History Lessons

The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam

by Barbara W. Tuchman
Knopf, 447 pp., $18.95

Barbara W. Tuchman is our foremost popular historian, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and a best-selling author. She has achieved this popular success by writing good traditional narratives on numerous subjects from the origins of World War I and Stilwell’s mission to China to fourteenth-century Europe. She writes history, she once said, not “to instruct but to tell a story.”

The professional historians have often given Tuchman a bad time in reviews. They have made her feel that she is something less than a professional, and she justly resents it. She does not like being called an “amateur” by all the “professionals” who have graduate training, advanced degrees, and university positions. She prefers, she said in a 1981 collection of her essays covering her career, to recognize the difference between them and her “by distinguishing between academics and independents, or between scholars and writers, rather than between professionals and amateurs.” She may not have a Ph.D., but she is as much of a pro as the professors are, and rather more so if making a living by your work is any criterion of being professional. She can communicate with a willing readership, which is more than the professors can do. “When you write for the public you have to be clear and you have to be interesting.” The professors have too many captive audiences, first with their dissertation supervisors, then with their students in lecture halls. They really do not know how “to capture and hold the interest of an audience.”

And the reason the professors cannot capture an audience, wrote Tuchman in 1966, is that they do not know how to tell a story. They believe storytelling is “old-fashioned.” They are too much caught up in “interdisciplinary techniques,” in “subjects such as demography,” and in “the computerized mechanics of quantification.” Their efforts are directed “toward uncovering underlying patterns in history and human behavior which presumably might help in understanding the past and managing the future, or even the present.” They want history, in other words, to be a science, which means that they want it “to be utilitarian and teach us lessons.”

In the 1960s Tuchman had only scorn for such efforts to make history a science. “History,” she said back then, “has a way of escaping attempts to imprison it in patterns.” Human behavior has too many variables to be susceptible to the scientific method, and “reliable patterns, or what are otherwise called the lessons of history, remain elusive.” Systems and theories therefore should not be imposed on the past. The facts of the past should be allowed to speak for themselves. Why did history have to teach lessons anyway? “Why,” she asked with some exasperation, “cannot history be studied and written and read for its own sake, as the record of human behavior…?” History is not a science, it is an art. History needs writers, or artists, who can communicate the past to readers, and that has been Tuchman’s calling. Her “form,” she said …

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Letters

In Praise of Folly October 11, 1984