Given the general stridency and balderdash of the day, there are not all that many candidates for American Enchantress and some say Barbara Tuchman, historian, is front-runner.She collects Pulitzer and other prizes as some collect stamps. People really read her books. For untold readers she has made history real.
Yesterday, before trotting over to the White House for some signal honor or other, she behaved like a woman with nothing to do but admire a green city, though in truth the august Jefferson Lecture had to be delivered last night. This is the main bash of the year for the National Endowment for the Humanities, and it is an honor to end all honors to be invited to deliver it.
Tuchman's address was novel beyond words:
"My books have dealt with tragic or sad times," she said.
(Her "Distant Mirror" is a delicious if somewhat hair-raising and macabre account of the 14th century in part of France, with everybody convinced the end of the world was near and war going on forever).
"I thought of a book about the positive side of human achievement. But I couldn't string it all together . . ."
"The good things stick out like jewels, but the normal state is dismal, is that it?" she was asked.
"No. It's just that it's hard to make a strong, convincing narrative of the good. But for the lecture, I thought why not the positive side of things.
"And why, if I may ask," she went on, beginning to meddle, "does The Post not write major stories about the azaleas blooming and the Tulip Library?"
"Don't you want to know about killer bees and the problems transsexuals face and Albania?" she was asked.
She indicated, in a word, no.
"I don't mean," she began, "that we can ignore the world and news, but --"
But. Sometimes she has it up to here.
"Aren't you afraid of losing your ceredentials as an historian and as an intellectual?" she was asked. "With your talk about flowers and spring? And now in your lecture you speak of the Dutch triumph reclaiming land from the sea, and the miracle of architecture and so on. All those upbeat good-news things."
She cited the exuberance, the gush-up joy of life that is also (along with the terror) the rule of life.The gee-wow-dazzle, even if it sometimes o'er-leaps itself, like those soaring vaults of Beauvais that nobody could believe, they were so high and glorious. (And, of course, the vaults collapsed. Furthermore, the folk of Beauvais spent so much on the soaring choir -- and its repair -- they never were able to finish the main nave. Never mind. The great game of architecture does not necessarily have to be won. If it falls down, well, permanence is not everything).
She sits straight and laughs a good bit. She asks her husband, a physician, questions as if she thought he might know a thing or two. And yet they have been married for many years.
She said our age reminds her of a woman in some play, whose problem was that she wanted her children to be happy. But they, on the contrary, had no desire to be happy, preferring to watch horror shows on television.
We have a taste for squalor, she suggested, and dwell on things that scare or disturb or sicken us, and this we call reality and truth.
We somehow miss the balance.
She spoke of the grim 14th century, a great time for gloom. And yet, she said, there was Chaucer, who (although he was a writer and we know writers are crafty) was almost certainly cheerful. And Boccaccio, she said, in a time of plagues and death, had a robust, full-fleshed liveliness
But we, on the other hand, have it easy and love to dwell on the bizarre, the outrageous, the evil.
"Is it because we need such stimulants to make us feel anything at all?" she asked.
A trap. She is the historian. She is the one to answer that.
She ranged over history -- China, you name it -- and answered the phone a few times in her suite at the Sheraton-Carlton, inviting people to get back with her at 4 p.m., as if she had nothing to do then.
"I do not know that caffeine in coffee does any great harm as a rule," said her husband, reaching for his third cup. There are fashions in medicine, after all.
Tuchman said her energy was fed, rather than drained, by the many who asked her opinions, asked her for information. "I think that's why conductors of orchestras live so long. All that nightly applause. And then I guess they do get a certain amount of exercise conducting."
"A cellist," said her husband, "gets more exercise playing his cello than a lumberjack felling trees."
"I believe it," someone said, because it is utterly unbelievable."
"You should know," said Barbara Tuchman, "that my husband frequently makes dogmatic assertions that have no basis in fact."
"She is intellectually honest," said the husband when she stepped out of the room a minute.
"Very difficult to live with?" he was asked.
"Oh yes. All that honesty. She adored Woodrow Wilson, for example, and when she wrote a certain book the facts distressed her, but she yielded to them, and never mind her own hopes or prejudices.
"I am staying here," he said as she reentered the room. "I have work to do while you're at the White House."
"Don't be ridiculous," she said with that tone women sometimes use for dogs and husbands (gentle but not entertaining any folishness from the mutt).
"It's your day. It's you they want to see, not me," he said.
Barbara Tuchman assumed, therefore, it was all settled and, please, let us not dawdle further.
"You see she is making me go," he said.
Done and done. Mrs. Tuchman hinted a cellist does not get more exercise than a lumberjack.
"I can show you the documentation," the husband said.
Bystanders feared it was the wrong thing to say, the wrong way to win, with B. Tuchman.