Simon Schama
Simon Schama; drawing by David Levine

In the first paragraph of this extraordinary book, Simon Schama reveals that his favorite childhood reading was Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill. Fellow-enthusiasts of this enchanting idyll will not be surprised to learn that it fired his historical imagination. Kipling’s story tells how, through the magic of Oak, Ash, and Thorn, the fairy Puck provides the two children, Dan and Una, with a series of enthralling brief encounters with Roman centurions, Norman knights, and other historical figures. Each of these reminisces about the past and then tantalizingly fades away to turn back into one of the children’s present-day neighbors, like old Hobden, the hedger, or his son, the Bee Boy, “who is not quite right in his head, though he can do anything with bees.” Punctuated by memorable verse, Kipling’s tale is a poetic celebration of the deep historical continuities of the Sussex countryside.

See you our stilly woods of oak,
And the dread ditch beside?
O that was where the Saxons broke,
On the day that Harold died.

It is not a long step from Puck of Pook’s Hill to Landscape and Memory. For both books are concerned with the residue of the past that underlies the modern world, and they each illuminate the mythic underpinnings of present-day sensibilities. Moreover, Schama is a writer whose story-telling skills, descriptive power, imagination, and verve make the comparison with Kipling by no means absurd.

Landscape and Memory is a work of history written by an academic. It seeks to uncover the memories, myths, and cultural associations with which the inhabitants of the West over the past two or three millennia have perceived and shaped the natural world around them. But it is not a conventional work of academic history. Its vast chronological and geographical range alone ensures that. What most distinguishes it is the style in which it is written. Schama’s intensely visual prose is the product of a historical imagination which is not restrained by conventional academic inhibitions about attempting to “bring the past to life,” even though the evidence is incomplete. His canvas is always crowded and there are no empty spaces. Thus, when other historians would have written, “In 1943 the Germans sent anSS unit to Fontadamo,” Schama begins, “A detachment ofSS winds its way up the mountain road west of Ancona tracing a black line in the autumn gold: crows in the corn. Clouds of chalky dust rise from the road while the exhaust from the armored cars shakes the unharvested wheat.”

Similarly, Schama is not content to record that Sir Walter Ralegh planned his Guiana expedition in Durham House, London. Rather, he tells us that,

From his lofty vantage point on the north bank, where the Thames made a snaking, southern bend, Ralegh could survey the progress of empire: the dipping oars of the queen’s state barge as it made its way from Greenwich to Sheen; bunched masts of pinnaces and carracks swaying at their berths; broad-sterned Dutch fly boats bouncing on the dock-tide; wherries taking passengers to the Southwark theaters; the whole humming business of the black river. But through the miry soup of refuse that slapped at his walls, Ralegh could see the waters of the Orinoco, as seductively nacreous as the pearl he wore on his ear.

And when Ralegh’s ill-fated expedition gets under way, so does Schama:

A week into these cursed waters and they start to mold and stink like rancid whey. Their English broadcloth glues itself to their bodies, yet it is not stout enough armor against the stiletto-thrusts of voracious mosquitoes and the industrious burrowings of chiggers beneath their grimy dermis. Though the enclosing canopy chokes out the air, there is sun enough to scorch their necks and wrists so that their skin stripes with burns as if raked by martyrs’ coals. They are too hot to tell if they have fever. But they all shake and tremble with the river-palsy, rowing blind, their lids and corneal jelly stinging with sweat. In their wretchedness, they are sustained by alternations of cursing and prayer. They piss into the river as if their waters might kill the malevolent Orinoco. And when the heat relents in the evening darkness, they evacuate their loathing and wrath in wild brawling, the oafish roaring answered antiphonally by the howling of monkeys and syncopated with the juddering flight of vampire bats.

It is his ability (and willingness) to write this sort of narrative prose—vivid, elaborate, unashamedly colorful, yet not departing from the evidence in any seriously misleading way—that makes Simon Schama the obvious modern successor to Macaulay. He appeals to a similarly wide readership, and, unlike his Victorian predecessor, he also can make use of television. The BBC recently broadcast a five-part version of Landscape and Memory, with the author as the insatiably enthusiastic, ceaselessly articulate, hand-waving narrator. Only just fifty, Schama has published no fewer than five previous books, including The Embarrassment of Riches, a deeply enjoyable study of Dutch painting and society in its golden age, and Citizens, a best-selling narrative of the French Revolution, which probably sold all the better for being profoundly unsympathetic to that event. Nearly all of them are original in conception and ambitious in scope. As Schama himself recently remarked, “My history is sort of greedy history. I mean it’s big cake history.”1


In writing such history Schama employs in his new book some rather transparent literary devices. Apparently determined to avoid the obvious at all costs, he likes to begin his chapters or subsections of chapters by abruptly plunging the reader headlong into the middle of the narrative. For some obscure reason, many of these zanily inconsequential opening sentences are about eating. Thus:

“Please, try the bison,” said Tadeusz. “Really, it’s very good.”

It was Augustus T. Dowd’s big joke. On a spring morning in 1852 he had been after a wounded grizzly, meaning to finish the brute off and provide the men of the Union Water Company with fried bear for the rest of the week.

“It was one of my father’s firmest beliefs that no one could know real happiness who had not, at some time, gorged on a plate of crisply fried whitebait.”

It was when his lapdog, Tory, got eaten by a wolf that Horace Walpole began to have serious reservations about Mont Cenis.

Returning to the cabin in the woods by Walden Pond, a catch of fish tied to his pole, Henry David Thoreau was seized with an overwhelming urge to eat raw woodchuck.

What these contrived openings have in common is that they force even the most reluctant reader to go a little further, if only to find out what on earth such a bizarre beginning can have to do with the author’s theme.

Much the same purpose is served by the recurring passages of highly personal autobiography, in which Schama temporarily abandons the voice of omniscient narrator for a rather more confessional tone. We learn about his childhood in Essex and, in a characteristically baroque piece of elaboration, about his riverside fantasies beside the Thames:

Broad galleys entered the river with rows of grunting oarsmen. Long boats with dragon heads at the prow and dull iron shields nailed to the side slid menacingly upstream. Galliots and caravels gently rose and fell with the estuary tides, sporting on their bowsprits beaming cherubs or turbaned corsairs with goggling eyes and dangerous whiskers. Great tea clippers, their sails billowing like sheets on our washing line, beat their way before the breeze to the London docks. In my watery daydreams the shoreline itself mysteriously dissolved its ratty pubs and rusting cranes into a somber riverbank woodland where the tops of trees emerged from an ancient, funeral fog. When I took a boat trip with my father from Gravesend to Tower Bridge, the docks at Wapping and Rotherhithe still had big cargo ships at berth rather than upmarket grillrooms and corporate headquarters. But my mind’s eye saw the generations of the wharves, bristling with masts and cranes as if in a print by Hollar, the bridges top-heavy and overhung across their whole span with rickety timber houses, alive with the great antswarm of the imperial city.

We are also told about Schama’s ancestors, Lithuanian Jews, who worked as lumbermen, floating logs down the rivers to the sawmills of Grodno. We hear about his family’s move to London and his childhood memories of Hampstead Heath. There is an account of a not-altogether-successful trip with his children to see the giant redwoods at Orr Springs, California, when the family unhappily encountered a commune of naked bathers from Haight Ashbury; and there is a description of the view from the house north of New York City where Schama now lives: “In the hours before dawn, barely a fairway away from the inevitably manicured country club, coyotes howl at the moon, setting off a frantic shrieking from the flocks of wild turkey hidden in the covers. This is Thoreau’s kind of suburb.”

Throughout the book there is a profusion of anecdote and arresting detail, dramatic, entertaining, often hilarious. Schama is a masterly narrator who spins and embroiders his yarns with unflagging zest. The book abounds in virtuoso passages, some of them reminiscent of Rabelais or Sterne—like this on the dragons of the Alps listed by a Zurich professor in 1702:

There were cat-faced dragons, and serpentine dragons, inflammable dragons and noncombustible dragons. There were fliers and slitherers; malodorous dragons and cacophonic dragons; scaled and feathered; bat-like and bird-like; crested and bald; fork-tailed and fork-tongued.

Or on the cheeses of Switzerland:


Coxe eats Swiss cheese. Ramond eats sweet, fat Unterwalden cheese; dry, aromatic Bernese Oberland cheese; a great sixty-year-old cheese at Lauterbrunnen “much like a cake of yellow wax”; even the ghastly pickled, putrid cheese of Lucerne.

What then is the story which this immensely gifted story-teller tells in so entrancing a fashion? What is the argument that runs through his very long book? These are not easy questions to answer. For it is hard to say what Landscape and Memory is not about. This is where the analogy between Schama and Macaulay breaks down, since Macaulay was nothing if not clear about his subject and his argument: that is why hostile critics have found it easy to engage with him. But Schama’s purpose, in this book at least, is a great deal more elusive.

Schama’s main contention is that “landscape is the work of the mind.” Our perception of the external natural world, he argues, is shaped by our inherited attitudes, myths, and traditions. It is, therefore, wrong to think that in the modern world the attitude to nature has been wholly exploitative, and it would be equally wrong to see nature as having a purely benign objective existence apart from human perceptions of it. On the contrary, our present-day perceptions of trees, mountains, or rivers are shaped by cultural traditions of great antiquity. “Whether we scramble the slopes or ramble the woods, our Western sensibilities carry a bulging backpack of myth and recollection.” In the gardens of modern suburbia we can see the legacy of classical ideas of Arcadia: in Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona in Rome are memories of ancient Egyptian river gods; and when the twentieth-century sculptor Gutzon Borglum carved Mount Rushmore into the heads of four American presidents, he was following in the steps of the Macedonian architect Dinocrates, who wanted to shape Mount Athos into the likeness of Alexander the Great.

When he traces such connections Schama’s book can be seen as a work in the tradition of Aby Warburg, whose great library was devoted to revealing the posthumous influence upon Western attitudes of the classical tradition and of the variety of mystical and irrational undercurrents of thought which were inherited with it. Schama conceives of the chapters of his book as excavations, digging down to the primary bedrock of the ancient beliefs which underlie modern attitudes and practice.

The difficulty of this task is that the cultural associations of the natural world are almost infinite. If Schama is writing a history of the impact of culture upon nature, where is he to start and where is he to stop? What, if anything, in human history is not relevant to his theme?

Schama’s solution is to be selective. His book is divided into three main parts, Wood, Water, and Rock, a mystical trio faintly reminiscent of Kipling’s Oak, Ash, and Thorn. Wood is about trees and forests, Water about rivers, Rock about mountains. In each of these three parts, Schama takes some examples of his general theme and explores them with great particularity.

It is in his choice of those illustrative episodes that Schama shows his greatest originality. The section devoted to Wood predictably has, as might be expected, a chapter on forest law, Robin Hood and the myth of the greenwood, where “young gentlemen…fleet the time carelessly as they did in the golden world.” But much less predictable is the moving opening chapter on the forests of Lithuania, home of Schama’s lumberjack ancestors and scene of some of the most terrible atrocities of World War II. Schama moves from Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish romantic and apostle of national freedom, whose Pan Tadeusz, written in exile in Paris between 1832 and 1834, sees in the remembered landscape of sylvan virtue the symbol of national identity, to the hunting expeditions to the Bialowieża forest of Hermann Goering in the 1930s which were the preliminary to the later German invasion.

In another stunningly successful chapter Schama traces the place of woodland in the formation of German national identity. From the defeat of the Roman general Varus in the Teutoburg Forest in 10 AD by the Cheruscan leader Arminius (later Hermann the German) there would flow a long current of nationalist mythology which culminated in the erection of the supposed site of the battle, in 1875, the fifth year of the Second Reich, of Joseph Ernst von Bandel’s gigantic monument to Hermann, a helmeted Wagnerian colossus (another one, a hundred and two feet tall, was erected by Julius Berndt for the Sons of Hermann in New Ulm, Minnesota). The crucial document in this mythology was Tacitus’ Germania (c. 98 AD), with its picture of the primitive Germans as a freedom-loving forest people, rugged, virile, courageous, and racially pure. Schama traces the theme of the primeval forest in German nationalism from the sixteenth-century landscape paintings of Albrecht Altdorfer to the Wandervogel youth movement of the early twentieth century; and he gives a gripping account of one of the strangest episodes of the Second World War: the unsuccessful attempt by Himmler’s storm troopers to seize the oldest manuscript of the Germania, Codex Aesinas lat. 8, from its hiding place in a palazzo near Ancona. The forests were crucial to Nazi ideology: “Exterminating millions of lives was not at all incompatible with passionate protection for millions of trees.”

As a further illustration of the persistence of tree mythology, Schama relates how the giant sequoias of Yosemite and the redwoods of California became heroic monuments to the antiquity of American values. Then he turns to the Christian myth of the verdant cross, the leaf-sprouting crucifix. In the ubiquity of the vegetable symbols of resurrection, from the tree of Jesse to the Glastonbury Thorn, he sees the recurrence of themes of rebirth and renewal of the kind which the Romans had celebrated in their festival of Atys, the Phrygian shepherd, who was turned into a pine tree. (At times, one feels that Schama’s model is not so much Aby Warburg as Sir James Frazer of The Golden Bough.) Finally, there is a section on the attempts of eighteenth-century enthusiasts to show that the origins of Gothic architecture lay in woodland groves.

Schama’s treatment of Water takes a similarly unpredictable form. He begins with the American intellectual Joel Barlow, who, sent in 1795 to negotiate with the dey of Algiers, embarked on a study of the ancient mysteries of the East which resulted in the conclusion that the American Liberty tree took its origin from the amputated penis of the Egyptian river god Osiris. From Barlow we move, via Nilotic hieroglyphs and deities, to the mystical role of fountains in Renaissance gardens, the installation of obelisks in Counter-Reformation Rome, and the construction of Bernini’s great monument in the Piazza Navona. Another chapter is devoted to such diverse topics as Sir Walter Ralegh (on the rather unconvincing grounds that Queen Elizabeth I nicknamed him “Water” and that he was allegedly obsessed by rivers); the early seventeenth-century “water-poet” and publicist, John Taylor;2 the grandes eaux of Versailles; the treatment of the Thames by the artists James Barry and J.M.W. Turner; the Hudson Valley painters; the affinity between the undraped female body and the cascade of pure water, as in Courbet’s The Painter’s Studio; and the equation, as in the same painter’s The Origin of the World, of the vaginal orifice with the source of life. Finally, there is a graphic account of the expedition of Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke in search of the origin of the Nile and an exciting story of how Cleopatra’s Needle, brought by sea to London in a specially constructed iron cylinder, was nearly lost en route in a storm in the Bay of Biscay.

After the extraordinary range of this watery miscellany, Schama’s two chapters on Rock seem almost conventional. Beginning with Mount Rushmore and Dinocrates (“the alteration of landscape to manscape”), he proceeds past carved Buddhas in the hillsides of China to Shangri-La and the sacred mountains of the East. Thence we are taken to the holy mountains of Christianity and the primitive painters who “equated altitude with beatitude.” We have Petrarch’s ascent to Mont Ventoux in 1336, the mountain pictures of Leonardo and Brueghel, the sacri monti and hillside calvaries of Northern Italy and the bathos of “Holy Land, U.S.A.,” constructed in the 1950s at Waterbury, Connecticut.

The second chapter on Rock starts with the eighteenth-century discovery of mountains and draws valuable distinctions between the different forms of mountain pleasure derived by travelers in different periods. The “agreeable horror” cherished by those in search of the picturesque contrasted with “the reveries and fatalistic spells of self-annihilation” of the Romantics; and those in turn differed from the “muscular, quasi-military determination” of the geologists and the belief of the Alpine Club’s members that only the physical experience of climbing could yield the real truth about the relative scale of mountains and men.

In his concluding section, “Arcadia Redesigned,” Schama brings Wood, Water, and Rock together. He reminds us that, since classical times, arcadia has been alternately defined as an idyll and as a wilderness; and his account of attempts to achieve this uncertain arcadian ideal ranges from Hampstead Heath and the Forest of Fontainebleau to zoos, botanical gardens, and the landscapes of Capability Brown.

A bald summary cannot convey the riches of this book. It gives no indication of the brio and hilarity with which it is written; of its narrative excitement; or of the long gallery of eccentrics and visionaries whose idiosyncrasies the author seizes upon with such relish. But a summary does indicate the apparent randomness of the topics discussed and the absence of anything very firm in the way of unifying theme. Schama tells us early on that he has “always liked that word, meandering, its snaking run of syllables flowing who knows where?” He has chosen to make his book one great meander, flowing in no easily discernible direction. It could have been half as long or twice as long; and it has no real beginning and no real end. For if Wood, Water, and Rock, why not Sky or Earth or Air? The landscapes of the mind are infinite.

As it is, the range of material consulted for Landscape and Memory is enormous. Schama has as much to say about art and literature as about more conventional historical sources. His endnotes are stuffed with fascinating references to works in half a dozen languages and there is a superb concluding bibliographic guide. The book is sumptuously produced, with many illustrations in color as well as black and white. It is, however, a product of extensive and imaginative reading, rather than a work of original research involving the systematic exploration of new sources or the distinctive reinterpretation of old ones. Genuinely novel insights—of the kind to be found in his account of the theme of woodlands in German history or of the different perceptions of mountains—are infrequent. Behind each discussion of an out-of-the-way subject there usually lies some scholarly monograph on which Schama has drawn and whose conclusions he has rendered in infinitely more sparkling prose. He is candid and generous in his acknowledgments.3 Yet his enterprise is a different one from that of most other scholars. He is descriptive rather than analytic, anecdotal rather than explanatory. There is more dazzle than illumination. Why were particular landscape myths influential at one time rather than another, or among some people rather than others? Why was it possible for so much of human activity, urban, scientific, and technological, to turn its back on ancient and modern myths about nature and concentrate on understanding the physical and chemical forces underlying it? Schama does not tell us. One is reminded of the youthful Max Beerbohm’s remark that “to give an accurate and exhaustive account of that period would need a far less brilliant pen than mine.”

Envious pedants will be quick to point out that not even his battery of research assistants has succeeded in saving Schama from occasional error, unavoidable in a book which takes virtually the whole of human knowledge as its subject. Schama should not be judged too severely for believing that the king in the Robin Hood stories was Edward rather than Richard, that Sir Edward Coke was James I’s Lord Chancellor, that the Protector Somerset’s name was Thomas Seymour rather than Edward or that it was Dunsinane Forest that marched toward Macbeth. And when Schama attributes Oscar Wilde’s description of fox-hunting as “the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable” to, of all people, that great fox-hunting writer, Siegfried Sassoon, we may regard his nod as Homeric. Just occasionally there is an embarrassing indication that Schama may be working at a distance from his primary sources. Thus, he says, justly enough, of that strange Renaissance allegory, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, that “the mediocrity of the text was compensated for by the haunting peculiarity of the woodcut illustrations,” but the weight of his opinion is somewhat diminished by his subsequent reference to this prose romance as a “poem.” Equally disconcerting is his description of William Camden’s Britannia as a “monumental topographical-historical poem,” though the Elizabethan historian’s huge antiquarian survey is as solid a piece of prose as one could imagine.

But when the pedants have had their say, other readers will continue to derive pleasure from this remarkable book, so ambitious in conception, so consistently entertaining in execution. It may not greatly advance scholarly understanding of the many subjects with which it is concerned. But it will absorb, instruct, and fascinate; and even the driest pedant will marvel at the sheer chutzpah of it all.

This Issue

September 21, 1995