PRACTICING HISTORY by Barbara W. Tuchman
Kirkus Star

PRACTICING HISTORY

Selected Essays

KIRKUS REVIEW

The title is apt: Tuchman does indeed practice history as a lawyer practices law, or a doctor medicine; that is, she applies it--to the writing of involving narratives, to the drawing of contemporary judgments. These selected essays are not, then, contributions to the advancement of knowledge--with two possible exceptions. The first section consists of discussions of craft; the second chiefly of occasional pieces and book reviews; the third of timely views--responses, mainly, to Vietnam and Watergate. In sum, a Tuchman retrospective, 1936-1980. Seven of the eight pieces on craft turn out, moreover, to be arguments for Tuchman's kind of history-writing (the eighth is a graceful bow to research libraries). "Primarily I think of the historian as a storyteller"--utilizing only primary sources, always supplying corroborative detail, featuring public figures ("with power to affect destiny"), arriving "at theory by way of the evidence": all this in distinction, variously, to "the way of the Ph.D.," the "professional historian," the theorist. But there are internal contradictions nonetheless--cracks in this let-the-facts-speak facade. At one point Tuchman pooh-poohs the proposition (of E. H. Carr) that "historical facts do not exist independently of the interpretations of historians"; two years later she is writing (in "The Historian's Opportunity"): "Events happen; but to become history they must be communicated and understood." What she fails to acknowledge is the extent to which selection of evidence--even the focus on prominent individuals--is ipso facto interpretation. Against these observations on method and technique, the second section becomes a display of Tuchman's craft as well as a record of her interests. Three post-college pieces, written for The Nation (which Tuchman's father owned), demonstrate that she was capable of writing as infectiously as others about an FDR campaign train and as foolishly about the "incomprehensible," illogical Japanese; and that she was incapable of writing a nuanced, Genêt-like evocation of Civil-War Madrid. A narrative involving a quasi-American kidnapped by the Berbers is good historical entertainment; but it also highlights Tuchman's stylistic excesses: the airless thicket of vivid detail, the string of curious particulars culminating--surprise!--in a crucial one. Two 1967 articles on Israel exactly reflect the then-prevailing euphoria; a related book review occasions conventional, uncomprehending criticism of Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil" thesis. But Tuchman's American-Jewish Establishment roots are also the basis of one of the two stellar pieces: a profile of her grandfather Henry Morgen-thau, Sr.--first-generation achiever, friend of Palestinian settlement, foe of political Zionism--entitled "The Dilemma of the Assimilationist." The second standout, "If Mao Had Come to Washington," draws on what may be Tuchman's most lasting work--her researches into, and evaluation of, the putative American "loss" of China to the Communists (for, of course, her Stilwell book). Here, a tantalizing, obscure incident is not presented as a Great Lost Opportunity, and a salient, "quirky" figure--pro-Chiang Ambassador Hurley--is not seen as Destiny's operative. "Our course was destined," Tuchman writes, "by ourselves and our inclinations." There are pieces of passing merit (the review of Kissinger's memoirs, for one); some post-Vietnam and -Watergate policy recommendations (foremost: "some form of shared executive power"); some sidelights, of likely interest to Tuchman readers, on the writing of her histories. But only the Mao piece would hold its own in any context.
Pub Date: Sept. 14th, 1981
ISBN: 0345303636
Page count: 306pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1981




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