By Lisa-Marie Griffith
Last night I spent the evening in the company of Simon Schama, Professor of History and History of Art at Columbia University. Admittedly I wasn’t on my own and as a lowly blog writer and unpaid historian I had to share Professor Schama with 383 Dubliners who had turned up as part of the Dublin Writer’s Festival. Not surprising, perhaps: Shama has written fourteen books on history and history of art and has hosted 3 BBC history series, including the Emmy winning Power of Art. His most recent publication, and the book he had been invited to speak on, is American Future.His presence at the festival was interesting for two reasons. Schama joined a line-up that included world renowned writers of poetry, fiction and non-fiction and his inclusion at the festival proves that history writing has become an accepted facet of the literary genre. Who better to represent the history field than Simon Shama. But is he a model historian and a figure head we would like to represent the industry? On TV I have found Schama clear, passionate and to be honest more likeable than his Channel 4 rival David Starkey. While a History of Britain is not without its flaws the series and follow-up books are clear, intelligent and most importantly accessible. I have to admit though that I arrived to hear his talk in a cynical frame of mind expecting not to like him but left with two signed copies of his book under my arm. What then was my problem with Schama and why have I changed my mind?
Like most historians I have begun to doubt the abilities of TV historians who publish epic books on a wide variety of topics. Is it possible to be that prolific and to be an expert on such a wide variety of topics? The mistrust may be a mixture of both jealousy and the snobbish attitude of historians: Popular historians are told that they have ‘sold out’ and ‘dumbed down’ the history process. This was one of the first criticisms that Schama dealt with. Mentioning that he has stepped into many a taxi to be told by the driver that he mis-quoted a monarch or had an incorrect date for an event he is also aware of the looks from other historians who believe he has indeed sold out. Schama says he doesn’t care. He would rather have made the taxi-driver and the TV viewing public respond to his programs then pander to the historical community. He also believes he has hasn’t dumbed down history and I would have to agree. The three volume History of Britain and the accompanying television series was a mammoth achievement and did indeed bring a clear and accessible history of Britain to the public. For those who said it was a history of monarchs he replies- how could you write a history of Britain without mentioning the monarchs?
I think as a historian the greatest scepticism that I had was for his latest book American Future. We have spent the last number of years American bashing and one review of Schama’s book stated that he was an antidote to the ingrained European anti-American opinions. Could one history book change our minds that much?
Schama says he has not represented America in an overly positive light and that his book in an exploration of what it is to be American and what their history is. American is saturated in history, he argues, but often the wrong kind of history. He says that most American school children are told about the founding fathers as if they are in a fairy tale, Disney movie or adventure story. His aim was to get rid of ‘Social Studies’ (the name given to history study in American schools) and return to History- a discussion and account of what has happened.
He is an infectious speaker and even if you don’t always agree with him you have to agree with what he can do: bring history to the masses in an accessible way to ensure that the public continues to consume history and that we are kept in jobs.
The Writer’s Festival has a blog with interviews of those writers speaking where you can keep up with what’s going on throughout the week.