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A Week to Remember: Barbara W. Tuchman

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
American self-trained historian and author Barbara Tuchman

Barbara W. Tuchman was born on January 30, 1912. Tuchman was a writer of popular history whose goal was to make history accessible and entertaining to the non-historian. Her output was small, fewer than a dozen books, but her work has remained popular decades after its original publication.

Tuchman did not do original historical research and had no advanced degrees in history. She had studied history as an undergraduate at Radcliffe, but she believed that had she gone on to graduate study, she might have gotten locked into the formal style required of academic writing and been less able to write for the layman. Tuchman's mission was not to make new historical discoveries but to gather the best research available on a specific topic or era and present it to the public in a way that they would enjoy. She saw herself as a storyteller.

World War I was a frequent subject for Tuchman, and she received the Pulitzer Prize in 1963 for The Guns of August (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), a detailed look at the political environment of Europe in the years leading up to the war, and the military battles of the war's first month. She returned to the era in 1966 with The Proud Tower (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), a collection of essays on various aspects of political and cultural life in Europe in the quarter-century before the war.

three book covers by Barbara Tuchman

Tuchman was awarded a second Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45 (e-book | e-audio | print | audio). The book is both a history of China from the 1911 Revolution (which overthrew the last Emperor and established the Republic of China) through World War II and a biography of Joseph Stilwell, the United States Army general who served in China for much of that period. That book was followed by Notes from China (e-book | print), essays collecting Tuchman's observations about contemporary life in China after her own visit there.

In 1978, Tuchman ventured further back in time with A Distant Mirror (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), which covered not only the historical events of the 14th century but offered a look at what daily life was like in the era for social classes from peasant to noble. It was one of her most popular books and received the National Book Award for History.

In the introduction of A Distant Mirror, Tuchman noted that we tend to imagine that the average life of previous eras was much worse than it actually was. The calamities are passed down to us as part of history, and the mundane daily events are not. From that observation came what she called Tuchman's Law: "The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold."

Tuchman's other work includes Bible and Sword (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), on the history of British involvement in the Middle East; Practicing History (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), a collection of essays on the craft of the historian; The March of Folly (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), exploring political and military mistakes from the Trojan War to Vietnam; and The First Salute (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), a history of the American Revolution.

Also This Week

February 3, 1894

Norman Rockwell was born. For 60 years, Rockwell was one of America's best-known artists, a specialist in sentimental portrayals of traditional American family life. He is best remembered for two long professional relationships: Between 1913 and 1976, he provided illustrations for the Boy Scouts of America—pamphlets, magazines, and a series of 52 calendars—and between 1916 and 1963, Rockwell painted more than 300 cover illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post. The Post illustrations are gathered in 332 Magazine Covers (e-book | print).

January 31, 1902

Tallulah Bankhead was born. Bankhead was among the most popular Broadway actresses of the 1930s and 1940s, praised for her performances in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes and Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth. She made relatively few films, of which Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat is the best known. Bankhead was famous for her flamboyant personality and sharp wit, and infamous for her unapologetic sex life; she once described herself as "pure as the driven slush." Joel Lobenthal's Tallulah! (e-book | print) is a thorough biography.

January 28, 1929

Acker Bilk was born. Bilk was among the few British musicians to top the American charts before the arrival of The Beatles. The melancholy 1962 instrumental "Stranger on the Shore" featured Bilk's breathy clarinet. Bilk never repeated that success in the United States, but continued to perform in England well into his eighties. He described "Stranger on the Shore" as "my old-age pension," but did say that after fifty years of performing the song, he was "fed up" with it.

February 1, 1960

College students Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and David Richmond sat at the whites-only Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina and ordered coffee. The four African-American men were refused service. The next day, they were joined by 20 more students. These were not the first sit-ins of the civil rights era—the tactic went back at least to the late 1930s—but they caught public attention in a way that early protests had not, and by June, sit-ins had spread to dozens of southern cities. The documentary February One tells the story of the Greensboro sit-ins.