The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, by Simon Schama, New York: Knopf, 698 pages, $39.95
At the end of the month of September 1665, while the plague snatched away the lives of 7,000 Londoners, the diarist Samuel Pepys, in his position as surveyor-victualler to the Royal Navy, was dispatched to the Kentish coast. His mission was to supervise the orderly distribution of cargoes seized by the English navigator Lord Sandwich, in an attack on Dutch commerce with the east. The prize goods were destined as a reward to the crews of Sandwich's ships. In examining the commodities that, in Dutch historian Simon Schama's words, were "chaotically heaped about the decks" of the Netherlands vessels, Pepys felt, as he recorded in his journal, that it was "as noble a sight as ever I saw in my life, the greatest wealth in confusion that a man can see in the world. Pepper scattered through every chink. You trod upon it and in cloves and nutmegs I walked above the knees, whole rooms full. And silk in bales, and boxes of copper plate.…"
So did the enterprising Dutch make their way onto the stage of European history, as northern pioneers of the mercantile, capitalist economy. Further, their involvement in both the transcendent intellectual experience of the Protestant Reformation and in the rise of international trade and European colonization gave them and their cultural product—most importantly, Dutch and Flemish painting—an immense and unique resonance in the emergence of modern civilization.
But that is not the story Schama has chosen to tell. As he himself declares on the third page of his volume, his book is "an informal description that says nothing much about institutions or theologies or economic structures. Instead," he writes, "I have attempted to explore the paradoxes of being Dutch in terms of social beliefs and behavior. So there is a good deal more about pipe smoking and washing the stoop than about the Synod of Dordrecht or the economic origins of the Anglo-Dutch wars.…Above all, I have wanted to discover how the Dutch made themselves up as they went along. What animated their sense of community; what generated their allegiance; what crystallized the set of manners that became recognizably their own?"
Readers of a book that has recently attracted attention not only in "free-market" and conservative circles but also in the general reading public, Gertrude Himmelfarb's The New History and the Old, will immediately recognize in Schama's somewhat smug remarks the chief characteristics of the "new history." The "new history" is not interested in the rise of capitalism, and least of all the role therein of the Protestant religion, nor, horror of horrors, in the history of the Dutch seafarers. To the "new historian" these are the ideological constructs of white patriarchy. Much better to study, as Himmelfarb notes and as the well-known historian (and crypto-Marxist) Lawrence Stone sheepishly admits, "tiny, separate specialties" ranging from women's history to the history of mobs and riots: pipe smoking and washing the stoop.
"New history" is not pop history, although it closely resembles it; which is its paradox. That is, like pop historians, "new historians" such as Schama assemble a highly readable, colorful, and picturesque account of daily life in the past; but unlike pop history, their work is often characterized by obsessive and obscure detail and by a very academic attachment to psychological and anthropological theorizing. Still, it seems very literary—as if the new historian of the Schama variety might actually be a poet or novelist manqué.
As if to emphasize this "highbrow" quality in his work, Schama's big book is profusely illustrated with paintings and engravings, most of them by second-line or mediocre artists or drawn from folk sources. But there is, as he has noted, more about such items as the Dutch mania for sweets and the dental surgery of Rembrandt van Rijn than about the greatness of his paintings.
The problem with this approach is that the Dutch did not become known to the world because of their consumption of sweets or because of their attitude about homosexual activity on the streets of Amsterdam (which receives considerable treatment here) or because of their attachment to vulgar engravings depicting soiled infants. Indeed, in these attributes, upon which Schama dwells in such loving detail, the Dutch hardly are different from the Danes or the North Germans or for that matter the Croatians or Tibetans. The Dutch did not come to the attention of the world because their women scrubbed the stoops or even because they built dikes. All these are mere cultural metonyms for the great things that set the Dutch apart from their neighbors in Europe: their seafaring and imperial adventures, their development of capitalism, their role in the rise of Protestantism, and their great (not second-rate or folk) art.
These are things that the Danes, the Tibetans, and even the Renaissance Italians or the British have no claim to with the same profound configuration as the Dutch. It is that, not the miscellany of their daily lives, that makes the Dutch interesting.
In ignoring the grand and concentrating on the petty in the history of his culture, Schama has assembled a work that is, nonetheless, somewhat extraordinary; a kind of encyclopedia of small details. Further, the work is somewhat unintentionally funny to an English reader who in most cases can have virtually no understanding of the importance of many names and references. Schama has naturally made no effort to surmount the barrier of ignorance between the Netherlandish and Anglo-Saxon worlds, apparently viewing any attempt to recount to English or American readers the significance of figures or dates in "old-style" Dutch history as an unpardonable concession to the same bigoted souls who might derive some satisfaction or utility from a history of the Dutch church or the Dutch economy or the empire.
But details can be entertaining, and Schama's writing is notably lush. To those romantics—and there are many—who luxuriate in descriptive passages as evoked at the beginning of this review, there is much that is pleasing in these pages, and some that is useful to learn. For example, it turns out that the legendary tolerance of the Dutch for the Jews who had been driven out of Spain and Portugal was not so generous as one might have thought. There is a tantalizing and brief set of references, toward the beginning, to the Dutch Protestants' self-identification with the Hebrews of ancient times. This is something they shared with the English Puritans—a point that lends itself to a great deal in the way of interpretation but that remains largely ignored by Schama, concerned as he is with such pressing matters as the cost of pots and pans.
Toward the end of the book, Schama comes to treat the Jews in Holland as a category of "outsiders," near "deviants" in his psycho-anthropological scheme of things, and truth is revealed. Not surprisingly, considering the time and the place, Schama finds evidence that the Jews were not central to Dutch capitalism but remained "discreet and marginal."
Still, the consistent absence of a real contextual framework for Schama's observations makes the task of reading him at turns fascinating and irritating. That is, perhaps, his intention; such would fit in with the very literary character of the work. It might be, then, something more like a novel or extended personal meditation than a book of history; it might even be satire. Frankly, the whole of "new history" seems to be largely a gimmick.
Such logical axes or structures of order that Schama has incorporated into this book draw, in the previously noted new history style, on anthropology more than anything else. Cultural habits are arranged in neat dialectical counterpositions, so that along with the myth of the Dutch housewife there also appears the semiunderground and semipornographic genre of the loose woman. The method is rather pallidly taken from Claude Levi-Strauss and gleams with a superficial and, again, a sort of literary allure. But does it tell us anything we don't already know about every nation, ourselves included?
If that is Schama's attempt—to assemble out of Dutch life a portrait of the general psychology of European life during the golden age—he has succeeded, and brilliantly so. But as I came to the end of his book a rather sad thought occurred to me. In 1940, during his stirring radio talks from London to the world, Winston Churchill many times referred to the Dutch and "their noble services to the cause of European freedom," which Churchill affirmed would be remembered long after memory of Nazi Germany had faded away. Reading Schama makes one wonder how it is that our culture so quickly lost sight of the grandeur of those services, for not only do "histories" of this kind obscure the achievements of capitalist civilization, it is hard to imagine readers nurtured on them even formulating the questions that would lead to the reestablishment of this historical memory, so necessary, so vitally necessary today.
Stephen Schwartz is author of two historical works, Brotherhood of the Sea, a history of radical unionism in the West Coast maritime industry, and the forthcoming Spanish Marxism vs. Soviet Communism (Transaction Books).