Barbara Tuchman (1912-1989) won a Pulitzer Prize in 1963 for The Guns of August, her account of the start of WWI. Described by the press in 1962 as a mere fifty-year-old housewife, mother of three, who married a prominent New York physician, she nonetheless rose to such literary and popular fame that her name alone was sufficient for readers to buy copies of her latest works. And the public did — in bulk. She was an extraordinary talent. Her goal as a historian was to discover what really happened at pivotal points in history through painstaking research, and to portray the feeling of living at the time. Disparaged by her peers for never having earned a PhD and condemned as a writer of “popular history”, nonetheless she collected numerous honorary degrees from universities the likes of Yale, Harvard, Columbia, and Smith. To write was a laborious and often painful process for her, yet she believed in the magnificence of the English language.
Here are five things I learned from her:
History as a subject can be dry as a desert. Accounts can be biased, and facts falsified or omitted, thus making the subject easy to dismiss. That would be a mistake. The history that we believe, regardless of its veracity, still forms the context in which we live. It influences not only what we think in the present, but more importantly, what others around us believe to be true. Besides, each of us are living genetic histories that stretch back to the beginning of time. Sufferers of amnesia don’t know who they are. Without knowing our past, we don’t either, and that applies even to nations.
In the late 1970s, Barbara Tuchman proposed a natural law: A fact, having been reported in the news, multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five or ten-fold (or any figure the reader would care to supply). Imagine what that figure is today with the Internet, social media, and phone video recordings sent helter-skelter to and from the millions? No wonder we are traumatized.
Our day-to-day activities are factually much more representative of our lives. The outrageous is not a true reflection of what is commonplace, nor is it ever.
I think these guidelines not only apply to the writing of history and nonfiction, but to fiction as well. She had one additional gift. She immerses the reader in the subject to such an extent that readers suspend their knowledge of the eventual outcome, even when known.
Genuine passion and wonder induce similar feelings in the reader. Barbara Tuchman loved what she wrote about, and that feeling permeates the pages of her books.
She loved to research her subjects and said that research was endlessly seductive. One always had to stop before one finished, otherwise one would never stop and never finish. These are wise words for anyone who writes or creates, for that matter.