PRACTICING HISTORY

SELECTED ESSAYS

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. 14, 1981

ISBN: 0345303636

Page Count: 306

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1981

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

NIGHT

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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