Schama is an Engligh Jew and can give us a very unique perspective on America, I think. He sees it in a way no American ever could, which makes the series very powerful and fresh. It's as if seeing the country for the first time. I consider myself a student of history but he told me a lot of things I didn't know, always a good thing in a history series, otherwise, why watch it?
I came across a reviewer of the book for the Guardian, an English newspaper. Again, here is a new perspective:
Simon Schama is, in all sorts of ways, the Martin Amis of history. Identified as a rising star in the gloom of the Seventies, he reached literary maturity in the Thatcher years, when his effervescent prose and iconoclastic approach propelled him to a Harvard chair and made him perhaps the most exciting historian in the English-speaking world. Overflowing with borrowed American pizzazz, his books were triumphs of style, every page glittering with ambition. Like Amis, he became the poster boy for a generation, bringing flamboyance back into history. His fame spilled over the frontiers of academe; he became a celebrity, the BBC's resident historian in a leather jacket.He doesn't appear to like Schama very much although he hasn't even gotten into the really negative stuff yet. I have no idea who Amis is, must be an English thing.
While Schama is fond of his adopted country, this is often a surprisingly dark book. He reminds us that behind the cliché of the melting pot, hostility to immigrants has been a constant of American history, from the Know-Nothing party that railed against the 'foreign heresy' of Irish Catholics in the 1850s to the men who bullied, expelled and murdered thousands of tea-drinking Chinese railroad workers along the West Coast two decades later.It's supposed to sit uneasily. Schama is showing both the dream of America and how the reality has so often failed to live up to that dream. It's actually very poweful and part of why the series is so good.
Yet such stuff sits uneasily alongside the purple prose that teeters between pretentiousness and banality. 'The American future is all vision, numinous, unformed, light-headed with anticipation,' Schama tells us. By contrast, 'the American past is baggy with sobering truth. In between is the quicksilver Now, beads of glittering elation that slip and scatter'. A stronger editor would surely have cut this kind of thing.And the prose he complains about is brilliant! That is the very reason Schama is such a joy to watch. Perhaps it doesn't read as well in a book, but the 4 part TV series was excellent and I highly recommend it. It recently played on BBC America but I'm sure it will play again. And there is a DVD out if anyone wants to get that.
"The American future is all vision, numinous, unformed, light-headed with anticipation," Schama tells us. By contrast, "the American past is baggy with sobering truth. In between is the quicksilver Now, beads of glittering elation that slip and scatter." That sums up the feeling of the show perfectly, and the feeling of what America is. We want so badly to be proad of Her but our past is quite a heavy burden. We hope for more but so seldom seem to reach it.