What Would Barbara Tuchman Say?

Our panicky short-attention span era could use Barbara Tuchman. For younger readers, Tuchman (1912-1989) was, arguably, the 20thcentury’s greatest popular historian. Her books about World War One, the Middle Ages, Israel, China, and the American revolution were paperback staples on the bookshelves of people like my baby boomer parents. Tuchman won two Pulitzers. When I was a book-gobbling teenager, my dad told me to read her, and I did.

Beyond commanding the stories of different ages, Tuchman was a deep and refreshing thinker about the current events of her day, like Watergate and Vietnam, the news in general, and her dancing crafts of writer and historian, as I rediscovered this week when I dug back into some of her books, to prepare for speeches this spring to students, teachers and union organizers about Moundsville, and related questions about journalism, perceptions of history and public discourse.

What’s so enchanting about Tuchman is that her imagination and prose match her command of the facts, and that she seems to never fall into easy generalizations, ideological traps, or nostalgia.

As “Tuchman’s Law”, she posited that “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold”, and pointed out that “persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of the disturbance.”

Persistence of the normal. If you’re looking for refuge from spiraling news madness, take a deep breathe and meditate on that one.

In her forward to A Distant Mirror, her classic account of 14thcentury France, Tuchman reminds us that “No age is tidy or made of whole cloth” and that breakdowns and rebirths are normal.

When the gap between ideal and real becomes too wide, the system breaks down. Legend and story have always reflected this; in the Arthurian romances the Round Table is shattered from within. The sword is returned to the lake; the effort begins anew. Violent, destructive, greedy, fallible as he may be, man retains his vision of order and resumes his search.

In her classic 1966 essay, “The Historian as Artist”, Barbara Tuchman takes up the argument that “when you write for the public you have to be clear and you have to be interesting.” She assails the term “nonfiction” – “as if it were some sort of remainder.”

I do not feel like a Non-something; I feel quite specific. I wish I could think of a name in place of “Nonfiction.” In the hope of finding an antonym I looked up “Fiction” in Webster and found it defined as opposed to “Fact, Truth and Reality”. I thought for a while of adopting FTR, standing for Fact, Truth and Reality, as my new term, but it is awkward to use. “Writer of Reality” is the nearest I can come to what I want, but I cannot very well call us “Realtors” because that has been pre-empted—although as a matter of fact I would like to. “Real Estate”, when you come to think of it, is a very fine phrase and it is exactly the sphere that writers of nonfiction deal in: the real estate of man, of human conduct. I wish we could get it back from the dealers in land. Then the categories could be poets, novelists, and realtors.

A good historian is an artist: “What the artist has is an extra vision and an inner vision plus the ability to express it.”

This is what Monet does in one of those shimmering rivers reflecting poplars, or El Greco in the stormy sky over Toledo, or Jane Austen compressing a whole society into Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Lady Catherine, and Mr. Darcy. We realtors, at least those of us who aspire to write literature, do the same thing. Lytton Strachey perceived a truth about Queen Victoria and the Eminent Victorians, and the style and form which he created to portray what he saw have changed the whole approach to biography since his time. Rachel Carson perceived truth about the seashore or the silent spring, Thoreau about Walden Pond, De Tocqueville and James Bryce about America, Gibbon about Rome, Karl Marx about Capital, Carlyle about the French Revolution. Their work is based on study, observation, and accumulation of fact, but does anyone suppose that these realtors did not make use of their imagination? Certainly they did; that is what gave them their extra vision.

Tuchman anticipated the analytics revolution, and saw the downside in relying on artificial intelligence to tell stories and analyze history. In a 1966 speech to the Chicago Historical Society, she mused about doing her work “in the midst of the electronic age when computers are already chewing at the skirts of history in the process called Quantification.”

Applied to history, quantification, I believe, has its limits. It depends on a method called “data manipulation”, which means that the facts, or data, or the historical past—that is, of human behavior, are manipulated into named categories so that they can be programmed into computers. Out comes – hopefully – a pattern. I can only tell you that for history “data manipulation” is a built-in invalidator, because to the degree that you manipulate your data to suit some extraneous requirement, in this case the requirement od the machine, to that degree your results will be suspect – and run the risk of being invalid. Everything depends on the naming of the categories and the assigning of the facts to them, and this depends on the quantifier’s individual judgment at the very base of the process. The categories are not revealed doctrine nor are the results scientific truth.

Humans will always be unpredictable, she concludes:

The eager electronic optimists will go on chopping up man’s past behavior into thousands of little definable segments which they call Input, and the machines will whirr and buzz and flash its lights and in no time at all will give back Output. But will Output be dependable? I would lay ten to one that history will pay no more attention to Output than it did to Karl Marx. It will still need historians. Electronics will have its uses, but it will not, I am confident, transform historians into button-pushers or history into a system.

As we push back against the temptation to do nothing but harvest data and wait for Output, reading Tuchman is a reminder that there is a persistent path to normal in writing and reading, and sober tellings of the paths that have led us here.

John W. Miller

One comment

  1. This essay seems to me an example of the virtues it commends Tuchman for. I am currently reading “A Distant Mirror” and thinking it, like the story of Joseph Welsh and Joe McCarthy, should also be a proximate mirror for our Mitch McConnells, Nietzsche’s Last Man who has sunk so low that he is no longer even capable of despising himself. Tuchman’s parade of fools and their follies enchants me beyond listening to DJT and hearing Joe Biden refer to him a “The fool”, on CNN. Would that The fool only existed as words on a printed page! But I do keep finding myself, as I read Tuchman, wanting to ask her: “Ms. Tuchman, I wonder how I can square your First Law with the Holocaust.” Maybe I’m missing something? Best wishes.

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