Practicing History

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

One of the most distinguished writers and historians in contemporary America is Barbara W. Tuchman. Who can forget the fast-paced mystery-storylike The Zimmerman Telegram (1958), with its complex description of the events leading to United States entry into World War I? The Proud Tower (1966) described an era of plenitude, Western society at the height of cultural and intellectual development, a generation in the midst of affluence and dedicated to a belief in progress. All of this was to be destroyed by the tragedy that befell the West and undermined its value system in World War I. The scope and nature of that tragedy were described with much of the intricacy and power of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1865-1869) in Tuchman’s The Guns of August (1962). Moving to biography, Tuchman’s Stilwell and the American Experience in China (1971) portrayed General Joseph Stilwell and the context in which he functioned—the Sino-American relationship. The Distant Mirror (1978) sought to reflect contemporary life in the complex cultural matrix of the high Middle Ages. It succeeded magnificently both in conveying portraits, colors, and flavors of that time and in suggesting the correspondence with the twentieth century promised by the title. Any one of these works would have made a reputation for a historian. To have written all of them means that Tuchman is definitely an outstanding historian.

Celebrity as a writer and scholar imposes certain responsibilities and obligations both on writers and on their publishers. Tuchman’s publisher evidently has concluded that her public requires a larger measure of information about the author than has been made available through her historical volumes. Rather than mandating a new publication, Alfred A. Knopf decided to patch together a collection of Tuchman’s journalistic essays from 1936 to 1981, with no representative writings from the 1940’s or the early 1950’s. The result is a book entitled Practicing History.

The essays that make up Practicing History no doubt accomplish what the publisher intended—they give insight into a side of Tuchman that her historical volumes do not convey. These essays, rather than being scholarly papers designed for inclusion in the dusty, dull journals that only academic historians cherish and bother to read, were designed for such semipopular publications as The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Newsday, The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, and others. Some of the essays were addresses given at commencements or other fairly significant occasions. These essays, designed for a literate, thoughtful, reasonably well-read audience, reveal literacy, reflection, a catholicity of interests, and breadth, rather than profoundity or concern about the technical and historiographical problems of the professional historian. For this reason the essays manifest good writing style, well-turned phrases, wit, and charm. Many are a delight to dip into and the reader goes away refreshed from interaction with a mind that is as bright and pleasantly entertaining as an after-dinner chat. This is, in fact, the purpose of most of the essays and speeches that make up Practicing History. They are designed to be pleasantly entertaining for the literate and they succeed admirably in this objective.

Beautifully conveying a public side of Barbara Tuchman, these essays are not intended to reveal anything more than they do. Yet, in addressing the very important, the awesome problem and responsibility of Practicing History, one might hope, one might seek, one might appropriately expect. . . . What of the innermost heart of the historian—the deep recesses of her historical soul, her commitment to her profession, and her philosophy of the meaning and nature of history? Directions are suggested, hints offered, the surface is skimmed, but this fulfillment remains incomplete. It is perhaps unfair to want more than an author and a publisher attempt, but despite many fine qualities, Practicing History leaves the reader somewhat unsatisfied and with many questions that the author has not answered.

What the author has done is much to be commended. Practicing History is divided into three parts: “The Craft,” “The Yield,” and “Learning from History.” These sections are not chronologically organized. Something should therefore be said of Tuchman’s career. Having been graduated from college in 1933, she accepted a volunteer post for the American Council of the Institute of Pacific Relations, an organization of countries bordering on the Pacific Ocean. Headquartered in Tokyo, Tuchman traveled to Europe in 1935 and published for a fee her first article in Pacific Affairs. Her experience in Tokyo eventuated in a 1936 article in Foreign Affairs. In that same year, she went to work for The Nation, which her father had purchased. Tuchman’s career having been launched, she represented The Nation as a reporter during the Spanish...

(The entire section is 2087 words.)