Barbara W. Tuchman Reference

Barbara W. Tuchman

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes in history and one of the most widely read American historians, Tuchman helped reintroduce history as an art to the reading public.

Early Life

Barbara Wertheim would later recall having witnessed the first naval engagement of World War I when she was two years old. The event occurred in the Mediterranean as she traveled with her parents to visit her grandfather, who was then serving as U.S. Ambassador to Turkey. Her historical interests never wavered afterward, although they were reinforced during her childhood by the popular historical adventures recounted in Lucy Fitch Perkins’ famous Twins series, as well as in books of the same genre by Arthur Conan Doyle, Jane Porter, Alexandre Dumas, père, and George Alfred Henty. Her interests in place, imaginative research, and confident writing, however, required years of apprenticeship.

Wertheim’s early background was marked by privilege and familial distinction. Maurice Wertheim, her father, was a leader in New York City’s Jewish community, a successful international banker, publisher, and philanthropist. Her mother, Alma Morgenthau Wertheim, was a member of the prominent Morgenthau banking family. It was Henry Morgenthau, businessman turned diplomat, whom Barbara had been en route to see when elements of the British fleet attempted to intercept Germany’s Goeben in August, 1914—one of the world’s most memorable months, encapsulating the meltdown of a civilization whose ambience Barbara Tuchman later re-created in The Guns of August (1962). An uncle, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., served as Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of the Treasury, while cousin Robert Morgenthau gained repute as a U.S. federal attorney.

Barbara’s formal education comported with her family’s expectations and achievements: New York’s Walden School and then, in 1929, Harvard’s affiliate, Radcliffe College for women. In essays written decades later, she recalled the influences of Irving Babbitt, a specialist in French literature; Charles McIlwain, himself a Pulitzer Prize-winner for a historical study of American government; and John Livingston Lowe, an expert in comparative literature. Equally as memorable, she recounted, was her freedom to spend time in the magnificent stacks of Harvard’s Widener Library, repository of one of the world’s largest private book and manuscript collections. Meanwhile, her summers were spent with her family in Europe. Shortly after graduation, she joined her grandfather at the World Economic Conference of 1933.

Privileged as she was, Barbara Wertheim eagerly transmuted social advantage into cultivating her splendid background and temperament for historical writing. She commenced formal research working for the Institute of Pacific Relations soon after graduation. In 1935, she joined the staff of The Nation, which her father owned, writing on a variety of newsworthy subjects. The magazine dispatched her to Spain for coverage of that country’s confused and savage civil war in 1937. Upon her return, she determined to work as a freelance correspondent for a British news journal. In the meantime, she witnessed the publication of her first book, The Lost British Policy: Britain and Spain Since 1700 (1938), the precursor to eleven significantly better works.

Life’s Work

As for everyone of her generation and age, war and family for a time preempted Barbara Wertheim’s other affairs. In 1940, shortly after the outbreak of World War II, and the year prior to America’s direct involvement, she married the president of New York City Hospital’s medical board, Dr. Lester Tuchman. In the acknowledgments of her final work, The First Salute (1988), she not only thanked him for aiding her with her failing eyesight but also acknowledged him as being “the rock upon which this house is built.” From 1943 until 1945, both Tuchmans performed national service, she at the Far Eastern Office of the Office of War Information. Some of Barbara Tuchman’s initial curiosities about life in the Far East, subsequently fleshed out in her Stilwell and the American Experience in China (1971), took shape.

Despite these early publications, her “first” book, as she described it, did not appear until 1956—Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour, a study of British policy in Palestine. It was, by her own admission, incomplete. The last six months of her research dealing with events from 1918 until 1948, a period of British Mandate over Palestine, of Arab uprisings, the Arab-Israeli War, and reestablishment of the state of Israel in 1948, so overwhelmed her with a sense of disgust and injustice that, contrary to her editor’s wishes, she destroyed them. Her emotions had victimized her perception of scholarly discipline. The study thus ended in 1918. The lesson this experience conveyed to her persisted: Stay within the evidence and let the emotions come to the readers insofar as possible from the presentation itself.

In this regard,...

(The entire section is 2099 words.)