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Simon Schama portrait
Simon Schama portrait

Like the nineteenth century historians he reveres and the Dutch painters he describes, Simon Schama is a master story-teller.

Whether teaching a packed art history class at Columbia University, slogging through a muddy field in an attempt to bring British history to a television audience, or describing the shops and houses of seventeenth century Amsterdam, Simon Schama consistently re-creates the past for listeners, viewers, and readers, steadfastly maintaining that:

History needs to declare itself unapologetically for what it is: the study of the past in all its splendid messiness.  It should revel in the pastness of the past, the strange music of its diction.[1]

Schama, University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University, is a prolific cultural historian who provides readers compelling narratives of historical events and figures, from the world of the early modern Dutch Republic to the experiences of African-American loyalists during the American Revolution.  In addition to his ten published books of history and criticism, and numerous essays accompanying art exhibition catalogs, Schama is also a regular columnist and critic for such publications as The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, and The New Yorker (for which he served as art critic from 1995 to 1998).  Schama’s ability to tell lively, engaging stories transcends his large corpus of printed work: he is also a writer and presenter of television histories, whose BBC series on British history and the history of Western art have captivated viewers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Born in London in 1945 to a Jewish family who traced their roots to Lithuania and Turkey, Schama grew up in London and Essex.  At Cambridge University in the 1960s, Schama studied with J.H. Plumb, who profoundly influenced his views of writing history. As Schama remembers, Plumb “taught me that you weren’t doing your job properly if you weren’t equipping yourself with the skills to make history work with the broad reading public.”[2]

While serving as an editor of The Cambridge Review and a fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge, Schama made his first foray into writing for a broader public early in his career, when he served as a writer and editorial advisor for a 1969 Sunday Times supplement, 1000 Makers of the Twentieth Century.  Schama contributed eleven brief biographies to the series, foreshadowing his interest in Dutch history with a sketch of Queen Wilhelmina, and modern Jewish history with portrayals of David Ben Gurion and Theodor Herzl.

Schama’s first book, Patriots and Liberators: Revolution in the Netherlands, 1780-1813 (1977, winner of the Wolfson Prize for History) vividly depicts the Dutch fight for independence from France in the wake of the Napoleonic invasion of the late eighteenth century.  At the same time, Schama declares the intellectual stakes that would define his career:

If, by venturing so rashly into social, political, and intellectual history, I have trespassed against the increasingly rigorous demarcations which separate historians from one another, it is a sin to which I willingly own.  We are too overcrowded a profession to entrench ourselves in pedantic specializations, the cliometricians despising the inummerate, the intellectual historians disdaining the artificers of political history.  It is time, perhaps, to poke our heads above several molehills and to take in a view, however nervous and blinking, of the broader historical landscape.[3]

Schama ventures further into the broader historical landscape in his second book, Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel (1978), providing an engaging portrait of Edmond de Rothschild and the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association (PICA) and their efforts to establish a Jewish community in Palestine. 

Leaving a post as Fellow and Tutor at Brasenose College, Oxford for the United States and a professorship at Harvard in 1980, Schama returned to Dutch history with his third book, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (1987).   Writing vividly about the sense of anxiety which accompanied newfound prosperity in the seventeenth century Netherlands, Schama likens his task to “wandering around the Dutch city” and “bumping into its cultural furniture,” while admitting that he has “strayed a good deal from the straight and narrow of the historical method.   Shameless eclecticism has been my only guide.”[4] Like his subsequent works, The Embarrassment of Riches is lavishly illustrated with engravings and paintings, based on Schama’s argument that “Dutch art invites the cultural historian to probe below the surface of appearances.”[5]

Coinciding with the three-hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution, Schama provides a narrative of the events of 1789 in his work Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1989, winner of the NCR Award for Nonfiction).   In addition to a rich account of the French Revolution, Citizens signals his increasing advocacy for narrative history, a subject he expounds on in a lengthy New York Times Magazine essay of September 8, 1991.  Exhorting historians, whether professional or not, to engage the reading public, Schama concludes that “we may, perhaps, hope for some grand narrative that will recall the time described by Macaulay, when the appearance of a new history was so exciting that ‘the circulating libraries are mobbed; the book societies are in commotion; the new novel lies uncut’.”[6]

Building upon his interest in narrative, Schama confronts the complex interplay between fiction and historical narrative head-on in his provocative 1991 work Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations).  Blending historical fact and imaginative fiction in two novellas, Schama examines the deaths of General James Wolfe, fallen hero of the battle of Quebec in 1759, and George Parkman, a prominent Boston physician, in 1849.    In an interview given shortly after its publication, Schama commented

I suppose when one writes history, one is always on the verge of imagining and supposing, so I guess I wanted to walk through the mirror a bit…There are virtues and vices of that.  If you are looking at history to offer an authorized view of events, to tell you that this is the way it really was, then clearly fiction at any point is going to preclude that.  On the other hand, if you want to explore the ambiguities of history, if you’re interested in a number of interpretations, then imagined writing can actually enrich those possibilities.[7]

Moving to Columbia University from Harvard in 1993, Schama continued his forays into the broader historical landscape with Landscape and Memory (1996, winner of the W.H. Smith Literary Award), an exploration of the history of landscape and cultural attitudes towards nature through an examination of the allied themes of wood, water, and rock. Schama returned to Dutch Golden Age art in  Rembrandt’s Eyes (1999), a detailed examination of Rembrandt’s life and work.   At the same time Schama re-creates Rembrandt’s world, he reminds readers of the artist’s individuality.  Similarly, in the introduction to a collection of his essays on art history, Schama explains his approach to writing art history:

I tried to give a sense of the particular culture in which the art had been created, without ever assuming it would necessarily be obedient to its norms.  Sometimes an artist would have precedents, paragons, peers and patrons very much in mind and still end up going his or her way.[8]

Schama also entered the world of televised history in the 1990s, serving as a writer and presenter in the series Landscape and Memory (1995) and A History of Britain, which aired on BBC television between 2000 and 2003.   In an insightful 2003 essay for the journal The Public Historian on his experiences writing and presenting documentaries, Schama details his vision of televised history as a departure from the “tried and true PBS formula of voice-over, archive, and talking heads,” offering instead an “ideal vision of a kick-start, impious, sharp-witted, edge-of-the-seat history, one that would touch the heart and tease the brains.”[9] Schama continues his work as a television writer and presenter in the Power of Art, a 2006 BBC production that explores Western art through eight artists from Caravaggio to Rothko.  

In Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution (2005, National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Nonfiction), his most recent book and a starting point for his 2007 Presidential Lecture at Stanford, Schama explores the dilemmas faced by African-American slaves who fought as Loyalists with the British during the American Revolution.  Focusing on the community of African-Americans known as “British Freedom” in Nova Scotia, Schama challenges readers to consider an often forgotten “third party” in the Revolutionary War: the twenty percent of colonists who were African-American.   As with previous works, Rough Crossings contains poignant vignettes of life in the Atlantic world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:  of Loyalist African-American communities in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, of the movement to abolish the slave trade in Britain, and of personalities, from Granville Sharp, a leading abolitionist in Britain, to Frederick Douglass, “escaped slave-turned-abolitionist orator.”[10]

Through such grand narratives, on the page and on the screen, Schama has persistently sought to emulate his Cambridge teachers of the 1960s and the historians he admires (Gibbon, Macaulay, Carlyle, and G.M. Trevelyan) by reaching the public imagination.

All, according to Schama,

shared an instinctive ability to dwell in worlds separated from our own by time, and to bring the closeness of that experience of the ‘other’ to their work, to give it voice and color and texture.[11]

Schama’s Presidential Lecture, in which he will expand on his work in Rough Crossings, promises to bring such an experience to listeners at Stanford.  

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FOOTNOTES

[1] Schama, “Clio Has a Problem,” The New York Times Magazine, September 8, 1991, p. 32.

[2] Stephen Moss, “History, His Way,” The Guardian Profile, October 16, 1999, p. 5.

[3] Schama, Patriots and Liberators: Revolution in the Netherlands, 1780-1813. New York: Knopf, 1977, p. xii.

[4] Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. New York: Knopf, 1988, p. 8.

[5] Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches, p. 10.

[6] Schama, “Clio Has a Problem,” The New York Times Magazine, September 8, 1991, p. 34.

[7] Schama, quoted in Richard Bernstein, “A Historian Enters Fiction’s Shadowy Domain,” The New York Times, May 15, 1991. 

[8] Schama, Hang-Ups: Essays on Art (mostly).  London: BBC, 2004, p. 21.

[9] Schama, “Fine-Cutting Clio,” The Public Historian, 25, 3, p. 15.

[10] Schama, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution.  London: BBC Books, 2005, p. 9.

[11] Schama, “Clio has a Problem,” p. 32.

 


Text by Benjamin Stone, Curator for American and British History.
Stanford University Libraries & Academic Information Resources ©2007
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