Tuchman, Barbara (1912–1989)

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Tuchman, Barbara (1912–1989)

American historian and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize whose writings have become popular bestsellers and are celebrated for their vivid style. Pronunciation: TUCK-man. Born Barbara Wertheim on January 30, 1912, in New York City; died of complications following a stroke on February 6, 1989, in Greenwich, Connecticut; daughter of Maurice Wertheim and Alma (Morgenthau) Wertheim; Radcliffe College, B.A., 1933; married Dr. Lester R. Tuchman, in 1940; children: Lucy, Jessica, Alma.

Served as research assistant, Institute of Public Relations, New York City and Tokyo (1934–35); worked as editorial assistant, The Nation, New York City (1936); stationed in Madrid to cover Spanish Civil War (1937); was staff writer, War in Spain, London (1937–38); served as American correspondent, New Statesman and Nation, London (1939); worked on Far East news desk, Office of War Information, New York City (1944–45); made trustee of Radcliffe College (1960); awarded Pulitzer Prize for The Guns of August (1962); awarded second Pulitzer for Still-well and the American Experience in China (1971); served on Smithsonian Council (1971–89); decorated, Order of Leopold First Class (Belgium); fellow, American Academy of Arts and Letters (president, 1978–80); awarded AAAL Gold Medal for History (1978); served as treasurer of the Authors' Guild, on council of Authors' League, and as president of Society of American Historians (1971–73). Contributed to Foreign Affairs, Atlantic Monthly, American Heritage, Harper's, The New York Times, and other magazines and journals.

Selected writings:

Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour (NYU Press, 1956); The Zimmerman Telegram (Viking, 1958); The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War: 1890–1914 (Macmillan, 1962); The Guns of August(Macmillan, 1962); Stillwell and the American Experience in China, 1911–45 (Macmillan, 1970); Practicing History: Selected Essays by Barbara W. Tuchman (Knopf, 1981); The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (Knopf, 1984); A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (Knopf, 1984); The First Salute (Knopf, 1988).

Barbara Tuchman's reputation as a writer rests upon her ability to envelop the reader in vivid imagery and amazing detail. All of her works, produced between 1956 and 1988, became popular bestsellers; two of them, The Guns of August and Stillwell and the American Experience in China, were awarded the Pulitzer Prize. All rely on detailed research in primary sources. Throughout her career, Tuchman exemplified a philosophical school of history which has been all but eclipsed in the 20th century—a philosophy based upon the innate value of history for its own sake, which advocates the practice of history as an artistic, literary form. Her approach to writing history was idealistic and Olympian, yet rigorous and scholarly.

Tuchman's work bears the stamp of her earliest experiences in journalism. She received a bachelor's degree from Radcliffe in history and literature in 1933, but she never pursued a graduate degree. Instead, she developed her unique style through experience, beginning as a writer for the Office of War Information during World War II. Not content with the shallow nature of her journalistic assignments, she invested a great amount of time in doing background reading for her stories. In fact, she did so much historical research that her superior criticized her for clouding her judgment with too much knowledge.

When the war was over, Tuchman turned her attention to writing a full-blown historical monograph based on her research of relations between England and Palestine from ancient times to 1914. The result, entitled Bible and Sword, was published in 1956. She continued to write history for the rest of her career, and her books range in scope from Europe to the Middle East to America, examining events from ancient times to the mid-20th century. Her widest acclaim came from her work on recent European and American diplomacy.

Tuchman's first intention was always to produce objective, vivid, detailed accounts. She insisted that a historian should avoid expressing specific ideologies when writing history, and she proudly claimed that her "philosophy of history" was to rid herself of all "philosophies." She insisted that "the material must precede the thesis." When the facts have been accurately reconstructed, according to Tuchman, truth will become evident both to the author and to the reader.

At the core of Tuchman's philosophy was a determination to portray "what really happened." She described the historian as a traveler who "gropes his way trying to recapture the truth of past events." Adhering to this goal is essential because it forces the historian to remain true to his sources. Even though the goal of relating "what really happened" will always remain just beyond our grasp, we must resist the urge to speculate, to fill in gaps, to use hindsight and put intentions that may not have been there to the actions of historical figures. She went so far as to define the first duty of the historian to be staying within the evidence.

Tuchman published on a wide variety of topics and dealt with many different ages in history. She considered it necessary to avoid judging past cultures through the perspective of hindsight. Her goal was to examine past events "in terms of what was known and believed at the time." Her treatment of the Middle Ages in A Distant Mirror is a clear example of her historical sympathy. She traced the chaotic 14th century through the vehicle of an actual medieval life, that of a Frenchman of the Second Estate, Enguerrand de Coucy VII (1340–1397). The view of the 14th century through the eyes of a typical representative of the period, she explained, required her to exercise "enforced obedience to reality," producing in the end "a truer version of the period than if I had imposed my own plan." The era, which she admits was perceived by many contemporaries as "a time … of Satan triumphant" was filled with contradictions that fly in the face of easy generalizations. "No age is tidy or made of whole cloth," she pointed out in her introduction, "and none is a more checkered fabric than the Middle Ages."

Tuchman can be compared to historians of the 19th-century Romantic period in her inclusive attitude towards historical evidence. In her introduction to The Proud Tower, she explained, "To probe for underlying causes and deeper forces one must operate within the framework of a whole society and try to discover what moved the people in it. I have tried to concentrate on society rather than the state." In Bible and Sword, Tuchman identified twin motives for man's actions: a cultural-moral motive and an imperial-material motive. The latter, which she also termed a "power motive," she described as the easiest to decipher, using "hard facts" like geography, dates, battles, and treaties. The other motive is more elusive, but just as important. It can be found only by a deeper examination of such evidence as myths, legends, traditions and ideas.

Writing is hard work…. But it brings a sense of excitement, almost of rapture; a moment on Olympus. In short, it is an act of creation.

—Barbara Tuchman

To Tuchman, history was primarily storytelling, the narration of true stories. For that reason, she placed prime importance on the selection and use of sources. She relied exclusively on primary sources in her own work, and mistrusted secondary sources, which she described as "helpful but pernicious." While secondary sources often contain helpful background information, she explained, the material in them has already been pre-selected, so the researcher cannot rely upon them when writing. She dealt with this quandary by reading secondary sources for background at the beginning of a project but never taking notes from them. Instead, she dedicated her research time to a careful examination of private letters, diaries, and the reports, orders and messages in government archives. She believed that important historical understanding could also come from researching the actual location of an event, so she traveled widely to the scene of the historical events she portrayed. All of these techniques allowed her to produce history with a vivid, intimate tone that draws the reader into the story with all the magnetism of a great novel.

Tuchman's secret for writing exciting, readable history was the use of corroborative detail. Any historical generalization, she insisted, should be supported by illustration. Narrative without fact is both dull and unconvincing, and is often inaccurate. Tuchman's great genius lay in her ability to weave detail with historical narrative in such a way as to make it both exciting and believable.

Tuchman's use of sources mirrored her intent to be open and sympathetic to all periods and all individuals. She examined all primary records, no matter how biased or inaccurate, insisting that by reading several versions of an event, the historian can correct for bias and extract the truth. Even a biased source, she noted, is valuable for its insight into the personality of the author. Even in A Distant Mirror, she relied heavily on contemporary chroniclers, using them to gain "a sense of the period and its attitudes."

Tuchman made a clear distinction between the historian and the contemporary chronicler. While contemporaries are the source of the raw material of history—letters, diaries, memoirs, newspapers and other documents—Tuchman believed that these eyewitness "compilers" cannot bring understanding or a balanced perspective to their accounts. She compared contemporary reports to "wine when the first pressing of the grapes is in hand…. [I]t has not fermented, and it has not aged." What these contemporaries lack, according to Tuchman, is perspective: "What he gains in intimacy through personal acquaintance … he sacrifices in detachment."

Tuchman defined history as an art, not a science. In doing so, she rebelled against the trend towards scientific history which has been ascendant since the mid-19th century. According to Tuchman, the historian should work in the same manner as the poet or novelist to create a work of art: "What his imagination is to the poet, facts are to the historian. His exercise of judgment comes in their selection, his art in their arrangement. His method is narrative. His subject is the story of man's past. His function is to make it known."

Tuchman also echoed George Trevelyan in her belief that history should be written for the general reader, not just for the specialist, and therefore, it must be both clear and interesting. She always considered herself to stand somewhere outside the professional "discipline" of history. To be an effective historian, according to Tuchman, one must first distill for the reader—"assemble the information, make sense of it, select the essential, discard the irrelevant"—and bring the material together into a dramatic narrative. In her opinion, to be a good historian, one must first be a good writer. A good writer will present his story using suspense. Therefore, the historian should always write "as of the time," without relying on hindsight or referring to events that lie ahead. Good writing also demands a high level of enthusiasm on the part of the author: "Belief in the grandeur of his theme" is essential to the creation of exciting history that will be worth reading.

Tuchman's suspicion of prefabricated systems placed her in direct conflict with the "systematizers" who dominated the field of history in academic circles through most of the 20th century. Tuchman criticized them for being "obsessed and oppressed by the need to find an explanation for history." She also took them to task for attempting to force historical events into a neat, prefabricated pattern. Their great mistake,

she claimed, was trying to deduce the "why" of history before examining the evidence:

I believe it is safer to leave the "why" alone until after one has not only gathered the facts but arranged them in sequence; to be exact, in sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. The very process of transforming a collection of personalities, dates, gun calibers, letters, and speeches into a narrative eventually forces the "why" to the surface.

Too much influence on historical systems, Tuchman asserted, quickly leads to misuse of sources. The historian with a system in mind will use sources selectively, preferring the facts that suit his model best and glossing over or explaining away anomalies. She countered this system by insisting that "evidence is more important than interpretation." Tuchman believed strongly that historical events have intrinsic value independent of historical interpretation: "I mistrust history in gallon jugs whose purveyors are more concerned with establishing the meaning and purpose of history than with what really happened," she explained:

Is it necessary to insist on a purpose? No one asks the novelist why he writes novels or the poet what is his purpose in writing poems. The lilies of the field, as I remember, were not required to have a purpose. Why cannot history be studied and written and read for its own sake, as the record of human behavior, the most fascinating subject of all? Insistence on a purpose turns the historian into a prophet—and that is another profession.

Tuchman also criticized professional historians for becoming too distanced from their subject matter. Because their efforts lack corroborative detail, they are too theoretical—not only dull, but inaccurate as well. In good history, Tuchman insisted, the writer allows the reader to become intimately acquainted with the characters of the narrative. She claimed that the reader of a historical work should be given opportunity to draw some of his own conclusions, saying that "the best book is a collaboration between author and reader."

Tuchman insisted that history must be readable by the wider public—research in and of itself is of little use if not communicated successfully. She warned professional historians against falling into elitist jargon and thus losing their audience among the wider public. She pointed to the disciplines of psychology and sociology, which she claimed had become unintelligible to all but the members of the disciplines themselves: "They know what they mean, but no one else does…. Their condition might be pitied if one did not suspect it was deliberate. Their retreat into the arcane is meant to set them apart from the great unlearned, to mark their possession of some unshared, unsharable expertise." Because of their exclusivity, Tuchman asserted, their greatest discoveries are useless to the world around them. It is because of this kind of elitism that non-academic historians produced more bestsellers in the 20th century than did academic historians. She claimed that the commercial success of non-academic historians comes from their emphasis on communication, on capturing and holding the attention of their audience. Academic historians, she claimed, are becoming alienated from the reading public at large, primarily because the academic, who has a captive audience as a student then as a professor, seldom concerns himself with "keeping the reader turning the page."

Making history available to the public was a great concern to Tuchman because she had a definite idea of the ultimate purpose of history—to provide reassuring evidence to a troubled society, that mankind has experienced and survived dark ages before. In A Distant Mirror, Tuchman claimed that amidst the troubled years at the end of the 20th century, "it is reassuring to know that the human species has lived through worse before."

Despite her insistence on a greater purpose for history, Tuchman differed from the Romantics by defining history as cyclical rather than progressive. Whereas Romantic historians viewed the history of mankind as a single process of development from a beginning in savagery to an end in a perfectly rational and civilized society, Tuchman depicts the history of mankind as an unending process of muddling through. She agreed with John Adams' 18th-century assessment that government "is little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago," and expressed small hope for improvement. The lot of man, according to Tuchman, is to make the best of the march through "patches of brilliance and decline, great endeavors and shadow." She depicted history as largely accidental and filled with contradictions and changing circumstances. Every era, as well as every individual, she claimed, contains certain amounts of both good and evil, crosscurrents and countercurrents.

Tuchman recognized the overwhelming unpredictability of history. No particular circumstances, she insisted, can predicate a particular outcome. For Tuchman, history was exciting and elusive, resisting confinement to any particular mold or pattern.

Although Tuchman achieved universal acclaim for her imaginative and dramatic prose, she also faced consistent criticism from the literary and scholarly community on various points. Many reviewers questioned her choice of material, and criticized her for making crucial omissions in her quest for dramatic effect. Another frequent criticism of her work was her lack of an organizing principle or ruling vision. Her work was too random, too narrative for many readers, who expressed the opinion that Tuchman's work did not portray a true and complete portrait. She was criticized for refusing to express a coherent theme in her works or to answer the significant questions raised by her research.

Tuchman's own principles seem occasionally contradictory. Throughout her career, she insisted upon avoiding preconceived ideas that skew the perspective of history. But she also admitted that no historian is completely free of bias. In fact, she insisted that a historian should make his opinions clear, claiming that the work of a "purely objective" historian would be unreadable—"like eating sawdust." In spite of her philosophy of simple narration, Tuchman made historical selections and judgments throughout her works, and used narrative to show cause and effect.

Tuchman's works have contributed greatly to the historical profession. Without exception, her books are thoroughly researched and vividly written. Her philosophy of history centered around producing history in its truest, most useful, and least contrived form. The result of her endeavors was a wide-ranging group of historical monographs that contain within them the spark of life.


Tuchman, Barbara. Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour. NY: New York University Press, 1956.

——. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.

——. The First Salute. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.

——. The Guns of August. NY: Macmillan, 1962.

——. The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.

——. Practicing History: Selected Essays by Barbara W. Tuchman. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.

——. The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War: 1890–1914. NY: Macmillan, 1962.

——. Stillwell and the American Experience in China, 1911–45. NY: Macmillan, 1970.

——. The Zimmerman Telegram. NY: Viking Press, 1958.

Kimberly Estep Spangler , Assistant Professor of History and Chair, Division of Religion and Humanities, Friends University, Wichita, Kansas