Thursday, August 22, 2013

'Without an opinion a historian would simply be a ticking clock, and unreadable besides.' – Barbara W. Tuchman

Earlier this month, my wife and I visited the beguiling bookstore in Lenox, Mass. Two things make it special, and both reflect the knowledge and care of the people who run it. One is the terrific selection – the shelves are full of surprises, including a big poetry section. The second is that a few bookcases are devoted to used books – not the usual suspects but books you seldom see.

Barbara W. Tuckman
A used book I found and could not resist was Practicing History, a 1981 selection of essays by Barbara W. Tuchman. When I first began to read history seriously decades ago, Tuchman was one of the authors who opened the world of the past to me. The Guns of August and The Proud Tower were my favorites; A Distant Mirror took me to the same locale six centuries earlier.

Tuchman, who died in 1989 at the age of 77, was a popular historian – a loaded term because academics sometimes use it as a putdown. I think there is some envy in this. Popular historians are often those who write well. They are storytellers. This does not mean, and certainly didn't mean in Tuchman's case, they are not dogged researchers as well.

I found Practicing History just as unputdownable as Tuchman’s history books. It is just what its title promises: an author’s thoughts about her craft. Some of the essays, which date back 50 years, were speeches or reviews in periodicals. Most share anecdotes about the research and writing that went into her books. 

As I contemplate which book to write next (I’m 60 percent decided), it was wonderful to explore Tuchman’s philosophy about history and writing. Often she expressed herself in eloquent aphorisms, and I thought I would share some of these nuggets of wisdom with you today.

“Being in love with your subject . . . is indispensable for writing good history – or good anything, for that matter.”

“One learns to write . . . in the practice thereof. . . . An essential element for good writing is a good ear. One must listen to the sound of one’s own prose. . . . Short words are always preferable to long ones; the fewer syllables, the better, and monosyllables, beautiful and pure like ‘bread’ and ‘sun’ and ‘grass,’ are best of all.”

“The historian is continually being beguiled down fascinating byways and sidetracks. But the art of writing – the test of an artist – is to resist the beguilement and cleave to the subject.”

“When I was eighteen or thereabouts, my mother told me that when out with a young man I should always leave a half-hour before I wanted to. Although I was not sure how this was to be accomplished, I recognized the advice as sound, and exactly the same rule applies to research.”

Tuchman won a Pulitzer prize for her
World I history "The Guns of August."
“Research is endlessly seductive, writing is hard work. One has to sit down on that chair and think and transform thought into readable, conservative, interesting sentences that make sense and make the reader turn the page.”

“If the historian will submit himself to his material instead of trying to impose himself on his material, the material will ultimately speak to him and supply the answers.”

“As . . . the explanation conveys itself to the writer, so will the implications or the meaning for our time arise in the mind of the reader. But such lessons, if present and valid, must emerge from the material, not the writer. I did not write to instruct, but to tell a story.”

“Evidence is more important than interpretation . . . I am content to define history as the past events of which we have knowledge and refrain from worrying about those of which we have none – until, that is, some archaeologist digs them up.”

“The contemporary has no perspective; everything is in the foreground and appears the same size. Little matters loom big, and great matters are sometimes missed because their outlines cannot be seen. Vietnam and Panama are given four-column headlines today, but the historian fifty or a hundred years hence will put them in a chapter under a general heading we have not yet thought of.” [This was written in 1964, but Tuchman’s view then of Vietnam and Panama as equivalents in the arc of history only emphasizes the point she is making.]

“There is no such thing as a neutral or purely objective historian. Without an opinion a historian would simply be a ticking clock, and unreadable besides.”

“The historian’s task is . . . to tell what happened within the discipline of the facts.

“It is wiser, I believe, to arrive at theory by way of the evidence than the other way around, like so many revisionists today. It is more rewarding, in any case, to assemble the facts first and, in the process of arranging them in narrative form, to discover a theory or a historical generalization emerging of its own accord. This, to me, is the excitement, the built-in treasure hunt, of history.”

Tuchman's "A Distant Mirror" is set in
northern France in the 14th century.
“Why cannot history be studied and written and read for its own sake, as the record of human behavior, the most fascinating subject of all? Insistence on a purpose turns the historian into a prophet – and that is another profession.”

“When I come across a generalization or a general statement in history unsupported by illustration, I am instantly on guard; my reaction is, ‘Show me.’ ”

“Words are seductive and dangerous material, to be used with caution. Am I a writer first or am I a historian? The old argument starts inside my head. Yet there need not always be dichotomy or dispute. The two functions need not be, in fact should not be, at war. The goal is fusion. In the long run the best writer is the best historian.”

“Why is it generally assumed that in writing, the creative process is the exclusive property of poets and novelists? I would like to suggest that the thought applied by the historian to his subject matter can be no less creative than the imagination applied by the novelist to his.”

“I have always felt like an artist when I work on a book but I did not think I ought to say so until someone else said it first.”

“When I say that I felt like an artist, I mean that I constantly found myself perceiving historical truth (at least what I believe to be truth) by seizing upon a suggestion; then, after careful gathering of the evidence, conveying it in turn to the reader, not by piling up a list of the facts I have collected, which is the way of the Ph.D., but by exercising the artist’s privilege of selection.”

“When it comes to language, nothing is more satisfying than to write a good sentence. It is no fun to write lumpishly, dully, in prose the reader must plod through like wet sand. But it is a pleasure to achieve, if one can, a clear running prose that is simple yet full of surprises. This does not just happen. It requires skill, hard work, a good ear, and continued practice.”

1 comment:

  1. Thought provoking quotes! Practicing History sounds like a work that is inspiring and informative at the same time; I look forward to reading it. The Guns of August, Proud Tower, and Distant Mirror were seminal works in my journey as a historian as well and I still remember the thrill of reading Guns of August through the first time - couldn't put it down. Thanks for reminding us of Tuchman and others like her who challenge us to always be improving ourselves and our work.