By Jonathan Yardley
Monday, March 16, 2009
An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
The late Barbara W. Tuchman was one of the most accomplished practitioners of "popular history" in the English language, but she always had a chip on her shoulder about being pigeonholed as such, and not without reason. Though the term has a wholly non-pejorative definition -- history written for a general rather than a scholarly readership, usually with a strong emphasis on narrative and portraiture -- it is often used disparagingly by academic critics who feel their territory has been encroached upon and who sometimes resent the popular success enjoyed by those who write it. Writing about Tuchman a quarter-century ago in the New York Review of Books, the singularly distinguished professional historian Gordon S. Wood said:
"She does not like being called an 'amateur' by all the 'professionals' who have graduate training, advanced degrees, and university positions. She prefers, she said in a 1981 collection of essays covering her career, to recognize the difference between them and her 'by distinguishing between academics and independents, or between scholars and writers, rather than between professionals and amateurs.' She may not have a Ph.D., but she is as much of a pro as the professors are, and rather more so if making a living by your work is any criterion of being professional. She can communicate with a willing readership, which is more than the professors can do. . . . They really do not know how 'to capture and hold the interest of an audience.' "
Tuchman knew how, and then some. Born in 1912 into a prosperous New York family (her father, Maurice Wertheim, was a banker), she worked in various journalistic jobs before publishing her first book, "The Lost British Policy," in 1938. She married Lester R. Tuchman the following year, and they had three children. Presumably she was preoccupied with child-rearing for some time, as it was not until 1958 that she published "The Zimmerman Telegram," her third book and the first one to receive wide attention. Then, in 1962, she published "The Guns of August," and with that she was off and running. She won the first of her two Pulitzer Prizes for it. Seven more books followed before her death in 1989. Two decades after her death, 10 of her 11 books are still in print.
Like millions of others, I came to her work through "The Guns of August," not least because during the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy recommended that his advisers read it as a cautionary tale about how nations blunder into wars. Today, though, I'm taking a second look at the book she published four years later, "The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914." I read it more or less when it came out in 1966 but must not have read it very carefully, because upon beginning a rereading, I quickly realized (to my not-inconsiderable embarrassment) I remembered almost nothing about it. It is not, as I thought, a rather elegiac portrait of the good old days before the world tore itself apart, but a clear-eyed depiction of how the nations of the West were setting themselves up, all unwittingly, for the catastrophe to come.
"The Proud Tower" is not a narrative but a collection of eight essays, some of which had appeared previously, in briefer form, in various magazines. In "The Patricians," she writes about an England in which "the Age of Privilege, though assailed at many points and already cracking at some, still seemed, in the closing years of the Nineteenth Century and of Victoria's reign, a permanent condition." "The Idea and the Deed" is about the Anarchists, who "were able to draw blueprints of a state of universal harmony only by ignoring the evidence of human behavior and the testimony of history." "End of a Dream" is about the rise of the U.S. Navy and America's turn toward imperialism. In " 'Give Me Combat!' " she writes about the Dreyfus Affair, in which a French officer was convicted of turning over secrets to Germany, a wildly controversial case that reeked of anti-Semitism.
In "The Steady Drummer," her subject is the peace conferences of 1899 and 1907 at the Hague, in which little more than rhetorical progress was made toward "the goal of a new international order in which nations would be willing to give up their freedom to fight in exchange for the security of law." " 'Neroism Is in the Air' " is about prewar German culture, with particular emphasis on the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and the music of Richard Strauss. In "Transfer of Power," she writes about the "transfer of power" in England, "not a mere political transfer from the in-party to the outs but one more profound, to a new class." And, finally, in "The Death of Jaurès," her focus is on the birth of socialism and, with the murder of Jean Jaurès, its great French leader, the death of his conviction "that man was good, that society could be made good and the struggle to make it so was to be fought daily, by available means and within present realities."
This is not, Tuchman says at the outset, "the book I intended to write when I began. Preconceptions dropped off one by one as I investigated. The period was not a Golden Age or Belle Epoque except to a thin crust of the privileged class. It was not a time exclusively of confidence, innocence, comfort, stability, security and peace. . . . Our misconception lies in assuming that doubt and fear, ferment, protest, violence and hate were not equally present. We have been misled by the people of the time themselves who, in looking back across the gulf of the War, see that earlier half of their lives misted over by a lovely sunset haze of peace and security. It did not seem so golden when they were in the midst of it."
For a writer to come to a subject under the sway of preconceptions and then to be able to set them aside when the evidence indicates their falsity is not as common an achievement as one might think. Historians -- and make no mistake about it, Tuchman was a real historian, not a mere popularizer -- are as susceptible as anyone to the temptation of shaping the evidence to suit their conclusions, rather than vice versa. Tuchman was not entirely immune to this; more about that in a moment. But if she went into this project believing that the Edwardian Age was a Golden Age, it didn't take long for the facts to persuade her otherwise. The result is a book with precious little nostalgia and not a great deal of sunlight. It would be easy enough to write a book about that period that would be rich in those qualities, and indeed many such books have been written, but the truth is another matter.
Tuchman worked hard to tell the truth, and she did so with real style, with brio. Her prose is always elegant, and often witty. "Like the fat man who has a thin man inside crying to get out," she writes, "even the respectable have a small Anarchist hidden inside." And: "On release from the Army [a young Italian] became a printer, a trade with an affinity for Anarchism, either because the Anarchist seeks contact with the printed word or because contact with the printed word leads to Anarchism." And: "Nietzsche roamed wildly. His ideas rolled and billowed like storm clouds, beautifully and dangerously." And "humanitarian instincts grow fiercer in proportion to the distance by which their causes are removed and it is always easier to build Jerusalem in Africa than at home."
This last most certainly is true, and it was true of Tuchman herself. 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.
This tendency to sermonize became more pronounced as Tuchman grew older and more disenchanted with her country's misadventures in foreign and domestic affairs. Two of her last books, "A Distant Mirror" (1978) and "The March of Folly" (1984), are essentially political documents in which she uses the past to upbraid the present. As Gordon Wood wrote in reviewing the latter: "Her history is no longer art: it is not written for its own sake. It is now science -- popular political science -- which she once said she would never write. She has not taken to using computers or to calculating the prices of wheat, but she is very eager now to find patterns or lessons in the past with which to teach us." Four decades ago, when "The Proud Tower" first appeared, that aspect of her work was less easily discerned; now, from the privileged vantage point of hindsight, it is considerably clearer, and it diminishes "The Proud Tower."
Not by much, though. Whatever lessons about the present Tuchman may have wanted us to learn from it, there is vastly more to be learned about the past. In muscular, vivid prose, she portrays a world in transition, "the culmination of a century of the most accelerated rate of change in man's record." It was a pivotal moment in history, in a way made even more dramatically so because of our awareness now, that its participants had absolutely no idea where it was taking them.
"The Proud Tower" is available in a Ballantine paperback ($18).
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.
The next book in this series is "Never Love a Stranger," by Harold Robbins. It is out of print but available in libraries and online.