The Magazine

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 He continues to sing, but lately the shrill has definitively superseded the delight.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.

In his political pieces, Schama shows no restraint. His contempt for half of the American population is on lip-curling parade in “The Civil War in the USA.” Spurred by the defeat of John Kerry in 2004, this rant offers the original insight that America is deeply divided. Schama sketches his two Americas (“Worldly” and “Godly”) without shadows; black and white is all the loopy pencil can yield. “[L]ying on the oceans .  .  . porous and outward-looking .  .  . Worldly America .  .  . freely engages, commercially and culturally, with Asia and Europe in the easy understanding that those continents are a dynamic synthesis of ancient cultures and modern social and economic practices.” But Godly America, “solidly continental and landlocked .  .  . turns its back on that dangerous, promiscuous, impure world and proclaims to high heaven the indestructible endurance of the American Difference.” Worldly America “is pragmatic, practical, rational and skeptical” while Godly America is “mythic, messianic, conversionary.”

These familiar fantasies would be less hilarious if this self-proclaimed child of the Enlightenment were not, when it comes to the incumbent president, irremediably mythic, messianic, and conversionary. In a January 2009 article in the Independent, Schama writes that “Obama has accomplished something indispensable for the immediate condition of the country: he has restored public trust in the integrity and competence of American government.” In a more effervescent vein, Schama’s cooing makes Chris Matthews and David Brooks seem hard-to-get: “Obama can play heart and he can play head,” he enthuses. “[T]he basketballing candidate with the nifty jump shot, head turned slightly aside as if tuning in to history’s promptings: ‘I hear you Abe, I hear you Martin.’ ”

His infatuation with the “lanky African-American intellectual” and his “gaunt gravity” reaches a queasy-making climax in “Avedon: Power,” a piece in which he extols Obama (literally) warts and all:

Was there ever such a pretty wart? There it sits beside the noble nose, the solitary imperfection in Richard Avedon’s impossibly beautiful portrait head of Barack Obama .  .  . the clever, artless, eager child preserved in the star orator, civic gravity and American ardour overlaid on the same face, the open collar an advertisement of moral transparency.

Schama’s sentimentality about America’s current chief executive is matched by his curiously intimate aversion to the previous one. Writing on September 14, 2001, when one presumes the president was preoccupied with defending the country, “George Bush has yet to show his face on the island of Manhattan, lest a sooty cinder or two land on the smoothly shaved presidential chin.” In describing life under the “Bush regime,” Schama sounds like a paranoid undergraduate—“the United States Inc. is currently being run by an oligarchy, conducting its affairs with a plutocratic effrontery which in comparison makes the age of the robber barons .  .  . seem a model of capitalist rectitude”—followed by more specific and dubious assertions. In “Katrina and George Bush,” Schama attacks his subject not only for his “pieties,” vacations, and slow response to the disaster, but claims that Bush’s budget cuts were directly responsible for the hurricane. 

Schama’s obsessions taint even the least political pieces. In a short piece on Amsterdam, which he writes with verve and affection, Schama briefly alludes to the 2004 murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a “Muslim zealot.” This is a rare nod to the demographic changes Europe has undergone in the past few decades, but the compulsively tolerant Schama can’t end it there: He must rationalize that van Gogh’s murderer was responding to “a film savagely and, in his eyes, indecently critical of the strictures of his religion,” and at the end, shoos away worry about Islamist extremism with self-referential optimism: “But this too will pass, I believe. Amsterdam .  .  . has always been able to sponge up trouble and wring it out again. Long after this essay is published, long after its author has been forgotten, there will still be crowds spilling out on to the evening streets, smoking, drinking and laughing.”

That same blind spot clouds an essay about anti-Semitism on the Web. In 10 pages of text, six lines are devoted to Middle Eastern anti-Semitism while the rest rages against homegrown white supremacist sites. Schama not only sins by omission but ends by performing some fancy footwork to connect virulent racists with opinionated talk radio hosts: “[u]ltra-chauvinist blow-hards [who] habitually demonize on air those whom they take as insufficiently patriotic.” This pure non sequitur—on frequent display in Scribble, Scribble, Scribble—is the most dangerous brand of guilt by association, and just the kind of sophistry that should fill an ostensibly serious historian with shame.

Alec Solomita is a writer in Boston.

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