Friday, November 13, 2015

Nobility of Purpose

Barbara W. Tuchman (center), William Shirer (left), and John Eisenhower at the Conference on Research and World War II and the National Archives, June 14-15, 1971. (Source)
As many of you know, history is a favorite subject of mine. I fancy myself as being a bit of an historian. Though strictly in the amateur ranks. Recently I had the great good fortune to be reunited with an old favorite of mine, Barbara Tuchman.

I think she influenced my love of history more than any other person as a young fellow growing up. (The two chaps in the picture with her were pretty good historians in their own right. Mr. Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich sparked an interest in World War II which stays with me to this day. Mr. Eisenhower's book The Bitter Woods sparked an interest in the Battle of the Bulge. I devour books on that topic thanks to his work.)

The reunion I mention above was caused by my finding a copy of her book A Distant Mirror. It has been years since I've read that book and finding it on the free book rack at work was a plus (I believe that I've mentioned before how frugal I am). It's a little battered and bruised, but the brilliance of the lady I like to call "my favorite historian" shines through on every page.

Once again I am struck how everything old is new again. The problems we have today, while bad, sometimes pale in comparison to what our ancestors survived. It doesn't trivialize today's problems, not at all, but it helps to put things in perspective.

I was also fortunate to find an interview done with Mrs. Tuchman not long before her death. While I don't agree with all of the opinions expressed in the interview, she still impressed me with her wisdom and the depth of her knowledge.
Barbara Tuchman was one of America's best-known historians. An advocate of the notion that it's worth knowing where we've been, she's looks at the changes in America since the days of Washington, Adams and Jefferson.

At the root of our contemporary predicament, she concluded before her death in 1989, was the absence of a sense of honor. Tuchman twice won the Pulitzer Prize. Her last book, THE FIRST SALUTE*, explores the American Revolution.
You can watch the interview here (nope, I couldn't figure out how to embed the video). Nearly 25 minutes long but well worth your time.

As the French are wont to say, "plus ça change, plus c'est le même chose..."**

I wouldn't disagree.




* I read this book as well, brilliant.
** The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Editor's Note: The Wikipedia article on Mrs. Tuchman is very good.

14 comments:

  1. Dang keyboard!

    Great post. Tuchman was pretty good about keeping her politics out of her history. Perhaps an honor thing? Perhaps a good lesson for today's zinnian propagandist historians?

    I had the hardest time as a lad wrapping my mind around the idea that the world could be set on fire by the shooting of a mustachioed prince in a town and country that no one had ever heard of (I was a bit provincial at the age of nine). "The Guns of August" sorted it all quite nicely for me, though the flipping librarians fought a valiant fight to prevent a callow ute from reading above his station.

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    1. There were so many things I loved about her approach to history. She brought it alive for me.

      Heh, the librarians couldn't hold you back forever!

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    2. She, Churchill and Manchester are at the top of my list. I believe that "The Guns of August" is very much applicable to the situation we are in today. Mrs. Tuchman's personal history is fascinating and provided her with knowledge of and access to records and people that would not be available to the average person. I keep very few books, but two of them are hers: TGOA and "Stillwell and the American Experience in China". Extraordinary books. One of her biographers had written: Tuchman was "not a historian's historian; she was a layperson's historian who made the past interesting to millions of readers." -I was one of those millions.

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    3. Same here Ron.

      (An historian's historian is just another term for a boring academic. I was fortunate to have studied under only one of those.)

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  2. Two things, it would have been quite a lesson in history just to listen to the conversation those three were having. Second, says something for your place of employment and the people with whom you work when that book is in the free library.

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    1. That would have been interesting to listen in on that conversation.

      Some of the other stuff in the free book rack isn't so, shall we say, erudite?

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  3. Wonder if the primary motivation of historians isn't, "Look dummies, you don't need to repeat these mistakes"?

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    1. Not very motivating when no one pays attention.

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    2. And historians know that we do not pay attention.

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    3. Some of us do, but you knew that.

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  4. Shirer's book was the first history I ever read outside of school. Fascinating stuff. I so wanted to get into the mind of Hitler, following that read, that I purchased a copy of Mein Kampf. I valiantly plowed through it, but it wasn't easy. Perhaps it is an easier read in the German, but the English translation was hideously repetitive and full of poorly constructed sentences, etc., which I'm fairly certain were just Hitler's bad style, but perhaps the fault of the translator; I don't know.

    (And look at me writing about bad style and poor construction after that gem!)

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    1. I tried the same thing. It's worse in German.

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  5. I remember reading The Distant Mirror long ago. It was illuminating to a young mind to read her history and its descriptions of coming into village after village in Europe and finding that everyone was dead of the plague. I read all of Tuchman's books and enjoyed them. She gave me an enduring enthusiasm for reading history that I nurtured on and off over the last 40 years. I got stuck into the Political History of England in 12 volumes back in 1981 and read them all which let me find another group of very good historians. I enjoyed Oman and found that The Pillars of the Earth was pretty good fiction because of the history. I stopped reading on WWII before I left the 6th grade. There was always enough of it and I took no pleasure from it. The Navy War College used to have an outstanding bibliography and provided reading for its Strategy and Policy Course. I wish I'd been able to keep all the books.

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    1. The Pillars of the Earth was a favorite of mine as well. Reading about how such and such cathedral took 100 years to build is one thing, actually having the process described was fascinating.

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