Authors: Barbara W. Tuchman

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American historian

Author Works

Nonfiction:

The Lost British Policy: Britain and Spain Since 1700, 1938

Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour, 1956

The Zimmermann Telegram, 1958

The Guns of August, 1962

The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914, 1966

Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945, 1971

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, 1978

Practicing History: Selected Essays, 1981

The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, 1984

The First Salute: A View of the American Revolution, 1988

Biography

Best known as a skillful popularizer of history, Barbara Wertheim Tuchman (TUHK-muhn) was a member of a distinguished family. Her maternal grandfather, Henry Morgenthau, Sr., was ambassador to Turkey and later Mexico under President Woodrow Wilson. Her uncle, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., served as secretary of the Treasury under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Her father, Maurice Wertheim, was an international banker, philanthropist, art collector, and sportsman.{$I[AN]9810001611}{$I[A]Tuchman, Barbara W.}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Tuchman, Barbara W.}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Tuchman, Barbara W.}{$I[tim]1912;Tuchman, Barbara W.}

In the 1920’s Tuchman spent many summers traveling with her parents in Europe. In 1929 she entered Radcliffe College. Following graduation, she accompanied her grandfather, Henry Morgenthau, Sr., to the World Economic Conference in London. Tuchman began working for the Institute of Pacific Relations in 1933. In 1935 she was sent by the institute to work in Tokyo and returned later in the same year to the United States, where she began working for The Nation. Tuchman traveled to Spain for The Nation in 1937 as a correspondent covering the Spanish Civil War. In 1940 she married Lester R. Tuchman, a physician. During World War II she worked as an editor for the Office of War Information preparing material on the Far East for broadcast in Europe.

As a homemaker and mother of three girls, Tuchman put her career on hold for many years. Joking with a journalist, she referred to herself as a “Park Avenue matron.” She mentioned that it was difficult to find the time and place to write, a problem that she later solved by working in a cabin without a telephone at her country home at Cos Cob in southern Connecticut. Tuchman often said that she was glad she was unencumbered by the Ph.D. She believed that if she had continued in academic work her talents for narrative history would have been “stifled.” Despite the lack of a graduate degree, Tuchman served as president of the Society of American Historians from 1970 to 1973.

Tuchman’s first three best-sellers focus on the World War I era. The first, The Zimmermann Telegram, is a detailed account of the American discovery of the German telegram that offered Mexico the return of territories it lost to the United States if it would enter World War I on the side of Germany. Tuchman’s next book, The Guns of August, concentrates on the opening encounters of World War I and suggests that they foreshadowed the long, drawn-out, and bloody war that followed; a film adaptation of the book was made in 1964. Tuchman followed The Guns of August with The Proud Tower, a portrait of society in Western Europe and America prior to World War I. Aristocrats, anarchists, and artists are depicted in Tuchman’s evocative exploration of a world that has disappeared.

In Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945 Tuchman presents a biography of the American general in charge of advising the Chinese government before and during World War II. Tuchman’s use of Stilwell’s diaries reveals that “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell had both to fight the inertia of Chiang Kai-shek and to keep the Nationalists and Communists fighting the Japanese instead of each other.

Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century shows the effects of the Hundred Years’ War and the bubonic plague on Western Europe. The narrative also traces the life of Enguerrand de Coucy VII, subject of the king of France and allied by marriage to the English king. Tuchman presents a grim picture of peasant and bourgeois uprisings, rapacious armies, and an aristocracy no longer able to lead.

Many of Tuchman’s books discuss poor governmental decisions brought about by “groupthink.” In Tuchman’s view, leaders and even whole societies proceed in dangerous directions despite what seem like obvious warning signs. This theme is particularly evident in The March of Folly, which discusses four episodes of societal folly: the Trojans’ mistake in bringing the wooden horse into the city, the Renaissance popes’ corruption and lack of understanding of the need for reform, the English aristocracy’s misrule of the American colonies, and the American government’s failure in Vietnam. Tuchman’s last book, The First Salute, traces events of the American Revolution, a subject partially developed in earlier studies.

For her work Tuchman received plaudits, and many of her books were best-sellers. Critics praised her lively narrative style and her ability to depict character. She was scorned, however, by some professional writers, who found her command of language unsure. In addition, some professional historians found her narrative histories old-fashioned and her interpretations biased. Despite this criticism, Tuchman received the Pulitzer Prize in 1963 for The Guns of August and in 1972 for Stilwell and the American Experience in China.

In the last year of her life Tuchman had planned to write a murder mystery, but she was unable to achieve this goal. At the time of her death The First Salute was on The New York Times best-seller list. Tuchman died from complications following a stroke.

Bibliography“Barbara Tuchman.” The Nation 248, no. 9 (March, 1989): 252-253. A thoughtful, laudatory obituary by a periodical with which Tuchman was associated when she began her writing/research career, and one in which her family had owned an interest. This profile is valuable because while Tuchman’s books were widely reviewed, there are few published materials about their author.Beard, Mary Ritter. Woman as Force in History: A Study in Traditions and Realities. New York: Macmillan, 1946. Beard, who has been perceived as a founder of women’s history and a champion of women writing history, was greatly admired by Tuchman. Neither Beard nor Tuchman fit into the academic historical guilds of their times. Brief annotated bibliography and useful index.Bowman, Kathleen. New Women in Social Sciences. Mankato, Minn.: Creative Education Press, 1976. Especially useful on Tuchman’s early works.Coles, H. L. Review of Stilwell and the American Experience in China, by Barbara W. Tuchman. Journal of American History 58 (December, 1971). The work in question is called “a model biography.”Davis, C. D. Review of The Proud Tower, by Barbara W. Tuchman. Journal of American History 53 (September, 1966). Tuchman is faulted for loose organization.Fromkin, David, and James Chace. “What Are the Lessons of Vietnam?” Foreign Affairs 63, no. 4 (1985). States that Tuchman felt American leaders during the Vietnam War “saw the futility of the U.S. effort but did not revise strategy.”Pace, Eric. “Barbara Tuchman Dead at 77: A Pulitzer-Winning Historian.” The New York Times, February 7, 1989. Gives a sympathetic evaluation of the author and her work.See, Carolyn. “Barbara Tuchman.” Kenyon Review 12 (Winter, 1990). Presents a feminist approach to Tuchman’s life and work.Trask, David. “Popular History and Public History: Tuchman’s The March of Folly.” Public History 7, no. 4 (1985). Discusses Tuchman’s methodology.Tuchman, Barbara W. Practicing History: Selected Essays. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981. A collection of frank, often charming commentaries and examples of Tuchman’s work and views. All are articles or lectures rather than selections from her books. Essays in part 1 are especially interesting and revelatory. Few notes, no bibliography or index. Her historical views should be juxtaposed to those male academic historians who reviewed her work. On balance they credited her with striking prose and good “popular” history, making clear that it was less thoroughly researched, profound, or interdisciplinary than they expected “reliable” history to be.Zinsser, Judith P. History and Feminism: A Glass Half Full. New York: Twayne, 1993. A clear, cogent survey and comparative analysis of men’s history, women’s history, and the impact of feminism on each. Useful for placing Tuchman in the broader modern context of women writing history. An excellent work with annotated suggestions for further reading and a valuable index.
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