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Barbara Tuchman: Who Is She?

February 6, 2007

I saw the following this morning at the New York Times“On This Day” page: “1989 – Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Barbara W. Tuchman died at age 77.” With that as a starting point, I’m going to engage in a series of observations and questions that will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’m a junior scholar/historian:

So, I’ve seen Tuchman’s books on the shelves of used-book stores for years. Who is she? Can anyone tell me anything about her style? If my memory is serving me correctly, she wrote about many diverse periods of time. Is that true? What’s the strength of her oeuvre? Why should she be read today?

I have to ask these questions because graduate history programs today hardly teach “great books” or great authors of the field. Of course I certainly read excerpts from the works of the “Annales school,” scraps from E.P. Thompson, samples from Marxist historians, and books from the 1960s and forward (such as Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish). But few to no books from the 1950s and before, however, make it onto course reading lists. I think I mentioned in a prior post, for instance, that my first reading of Richard Hofstadter’s Age of Reform occurred sometime on the side during dissertation writing. I believe my situation is not an isolated one; I’ve heard the similar complaints and stories from others at professional functions.

In the case of Tuchman, is my ignorance based on the fact that she simply never wrote about U.S. history? My minor field exams were on European history, but I never encountered Tuchman there. – TL


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  1. Tuchmann: Two great books that I've encountered. 1) The Guns of August (about the origins of WWI) and 2) A Distant Mirror (about the 14th century and its parallels to the 20th century). I read Guns of August on my own as an Undergrad, and had Distant Mirror drummed into my head by a “past is the present” obsessed Supervising Western Civ Prof as a TA (aside: it was a great experience).

    I highly recommend Guns of August.


  2. Your ignorance is probably based in part on the fact that Tuchman was not an academic – I'm pretty sure she did not have a PhD – and therefore the elitist academy has pretty much marginalized her. I only know of her because I had a grad school colleague who was an avid reader/fan and tried to write a historiography paper on Tuchman, only to be directed by the professor to read “real” historians. Seriously. My colleague eventually dropped out of the program.

    If you want more info on Tuchman, I'm sure there's a wikipedia article on her – wink wink 😉


  3. I admit that I intentionally ignored the Wikipedia article (until now – winks acknowledged) in favor of hearing replies on the post. After seeing Christopher's comment, I do recall that 'A Distant Mirror' is what I've most often seen in my aforementioned used book store treks. – TL


  4. Anonymous permalink

    She also wrote “The First Salute, A View of the American Revolution.”


  5. RM: Was “The First Salute” a good book? I had no idea she wrote on any U.S. topics. – TL


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