Monday, May 27, 2013

Barbara Wertheim Tuchman: The Arc of a Dedicated and Lucky Career

It’s Memorial Day and I want to say a few words about the book I just completed about the 100-years war and the history of Europe in the 1300’s, Barbara W. Tuchman’s long and dense, but very readable A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978). But before I do, a little background on Tuchman will help provide some perspective.

Barbara Wertheim Tuchman lived a charmed life as a writer. Connections didn’t hurt. Born on January 30, 1912 to a wealthy New York investment banker, art collector and philanthropist, her uncle was Secretary of the Treasury in the Roosevelt administration, and her husband was Lester Tuchman, a prominent internist and professor of medicine at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. She attended Walden School in Manhattan, which promoted creative expression by its students and self-motivated learning, followed by Radcliffe where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history and literature in 1933. 

Upon graduation she scored an internship with the American Council of the Institute of Pacific Relations in Tokyo. The IPR was an NGO funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and other elite business interests to explore democratic and trade issues on the Asian rim. From Tokyo she had some of her writing accepted by Far Eastern Survey and Pacific Affairs. She gained early notice with a review of a French historian’s book about Japan.

In 1936 her father bought The Nation, now the oldest continuously published weekly publication on arts and politics in the United States. As a staff writer she covered the Spanish Civil War, traveling to Valencia, Madrid, and elsewhere in Europe. In London, she published a short book about British policy toward Spain. By 1939, she was back in New York continuing her writing on Spain; after Pearl Harbor she took a position in the Office of War Information, writing propaganda for broadcast in Europe during the war.

After World War II she raised three daughters, a point in time when many a writing career might have ended. Yet she managed to make hers soar. Tuchman’s New York Times obituary (she died on February 6, 1989, shortly before the collapse of East Germany) quotes her this way: ''When the children were very small I worked in the morning only and then gradually, as they spent full days at school, I could spend full days at work. I could never have done any of this work if I hadn't been able to afford domestic help.''

The breakthrough came with her Pulitzer Prize winning fourth book, The Guns of August (1962).  A mere nine years later she won a second Pulitzer with Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45 (1971). According to the obituary, Stilwell “was hailed as ‘brilliant' in a review in The New Republic by the dean of American China scholars, John K. Fairbank, the director of Harvard University's East Asian Research Center.”

During the 70’s she pivoted to research the history of the 100 years war between Britain and France and the general history of Europe in the 1300’s. This resulted in A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978), a long and dense but eminently readable book.

With her personal voice and clear and entertaining style, Tuchman enjoyed great commercial success. It’s true, hard numbers are hard to come by. The Harvard Library website notes: “Strange as it may seem, we know of no reliable, publicly-available way to get comprehensive statistics for book sales at this time.” As of 18 months ago, Amazon began to distribute some comprehensive sales information to authors.  But that ‘s not helping me get you the information for this post. Yet, everyone I know knows Guns of August, has read it, has cracked the cover with intent, or has it on some list to be read. The same holds true for A Distant Mirror.  And when Barbara Tuchman died prematurely (of a stroke) in 1988, her last book The First Salute, which looks at the American revolution from an international perspective, was once again on the New York times best seller list.

From the NYT obituary:
In history and biography, she told an audience at the National Portrait Gallery in 1978, ''the writer's object is - or should be - to hold the reader's attention.'' ''I want the reader to turn the page and keep on turning to the end,'' she added. ''This is accomplished only when the narrative moves steadily ahead, not when it comes to a weary standstill, overloaded with every item uncovered in the research.''
I read The Guns of August a long time ago, and First Salute when it was published in 1987. I just finished A Distant Mirror and I can say that she succeeded in holding my attention.  Reading critic reviews, her writing is always credited as being of the highest order. Her scholarship is acknowledged as accurate and detailed, even as some critics take issue with whether she managed to capture the periods she wrote about fully and accurately.

Which brings us to A Distant Mirror….