Friday, February 24, 2012

Margaret MacMillan on how Barbara W. Tuchman’s historical writings endure

Margaret MacMillan, historian and author of Paris 1919, recently spoke with us about Barbara W. Tuchman: The Guns of August, The Proud Tower, which she edited for The Library of America and which will be published next week.
The Guns of August has deeply affected readers since it was first published in 1962—perhaps most famously President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Do you remember your reactions to the book when you first read it?

I read The Guns of August when it first came out. I was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto taking history, which I already loved, but when I read her book I thought this was the way history should be. I found it riveting and I wanted to write like her.

Tuchman joins Henry Adams, Francis Parkman, W.E.B. Du Bois, and John Kenneth Galbraith as the very few historians published in The Library of America series. What parallels do you see between her work and theirs? What is the significance (if any) in her being the first woman in the group?

Perhaps what joins them all—although they have written very different sorts of histories—is that they all see the big picture and they all write beautifully. As for her being the first woman in the group, someone has to be and at the time she was writing there were far fewer women who counted as serious historians or with university posts. It is different today, thank goodness.

What is distinctive about Tuchman’s approach to the historian’s craft?

What stands out is her combination of very solid research and good writing. She always believed that history was a branch of literature.

What in your view gives Tuchman's work its staying power?

Her work lasts because it is highly readable and entertaining; it gives a strong sense of the past and of the characters involved; and it provides solid, evidence-based, analysis of subjects that we are still interested in such as the outbreak of World War One.

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