Simon Schama Criticism - Essay

Witold Rybczynski (review date 28 June 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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?...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter Quennell (review date 19 September 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

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

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

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Norman Hampson (review date 13 April 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

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

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

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Lawrence Stone (review date 17 April 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

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

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

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Robert M. Maniquis (review date 21 May 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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William Doyle (review date 26 May 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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A. D. Wright (review date June 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Paul Johnson (review date 15 July 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

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

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

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Benjamin R. Barber (review date 12 March 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

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

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

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Susan Dunn (review date Summer 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

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

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

There is in this disease of...

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Steven Marcus (essay date Summer 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Morris Slavin (review date August 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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?...

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Raymond Carr (review date 1 June 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

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

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

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Andrew Delbanco (review date 3 June 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

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

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

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Roy Porter (review date 7 June 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

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

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

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

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Gordon S. Wood (review date 27 June 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Castronovo (review date 13 September 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Clayton W. Lewis (review date Winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

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

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

...

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Alan B. Spitzer (essay date March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Rosemary Hill (review date 7 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Raymond Carr (review date 8 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard Eder (review date 16 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Patrick Curry (review date 21 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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”...

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Boyd Tonkin (essay date 21 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Anthony Grafton (review date 7 August 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Keith Thomas (review date 21 September 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Barbara Ryan (review date Spring 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Taylor (review date Fall 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Kay Ryan (review date Winter 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lisa Ford (essay date Fall 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Philip Hensher (review date 30 October 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jonathan Israel (review date 5 November 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Svetlana Alpers (review date 14 November 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard E. Spear (review date 28 November 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Freedberg (review date 6 December 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.]

I.

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...

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Raymond Carr (review date 28 October 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Scott Lucas (essay date 30 October 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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