Book Review: Practicing History: Selected Essays by Barbara W. Tuchman


Barbara Tuchman, historian and author of The Guns of August and A Distant Mirror, is a darn good writer.  Practicing History: Selected Essays (1981) collects articles and speeches from throughout her career with a focus on the art of writing history.

Tuchman has a lot to say about written history.  Defying the academics that call her a popular historian, she states that good history must be readable.  Tuchman adheres to a “don’t tell me, show me” principle as well by finding appropriate quotes and incidents that illustrate what a country may be feeling on the brink of war or a general’s attitude toward failure. Tuchman feels that a narrative must be constructed from the historical events.  This requires being selective as opposed to comprehensive to avoid overwhelming the writing with trivial details.  She particularly opposes efforts to quantify history or making it a science, the human being an unquantifiable variable.  She makes her biases known, because she believes it is better to reveal them than to pretend to be objective. Most importantly, one cannot begin a historical work with a thesis in mind.  The thesis is revealed through research and writing.

Tuchman believes strongly in using primary sources for her research, turning her nose up at the suggestion that good history must contain long lists of references to previous historians’ work.  Even if the primary sources are flawed — whether they be self-aggrandizing journals or surprisingly unobservant of great historical movement — they still reveal much about the people and their times. Building on the use of primary resources, Tuchman likes to travel to the places where the subject of her research took place, getting a feel for events from the landscape.

Like Wordsworth who described poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility,” Tuchman believes that distance in time is necessary to good history.  Even a comprehensive historical account needs a cutoff date to avoid the errors that come from not having an historical perspective.  Perhaps that is why her essays on contemporary Israel read like chamber of commerce booster pieces.  That flaw aside, Tuchman’s commentary on current events in essays from the 1930’s-1970’s tend to be as insightful and well-written as her historical work.  Her prescient and accurate evaluation of the war in Vietnam is particularly well-done, and eerily appropriate to current events. She also has an interesting proposal to replace the President with a six-person council to balance out the corruption of executive privilege.

For anyone interested in writing history or just reading good history, I recommend this book.

Favorite Passages

“The writer of history, I believe, has a number of duties vis-à-vis the reader, if he wants to keep him reading. The first is to distill. He must do the preliminary work for the reader, assemble the information, make sense of it, select the essential, discard the irrelevant — above all, discard the irrelevant — and put the rest together so that it forms a developing dramatic narrative. Narrative, it has been said is the lifeblood of history. To offer a mass of undigested facts, of names not identified and places not located, is no use to the reader and is simple laziness on the part of the author, or pedantry to show how much he has read. To discard the unnecessary requires courage and also extra work . . . The historian is continually being beguiled down fascinating byways and sidetracks. But the art of writing — the test of the artists — is to resist the beguilement and cleave to the subject.” — From “In Search of History,” p. 17-18.

What he means, I suppose, it that past events cannot exist independently of the historian because without the historian we would know nothing about them; in short, that the unrecorded past is none other than our old friend, the tree in the primeval forest which fell where there was no one to hear the sound of the crash. If there was no ear, was there a sound.

I refuse to be frightened by that conundrum because it asks the wrong question. The point is not whether the fall of the tree made a noise but whether it made a mark on the forest. If it left a space that le in the sun on a hithero shade-grown species, or if it killed a dominant animal and shifted rule of the pack to one of different characteristics, or if it fell across the pat of animals and caused some small change in their habitual course from which larger changes followed, then the fall made history whether anyone heard it or not.

I therefore declare myself a firm believer in the ‘preposterous fallacy’ of historical facts existing independently of the historian.” — From “When Does History Happen?” p. 26.

Nothing that Wilson said about the danger to democracy could not have bee said all along. For that cause we could have gone to war six months or a year or two earlier, with incalculable effect on history. Except for the proof of hostility in the resumed submarine campaign and the Zimmerman telegram, our cause would have been as valid, but we would have been fighting a preventive war — to prevent a victory by German militarism with its potential danger to our way of life — not a war of no choice. Instead, we waited for the overt acts of hostility which brought the war to us.

The experience was repeated in World War II. Prior to Pearl Harbor the threat of Nazism to democracy and the evidence of Japanese hostility to us was sufficiently plain, on a policy level, to make a case for preventive war. But it was not that plain to the American people, and we did not fight until we were attacked.
In our our wars since then the assumption of responsibility for the direction, even the policing, of world affairs has been almost too eager — as eager as was formerly reluctant. In what our leaders believe to be a far-sighted apprehension of future danger, and before our own shore or tangible interests have been touched, we launch ourselves on military adventure half a world away with the result that the country, as distinct from the government, does not feel itself fighting in self-defense. . .

Two kinds of war, acquisitive and preventive, make hard explaining and the last more than the first. Although the first might be considered less moral, so far human experience abstract morality has not notably determined the conduct of states and a good, justifiable reason like need, or irredentism, or ‘manifest destiny,’ can always be found for taking territory . . . But it is never possible to prove a preventive war to have been necessary, for no one can ever tell what would have happened without it.” — From “How We Entered World War I,” p. 171.

“Basic to the conduct of foreign policy is that problem basic to all policy: how to apply wisdom to government. If wisdom in government eludes us, perhaps courage could substitute — the moral courage to terminate mistakes.” — From “If Mao Had Come to Washington,” p. 207.

“To me it is comforting rather than otherwise to feel that history is determined by the illogical human record and not by large immutable scientific laws beyond our power to deflect.

I know very little (a euphemism for ‘nothing’) about laboratory science, but I have the impression that conclusions are supposed to be logical; that is, from a given set of circumstances a predictable result should follow. The trouble is that in human behavior and history it is impossible to isolate or repeat a given set of circumstances. Complex human acts cannot be either reproduced or deliberately initiated — or counted upon like phenomena of nature. The sun comes up every day. Tides are so obedient to schedule that a timetable for them can be printed like that for trains, though more reliable. In fact, tides and trains sharply illustrate my point: One depends on the moon and is certain; the other depends on man and is uncertain.

In the absence of dependable recurring circumstance, too much confidence cannot be placed on the lessons of history.” — From “Is History a Guide to the Future?” p. 249.

“That is why the defunct principle that a nation should go to war only in self-defense is a sound one. That nation that abides by it will havea better case with its own citizens and certainly with history. No could misunderstand Pearl Harbor or have difficulty explaining or defining the need for a response. War which spends lives is too serious a business to do without definition. It requires definition — and declaration. No citizen, I believe, whether military or civilian, should be required to stake his life for what some uncertain men in Washington think is a good idea in gamesmanship or deterrence or containment or whatever is the governing idea of the moment.” — From “Generalship,” p. 284.