Last week I wrote about the value of understanding who is interpreting the history you’re reading. I promised that I would give two examples, one last week and one this week, and do a little compare and contrast. Last week I featured an academic historian and this week I’m going to tell you about a writer of popular history who won the Pulitzer Prize – twice.
Barbara (Wertheim) Tuchman (1912-1989) was born into a wealthy New York City family with political connections. Her maternal grandfather was President Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, her uncle was the Secretary of the Treasury under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and her father was a banker, philanthropist and served as president of the American Jewish Committee
Tuchman studied history and literature at Radcliffe College and graduated in 1933, during the height of the Great Depression. After graduation she worked as a research assistant and as a journalist. Tuchman’s father purchased The Nation to save it from bankruptcy and gave her a job, but she had to start at the bottom clipping articles before she was allowed to work as a journalist. In 1937 she traveled to Spain as a war correspondent for The Nation to report on the Spanish Civil War.
Her first book, “The Lost British Policy: Britain and Spain Since 1700”, was published in 1938 with no great fanfare, and she didn’t publish again for almost twenty years. During those years she married a prominent physician, worked, researched, and raised three daughters. While her husband served as a doctor in North Africa during World War II, she worked in the Office of War Information’s Far Eastern news desk.
Tuchman finally published again in 1956, “Bible and Sword: England and Palestine From the Bronze Age to Balfour”, but it was her next book, “The Zimmerman Telegram”, published in 1958, that made me a fan. This book details the reasons for the United States entry into World War I in 1917, including the evidence of a potential deal between Germany and Mexico to keep U.S. resources away from Europe. It also has spies and secret codes and code-breakers.
Tuchman was not an academic historian and considered herself a storyteller and a writer who chose to write about history. However, she was a competent researcher, as are most journalists. She used primary and unpublished resources for her research, as do historians, and made a point of visiting the sites she wrote about in order to gain a more complete understanding of the story. My copy of “The Zimmerman Telegram” is a newer edition published in 1966 and Tuchman states in the forward that she had included information that was declassified in 1965. The new information related to the methods of cryptography involved in decoding the infamous telegram, but it did not change the historical or political circumstances detailed in the original 1958 version. The fact that she revised the book to include new information is a tribute to her research mindset.
World War I was also the subject of Tuchman’s most famous book, “The Guns of August”, published in 1962. Detailing the first month of the war in 1914, it was the basis of a 1964 documentary, spent more than 40 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, has never been out of print, and won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1963. Tuchman’s second Pulitzer was in 1972 for “Stillwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945”, a biography of General Joseph Stillwell.
There were mixed reviews for Tuchman’s works. Although a surprising number of scholars gave enthusiastic reviews, there was some criticism from academic historians. The primary concern was the perception that she blamed the Germans more often than was accurate or deserved. Other issues with her writing were that she was too black and white in her views, too liberal in her views, and that she omitted and misinterpreted important facts.
So I chose two people writing history during the same time period to demonstrate that the author and interpreter of your history can be as important as the history itself. Sir Geoffrey Elton and Barbara Tuchman were different in many ways, but they were also more alike than I would have imagined before researching these posts. Elton was male, English, from a family of academics who had fled Europe prior to the start of World War II, had specific research interests, and was immersed in the world of academia. Tuchman was female, American, from a wealthy and politically connected family, was interested in all areas of history, and wrote about history for the love of history.
But those are surface differences. They both believed in the value of using primary sources for research. Elton believed the only real history was political history, which is often the history of “great men”, while Tuchman highlighted individuals, often “great men”, because she saw them as catalysts of history. Both dealt with the culture and circumstances of the time period rather than stranding their subjects in a void. And both deeply believed that they should arrive at their theories based on the evidence found in their research rather than forming a theory and then finding evidence to back them up.
In the end, I think the main difference between the two is in their audience. Scholars generally write for scholars. Elton spent his career deeply immersed in the study of the fairly narrow world of the Tudors, writing to share his research results mainly with other scholars. Much of his later work was concerned with how history was being taught, studied and researched because of what he observed in the academic world.
Tuchman’s books were aimed at a wide readership with an emphasis on narrative and personalities. She once remarked that academic historians have a captive audience of either advisors or students, but that in her writing she had to worry about getting the reader to turn the page. She wanted history to be accessible to the masses, and succeeded in that endeavor.