Simon Schama - The History Channeler

Historians in the News

Simon Schama has a story to tell -- and as with all of this historian's stories, there's big-time drama involved. Schama's own story, you might say, is also about learning to write.

He's made a life's work of mixing scholarship with dramatic narrative in ways that few of his scholarly peers can match.

Call it "How to Succeed by Doing What Other Historians Don't."

Does your typical academic write best-selling 900-page histories of the French Revolution that deliberately omit footnotes? Produce texts mixing scholarship with fiction, to the point where you cannot tell the two apart? Dash off art criticism for magazines like the New Yorker? Teach seditious graduate seminars on "Writing History Beyond the Academy"?

No, no, no and no. "He's totally unusual," says historian Eric Foner, a colleague of Schama's at Columbia University. "He's sui generis."

But what really sets Schama apart these days is that he's turned himself into -- oh, horror of horrors -- a television star, signing multimillion-dollar contracts for work designed to surface both in print and as TV history shows.

He's completely unrepentant about this.

"I've always loved television as a sort of craft," he says. The goal is not to dumb things down, but to do "what I call 'debate by stealth.' In other words, you tell a story and in that story you actually pose extremely serious questions."

His storytelling has earned him a follow-up contract with the BBC and HarperCollins for three more books and two more TV series. The price? A distinctly nonacademic 3 million pounds (more than $5 million). Meanwhile, Schama found another way to distinguish himself from his academic colleagues: He'd become an outspoken critic of their shared profession.

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