Practicing History: Selected Essays, by Barbara W. Tuchman
My feelings towards this book and towards this author are somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand, the selected essays in this particular book are generally enjoyable to read. Tuchman was a serious-minded historian and where she writes about the past she does a good job at most aspects of history (though not all). There are a few aspects of this book, though, that are somewhat problematic and they will make my reading of Tuchman considerably more critical in light of what this particular book reveals and also illuminate some of her shortcomings which she shares with others of like mind. In these essays, most of them written for left-leaning (the New York Times, The Nation) publications, the author reveals herself to have a narrative approach to history that focuses on historical data but which is seen through the filters of a Progressive mindset that creates difficulties when she turns to contemporary politics or when she seeks to examine the role of religious beliefs in history (where she continually stumbles throughout this work). As a leftist assimilationist Jew, the author shows a great deal of interest in Israel but misses, badly, the importance of faith in life and history.
The roughly 300 pages of essays included here have been divided by the author into three parts. The first contains a series of essays on the craft of history. Here Tuchman writes about the search for history, when history happens, the importance of small details, the historian as an artist, opportunity as it relates to the writing of history, some problems the author faced in writing a biography of General Stilwell, houses of research, and biography as an aspect of history. After this the author looks at the yield of history, with papers on Japan’s situation in the 1930’s (one of her first published works), experiences on a campaign train in 1936 with FDR, a look at what Madrid was reading during the Spanish Civil War, an essay on a former American abroad in Morocco and the awkwardness of gunboat diplomacy on behalf of ex-pats, the Holocaust, Israel’s impossibilities, a book review on Freud’s attempt to psychoanalyze Woodrow Wilson, how we entered World War I, Israel’s swift sword in 1967, a counterfactual essay on if Mao had gone to Washington during World War II, the assimilationist dilemma of Ambassador Morgenthau, a self-portrait of Kissinger, and some of mankind’s better moments. Finally, the author closes with some discussions on learning from America that mostly delve into politics of Vietnam and the presidency after Watergate, truly the weakest area of the book.
Tuchman is an example of a historian it is easy to appreciate but hard to trust. Her focus on details, her attention to the facts and her dislike of speculation are all admirable traits and her focus on writing narrative history makes her an easy historian to read. That said, when she turns from historian of the remote past to someone with a political worldview that is antithetical to my own, she becomes much less enjoyable. Here in this book we see both sides of Tuchman’s writing, from her thoughtful and often entertaining pieces of historical research and writing in a smaller form than the book to rather out of place and misguided remedies that are based on misguided and mistaken belief systems that are endemic to the left. So long as the reader can avoid having to pay attention to the author’s political worldview, there is much to enjoy here, but whenever the author starts acting as if Communism isn’t an evil at all and that the United States should not treat it as such, then what she advocates from a policy perspective is loony and not worth taking seriously, because her politics are so skewed to the left so as to be worthless in providing a remedy to societal problems. Come for the history, and skip over the cringy parts.