“History is more than a kind of stroll down memory lane in a nice frock.” —Simon Schama quoted in Elizabeth Jensen, “The Historical Becomes Personal,” The New York Times, March 23, 2014
Simon Schama—who, I’m happy to say, now graces the faculty of my alma mater, Columbia University—was born on this date 70 years ago in Marylebone, in the United Kingdom. The above quote indicates both his belief in history’s continuing relevance to the presence, and the asperity that spices up his print and visual observations on the subject.
Schama achieved his greatest prominence with the release, on the bicentennial of the French Revolution, of his bestselling narrative of that transformative event in world history, Citizens. He has since appeared on TV, especially in A History of Britain and The Power of Art.
But perhaps his quirkiest book—and the one that caused the most consternation in his profession—was probably Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations (1992). This consisted, essentially, of two novellas, each centered on memento mori involving Harvard’s Parkman family: Benjamin West’s famous painting The Death of General Wolfe at the Battle of Quebec (given stunning literary force by historian Francis Parkman) and the sensational 1849 murder of his uncle George Parkman.
Using these events as springboards, Schama sought to demonstrate how historians reconstructed—frequently to the point of speculation—events that happened years ago. Members of his profession, he wrote, were “left forever chasing shadows, painfully aware of their inability ever to reconstruct a dead world in its completeness, however thorough or revealing their documentation. Of course they make do with other work: the business of formulating problems, of supplying explanations about cause and effect. But the certainty of such answers always remains contingent on their unavoidable remoteness from their subjects. We are doomed to be forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner and out of earshot."
This did not go down well with fellow historians, as he recalled two years ago in this article for Britain’s The Independent newspaper. But he--and they--have managed to move on pretty nicely after all the fuss and feathers.
(Photograph of Simon Schama at Strand Book Store, New York City. taken August 15, 2006, by David Shankbone)