It lies in the effort to make the narrative as seamless as possible, and to force it past the inevitable longueurs. Often it seems as if Schama knows exactly when you are beginning to yawn—and then he produces some lovely surprise, some unexpected reading, some verbal pyrotechnics (the book is full of fireworks, real as well as literary). Examples abound. The Nightwatch is extravagantly set up as “the crowning glory of the Kloveniersdoelen, of Amsterdam, of Dutch painting, of all of Baroque art.” Hard, really, to top that; and Schama doesn't quite know where to go in the wake of his extended discussion of the picture. Nor is he sure where to take his accounting of all the deaths in Rembrandt's family, above all the death of his beloved Saskia, in the months after the triumph of that painting. But he has something in reserve, and it will do—in a way, magnificently: “Death's sear hand,” he writes, “as all Good Christians knew, could stretch out and chill the warmest body.” What more could be said?

But then he turns, appropriately enough, to the Bible, and then, in a fine act of authorial prestidigitation, produces a passage from Ecclesiastes: “As the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it fallen suddenly upon them.” And with this as his cue, Schama moves right on to two of the most puzzling pictures in the Rembrandt corpus, two pictures that have always stumped the commentators, the Girl with Dead Peahens (circa 1639, if it is by Rembrandt at all) in Amsterdam and the Hunter with Dead Bittern (1639) in Dresden. These pictures are problematic because the juxtaposition of the birds with the figures is so anomalous—for Rembrandt as a painter, and for the iconographic tradition more generally. It is a moving transition, if not altogether convincing; and it offers a suitable pretext for Schama to conclude, correctly, that the meaning of the pictures is not exhausted by reference to the fact that art historians have made much of in recent years—that “to bird” (vogelen) meant, in contemporary slang, “to fuck.”

For the most part, Schama wants Rembrandt's pictures to be serious; and for the most part, he is right. In his general claims, Schama often reasserts the obvious with eloquence. But sometimes it is important to do this: one or two of the most distinguished Rembrandt scholars of our time have actually denied that Rembrandt, in his pictures, was (as Schama puts it) “an orchestrator of emotion.” Time and again, Schama insists on the ways in which the paintings and the prints are profound experiments in the painted expression of emotion. His interpretations of the emotional dimension of paintings such as Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver (1629) will stand as benchmarks for a long time. Schama shows, for example, just how closely the abject and remorseful figure of Judas corresponds with the contemporary description of the painting by Constantijn Huygens, Rembrandt's earliest biographer; and he makes clear how far the painter's achievement here boldly departed from the requirements of classical history painting at the time.

Schama is always attentive to color and to the handling of paint, and while he is certainly incorrect in claiming that only he and Svetlana Alpers have argued that “the manipulated paint surface itself became the subject of his art,” the passages in which he describes Rembrandt's colors and the handling of paint are memorable. I have not read a single other art historian so adept at describing the matière, the very stuff, of Rembrandt's pictures, or so knowledgeable about seventeenth-century pigments and the brushes used to applied them.

Here is the historian as sensualist. One of the most striking sections in the book is a minute description of the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and even the tactile feels, of Amsterdam in the seventeenth century. Schama's recourse to the information of the five senses, recorded and imagined, is entirely apposite for a book on Rembrandt, since Rembrandt's earliest paintings took them as their subjects. You seem to be right there, tasting the chicory, purslane, burnet, borage, and dent-delion, for your mid-day salad; you catch the feeling, almost, of that soldier in the whorehouse or musico, “fumbling sweatily with a girl's chemise while two pairs of hands reciprocate his advances, one applying friendly pressure to his breeches, the other darting, quick as a mouse, in and out, a purse nimbly retrieved between finger and thumb.”

But if only Schama had known when to stop! It is true that he gets the feel not just of Amsterdam, but also of Messina, Genoa, and parts of Rome, and these are all wonderful passages of historical sympathy and imagination; but when he describes how Rubens “clicked his tongue at the disdainful macaws” of the Genoese aristocracy, you begin to doubt. Too often the transitions seem to be forced by the simple need to keep the story going. It is as if he were always afraid of rupture. Seamlessly, again, but too artfully, Schama moves from his discussion of Rembrandt's painting of Jacob blessing the sons of Joseph to the fate of Rembrandt's own son Titus, and to one of Rembrandt's famous adaptations of Mughal drawings. Having commented on how, in the Mughal drawing, Shah Jehan chin-chucks his son, Schama cannot stop himself from referring to Titus as a youth, “who doubtless could have used the occasional chinchuck himself.” Doubtless.

How much does it add to the picture that Schama has already so skillfully painted to say of Constantijn Huygens, Rembrandt's early promoter and patron, that in penning his poems, he formed his letters with “the tails from his v's flicking like a whip, white fingers gliding over the sheet”; or that Rubens had to put a good dog in his Raising of the Cross because Antwerp “was a very doggy town”; or that Caravaggio was “the ultimate corkscrew draftsman“; or that the “barefoot blonde” on a wing of Rubens's Descent from the cross is “pure Veronese roll-in-the-hay sweet mischief”; or that the shiny head of the infant Christ on the same panel is like “a high-watt lightbulb powered by a spiritual generator”? Why does Schama have to be quite so flip about the alleged childishness of the paintings by Rembrandt's teacher Pieter Lastman, or about the Book of Tobit, where Tobit is described as having been blinded by “a load of hot sparrow guano,” or, indeed, so patronizing about God himself, in the account of how both Rembrandt and Lastman illustrated the prophet Balaam's attempt at cursing the Israelites (“Understandably, God, who had already taken the trouble to ward Balaam off, was not especially happy about this …”)?

Schama has interesting observations to make about the significance of Rembrandt's lovelock in the early Self-Portrait in Nuremberg, but then he cheapens it all by referring to the work as the picture of “a poet in heavy metal.” In passages such as these, the striving for effect goes too far. Time and again we begin to think how much better the book would have been for a little more restraint, a little less speed (it shows many signs of haste), a little less urgency in bringing it to its conclusion. The book is too self-indulgent; and it reflects Schama's compulsion to cover almost everything. Sometimes everything is too much.

And still one notices an occasional omission. Schama might have paid a little more attention to Rembrandt's prints and drawings. I miss, for example, the remarkable etching, only apparently unfinished, of the painter in his studio, with its Pygmalion-like model, which tells so much about Rembrandt's studio practices, and about his theoretical views both on painting and printmaking; or the print of the “vogel Phoenix,” with its clear allusion to Rembrandt's belief in his eventual triumph over fate. By contrast, the book's final section—with its three excursuses on Huygens's poem called “Ooghentroost” or “Balm for the Eyes” (as Schama translates it), on Rembrandt's deformed pupil Gerard de Lairesse, and on the sad fate of his daughter Cornelia in far-off Batavia—adds very little. These excursuses have their typically evocative, picturesque, and compelling moments, but how much more movingly the book would have been ended if he had left them all out, and concluded with his account of the Simeon in the Temple in Stockholm, where Simeon, behind his heavy lids (as Schama puts it), “has at last seen the light of salvation and is able at last to declare, ‘Lord, now latest though they servant depart in peace.’”

There are moments, in the reading of Rembrandt's Eyes, when you say to yourself: here, finally, is a writer about art and history who understands something about life—especially when it comes to the complex knot of relations between work and love. But even of this there is too much. You begin to tire of the repeated emphases on the salvific aspects of domesticity, of women, of the female breast. Twice in eight pages Schama refers to that moment in sacred history when the Virgin interceded for mankind by baring her breast to her son. On the second of these occasions, he makes an odd comparison with Rubens's mother, and says that she did not bare her own breast to the Prince of Orange (as the Virgin did to Christ) in order to have him free her adulterous husband from house arrest. This is both superfluous and bizarre.

For Schama, Rubens turns out to be just too seductive an example of the voluptuary, in person and in his paintings. This is a mistake. Too often Schama uses Rubens as a foil for his own luxuriant meditations on the female breast. In this manner, he slips into the trap of deriving far more than is justified about the person from the work. There is really no evidence at all to suggest that Rubens himself was the “lustiest celebrant of female voluptuousness in the history of Western art”; and all talk of his “strong animal nature” is little more than wishful thinking. (I was reminded of an old and distinguished art historian who once asked me whether I thought Rubens was good in bed.) There are some things that we cannot know.

Over and over again, Schama refers to the lusciousness and the succulence of some pair of breasts or another, to the “zaftig” and maternal qualities of the women in Rubens's as well as Rembrandt's life. And when it comes to the lower classes, he never loses the opportunity to remind his readers of the earthiness of the connection between nature and nurture. Amid the checkered scene at the siege of's Hertogenbosch, for example, he pictures the “babes at the tit and snot-nosed urchins picking pockets or throwing back tankards of beer”; and in Rubens's great Kermis in the Louvre he identifies “the slurping pull of the babe on the mother's tit; a skirt riding high up the grimy thighs of a stomping dancer. …” One begins to grasp the connections.

The high end of all this, of course, is the Virgin; and just below her comes The Jewish Bride in Amsterdam (we still have no idea whether she was Jewish or not) and the mother in the Family Group in Braunschweig; both paintings are among Rembrandt's greatest. Here Schama pays his highest tribute to the redemptive aspects of the breast. He describes how “the male hand [is] laid on a woman's breast, wife, mother; a gesture that seems to speak more profoundly to the point of life than anything else in the canon of Western art.” A large claim! “For it speaks of passion and peace; of desire and rest; of nature and nurture; of family feeling as the salve of loneliness, the redemption of selfishness, the well of happiness.” Some will find such prose moving; others will find it embarrassing.

Even so, Schama goes over the top with his next question, in another of his attempts to connect what really need not be connected—in this case, emotion and the technique, no, the very substance, of pictures.

So should we be surprised to find that particles of egg have been discovered in beads of paint taken from theJewish Bride? The chain of life, its profound, organic mystery, its vital pulse arising as desire, enacted in passion, and ending in abiding trust and companionship was the subject Rubens and Rembrandt chose to portray as the essence of humanity at the end of their lives, returning again and again to the dwelling-places of family affection.

It is a noble conclusion (though it applies much more to Rubens than to Rembrandt); but it is all too neatly in keeping with the family values that are so frequently asserted throughout the book. Those of us who do not see the link between the egg in the paint and the meaning of life must cringe at the claim.

The book is full of repetitions. Twice in three pages we are introduced to “the Lorraine graphic artist Jacques Callot.” I have no idea what the anachronistic term “graphic artist” (also used in connection with Jacques de Gheyn) is intended to mean. By page eleven, we are told twice that the Stadtholder Frederick Hendrick was seen as a new Alexander, which he wasn't much at all. Many times we are reminded, obviously as a neat piece of local color, that Rubens portrayed the church of San Teodoro on the Palatine; the term furia del pennello, misspelled at least three times, is used over and over again in connection with Rubens's paintings, in differing contexts, and not always correctly; and the same with the notion of the Biblia pauperum, a misleading reference to medieval illustrated paraphrases of the Bible, but adduced by Schama in relation to sixteenth-century religious writers on art. (And what on earth does Schama mean when he writes that “the mid-sixteenth century was more shockingly unintelligent than most other times”?)

Schama is blindly in love with his favorite epithets (to say nothing of his affection for the phenomena of tulips, virility, and breasts). Too often we hear of the “exopthalmic” eyes of Rembrandt's friends, sitters, and patrons; or of variations on that exopthalmic theme, of how people's eyes “popped out of their sockets” (in the case of Belshazzar in the London Belshazzar's Feast); or were “cow-like” (Rubens's second wife); or “feline” (his first wife); or just plain “beady” (poor Amalia van Solms, wife of the above-mentioned Alexander). There is too much coruscation throughout; people strut more frequently than they ought; more or less everyone is capricious; and pictures are too often shameless (twice in two consecutive sentences on page 167—and not just for effect!).

The book is a miracle of historical reconstruction, based on a profound sympathy for period and place; and yet, when you go through the many marvelous details on which Schama's picture is based, you find one mistake after another. This is not, in the end, a book in which God could be said to lie in the details—and yet the whole verisimilitudinous edifice is based on the details. Schama contends, for example, that in Leiden, in 1629, Constantijn Huygens “would have known and in all probability possessed” Callot's series of prints known as the Petites misères de la guerre. Schama makes much of the “irony of the French title … because it was not the miseries that were picayune but only the format of the etchings,” and so on. The problem is that in the seventeenth century this series was not known as the Petites misères de la guerre. It became known as this only much later, in contrast with the larger series of prints known as the Malheurs de la guerre. A small error? Perhaps. But the plangent irony identified by Schama rather disappears in this case. Then he notes that the same series contained the striking image of ten men hanged from a tree, “in less than a square inch.” But it didn't; it was the larger series, the Malheurs, that contained this “infinity of pain in a thimble.” All trifling mistakes, maybe; but then you discover that the Misères de la guerre, the so-called petites misères, were not in fact published until 1635–36—seven years, in other words, after Huygens “would have known in and all probability possessed them.” It shakes your confidence, this sort of thing.

And the expert reader (and the pedantic professor) will go on worrying. A Kenner is less a “know-all,” as Schama translates it, than a genuine connoisseur (of paintings—though perhaps all of us connoisseurs are know-alls); a contrapposto is certainly not “the confident setting of one leg at an angle to the other”; ingenium (inborn talent) is by no means the same thing as inventio (invention, or pictorial inventiveness, applied to the “discovery” of subjects and compositions); linseed oil has many qualities, but none of them can really be described as “astringent” (one of Schama's favorite adjectives); Rubens's mother does not write to her adulterous spouse hoping that he will love her as “you used to,” but rather “as you pledged”—a large difference, in this context; Phillip Neri, who was generally skeptical about painting, did not think of painting as “a Biblia pauperum” (though Gregory the Great, whom Rubens painted in his altarpiece for the church rebuilt in Rome by Neri, probably did); the color of Rubens's Descent from the Cross can by no means be described as Titianesque; the baby figure of Plutus receiving milk from the breast of Pax in the London War and Peace is certainly not the ancient comic writer Plautus; Abraham Bloemaert's Adoration of the Magi could not have stood between Rubens's “two masterpieces of holy ecstasy, the Miracles of St. Ignatius Loyola and the Miracles of St. Francis Xavier” in the Jesuit Church in Brussels, since those two masterpieces stood in the Jesuit Church in Antwerp; there is no way in which the purely religious term of a hortus conclusus, a symbol of virginity, can be applied, as it is twice, to Rubens's own garden (especially in the light of the fact that for Schama Rubens's gardens, at least in his pictures, are places of “orgiastic humanity,” whatever that may be). And all this from the introductory section on Rubens alone!

Every now and then Schama attempts some radical rereading of a painting; but he pushes the available evidence much too far in his efforts to rename Rembrandt's Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer (1653) as Apelles Contemplating the Bust of Homer, or to prove that the profound and deeply allusive Self-Portrait as Zeuxis (1669) in Cologne actually shows the ancient philosopher Democratus laughing at the follies of the world. The Cologne picture, Rembrandt's last, is so trenchant precisely because in it Rembrandt does not just show himself as Zeuxis, the other great painter of antiquity beside Apelles, to whom both he and Rubens—but especially Rubens—were often compared. Nor does Rembrandt allude to himself as the Zeuxis who was a master of pictorial illusionism (as in the case of the famous competition with Parrhasios), or as the Zeuxis who portrayed ultimate beauty in women (as in his decision to paint a Helen on the basis of features selected from the five most beautiful maidens of Croton).

Neither of these were comparisons that much interested Rembrandt. Instead, he chose to show himself at work, laughing, and painting an ugly old woman. Thus he alluded to the third and very much less common story about Zeuxis, in which the painter is said to have died laughing in the course of painting an ugly old woman. What better justification could Rembrandt have found for the very kinds of works that he was bitterly criticized for producing throughout his life—the scruffy self-portraits of his early years, the threadbare beggars of Leiden and Amsterdam, the female nudes with the stretch marks and sagging flesh offering him so many opportunities for the visible display of his own unmatched conception of pictorial beauty?


But is there an argument in Rembrandt's Eyes? I must disclose that in the book's acknowledgments Schama thanks me for “continually provoking” him “to think harder and more subtly about Rembrandt and Rubens.” Did he think hard enough? Schama's book is in fact far less about Rembrandt's eyes than about Rembrandt's relation with Rubens. And there is an argument. The argument is that Rembrandt's work was in some fundamental way defined by an agonistic competition with Rubens's work.

Never mind that the argument, right or wrong, does not quite justify the 155-page section (and the many subsequent pages) devoted to the Flemish master, whom Rembrandt never met. Is the argument right? Certainly Rembrandt was aware of the work and the reputation of the diplomat-painter who was thirty years older and admired throughout Europe. Certainly Rubens's famous and fluent works represented a kind of unattainable paragon for the rough miller's son from Leiden. Rembrandt would never gain anything like the same degree of social acceptance as Rubens did; nor would he become a favorite of princes, prelates, and kings. Rubens was a Catholic, not a Protestant, a painter-knight, not a painter of beggars; he was conventional, not an outcast, and professionally successful in a way that Rembrandt would never be. Nor would Rembrandt achieve the same degree of domestic stability and felicity as Rubens, or the self-assurance and the sense of security that the Fleming so confidently radiated.

Schama revels in these contrasts, and discovers many new ones; but how much the differences between their lives have to do with the particular qualities of their art presents a typical biographer's conundrum, which Schama does not quite resolve. There is no question that in painting his own works, Rembrandt often bore Rubens's compositions in mind, and that he emulated them both deliberately and unconsciously. Schama is sensitive to almost all such moments in Rembrandt's art. But at one late point in the book Schama refers to Rembrandt's “repeated tic of quoting Rubens.” This is surely misleading. A tic, one assumes, is involuntary, but Schama himself goes to great lengths to demonstrate how such adaptations as there were (for there were very few actual quotations) were both considered and conscious.

Occasionally Rembrandt did borrow from Rubens in imaginative and unexpected ways. Thus Schama reminds the reader of the curious indebtedness of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (1632) to Rubens's Tribute Money of about sixteen years earlier; and he makes very fine observations about the relationship between the 1636 Samson and Delilah in Frankfurt and Rubens's Prometheus of around 1611 in Philadelphia; and he is generally attentive to those areas in which Rembrandt either borrowed from the Flemish master (usually via reproductive prints), or was influenced by him. It is hardly surprising that Rembrandt should occasionally have had recourse to Rubens's brilliant and poignant religious inventions, borne from the depths of his Catholic soul—especially in the case of compositions such as the Crucifixion and the Descent from the Cross, where Rubens indeed provided the gold standard of his day. And Rembrandt could hardly not have been aware of Rubens's high status, or not have admired the originality and the vitality of his inventions. Rembrandt probably was anxious, sometimes, about the fame that Rubens's paintings had won for the artist, or about the unmatchable spontaneity and fluency of Rubens's forms and his handling of paint. Still, as Schama himself shows, there were other artists with whom Rembrandt was just as competitive—Titian, most notably.

In truth, if one wants to explain what was essential about Rembrandt, one cannot begin with Rubens. One cannot even set Rubens up as Rembrandt's inspirational rival. For Rembrandt's art is fundamentally different from Rubens's art. There is nothing in Rubens to correspond with Rembrandt's agonized and deliberate thought about the self. Nothing in the Fleming matches the Dutch artist's deep and relentless engagement with the effects of paint, and of the etched line. Rubens's stature is owed to a kind of fluency—psychological as well as formal—that Rembrandt never achieved. This was not for want of ability, but because Rembrandt chose to conceive of his art—of the nature of art itself—in an entirely different way than Rubens, in a way that marks him out as the initiator of a new epoch, not as the culmination of the old one.

It is hard to see the point of Schama's long account of Rubens's father's adultery with the wife of William of Orange—except, perhaps, as a kind of “explanation” for Rubens's affection for his mother and, maybe, for all women. It is even less clear why, in a book that is really about Rembrandt, and that tries to be nothing less than an exhaustive study of his life and his art, there should be such a long and detailed account of the history of the Southern Netherlands during the revolt against Spain; or of the vicissitudes of Rubens's voyage from Mantua to Spain in 1602; or of the fate of his paintings during the French Revolutionary occupation of Antwerp; or of the Nazi idolatry of Rubens.

There is a larger and more critical question here, a methodological question about the writing of history. Schama's book exemplifies a historiographical sensibility for which evocation and enthusiasm usurp the place of analysis. The trouble is that, for the full understanding of the past, evocation, however brilliant, and enthusiasm, however infectious, and narrative, however riveting, and anecdote, however telling, are not quite enough. We may be transported, for the moment, into the past; but the complexity of the motivations of people and the causes of events seem only superficially explored, and the relations between historical contexts and individual actions only dimly illuminated (for the light shines separately on each).

It is true that in the work of such fine historians as Emanuel Le Roy Ladurie and Carlo Ginzburg anecdotes are sometimes given an unprecedented pride of place; but the anecdotes are not deployed only for their effect, they are also analyzed thoroughly—and sometimes, especially in the case of their micro-historical epigones, they are analyzed to death. In recent years, we have heard more and more about the degree to which the writing of history resembles the writing of fiction, in that the historian selects his facts and colors them like writers of novels; but historians should beware of this newly popular notion. For sooner or later the reader of history, the professional and non-professional, will tire of color. Sooner or later the reader will want the historian to step back and take a hard and unemotional look at the stories and the intuitions, and attempt an abstract argument, and advance an idea, in the search for a deeper explanation. This is what is lacking in Schama's vivacious book: a reluctance to position himself as inescapably outside the past, to struggle with what is inevitably distant and alien, with what is ultimately not retrievable. Some sign of such a struggle is what we properly seek in a work of history.

You begin to realize that you have to come to Schama's book for the feelings, which are profound, and not for the ideas; for the broad brush, which is masterful, and not for the fine details. In this regard, it could be said that Schama is indeed close to Rembrandt (“the greatest master of the broad brush there ever was before the advent of modernism”), somehow always achieving the spirit of things and never worrying terribly much about the precision of his fijnschilderij, the kind of meticulous, licked, and over-detailed painting practised by a group of Rembrandt's Leiden epigones. They, of course, are nearly forgotten. Yet Rembrandt's Eyes will not soon be forgotten, owing to the splendor of its prose and its sovereign and generous humanity. At one point, Schama notes that “Rembrandt was less interested in finding the god in the man than the man in the god.” This isn't entirely right, either, though it rings well. The important point is that it applies nicely to Schama himself, over and over again. This is one of those rare books in which the truly humane is returned to the humanities.

Raymond Carr (review date 28 October 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 made them happen or were destroyed by them. This is precisely what this book [A History of Britain] and the television series that is based on it aim to do. To dramatise a single decisive event, such as the Battle of Britain, is money for jam. But how does one dramatise a story that begins in this volume with the neolithic settlements in the Orkneys and ends with the death of Queen Elizabeth I? Schama solves the problem by a series of set pieces centred on the turning points of the history of Britain.

Schama is not a determinist. Narrative history has its own in-built drama. Accidents happen. People make mistakes. If Queen Boudicca had not been harshly treated by an incompetent Roman colonial administrator, she would have remained a collaborationist like most of her fellow British monarchs and never taken up arms against Rome. Disputed successions lead to vast consequences. When Edward the Confessor died without a designated successor the competing claims of Harold and William the Conqueror led to the battle of Hastings, itself a near-run thing of six hours. The subsequent brutal Norman conquest was not ‘a faint tremor’ but a decisive ‘fault line in our history’. It may not have mattered much to the serfs, who just got a new master; but the Saxon English-speaking aristocracy was wiped out and England was to become part of the Angevin empire that stretched from the Pyrenees to Hadrian's Wall. The domestic quarrels of this French-speaking ‘multi-national family firm’ sapped its strength. Dynastic feuds and succession squabbles are the raw material of mediaeval history but they do not make for compulsive reading. Schama makes them come to life by concentrating on the personalities concerned.

It is the personalities of the kings that count. Alfred, the guerrilla chieftain who emerges from the swamps of Somerset to drive back the Danes, and become king ‘of all the English people not under the subjection of the Danes’ is also the scholar who believes that the condition of the exercise of power is knowledge. ‘Of how many other rulers of the British realms,’ Schama writes, ‘could that be truly said?’ It is a conventional judgment: the Good King whom we were taught to admire long ago when English history in toto was taught in our schools. John is a bad king with a ‘negative charisma’. If the liberties granted to the barons at Runnymede did not apply to most Englishmen, nevertheless England, Schama insists, could not become an absolute monarchy. All this sails close to the Whig interpretation of our history as the unfolding towards the final goal of Victorian democracy. King George VI travelling to Windsor with Ben Nicolson, passing Runnymede, looked out of the window and gloomily remarked, ‘That's where it all began.’ Most vivid and accomplished is Schama's portrait of Richard II. When John of Gaunt fled to Scotland to escape the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the young king in an act of extraordinary courage confronted the rebels face to face at Smith-field, telling them, ‘You who seek equality with lords are unworthy to live.’

Given, as Daniel Defoe put it, our mongrel racial origins, Schama's intent is to search for the emergence of Englishness, of a recognisable national community. Kings remembered that the Romans created a political unit called Britannia; Edward I, the first king who spoke English, anglicised the Celtic Arthurian legend; Henry VII chose to be crowned on the saint's day of the last English king, Edward the Confessor. But the decisive turning point was the Reformation. Thomas Cromwell and his propaganda apparatus provided Henry VIII with the myth of a once proud, independent English church destroyed by the advance of Papal pretensions. He beat the patriotic drum. Schama is too accomplished a historian to underestimate the attraction of Protestantism, which replaced the priest who alone could administer the sacraments necessary for salvation with the priesthood of all believers. But both Henry VIII and his father had been pilgrims at the shrine of Walsingham. Would Henry himself have broken with the universal church if the Pope had granted him a divorce? Schama writes, ‘As for Henry you could practically smell the testosterone.’ For Catholic apologists like Hilaire Belloc, the greatest tragedy of English history was the result of the lust of a despotic king for a ‘stick of girl,’ the flat-breasted, accomplished flirt, Anne Boleyn.

The final long chapter is a personal and political biography of Elizabeth I. Her troubled relationship with Mary Queen of Scots is discussed at length, as is her manipulation of her self-created image as a ‘mere woman’. Her courtiers knew that the Virgin Queen's face was just so much pulverised borax, alum and millwater and were still hopelessly captive to the cult. Her incapacity to make up her mind infuriated her servants. Yet she was a great queen. Her speech rallying the troops at Tilbury must count as a piece of patriotic rhetoric only equalled by Churchill. But his were the swansong of a doomed British empire; hers symbolised our emergence as a nation with Protestantism and dislike of foreigners (as Queen Mary found to her cost when she married Philip II and lost Calais in a war fought on his behalf) as its sign of identity.

This book abounds in images of the monuments of the past—so splendid indeed that they almost exempt one from watching it all on television. The Black Death killed half the population of England. A finely selected crop of local testimonies reveals a society obsessed with death. This is illustrated by the tomb of Archbishop Chicheley, founder of All Souls College; it has the Archbishop in his robes on the top storey, his skeleton below. All must come to this. Edward I's great castles illustrate his determination by military occupation to reduce the Welsh to the legal status of second-class citizens; ‘the most ambitious exercise in colonial domination ever undertaken anywhere in mediaeval Europe’; the magnificence of Long Melford Church shows that Catholicism was not, on the eve of the Reformation, the outworn and corrupt faith of Protestant mythology.

Schama is no bold revisionist. What his book lacks in polemical originality is made up for by colourful language. While one must laud his determination to reach out to a wider public he may seem for some to overstep the limits which more conservative historians observe. London-born Thomas Becket, in his great struggle with Henry II, behaves like ‘a Cockney street fighter,’ a saint apt to lapse into ‘Cheapside lingo’ like some 12th-century Max Miller Thomas Cromwell is a ‘jumped up, inky fingered oik’. Queen Elizabeth is equipped with ‘bucketsful of charisma’. But Schama pulls it all off and this book will make us see British history as an exciting story. That, at least, will make modernist and post-modernist historians with their discourses appear as dull dogs and the Runnymede Trust as purveyors of meaningless, multi-cultural mush.

Scott Lucas (essay date 30 October 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 its entrance. “From its earliest days, Britain was always an object of desire,” he assured, lowering his tenor half an octave to convey authority. Cue sunsets over hills, crashing waves, snow-covered mountains and rainbows over misty lakes, and then an aerial shot—all significant productions demand an aerial opening shot—of Skara Brae, a coastal ruin in the Orkneys. “Here, an ancient civilisation flourished,” Simon made clear, as he went walk-about in the excavation.

And we all sat back relieved. Whatever the next 5,000 years, compressed into 16 hours, would bring us—wars, Black Deaths, Europeans—we are desired. We are wealthy. We are civilised.

This is A History of Britain with Simon Schama, this year's big-budget blow-out to maintain the BBC's stature as the carrier of High Knowledge. Two years ago, it delivered Ted Turner's The Cold War, last autumn, it gift-wrapped a global Millennium in ten episodes. Now it's time to come home, to let history put the Great back into Great Britain. Great, because every step of Schama's grand tour of digs and cathedrals, battlefields and museums, is filled with self-congratulation. Self-congratulation for the historian, for the corporation and, above all, the “nation.”

I know I should be happy. The BBC's and Schama's commitment to “serious” documentary can be contrasted with the void on mainstream television in the United States. Significantly, the one Stateside production of note in living memory was last year's America's Century, which sort of gives you the entire historical perspective. And it is handy to have a programme that ventures beyond the tales of “boys and their weapons” and revisionist biographies that, however worthy, dominate British prime-time documentary.

However, from our opening tour of Skara Brae, I have felt uneasy, and a lot of it has to do with the presentation of Simon as Star. Schama is undoubtedly a historian of note, a scholar who successfully packaged the French revolution for a mass audience, and who has had the ambition to bring together culture, landscape, high politics and the “common man.” He is clearly enthusiastic about his stated ambition to “tell these fantastic stories. They're not my stories, they belong to all of us, and we should cherish and celebrate them even when they're tinged with tragedy. They're what makes us who we are.”

Here, he is omnipresent. Simon in a windcheater in front of stone stockades. Simon in fetching green jacket—just the right casual touch without being scruffy—while reclining on Hadrian's Wall. Simon checking out the Roman spa at Bath. Simon, windswept, looking out to sea. Simon casting an eye over the battlefield near Hastings.

It's a one-man show that can become a distraction. In part, this is because of the curiosity that the Historian of Britain has been working in the US for more than 20 years. So, to my ear, Schama has an accent polished by Oxbridge, but colonised by the Ivy League. The unfortunate outcome is that he is a soundalike for Lloyd Grossman. Indeed, every time Simon popped up in yet another Roman settlement. I expected to hear: “Who lives in a house like this?”

The effect is even stranger because of what can only be called the Bloke factor in the script. Schama's way of assuring us that these folks were just like us. To keep the audience thinking that the British family of AD2000 has a direct line to that of 3000BC. Simon soothes, “They had culture. They had style” and “It's not too much of a stretch to imagine gossip travelling down those alleyways after a hearty seafood supper.” Iron Age brasses of horses’ faces are “Eeyores resigned to a bad day in battle,” and an ancient graffito is eagerly translated as, heh heh, “Inigerth is one horny bitch.” This must be the only programme in which Lindsay Duncan, a star of heavyweight television drama, has been reduced to a voice-over as a wife writing to her distant soldier husband: “I send you two pairs of socks, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants.”

(It should also be noted that the BBC's technical wizards play their part with the gimmicks used to distinguish “significant” documentary, especially when there's an obvious lack of archival footage. We get pans, zooms, slow motion, black-and-white, hand-held footage, Blair Witch-style, and repeated flashes of role-playing warriors. At one point, while presenting a stone figure, Simon was filmed against a dark backdrop with only his face illuminated. Confronted with the floating head, I thought not of ancient sculpture, but of the computer in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.)

Maybe this criticism is unfair, but such is the peril of the historian as celebrity. It is an intriguing quirk of British documentary that “major” productions have focused on the storyteller. There is the now hackneyed example of A J P Taylor posing as a maverick and handing out his lessons in the 1950s, but he only paved the way. There was Kenneth Clark (now better known to many as Alan's daddy) offering us Civilisation, and Michael Wood, the “thinking woman's crumpet,” lending ancient history a very visual appeal. Laurence Olivier (World at War) and Kenneth Branagh (The Cold War) became honorary historians with their unseen but obvious presences. David Starkey (whose academic career was hindered, ironically, by his breakthrough on television) once closed a series on Henry VIII by riding off into the distance on a motorcycle. Still unconventional, Starkey gave Channel 4 a hit this summer, before Craig and his Big Brother housemates took over, with a Queen Elizabeth I surrounded by ghostly advisers.

Schama takes on the mantle: white, male and from the Golden Triangle of academia. True, he has been in the US for more than a few years, but he is at great pains to remind us of his Englishness. We learn of his historical baptism with the Venerable Bede in 1950s schooldays. Speaking of a monastery at Bradwell-on-Sea, he slips in that it is a “crab's scuttle” from his boyhood home on the Essex coast.

What's more, Schama goes beyond his predecessors. Whereas it was always clear with Taylor and Starkey that they were putting forward very personal views, Schama is handing down the historical tablets of stone. I wanted him to say just once, “Now, kind viewers, this is just my personal opinion,” but he never disturbed the illusion of folksy authority. This is not a History of Britain with Simon Schama, but a History of Britain as revealed by Simon Schama.

In fact, it is a History of England's Britain. Schama is far too good a scholar to pursue a historical Scruton-y, in which evidence and logic are twisted to prove an essential Englishness. Instead, we have a process of evolution in which England emerges from the mingling of Roman and Anglo-Saxon cultures. In invoking the spirit of “Britain,” Schama does have to make token references to the inhabitants on the fringe, but these are mere cameos in the spectacle.

So, after our visit to Skara Brae, Scotland bids farewell for the next 4,000 years, except for a quick glimpse of the word “Picts” on a map. Schama does refer to St Patrick, about whom there was “nothing remotely Irish”; but, unsure what to do other than show some rocks on the island of Arran, he quickly reverts to his nostalgia for the writings of the Venerable Bede. And Wales? Don't even ask.

Schama's defence is that he invites everyone to the party in the fourth episode, “Nations,” with Robert the Bruce making his entrance and Wales playing brave victim to the man who became Edward the Hammer. Unfortunately, Schama gives the game away with the declaration: “Not for the first time, it would take the rest of Britain to teach England just how to be a nation.” Having done their bit, willingly or unwillingly, for England's Britain, the guests exit stage left—that is, until Schama needs Mary. Queen of Scots, to highlight Queen Elizabeth's handiwork: “Together, at a terrible price and with so much pain, they had had a baby. It was a little thing with a big name—Magna Britannia. Great Britain.”

The real catalyst for Schama's English/British nationalism, however, is Johnny Foreigner. Schama is at his most accessible when, using intonation and dramatic pauses like an apprentice at Rada, he is confiding in his viewing mates how brutal and deceitful these invaders really were. The Vikings, specialists in slavery and human sacrifice, get a milder version of the comedy catchphrase “I don't believe it,” as Schama confronts those historians who dare put in a good word for the enemy. “Somehow,” he almost sneers, “this vision of the Vikings as rapid-transit, long-distance commercial travellers, singing their sagas as they sailed to a new market opening, I don't think would have cut much ice with the local priests.”

Even better is Schama's bold stand against William the Conqueror. He initially feigns objectivity by noting that the “English” weren't really that English—Edward the Confessor having lived most of his life in Normandy—and that King Harold was a bit of a cad, turning against this younger brother. Soon, however, we are aghast at the treachery of William and his “half-skinhead” troops. Hastings is no less than the first War of the Worlds for Simon: “Imagine the county gentry of England—priests, squires, judges—all wiped out overnight, replaced by an alien class! They speak differently, they look different, they take what they want and then rubber-stamp the decision in your court!” But hee hee hee, Schama tells us, we got our revenge: when William the fat bastard died, his body was stripped of all clothing and dignity by looters.

Amid the serious intonation of “history,” these 16 hours promise to be just another pilgrimage to the shrines of national reaffirmation, a tribute not to the common man, but to England's really important people and events. Thomas à Becket dies; Magna Carta is signed; there are 100-plus years of scrapping with the French; now it's the Wars of the Roses and here come the Tudors. Schama is a big fan of Elizabeth I, going weak at the knees over her speech at Tilbury Camp in 1588: “She managed to make people feel safe instead of terrified, loved instead of just governed—and that's a rare quality in the politics of any age.”

Although the second part of the series, to be broadcast next year, has not been announced, there are short odds that civil war, Victoria's empire, a couple of world wars and mighty Churchill, “who speaks an incontestable truth and does so with great directness and force,” are on the roll-call.

What remains to be seen is how much attention the final episodes pay to the issues of England in Britain and Britain in Europe. It is this present, rather than the past, that propels the series. As minds twitch over whether devolution means break-up and whether this island should stand aside from the Continent, this series codes its answers in a 5,000-year vision. Sure, there were struggles between England, Scotland, Ireland and, yes, little Wales, but from that conflict came the strength of Britain. Wouldn't it be a shame to throw all that away? And whether or not Britain goes hand in hand with the European Union, let's remember: we are different; we are special.

And that's why Simon the Star is necessary. To sell this product, you need a good pitch man. And what better pitch man than one who has reminded us that we have to watch out for those revolting French, and that Europe's story is one of past glory? What better pitch man than one who, for all his years living in American ivory towers, has chosen to come home (at least for the filming of this series)?

Schama may not be an English nationalist à la Roger Scruton. Answering one questioner in an internet chat, he assured her about her origins: “You're just an ethnic fruit salad like the rest of us.” He is a British nationalist inveighing against any decision to “Balkanise ourselves.”

But let's be clear. This is a vision, just like Roy Porter's current book, Enlightenment, just like the ill-fated Dome, that Britain's greatness rests on an English base.

We are desired. We are wealthy. We are civilised. We are Britain.

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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, trying to change the perspective from the core to the periphery by aggressively advancing Wales, Scotland and Ireland into the foreground. Simon Schama has taken on a similar task, enveloping the huge sweep of British history in a pincer movement: televisually from one side (A History of Britain, made for the BBC, started on the History Channel this November) and in a two-volume blockbuster from the other. It is a new kind of enterprise for him, but novel challenges come easily to a man who has proven himself equally ready to experiment with historical fiction, and to take on the notoriously carping world of art history in a large-scale study of Rembrandt.

More relevantly, Schama has written about the Dutch Republic, the French Revolution, the idea of landscape: all of them subjects which in one way or another involved the idea of patria, the invention of tradition, the creation of a national culture. But his latest enterprise necessitates the kind of generalization that threatens the highly personalized and nuanced method of total immersion that has up to now characterized his work. Schama is too interesting a historian for the effort not to be interesting in itself; but the question remains how far he can transcend the genre of Victorian narrative—indeed, whether he wants to transcend it at all.

In his first volume and in the simultaneous TV series, Schama begins with the idea of competing elements within the astonishingly varied little archipelago that became Great Britain, and ends with the fusion of some or all of them into an idea of “Britannia” at the end of the reign of Elizabeth I. Televisually, images of waves and sea predominate. He stresses the Frenchness of the English monarchy under the Plantagenets, and one of the strengths of the television series is the way the images range back and forth across the Channel, identifying certain monarchs with sites such as Chinon and Poitiers rather than Canterbury and Winchester. It may be sweeping to say—as Schama does on screen, if not in print—that Rouen was as important a center of Henry II's empire as London, but it administers a bracing shock. Inexorably, however, both Schama's book and his TV series become the story of monarchs rather than the exploration of geographical and demographical themes. This makes for an easier story line, and firmly centers the action back in London; it also brings the series nearer the “Story of England” format, which he began by nobly trying to subvert.

At the same time, Schama is determined to continue twisting the tale where he can. The self-consciousness of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland is stressed (and their territories visited in person by the wandering scholar and his camera crew). The Vikings are re-revised, transformed back into marauding pagans from the docile urbanities and tradesmen envisaged by more indulgent historians a generation ago. The Magna Carta, rather than a proto-Declaration of the Rights of Englishmen, is treated vivaciously as a manifesto of tax relief for the propertied. And the Peasants’ Revolt did not represent peasants. Anti-Jewish feeling (and legislation) in medieval England is interestingly emphasized, with implicit parallels to later mechanisms of discrimination.

Elsewhere, too, Anglicanism is not allowed to hold the field uncontested. Schama follows the recent historiographical emphasis on the durability of the Catholic ethos long after the Reformation; he even adopts the newly fashionable view (at least in Romantic literary circles) that Shakespeare was a closet Catholic. Indeed, one of the passages in the book that shows Schama at his eloquent best describes the state of English Catholicism in the Elizabethan age:

To be cut off from the priesthood was, of course, a lingering death sentence for a Church whose liturgy depended on priests. To be deprived of public ceremonies was to destroy the entire sense of shared community on which the old Church had thrived. What was left? An underground existence, a portable Church existing in things that could be easily smuggled and concealed: tracts, miniature images, jewels and rosaries. Faith and nation parted company in these years. English Catholic priests trained in foreign seminaries would be smuggled into the country and end up dead: or in hiding with Catholic families rich and powerful enough to protect them. So this is what happened to Catholic England: it ended up down a priest-hole, the ceremonious grandeur of a Long Melford reduced to a faith on the run.

The television script reduces this passage, with Schama peering uncertainly beneath a trapdoor into a priest's hiding-place; but then the medium helps the message by superimposing on a film of the austere present-day Long Melford Church the profuse and polychrome Catholic interior that once adorned it. Color suddenly infuses the stained glass, decoration miraculously runs up the pillars: it is a powerfully effective moment.

By and large, however, it cannot be said that the forgotten, the mute, and the inglorious elements in British history get much of a look from Schama, the occasional bravura passages notwithstanding. The Black Death, fourteenth-century England's ordeal by plague, offers one opportunity to deviate from the triumphal-pageant approach and provides the most imaginative episode in the series. Material is excavated out of spheres far removed from war and the conduct of public affairs. The images of charnel houses and ossuaries deliberately suggest Auschwitz or the reign of Pol Pot, while the manorial rolls vividly indicate the seismic economic shifts that accompanied the crisis. (Ironically, it helped to liberate the serfs who survived.)

More usually, though, the style of television history, and the imagery upon which it relies, imposes a tight control, a serious constriction; and the result is a history of Britain with a strangely conventional emphasis. Schama is brilliant—when given the opportunity—at decoding the significance of things such as the “Alfred Jewel,” an exquisite brooch belonging to the legendary ninth-century king, which is inscribed “Alfred caused me to be made.” “The same,” Schama adds caustically, “could be said of his reinvention of an English monarchy.” In general, though, material culture gets short shrift here. Archaeology is under used. The emergence of “English” literature is oddly ignored: that Catholic tag is one of the very few references to Shakespeare, who otherwise appears as a Lancastrian propagandist. Chaucer looks in once, and Spencer appears only in his views on Irish colonization.

More importantly, Schama is very good, visually and verbally, on grand architecture, a subject to which he brings both authority and passion. The massiveness of Kenilworth suggests’ the baronial power of Simon de Montfort, and the Abbey of Pontigny is an emblem of Thomas Becket's hard-edged implacability. He ends the book—though not the television series—with a brilliant coup: an evocation and de construction of Lyveden New Bield, an unfinished fifteenth-century Catholic mansion in Northamptonshire. Schama sees it as the “product of a doomed optimism,” an attempt to effect an aesthetic reconciliation between European influences and Anglo-Catholicism made impossible by the ruthlessly pragmatic Elizabethan dispensation.

Yet it is significant that Schama generally makes architectural points in order to illuminate personalities. Glamorous people dominate the series, especially from the Angevin age. Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their sons Richard Lion-heart and the bad King John, appear in Schama's account rather as they appeared in The Lion in Winter: this is history as soap opera. “The most astonishing of all the family firms to run the enterprise of Britain … What their intelligence built their passions destroyed”: that is the television version, but the book is hardly less histrionic. By the time Henry, “the first database king,” is also described as “the most hyperactive king in British history,” there is a sneaking temptation to reach for the Ritalin.

To be sure, royal dynasties leave ample evidence about themselves, while other medieval families do not—with rare exceptions like the Pastons of Norfolk, whose letters Schama uses with gusto to illuminate the years of plague and crisis. And the sort of popular history demanded by television requires the historian presenter to buttonhole prominent dead people in the manner of a reporter. Schama does this masterfully. His manner is far less fervent than in his series on landscape, and more effective: his one-liners are sharp and often funny, his serious reflections delivered without pretension.

The updating spin put on some of the great set pieces sometimes works, and sometimes it does not. It is a nice conceit to portray Archbishop Thomas Becket as a twelfth-century Cockney wide-boy, to whom “kit mattered” even in death, but it sits oddly with Schama's portrait of the man's flinty and uncompromising intellectual character. Moreover, the story of Becket's struggle with Henry over the supremacy of church law above state law marks an interesting instance in which the television screen imposes a different emphasis from the written page. (The language of abuse is also modulated for the different audiences: when Becket yells at the knights who have come to murder him, the television script tells us that he shouted, “Whoremonger!,” but in the book it becomes “pimp.”)

With Becket dead, Schama reflects on the significance of the stand that he had made; and he concludes with a nuanced judgment about the archaism of Becket's religious-supremacist principles balanced against his prophetic role as administrator-prelate, a prototype of the kind of man who would form an indispensable arm of royal government in the next age. This is exceedingly interesting; but on television it is condensed to the statement that “Becket's vision of the role of the Church lasted, the Angevin empire did not.” As they would have put it in 1066 and All That, “Right but Irrelevant.”

The things that television can do, it does very well here. Wonderful landscapes and castles show how fortresses became “splendid badges of our subjection” for the Welsh. A dramatically foreshortened shot of Waltham abbey across a field of buttercups suggests the bones of Harold, the last Saxon King, sleeping beneath a Norman edifice. Recurring shots of hawks perning in a gyre, or gobbling rodents, illustrate the Angevin family, while a leopard padding through a greensward symbolizes Richard II. But the opulent images also iron out complexities in a way foreign to Schama's usual style.

Granted, the book version permits him asides and reminders that life is not all kings and queens. (The young Elizabeth, hearing of her accession beneath a mighty oak, allows Schama to interpose a succinct reflection on the symbolism of oaks and Englishness which is a barely concealed reference to Landscape and Memory.) By then, however, the cult of personality is running at rip-tide: even Schama's thoughtful introduction to the Reformation rapidly gives way to Henry VIII as a testosterone-driven glamour boy turned psychotic, while his servant Cardinal Wolsey is “Jeeves with attitude.”

Moreover, Schama insists, “serious historians” are wrong to avert their eyes from the importance of Anne Boleyn, just because her life resembles soap opera, and to look misguidedly instead for structural reasons behind England's abandonment of Catholicism. Here the personal is the political. This is combative stuff, and Schama's style is as assertive, zappy, and peremptory as ever, with an added spice of devil-may-care colloquialism: the book's evocation of Edward II's “creepy boyfriends” does not survive, alas, into the television script, but plenty of vivid characterization do.

In this brave and ambitious essay in multimedia popular history, there is curiously little of Schama himself—except in the introduction to the book, an absorbing and sharply perceptive view of received notions of “British history” as they were mediated to his generation through the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953 and the funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965. The last great English hero had straddled history from the age of Victoria to the age of the Beatles. “The whiskers and the military epaulets and frogging he had last seen in the imperial army of Queen Victoria had returned as the whimsical costume of rock bands.” The war leader's own epic life, as historical actor, symbol, and commentator, leads Schama to reflect on the kind of history that Churchill wrote, and on that of the once fashionable Arthur Bryant, whose tinny and posturing feel-good history books with titles such as England Against Napoleon sold in tens of thousands to the book clubs. (Schama does not say so, but Bryant was a paid-up supporter of Oswald Mosley's fascist party in the early 1930s, not just a harmless celebrator of “our island race.”)

By the time of Churchill's death, Schama reflects, his own (and my own) generation laughed at this stuff. We were being exposed to new ways of reading national history, prospected by Fernand Braudel and Marc Bloch in France, and by Asa Briggs, E. P. Thompson, or Christopher Hill in Britain: structural history, “alternative” history, history from the bottom up, thematic history. Yet Schama is honest enough to wonder—he remembers that he wondered at the time—if “buried within the fabulous mythology” of the traditional Whiggish-Imperial cavalcade of “British History” there might be “a gritty little nugget of truth.”

As Schama himself points out, Churchill's own triumphalist History of the English Speaking Peoples, recently recycled for BBC radio as “This Sceptred Isle,” has found a new generation of popularity. Narrativity is back, and reassuringly upbeat narrativity at that. At the end of his preface, Schama implicitly evokes a famous essay by G. M. Trevelyan, the doyen of English popular historians, called “Clio, A Muse.” This is Schama's conclusion:

But Clio, properly respected, is the least straightforward of the muses. Her beauty lies in the complexity, not the simplicity, of her truth. Which is why her votaries, attentive to the sometimes difficult and winding path they must follow, are sworn to tell stories in order to make the journey easier. For in the end, history, especially British history with its succession of thrilling illuminations, should be, as all her most accomplished narrators have promised, not just instruction but pleasure.

Luckily, Schama is too sophisticated, and too much a man formed in the crucible of the 1960s, to want to leave it there. There is an argument in Schama's tales. He tells us disarmingly that he wanted to reclaim the British story in a more open-ended way, without the assumption of given outcomes, and with an overarching belief that the great national strength of Britain is in fact “historical impurity.” This is fair enough, so long as it means more than a nod toward a complacent “multiculturalism” and an undemanding “hybridity”; and in Schama's hands, the intention is certainly more analytically subversive than that. Still, by declaring his intention to amuse and to instruct at the same time, to compete with popular fiction and to reinscribe “ordinary people” into the charmed circle of Britain's extraordinary history, he is reiterating the ambition of all radical popular historians of previous generations: A. J. P. Taylor, perhaps, or before him, the underrated Victorian, J. R. Green; and before him again, Macaulay.

It certainly is significant that one thinks of Schama effortlessly in this company. Yet it is also worth noting that though Macaulay and Green specifically did not set out to write “drum and trumpet history,” both were in a sense captured by the constrictions of popular narrative, and seduced by the glamour of personality-driven history. Schama has exposed himself to the same dangers, exacerbated in his case by the insidious way in which the tiny screen eliminates disjunctions and complexities in favor of seamlessness and repetition. Maybe Macaulay was lucky that there was no BBC to tempt him.

When his story resumes, the maestro will leave the medieval world for the early modern world whose complexities he has done so much to elucidate already. In British history, Schama will confront the age when the patria became irrevocably identified with Protestantism and with not being European, followed by the era of industry and empire. the “people” may be more easy to include, too. But the historiographical Himalayas become ever more bewildering to survey, their peaks hiding crevices and glaciers, and requiring ingenuities of balance-holding. The alternative approach, of course, is simply to ski merrily down the most obvious slopes, which is what television cameras best like to record. This has never, up to now, been Schama's preferred route: but the moving image enforces an inevitable narrowing of focus. It should be said that Schama's A History of Britain, when it was recently shown in Britain, won golden opinions from critics both highbrow and tabloid: he has resoundingly struck a target. Whether it was the target at which he aimed is another matter.


Principal Works


Further Reading