He first came to public attention with his history of the French Revolution titled Citizens, published in 1989. In the United Kingdom, he is perhaps best known for writing and hosting the 15-part BBC television documentary series A History of Britain broadcast between 2000 and 2002.
Schama was born in Marylebone, London. His mother, Gertie (née Steinberg), was from an Ashkenazi Jewish family (from Kaunas, present-day Lithuania), and his father, Arthur Schama, was of Sephardi Jewish background (from Smyrna, present-day İzmir in Turkey), later moving through Moldova and Romania.
In the mid-1940s, the family moved to Southend-on-Sea in Essex before moving back to London. Schama writes of this period in the introduction to his 1996 book Landscape & Memory (pp. 3–4):
I had no hill [previously alluding to that in Puck of Pook's Hill], but I did have the Thames. It was not the upstream river that the poets in my Palgrave claimed burbled betwixt mossy banks. [...] It was the low, gull-swept estuary, the marriage bed of salt and fresh water, stretching as far as I could see from my northern Essex bank, toward a thin black horizon on the other side. That would be Kent, the sinister enemy who always seemed to beat us in the County Cricket Championship. [...]
Schama worked for short periods as a lecturer in history at Cambridge, where he was a Fellow and Director of Studies in History at Christ's College. He then taught for some time at Oxford, where he was made a Fellow of Brasenose College in 1976, specialising in the French Revolution.
At this time, Schama wrote his first book, Patriots and Liberators, which won the Wolfson History Prize. The book was originally intended as a study of the French Revolution, but as published in 1977, it focused on the effect of the Patriottentijd revolution of the 1780s in the Netherlands, and its aftermath.
In 1980, Schama took up a chair at Harvard University. His next book, The Embarrassment of Riches (1987), again focused on Dutch history. Schama interpreted the ambivalences that informed the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century, held in balance between the conflicting imperatives, to live richly and with power, or to live a godly life. The iconographic evidence that Schama draws upon, in 317 illustrations, of emblems and propaganda that defined Dutch character, prefigured his expansion in the 1990s as a commentator on art and visual culture.
Citizens (1989), written at speed to a publisher's commission, finally saw the publication of his long-awaited study of the French Revolution, and won the 1990 NCR Book Award. Its view that the violence of the Terror was inherent from the start of the Revolution, however, has received serious negative criticism.
Schama mooted some possible (invented) connections between the two cases, exploring the historian's inability "ever to reconstruct a dead world in its completeness however thorough or revealing the documentation", and speculatively bridging "the teasing gap separating a lived event and its subsequent narration." Not all readers absorbed the nuance of the title: it received a very mixed critical and academic reception. Traditional historians in particular denounced Schama's integration of fact and conjecture to produce a seamless narrative, but later assessments took a more relaxed view of the experiment.
Sales in hardback exceeded those of Schama's earlier works, as shown by relative rankings by amazon.com.[original research?]
Schama's next book, Landscape and Memory (1995), focused on the relationship between physical environment and folk memory, separating the components of landscape as wood, water and rock, enmeshed in the cultural consciousness of collective "memory" embodied in myths, which Schama finds to be expressed outwardly in ceremony and text. More personal and idiosyncratic than Dead Certainties, this book was more traditionally structured and better-defined in its approach. Despite mixed reviews, the book was a commercial success and won numerous prizes.
Plaudits came from the art world rather than from traditional academia. Schama became art critic for The New Yorker in 1995. He held the position for three years, dovetailing his regular column with professorial duties at Columbia University; a selection of his essays on art for the magazine, chosen by Schama himself, was published in 2005 under the title Hang Ups. During this time, Schama also produced a lavishly illustrated Rembrandt's Eyes, another critical and commercial success. Despite the book's title, it contrasts the biographies of Rembrandt van Rijn and Peter Paul Rubens.
In 1995, Schama wrote and presented a series called Landscape and Memory to accompany his book of the same name. Schama returned to the UK in 2000, having been commissioned by the BBC to produce a series of television documentary programmes on British history as part of their Millennium celebrations, under the title A History of Britain.
Schama wrote and presented the episodes himself, in a friendly and often jocular style with his highly characteristic delivery, and was rewarded with excellent reviews and unexpectedly high ratings. There has been, however, some irritation and criticism expressed by a group of historians about Schama's condensed recounting of the British Isles' history on this occasion, particularly by those specialising in the pre-Anglo-Saxon history of Insular Celtic civilisation. Three series were made, totalling 15 episodes, covering the complete span of British history up until 1965; it went on to become one of the BBC's best-selling documentary series on DVD. Schama also wrote a trilogy of tie-in books for the show, which took the story up to the year 2000; there is some debate as to whether the books are the tie-in product for the TV series, or the other way around. The series also had some popularity in the United States when it was first shown on the History Channel.
In 2001, Schama received a CBE. In 2003, he signed a new contract with the BBC and HarperCollins to produce three new books and two accompanying TV series. Worth £3 million (around US$5.3m), it represents the biggest advance deal ever for a TV historian. The first result of the deal was a book and TV show entitled Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution, dealing in particular with the proclamation issued during the Revolutionary War by Lord Dunmore offering slaves from rebel plantations freedom in return for service to the crown.
In 2011 the BBC commissioned Simon Schama to write and present a five-part series called A History of the Jews for BBC Two for transmission in 2012, The title became The Story of the Jews and broadcast was delayed until September 2013. Writing in The Observer, Andrew Anthony called it "an astonishing achievement, a TV landmark."
In August 2014, Schama was one of 200 public figures who were signatories to a letter to The Guardian expressing their hope that Scotland would vote to remain part of the United Kingdom in September's referendum on that issue.
Schama was critical of a call by British novelist John Berger for an academic boycott of Israel over its policies towards the Palestinians. Writing in The Guardian in an article co-authored with Anthony Julius, Schama compared Berger's academic boycott to policies adopted by Nazi Germany, saying: "This is not the first boycott call directed at Jews. On 1 April 1933, only weeks after he came to power, Hitler ordered a boycott of Jewish shops, banks, offices and department stores."
In 2006 on the BBC, Schama debated with Vivienne Westwood the morality of Israel's actions in the Israel-Lebanon War. He described Israel's bombing of Lebanese city centres as unhelpful to Israel's attempt to "get rid of" Hezbollah. He said: "Of course the spectacle and suffering makes us grieve. Who wouldn't grieve? But it's not enough to do that. We've got to understand. You've even got to understand Israel's point of view."
^Daniel, M., and S. Steinberg. "Simon Schama." Publishers Weekly 238, No. 22 (17 May 1991): 46. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed 30 April 2009).
^"He provides a reading of cultural tints and social textures", the reviewers in Contemporary Sociology (Vol. 17.6 (November 1988: 760–62) found, "at a level of visual detail that is usually reserved for art history."
^Notably in Timothy Tackett, "Interpreting the Terror" French Historical Studies24.4 (Autumn 2001:569–578); Tackett's view of swiftly evolving revolution in his prosopography of the deputies, Becoming a Revolutionary: The Deputies of the French National Assembly and the Emergence of a Revolutionary Culture, 1789–1790 (Princeton University Press) 1996, was not fundamentally at variance with Schama.
^Windschuttle, Keith (2000). The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists are Murdering Our Past. San Francisco: Encounter Books. p. 252. ISBN1-893554-12-0. [...] drawing absolute conclusions from [...] fragments of evidence
^Toplin, Robert Brent (1996). History by Hollywood: the use and abuse of the American past. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. p. 7quote=a fascinating experiment in historical writing. ISBN0-252-06536-0.