The Embarrassment of Riches explores the emergence of a distinctive Dutch cultural and commercial identity in the Netherlands over three generations during the seventeenth century in a comprehensive but impressively entertaining manner.
The author Simon Schama (1945 - ) is a well-known Oxbridge historian of English Jewish heritage, who was teaching at Harvard University when he wrote this work, but who is now based at Columbia University. His interests have included European and other social, cultural and art history, which is evident in the book's content and approach.
The book explains how rebellion against the Spanish empire's cultural and religious oppression was the primary cause of the developing independent Dutch collective personality and national patriotism. As a result a wealthy republic, which temporarily led the European world in trade, art and science, was successfully created out of a loose assortment of agricultural, fishing and shipping communities of diverse languages and religious denominations. However, the consequence of this prosperity was an embarrassing ethical dilemma that dominated and shaped Dutch culture, beliefs and practices. Thus, the book emphasises the paradoxical moral tension between worldly riches and homely piety.
In telling this story, Schama demonstrates an impressive capacity to inject life, vitality and insight into history. The Embarrassment of Riches displays signs of Schama's later increasing tendency to experiment imaginatively with historical analysis, to draw from other academic subjects, and to acknowledge awareness of the potential autobiographical and subjective bias in historical works. Yet in general, Schama combines a moderately conventional understanding of the study of history, such as the desirability of factual objectivity about past events, with an entertaining, innovative and creative approach to presentation.
Thus, the work is likely to be enjoyable and informative for both academic historians as well as the general reading public with an interest in the subject area, and is probably Schama's most engaging and accessible work (compared with, for example, his immense study Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, New York, 1989). Its argument is clearly defined and the sections of the book are well connected, with relevant references to documentary, pictorial and other resources, which while easily available do not distract from the flow of the text.
Schama's approach has been influenced by a number of historians or other social and cultural theorists, including in a manner characteristic of the growing subdiscipline of cultural history. In this regard, Schama has taken into account the wider cultural milieu including the social, political, economic, religious, moral, and other dimensions that can increase a reader's ability to understand the development of Dutch culture and wealth during the seventeenth century's `golden era'. The cultural perspective adopted is therefore much more far ranging than that confined to elite high `Culture', but rather promotes an inclusive democratization of the concepts of culture and history that suits the subject matter. A broad range of ordinary stories, people and events are included in order to promote a fuller comprehension of human life, experience and context.
However, such a broad approach increases the risk that the book's cultural themes and other issues are handled in a complex and awkward manner, or that factual errors, unbalanced emphases and lack of coherence mar the text. Nevertheless, with the exception of a possible overemphasis upon the province of Holland and the city of Amsterdam relative to other regions of the Netherlands, Schama has largely dealt with the material and issues deftly and competently.
Hence, the book has far more strengths than weaknesses in terms of sources, approach, content and presentation. The result is a profoundly enriching and eclectic portrait of the Dutch people and their emerging cultural identity, which brings the past to life.