Book review of Barbara Tuchman, edited by Margaret MacMillan, Wall Street Journal
March 10, 2012
by Bruce Cole
'It's what saved me, I think. If I had taken a doctoral degree, it would have stifled my writing capacity," Barbara Tuchman once said. She took the right path. Nothing the popular historian ever wrote smelled remotely of the lamp, as we are reminded by the Library of America's new edition of two classic Tuchman works, "The Guns of August" (1962), about the outbreak of World War I, and "The Proud Tower" (1966), about the prewar period 1890-1914.
Tuchman deserves to be better known to readers who have come of age since her death in 1989 at age 77. As a member of the New York German-Jewish aristocracy, she grew up in a family with an acute sense of history and the import of world events. Her maternal grandfather, Henry Morgenthau Sr., was Woodrow Wilson's ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Her uncle, Henry Morgenthau Jr., was Franklin Roosevelt's Treasury secretary through the Depression and World War II. Tuchman's father, Maurice Wertheim, was a successful banker but also an important art collector.
Tuchman graduated in 1933 from Radcliffe College, where she majored in history and literature. Teachers judged her undergraduate thesis "undistinguished." Tuchman agreed but was undeterred from pursuing a writing career. She began contributing to left-wing journals, among them the Nation—owned by her father. She was a correspondent for the magazine in the late 1930s during the Spanish Civil War.
Her introduction to Spain inspired Tuchman's first historical work, "The Lost British Policy: Britain and Spain Since 1700." It was published in 1938 when she was 26; nearly two decades passed before Tuchman wrote another book, but "Bible and Sword: England and Palestine From the Bronze Age to Balfour" (1956) announced the arrival of a mature talent. During the interim, she had married a doctor, Lester Tuchman, in 1940, and reared three daughters.
The publisher of "The Lost British Policy" asked Tuchman to cover the period after the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and carry the story into the 1940s, something she had not planned to do. She soon realized that, as a supporter of Israel, she would find it impossible to write dispassionately about the tumultuous period surrounding the nation's establishment in 1948. The book "turned into polemic," Tuchman later said. She tore up the added pages, stopping with Balfour. Sadly, the author seemed to have forgotten the lesson in objectivity by the time of her last book, an anti-Vietnam War screed called "The March of Folly" (1985).
For the better part of three decades, though, Tuchman reigned as a master of historical storytelling, combining conscientious research, sage judgment and literary flair. She offered a fascinating glimpse of her approach to thinking and writing about her field in "Practicing History" (1982), a selection of her speeches, essays and journalism. Some of the pieces in the book are unremarkable essays on Vietnam, Nixon and Kissinger, but others are engagingly personal. We learn, about Tuchman's research methods, her thoughts on the increasing use of computers for historical research (she was against them, even opposing the digitization of the Library of Congress card catalog), and about her views on the harmful role that television plays in shaping the presidential image. The Teleprompter, she told an interviewer in the early 1980s, "allows an inadequate, minor individual to appear to be a statesman." Given her liberal leanings, she was of course talking about Ronald Reagan, though readers today may find their thoughts turning elsewhere.
The essays about writing in "Practicing History" are an invaluable and charming tutorial for those interested in learning the historian's craft. History students, especially those entering graduate study, would be well advised to steep themselves in her advice. For Tuchman, "being in love with your subject is indispensable for writing good history—or good anything for that matter." Transmitting the author's fascination with a subject, "the magic," is essential to captivating the reader. She quotes the sign that the popular historian Catherine Drinker Bowen had pinned over her desk: "Will the reader turn the page?"
Tuchman also stresses the importance of using primary sources and unpublished material, the necessity of visiting the sites where history was made, the use of corroborative detail—"history by the ounce" as she calls it—to keep the historian from "soaring off the ground into theories of his own invention." She also believes sensibly that it's better to "arrive at theory by way of evidence than the other way around, like so many revisionists today." Thirty years later the revisionists are still at it, and her counsel remains as vital as ever.
We see Tuchman's values on handsome display in the Library of America edition presenting two of her best works. In "The Proud Tower"—her portrait of Britain and Europe, principally France and Germany, in the quarter-century before World War I—Tuchman does not see individuals or nations as helplessly swept along by forces of history beyond their control. She discerns no overall causality for the way things turn out. In her view it is individuals with all their foibles, flaws and occasional heroism, rather than abstract systems, that are the catalysts of history. Her inquiry into the past is driven by an unquenchable curiosity about people and the need to understand how their relationships shape history.
The conceptual architecture of "The Proud Tower" and "The Guns of August," about the early days of World War I, is built by a series of brilliant character sketches of the most consequential figures of the era under discussion. "The Proud Tower" opens with a chapter called "The Patricians," prominent among them Lord Salisbury, British prime minister in 1895, who "cared nothing for sport and little for people." In "The Guns of August," which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, Tuchman presents us vivid portraits of the leaders and subordinates who marched Europe into war, including the German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, who refused to believe that Britain would honor its alliances and go to war over what he called "a mere scrap of paper."
Tuchman uses each mini-essay to elucidate the cultural, political and intellectual milieu in which these people lived. We learn about the turbulent intellectual, social, artistic, philosophical and military events of the late 19th century and early 20th from a writer who is a historian who also has discerning an eye for literature, music and the visual arts.
In both books, as in other Tuchman works, there is an underlying emphasis on individual fallibility. "The Proud Tower" captures the power of 19th-century optimism and faith in humankind; "The Guns of August" shows those beliefs being shattered in the trenches.
These Tuchman books and others—including her second Pultizer-winner, "Stilwell and the American Experience in China," a 1971 biography of the World War II commander Gen. Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell—were successful because they were beautifully wrought and often emotive grand narratives; they can be read for knowledge and enlightenmentand, like much of the best history-writing, for pleasure.
Now, to return to Tuchman's point about the virtues of not pursuing a doctorate in history: Is a Ph.D.—the union card for the professorate—a hindrance to approaching history as Tuchman did?
Alas, the answer is likely "yes." The years-long slog of course work, exams and the laborious, footnote-laden dissertation—written strictly to be read by other scholars—have a way of hard-wiring habits of the mind that are difficult to overcome. A few academically trained scholars do survive the tyranny of their doctorates and reach a wide reading audience. But inside the Ivory Tower, where most historians dwell, professors write books, articles, and conference papers for other professors, and mainly for those colleagues toiling in the same small subset of the past.
Moreover, professors of the increasingly fragmented humanities disciplines remain, even now, in thrall to race, class and gender studies that have been run through the wringer of postmodern theory. These historians often view writing for an audience beyond the campus, as Tuchman did, not only as debasing but also as potentially damaging to their careers. The fear is not irrational: A professor's tenure and progress through the ranks is dependent on the judgment of scholarly peers.
The gulf seems to be widening between those who write history for general readers—David McCullough, Paul Johnson and Thomas Fleming, for example, who come, like Tuchman, from the world of journalism—and the scholars who write for a shrinking audience of specialists. It has not always been so; in the not-too-distant past, professional historians like Samuel Morrison and Allan Nevins wrote books with a wide popular appeal.
Not all professors should be writing for a general readership, but more should try. Much important and fascinating research is unavailable to the public simply because the discoverers lack the will or the talent to reach beyond their familiar circle. Of course, what has occurred in the history profession is symptomatic of the waning importance of the humanities disciplines themselves, a plight much lamented by those who have hastened the decline. Barbara Tuchman saw it coming.
Bruce Cole, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, was a Hudson Institute Senior Fellow in 2012.
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