Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Jessica Tuchman Mathews on Barbara W. Tuchman and her “independence of spirit”

Jessica Tuchman Mathews with Rocco Staino,
Empire State Center chair
Ryan Brenizer Photography
In the second post from the series of remarks made at the recent New York State Writers Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Jessica Tuchman Mathews offers a tribute to her mother, the historian Barbara W. Tuchman, whose centennial is being celebrated in 2012. A widely recognized expert on issues related to arms control, energy policy, and science and technology, Mathews is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a global think tank with offices in Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Brussels, and Beirut.
How to pay adequate tribute to a great lady in four minutes? I will forgo the polished prose she would have used and try merely to sketch a word picture.

What you would probably most remember if you had known her was her independence of spirit. Though shy, she never hesitated to say exactly what she thought to whomever. She had a profound unconcern for authority.

You would have recognized immediately, too, however, her discipline of thought and its corollary, clarity of expression. What she said or wrote had been deeply thought through.

She had tremendous energy and drive. On her death, her three very different daughters wrote three quite different tributes for her memorial service. All three, though, remembered her the same way in one respect: that she was never at rest.

She was an unapologetic elitist who worshipped quality. Quality derived, she believed, from two sources, “intensive effort and honesty of purpose.” In other words, not just skill, but intent. You set out to do something well or to do it half well or well enough. She had no patience for the latter two.

But she was much more than a bulldozer of energy, discipline and drive. What distinguished her most was an absolute passion for her craft. “It is this quality of being in love with your subject that is indispensable” she wrote, and she lived that.
Her passion was dedicated to both elegant prose and to following the facts. She had no interest whatsoever in theory. So committed was she, that although she read everything in each new field she tackled, she had a rule never to take notes from a secondary source lest she be influenced by someone else’s digestion of those precious facts. “It is not the book I intended to write when I began,” she wrote about The Proud Tower. “Preconceptions dropped off one by one as I investigated.”

She was entirely her own woman, completely inner driven. It won’t surprise you to learn that she had no truck for the idea of the ‘role model’ so popular in the seventies and eighties. “One’s role model is inside,” she wrote. Hers was entirely so.

This worshipper of primary sources took the extraordinary, and in many ways very sad, step of burning her papers some years before she died. She wanted her eleven books, articles and speeches to serve as her biography.

So, in that spirit, let one of her most beautiful passages on her favorite subject—books —serve as the final word of tribute tonight.

Without books history is silent, literature dumb, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of society would have been impossible. They are engines of change, windows on the world, and (as a poet has said) lighthouses effected in the sea of time. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind.
If so, she was a trusted companion to hundreds of thousands of readers, a learned teacher, a wealthy banker—and a true magician.
The Library of America is marking Tuchman’s centennial year with the publication of volume #222 in the series, Barbara W. Tuchman: The Guns of August & The Proud Tower, edited by Margaret MacMillan.

At its June 5 ceremony in midtown Manhattan, The Empire State Center for the Book formally inducted 14 writers into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame, which it established in 2010 to recognize New York-based poets, novelists, journalists, and historians who have made an indelible mark on our culture. The class of 2012 included E. L. Doctorow, Pete Hamill, Toni Morrison, and Joyce Carol Oates, all of whom attended. Also honored were John Cheever, Hart Crane, Edna Ferber, Washington Irving, Henry James, Mary McCarthy, Marianne Moore, Barbara W. Tuchman, Kurt Vonnegut, and Richard Wright.

A previous post from the Hall of Fame ceremony:
Langdon Hammer on Hart Crane

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