Barbara Tuchman Argues for "History as Literature"

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American author and historian Barbara W. Tuchman poses in this undated photo.

"Is Gibbon necessarily less of an artist in words than Dickens?" historian Barbara Tuchman asks in this 1966 talk at a Book and Author Luncheon. Proposing that the creative process is the same for historians as for poets and novelists, Tuchman objects to her work being lumped with other "non-fiction." "I don’t feel like a non-something." The writing of history requires imagination and sympathy. Imagination "stretches the facts" to get the deeper truth out of them, while sympathy "is essential to the understanding of motive." Conscious that she is regarded as a "popular historian," she defends herself against the academic charge of being an amateur, quoting the famous British author G. M. Trevelyan who advised historians to "write for the wider public." She then turns to the book she has just published, The Proud Tower, which traces the roots of World War I, attempting to show how its gestation and eventual transformation represent a series of artistic rather than purely technical considerations.

One could argue that Tuchman protests too much over what is finally a semantic distinction: "creative writing" versus "history." But in 1966 these barriers seem to be more firmly in place than they are now. She ends her discussion with a reference to Truman Capote's just published In Cold Blood, a book which decisively erased the line between non-fiction and fiction. Capote's method, she claims, "is not so new as he thinks." She compares it to that of Herodotus and Francis Parkman.

Barbara Tuchman (1912-1989) was, in the best sense of the phrase, a popular historian. She won the Pulitzer Prize twice. Her books were often featured on the Bestseller List. This achievement is all the more extraordinary when one considers the obstacles she had to overcome. As the New York Times noted in its obituary:

She had neither an academic title nor even a graduate degree. ''It's what saved me,'' she later said. ''If I had taken a doctoral degree, it would have stifled any writing capacity.'' But to be a writer was difficult, she found, simply because she was a woman. ''If a man is a writer,'' she once said, ''everybody tiptoes around past the locked door of the breadwinner. But if you're an ordinary female housewife, people say, 'This is just something Barbara wanted to do; it's not professional.' ''

Tuchman's success can be attributed in part to her strong emphasis on narrative, which she defends in this talk, and to a lively, readable style that neither talks down to the reader nor patronizes by over-simplification. Naturally, these qualities got her into trouble with professional historians, who routinely pointed out shortcomings in her research and doubted her conclusions. But her aim was not academic approval. As the Jewish Women's Archive pointed out:

…she preferred the literary approach. She was regarded by some as more of a summarist than an explorer of fresh sources, ideas, and methods. She was not a historian’s historian; she was a layperson’s historian who made the past interesting to millions of readers. Her prescription for writing was “the writer’s object is—or should be—to hold the reader’s attention.” She visited the battle sites involved in her histories to increase realistic detail. But she chided, “historians who stuff in every item of research they have found, every shoelace and telephone call of a biographical subject, are not doing the hard work of selecting and shaping a readable story.”

Perhaps a more valid objection to this kind of work is that by keeping its eye on the "wider public" it can lose its chronological objectivity and use history more as a lens through which to see our current time. This is a weakness Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley noticed when he reread The Proud Tower in 2009.

Living in a state of considerable wealth and privilege, she was given to rather conventional limousine-liberal political and ideological convictions and occasionally to oracular pronouncements thereof. Though clear-eyed about the Anarchists in these pages, she waxes more than a trifle misty about the socialists. Though the full import of the U.S. presence in Vietnam was far from clear as this book was written, the chapter about American imperialism unquestionably was colored by present events. When she quotes Charles Eliot Norton of Harvard -- "I have been too much of an idealist about America, had set my hopes too high, had formed too fair an image of what she might become. Never had a nation such an opportunity; she was the hope of the world. Never again will any nation have her chance to raise the standard of civilization" -- his thoughts clearly are her own.

Of course all history is as much about when it was written as about the time it ostensibly portrays. But the popular historian, even one as conscientious as Tuchman, will inevitably be more buffeted by the storms of the present than the cloistered, tenured professor. Tuchman's work has become contextualized within the literature of late 20'th century, becoming "history" itself.


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

WNYC archives id: 71336
Municipal archives id: T1741-T1742