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For Shame, Schama

A historian who knows better, or does he?

Jul 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 41 • By ALEC SOLOMITA
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Scribble, Scribble, Scribble

Simon Schama at a conference on ‘The American Future’ in Brazil, 2009

Simon Schama at a conference on ‘The American Future’ in Brazil, 2009

LatinContent / Getty Images

Writing on Politics, Ice Cream, Churchill, and My Mother

by Simon Schama

Ecco, 432 pp., $27.99


Simon Schama is a skylark. 

Blithe, profuse, unstoppable, like Shelley’s bird he overflows with “shrill delight.” Historian, journalist, orator, producer, political prognosticator, aspiring chef, and borderline bon vivant, Schama has written more than a dozen books, countless articles, and 40 television documentaries (starring Simon Schama). His numerous talk show appearances have assured the impish pundit a fame well beyond the academy. Now he offers a 400-page collection of his occasional writings which deal with (as his subtitle disarmingly boasts) just about everything. Scribble, Scribble, Scribble includes eloquent paeans to eloquence, donnish tributes to dons, intelligent and gripping art history, fawning celebrity portraits, and a series of pieces on food, complete
with recipes.

Unfortunately, Schama’s limited and limiting ideology mars most of these efforts; his political sensibility has become as cramped as his interests are wide. He continues to sing, but lately the shrill has definitively superseded the delight.

Of course, a body of work as large as Schama’s is bound to be uneven. The Embarrassment of Riches (1987), his historical cum anthropological study of 17th-century Dutch culture, shows the scholar at his best: fluent, insightful, meticulous. By contrast, in his BBC documentary A History of Britain (2000-2002), enthusiasm trumps all as Schama the popularizer, modish in black and gray ensembles, stalks the British countryside purveying his overheated version of Albion’s past. His narration is accompanied by a bombastic public-TV soundtrack, colorful re-creations of the Isles’ greatest battles, and grainy black and white scenes of Peasants’ Revolt skirmishes—which, one fears, a majority of British schoolchildren took to be archival footage.  

In his frequent, nearly convincing, displays of self-deprecation, Schama seems both well aware and curiously proud of his excesses. He admits to a “gift of the gab” to the point of logorrhea, revealing that his college writings “depended overmuch on adjectival overload and overwrought atmospherics.” These characteristics persist, postbaccalaureate, and in Scribble, Scribble, Scribble, they sometimes serve him well. He can be a pleasure to read, particularly on the visual arts. When he chooses his words with care, his “adjectival overload” entertains and instructs; for example, in his characterization of the work of the Belgian painter James Ensor: “Lurid, lyrical, mysterious, sophomorically satirical, intimate, raucous, cerebral, macabre, tender, narcissistic, suicidal, iconoclastic, reverent, supersaturated and washed out.”

As often, however, Schama’s sentences, in their effort to crackle and pop, end up sounding like an effortful imitation of the early Tom Wolfe. He describes his own handwriting:

Loopy is to my writing what fox is to hedgehog, Tigger is to Eeyore, Bugs is to Elmer, Rabelais to Montaigne, Björk to Coldplay. Loopy bounds and leaps and lurches and can’t wait to get to the end of the line because—gee, gosh, boy oh boy—there’s another line to fill, and omigod, a whole half-page waiting just for me to do my thing all over it. .  .  . Loopy’s hs snake forward like a fly-fisher’s line, the tails of Loopy’s fs and gs and ys drop deep into the pond, Loopy frisks and gambols, Loopy jives, Loopy got da mojo. Loopy LIVES!

To paraphrase Truman Capote, that’s not writing, it’s writhing.

In content as well as style, Schama seesaws between the considered and the absurdly naïve, and in recent years the balance has tilted decidedly toward the latter. A native Londoner who has taught in the United States for decades, Schama has—between writing, filmmaking, and a requisite dip into the murky waters of genre-bending postmodernism (Dead Certainties, a work Roger Kimball memorably tagged a “harlequinade”)—thrown himself into the American political discussion. In this realm, the often unpredictable and occasionally original thinker becomes tiresomely univocal, suffering from a virulent strain of Bush Derangement Syndrome combined with a fierce (if recently stabilizing) case of Obama Rhapsody Fever.

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