Sunday, December 2, 2012

Barbara Tuchman Practices History

The late historian Barbara Tuchman makes a convincing case for what she calls factual storytelling over academic writing.  She is calloused against charges that she lacks credentials to be an historian and is instead, simply a writer.  Never, she tells us, did she want to write for academics.  “Too often,” she writes, “scholarly history is written in terms of ideas rather than acts.”  She cites no less an authority than George Macaulay Trevelyan, distinguished professor of modern history at Cambridge, who “stressed writing for the general reader as opposed to writing just for fellow scholars because he knew that when you write for the public you have to be clear and you have to be interesting and these are the two criteria which make for good writing.”  As for her critics, she uses the tart retort for which she is known:  “My own form is narrative, which is not every historian’s, I may say—indeed, it is rather looked down on now by the advanced academics, but I don’t mind because no one could possibly persuade me that telling a story is not the most desirable thing a writer can do.”

Tuchman’s goals as a writer and historian are clear:  the writing has to be real and has to interest a wide audience.  The reader must feel compelled to turn the page.  The best writer-historians do this.  They are not historians or scientists first, but storytellers.  If she were alive today, Tuchman might single out the work of Robert Caro, William Manchester, John McPhee, and Gary Wills as examples of storytellers and historians.  This desire to write for common people is a thread running through her book, Practicing History:  Selected Essays (Ballantine Books, 1982).

I found Tuchman’s work at an opportune moment.  For the last few months, I have been involved with writing longer research pieces for a graduate program in which I am involved, and after four or five “academic” papers, I am finding that the writing takes a backseat to the credentials of the academics I quote from and list in my bibliography.  There is a tone in the work from the “ivory tower” that I, on other occasions, would strenuously avoid in my writing.  I don’t want to write for the ten other academics interested in some esoteric subject.  My work experience is in factual writing appealing to an audience of common readers, everyday people who look to books, magazines, newspapers, and online sources to inform and explain.  I am firmly convinced that good writing that appeals to the intellect and the human need for a story is not some sort of lesser animal to the obtuse and often incestuous academic paper.  In Tuchman, I find much validation and a kindred soul.  So I have been reading everything I could find, in print and out of, from her and others like her.

Barbara Tuchman was born on January 30, 1912 in New York City, and died on February 6, 1989 at the age of 77.  She lacked an academic title or a graduate degree, and was, in fact, a housewife when she picked up her pen and began to research and write history.  Over the years, she came to believe that an academic background might actually inhibit her writing ability.  She wrote for The Nation, which her father at one point owned, and traveled extensively before settling down to marry physician Lester R. Tuchman in 1940.  Two of her books won Pulitzer Prizes:  The Guns of August (Presidio Press, 1962) and Stilwell and the American Experience in China 1911-1945 (Grove Press, 1971).  Her death resulted from complications of a stroke.

Practicing History is about writing, although there is plenty of history in it.  Tuchman states her position for this book clearly:  “I am a writer first whose subject is history, and whose purpose is communication.  I am very conscious of the reader as a listener whose attention must be held if he is not to wander away.”  She defends herself as a woman writer in a male-dominated field:  “Women are a particularly good source for physical detail.  They seem to notice it more than men or at any rate to consider it more worth reporting.”  This book collects together shorter pieces of history, lectures, and Tuchman’s ruminations about writing history.  She avoids what she calls “political passions of the moment” in favor of stories with a hard or factual subject matter.  Books written by journalists often fall into these political passions, but Tuchman is an advocate for pure history as story, the compelling narrative of the world and its people often in moments of tension and great importance.  Her books took time to germinate—six or seven years of on-and-off work to produce her first book, Bible and Sword:  England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour (Ballantine Books, 1956).

Practicing History is divided up into sections:  “The Craft,” “The Yield,” and “Learning from History.”  In the first section, the essay “In Search of History,” contains valuable advice for the young historian, whom she hopes will write only about a subject that is dear to him or her.  The essay is drawn from a Phi Beta Kappa Address at Radcliffe College in 1963.  Students must write about imagery and fact for which they care passionately, and not “because your department has suggested it as an original subject.”  In Tuchman’s view, a writer of history must be fascinated by his subject and follow it wherever it leads.  She speaks of her own struggles against the parameters of her writing ability.  On the mechanics of writing, she councils that “short words are always preferable to long ones; fewer syllables the better, and monosyllables, beautiful and pure like ‘bread’ and ‘sun’ and ‘grass’ are best of all.”  Of particular interest is her research technique of making notes on index cards because this keeps the writer from being tied down to a desk.  She could take her cards and work anywhere.  A good researcher must also know when to stop because research is “endlessly seductive; writing is hard work.”  She goes on to say in another essay that “Research provides the material, and theory a pattern of thought, but it is through communication that history is heard and understood.”  This circles back to her theme that to write is to instruct, but to also tell a compelling story.

Tuchman believes that creative writing is not just poetry and fiction, but factual writing as well.  She provides an artist’s laundry list of necessities for fiction and nonfiction forms:  “first, the extra vision with which the artist perceives a truth and conveys it by suggestion.  Second, medium of expression:  language for writers, paint for painters, clay or stone for sculptors, sound expressed in musical notes for composers.  Third, design or structure.”  These aspects are what’s needed for art, and therefore they are imperatives for the historical writer.

“The Yield” contains Tuchman’s shorter historical pieces, many first published in The Nation.  She also includes some book reviews from The New York Review of Books.  Her writing in this section on Israel illuminates and identifies the roots of the continuing conflict in that region today.  Her grandfather was Henry Morgenthau Sr., and she provides an especially insightful profile of him in this section, as she also does with Henry Kissinger, of whom she was not related.

In “Learning from History,” she affirms history’s subject as humanity.  “History is the record of human behavior,” she writes, “the most fascinating subject of all, but illogical and so crammed with an unlimited number of variables that it is not susceptible of the scientific method nor of systematizing.”  Of the clich√© of one who does not remember history is doomed to repeat it, she says:  there are “two ways of applying past experience:  one is to enable us to avoid past mistakes and to manage better in similar circumstances next time; the other is to enable us to anticipate a future course of events.”  She believes fervently in history as illumination of the present, but it requires a 25-50 year perspective because history cannot be written as it happens.  That is better left to diary, memoir and journalism.  The past tells us what the present and the future are all about.

Barbara Tuchman in her time was a force to be reckoned with, and her work stands up today almost as well as it did when first published.  She is the historian for common folk, eschewing the trappings of academia.  Her work is a testament to craft, and indeed inspires us to turn the page, book after book.  Practicing History contains the added bonus of her writing about writing.  Many of her generation have passed, and we are at a loss to replace them.  Few writers, from the academy or elsewhere, are writing history for people today.  Howard Zinn—gone; William Manchester—gone; Stephen Ambrose—gone; William Shirer—gone; John Toland—gone.  A woman-historian is a rarer creature in the crowd of 20th century factual storytellers.  So Barbara Tuchman is a gem.  Her stories are rooted in time and place, but her style is timeless.


  1. Wonderful post.
    I have always believed, in my own humble and academically limited way, that story is everything; if your reader isn't turning the pages of your work with eagerness to get to the next sentence, you have, in some fundamental manner, failed him/her. Your erudition or c.v. does not, Mr. Author, relieve you of the responsibility to engage your reader with, simply, a well-told story.
    I read Ms. Tuchman's book "The March Of Folly" many years ago, and while I remember little of it, I recall it to accessible, in a way that much "scholarly" work is not. I am not an educated man, so for me, this is paramount in anything I read. John Toland's "The Rising Sun" comes to mind, or one of my favorites, David McCollough's "Truman", both books of history that are by no means the dry, uninteresting drone that others of the genre tend to be.
    I didn't know Ms. Tuchman's father was the owner of The Nation magazine; as a political moderate, it makes her suspect in my mind. (Just kidding.) But the fact of her family's liberalism should reveal something of her background as an author, but for the life of me, I can't say what that is.
    I'm going to reread "Folly"; thanks for the excellent essay.
    Your favorite neighbor,

  2. Pope, sir:

    Tuchman actually discusses an historian's bias in one of the essays, especially how no writer can compose without something of her bias slipping in, but one should try to limit it at all costs.

    Also, you reminded me about David McCullough. I inadvertently left him out. When the John Adams miniseries aired, I saw a documentary about him and how he researches and writes. He has a small shed in his backyard where he works. Very interesting and insightful doc.

    And the range of your knowledge always astounds me when I read your blog. If some of the Catholic popes were as gifted, they would not have waited until the 1990s to determine that Galileo was on to something and lift his excommunication.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.


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