British historian Simon Schama is not afraid to leave the Ivory Tower. A jet-setter who has starred in documentaries across the globe, Schama is famed for popularizing history and art through award-winning, educational films. Television programs such as his “History of Britain” series on BBC have made Schama’s scholarship accessible to readers outside the academy – including me.
I first encountered Schama’s films in a high school classroom, and I have been a fan ever since. Few historians – before or since – have been able to make me feel so invested in the drama of the past. Given this experience, I eagerly picked up Schama’s latest book Scribble, Scribble, Scribble: Writing on Politics, Ice Cream, Churchill, and My Mother.
What I discovered was a diamond in the rough – an anthology which included both striking and dull essays, but which could have dazzled readers if only Schama had focused on what he does best: historical analysis, character sketches, and personal essays.
Schama excels at those forms of writing partly because of his uncommon psychological insight. He is masterful at explaining how people tick, and this is true whether he is describing himself or others. His shining moment in the anthology is the essay, “Rembrandt’s Ghost,” in which he discusses Picasso’s admiration of Rembrandt and shows how these two artists, despite their very different aesthetics, had kindred spirits and similar motivations for their work. Another standout is “Rescuing Churchill,” in which Schama eloquently defends Churchill from modern critics, as in this passage:
“It is, in fact, to Churchill’s imperishable credit that, faced with the alternatives of hanging on to the scraps of empire, courtesy of Adolf Hitler, or fighting to the end, whatever long-term damage might accrue to British power, he unhesitatingly opted for the latter. Even for its most conspicuous eulogist, better by far an ‘end of glory’ than the end of freedom.”
For such gems alone, this collection is worth reading.
However, not all the essays were so insightful.
Schama’s writings on American politics were frequently partisan to the point of being unfair, and one of his essays on the subject is offensive. “The Civil War in the USA” portrays Midwesterners and Southerners as hicks motivated entirely by “myth” and “irrationality.” Such snobbery and prejudice may be popular among some, but it should not be endorsed by one of the world’s leading academics. This mistake is particularly surprising coming from Schama, who has demonstrated – time and again – his ability to relate to those different from himself.
That being said, the anthology gives readers an illuminating glimpse of Schama and his work. The essay “A History of Britain: A Response” is particularly instructive in this regard. Here Schama explains choices he made as a historical filmmaker.
In that essay and throughout the anthology, Schama emphasizes the value of quality storytelling in historical scholarship, and – by the end of the book – the reader will better understand how Schama views his profession. No elitist, he believes in popularizing history as much as possible, and, in various essays, he explains why: If history is to remain relevant, he says, it must be expressed in terms the general public can understand and in mediums (like film) that they enjoy.
The finest essays in this collection crystallize around Schama’s thoughts on the role of history and art in society, and those topics should have been the book’s principal organizing themes. Instead, Schama tries to cover too much, including subjects he doesn’t write about well, such as travel. In the same book, he discusses Martin Scorcese, the war on terror, baseball, and too many other subjects to mention. I came away from “Scribble, Scribble, Scribble” wondering: Why were these particular essays put together? With more revision and concision, this book might have been a coherent whole but, as it stands, it is a hodgepodge.
Yet this collection has a saving grace: Schama’s charm. Despite occasional narrative gaffes such as overlong digressions and obscure allusions, on the whole Schama’s disarming wit makes it difficult to dislike him. This is particularly true of his cooking essays, which are consistently engaging. Take this quote as an example:
“I knew it was unfair to recruit my kids as fellow gastro-explorers in the name of principled eclecticism. Small children are nature’s little conservatives. They are warmed by fulfilled expectations. They have favourites in the kitchen – and why deny them?”
“Scribble, Scribble, Scribble” delivers many pleasant surprises, including unexpected laughs and eureka moments. In spite of its flaws, it is enjoyable. The key is knowing which essays to skip and which to savor.
Ilana Kowarski is a Monitor correspondent.