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The First Lady of History: Barbara W. Tuchman
A Literary Reminder
© 2013 James LaFond
I have just completed a nonfiction book, and am headed back into fiction. This very act, this modification of my approach to written expression, brings Barbara Tuchman into the forefront of my thought process. For many writers, reading our predecessors—particularly the great ones—is like a reverse, posthumous adoption. Just as the image of my father dispensing this or that advice or counsel comes to me unbidden, when I consider certain notions, anytime I switch writing disciplines, this fine old lady who I was not lucky enough to meet comes into my mind.
The specific reason for this, for her written words accompanied by an image of her face—reminding me as she does of my grandmother LaFond—is that she is the single most readable historian ever to write. She brought the skills of a novelist to the writing of history—not historic fiction. In the back of my mind, I am hoping that somewhere in my dual pursuits of writing history and fiction; that those skills will coalesce in a way that they did for her, for at least one book—one masterpiece.
I have read four books by Barbara Tuchman, two in decades past, and two more just this past year. I will offer my impressions of the first two in summary as I am too far removed from their reading to do a review, though they are both surely worthy of the highest praise.
In the 1980s I picked up what I believe was her last book, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. The book was a collection of integrated essays on the ‘pursuit of policy contrary to self-interest’ [a theme that spans all of her work] by the Achaeans, Aztecs, British and Americans, and some others I think. At that formative contemplative stage in my life this woman offered up the tools of her trade, offered her investigative discipline to that twenty-something grunt who was trying to figure out the world, along with everyone else who was fortunate enough to read her book.
In the early 2000s a friend leant me The Guns of August, her Pulitzer prize-winning story of the outbreak of one of the world’s most horrific conflicts, World War One. Although I had read thesis’ and attended debates about the war’s origin, fought table-top simulations of it, and read a few histories of the war—she was so good, exposed the characters and their supreme collective ‘march to folly’ in such deeply textured color that I could not put it down. I am, and was, quite a jaded reader. The Guns of August is definitely one of the top 10 books ever written, and you should read it, whoever you are.
I have recently been lucky enough to be gifted two volumes of hers, and will review these below.
Practicing History
Selected Essays
Barbara W. Tuchman
Knopf, NY, 1981, 306 pages
This is a thematically ordered compilation of articles written for The Nation, American Heritage, The New York Times, college commencement addresses, and even an address to Congress. It is broken into 3 parts.
Part I: The Craft, is, for a nonfiction writer, a goldmine of advice. Foremost among her tips is to ‘start writing!’ She does a good job of detailing the seduction of research. The problem of ‘writer’s block’; of not being able to get from research and consideration to execution, is a potential pitfall for all writers. Any aspiring writer would do well to read this section.
Part II: The Yield, is essentially a survey of her foreign affairs observations from the Cold War. It will be a yawn for most. But, if you want to place a fictional story in that period, this is worthwhile reading, and her insights are as prescient as ever.
Part III: Learning From History, is a brutal assault on the modern American political elite. If her pen had been a sword the Halls of Congress and the White House would have looked like the end of a Kill Bill movie! She actually called for the abolition of the American presidency, invoking the Founding Fathers in the process. She’s lucky she kept her pretty mouth shut in the 1950s or she would have been executed. Here are some quotes that one might want to apply to our own current collection of geopolitical tyrants and fools:
“I suspect the Jews will survive…If they disappeared, the world would feel obligated to re-invent them.”
“The average citizen, trying to hold a footing in standards of morality and conduct he once believed in, is daily knocked over by incoming waves of venality, vulgarity, irresponsibility, ignorance, ugliness and trash in all senses of the word. Our government collaborates abroad with the worst enemies of humanity and liberty.”
“In today’s world no one man is adequate for the reliable disposal of power that can affect the lives of millions—which may be the reason lately for the notable non-emergence of great men.”
A Distant Mirror
The Calamitous 14th Century
Barbara W. Tuchman
Knopf, NY, 1978, 677 pages
This is a beautifully told story about a world suffused in profound ugliness. In my estimation 14th Century France is one of the top five most hideous places-in-time that has ever punctuated the life of Humanity. Barbara lays the groundwork by letting us know what life was like for all of the ‘four estates’ of the medieval caste system, and even for children. I was most impressed with her extensive investigation into familial longevity. She proved fairly definitively that a family, even a rich one, was lucky to last 200 years. Many of her findings and expositions make great food for thought for anyone interested in such science-fiction questions as alternative histories, genetic determination, and time-travel.
She manages to maintain focus, and engage the reader on a gut level, by hitching her literary wagon to the trials, triumphs and tribulations of one particular French family with ties in England and Italy. This is the time of the Black Death, of the Last Crusade, of the first and largest portion of the horrid Hundred Years War, of popes, antipopes, antichrists and witch-burning; a world of blood, mud, filth and dynamic dismay; a way of life on the verge of world-wide export—and she makes it readable, even seductive. I don’t think a man could have pulled this off, and Barbara Tuchman nailed it.
And, if you have not guessed by the title, A Distant Mirror, she chose this period for exposition precisely because so much of the political conduct was reflected in her own time, the 20th Century, when most of the humans who have ever lived were born, including you and me.
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