Keep your eyes open for the September issue of The Blue & White, coming soon to campus. Until then, Bwog will honor our heritage/amorous affair with our mother magazine by posting highlights of the upcoming issue online. Among the treats to look forward to: a litany of bizarre and outdated freshman hazing rituals, a conversation with a luminary on DIY education, and a (half-fictional) account of romance in the John Jay dining hall. This month senior mag editor and sometime Bwog chief Claire Sabel explores the frustrating generalizations of Simon Schama.
I first read Simon Schama in high school, where he was held up as the high priest of the historical chronicle on account of Citizens, his telling of the French Revolution. Although this was his area of specialization, he went on to write two very well received books about the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic and a study of Zionism. All this should be giving you some indication that he is an academic superstar, effortlessly shifting from one topic to another. Despite a move to more popular writing in recent years (several television series and popular history of art books) he still managed to put out a highly regarded historical work, Rough Crossings, which argues that the need to protect slavery motivated the American Revolution.
So to open a collection and read your academic hero, much less a high-powered historian, proclaim that “the American hunger for ice cream has always been an ache for a prelapsarian way of life that never was,” in a vignette on ice cream for Vogue that also features a recipe for “carrot, apricot, cardamom and saffron kulfi” is bemusing, to say the least.
Schama is a very famous historian. He is also, I learn through reading Scribble, Scribble, Scribble, a contributor to Vogue, The New Yorker, and Harper’s among others. He is a foodie. He’s travelled widely (his author picture was taken in the North Korean demilitarized zone). He has a sophisticated and at times exasperating vocabulary, and he’s very fond of making sweeping proclamations about the American character. Prelapsarian means before the fall from Eden. Kulfi is a milk-based frozen dessert from the Indian subcontinent.
48 of Schama’s essays are collected under assorted gerunds: “Travelling,” “Cooking and Eating,” “Remembering” etc. which imply a lot more commonality between the pieces than there actually is. Included are a few speeches from various prestigious events, a handful of longer reportage-style essays and reviews, some contributions to anthologies and catalogues, and several newspaper columns. This makes the book very difficult to read straight through, for trying to follow Schama as he dons his many hats and leaps from topic to topic with seemingly inexhaustible aplomb proves exhausting. The Scribbles are better suited to the occasional brief encounter. You can quite easily chuckle your way through Schama’s account of the gargantuan Queen Mary 2’s transatlantic cruise, or his keynote speech to Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter on the art of oratory, which is a delightful exercise in the craft itself.
The writing in Scribble is mostly non-academic. It’s lighter and more humorous, with the exception of some art criticism—Schama’s second most significant realm of expertise after straight history (unsurprisingly, he knows his Dutch painting)—and significantly more palatable than his food writing. He’s also no foreigner to the world of journalism. He served as a cultural critic for the New Yorker, and was recently appointed a contributing editor to the Financial Times. In his introduction to the collection, Schama describes journalism as the breath of fresh air he desperately needed to rescue him from drowning in historical archives. I actually found these opening pages to be the most rewarding and insightful writing of his whole collection. This is probably because Schama really likes to write about himself. Dipping in and out of his essays, jumping from a food column to a reflection on Hurricane Katrina, I learnt a surprising amount about the author, who has stayed with me through the sunny weeks whereas much of his cultural commentary has faded.
Schama was a vision in flannel trousers and snakeskin belt as a lad. He grew up in Golders Green, a vibrant Jewish community of east London. He had a rollicking good time at Cambridge, where his voracious intellectual and cultural appetite was nearly satisfied. He had a lot of girlfriends. These details come up time and again in the most unexpected places, and weave his far-flung prose together in a narrative that is actually consistent and quite personable. What we learn most of all about Schama though, is that he revels in the written word. This serves him well in small doses, but is hard to forgive after 400 pages, by which time Scribble suffers from an excess of ego.
Schama has made a name for himself in Britain as an observer of America. Some such writing is included in the collection, under the heading “Testing Democracy.” To illustrate the arbitrariness of these headings, this section comprises four pieces for the Guardian on major American events, one on a British election, and a long essay on Anti-Semitism published on the web. Definitely the least interesting part of the book, to American readers this writing comes across as patronizing and at times nonsensical—recall the proclamation that a taste for Häagen Dasz is the USA’s wish to absolve original sin. It’s worth noting that in Britain, Scribble was published with the subtitle: “Writing on Obama, ice cream, Churchill, and my mother” whereas in the USA it became “Writing on politics, ice cream, Churchill, and my mother.” Schama very much buys into the European fascination with Obama, and the flexibility in subtitling goes to show that he generalizes liberally to grab attention—Obama does not feature prominently in the book. In the dramatically titled “The Civil War in the USA,” he pronounces America divided between the “Wordly” and the “Godly,” which sounds cool, but it only takes one look at Mitt Romney for such a flimsy claim to be dismissed.
It’s not that Schama has got his facts wrong, but he’s writing with a British audience in mind, one that’s fascinated by “the American dream,” or “the American character.” Having grown up in both England and America, I’m somewhat sympathetic to this, but given that Schama has spent so long in the USA, teaching at Harvard and now “teaching” at Columbia in the Graduate School of the Arts, I’m left wondering why he won’t let go. In his review of the book version of The American Future: A History, David Brooks accurately diagnoses Schama as a self-appointed “Brilliant” writer, an outsider who proclaims outrageously pretentious insights into America by virtue of his own brilliance. This probably sounds familiar to readers of the requisite de Toqueville, who, Brooks rather brilliantly quips, “introduced the genre and ruined it by actually being brilliant.”
Schama can be brilliant, but it’s rarely on display here. Besides the wonderfully spirited introduction, my favorite piece in the collection is his short essay, which serves as the introduction to J. H. Plumb’s Death of the Past. Plumb was an eminent British historian and mentor to the young Schama during his time at Cambridge. He was famous for championing history that was accessible to those outside of the academy, and making the case for history as a “public craft” that engaged with the present. Schama has clearly served his legacy well in this regard, and the combination of very enjoyable personal narrative and rigorous, swift analysis in this essay is refreshing. Perhaps if he hadn’t set his sights on covering every aspect of culture and politics, encompassing every possible human action under zinging headings, the book as a whole might have been more successful. He knows his writing is pretentious, long-winded and self-indulgent. But I can forgive him because he not only admits this, but revels in it, and seeing some one who you can take so seriously let loose across the page can be fun. Fun aside, grammatically these irksome headings in their exuberant enthusiasm capture the character of the collection. They employ the continuous aspect of the verb, otherwise known as imperfect.