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Barbara Tuchman's opening lines

March 7, 2012 | 12:40 pm

Barbaratuchman_loaYears ago, when I was clerking on the foreign desk of the Los Angeles Times, my reading list was compiled from works recommended by various men on the desk (in those days, the editing staff was largely a male bastion).  One of the editors, an urbane, dapper gentleman, had been a correspondent In Latin America before returning to the home office for editing work. The new journalism or literary journalism (or whatever you want to call it) was just gaining a foothold at The Times in those days but my colleague was having none of it. He wrote concisely and precisely and was of the less-is-more school of journalism.

But that isn't to say he didn't appreciate fine writing. He was fond of -- and perhaps still is -- the works of Graham Greene and V.S. Naipaul,  and he recommended many of their books. He thought John Le Carre's "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" was masterful and loved "Smiley's People," the first and third installments of  "The Karla Trilogy." (He was disappointed, as many were, with the middle book: "The Honourable Schoolboy.") But in my recollection the book that really captured his imagination -- the one he would mention time and again some 15 years after its publication -- was Barbara Tuchman's "The Guns of August." He would declare that the opening paragraph of this book -- which describes the dramatic first weeks of World War I -- was impeccable. (The rest of the book was excellent too, he thought.)

And, of course, I bought the book, read it and would agree with him that, yes, this was an exceptional opening. 

What brings this all to mind is the Library of America's release last week of "The Guns of August" in a single edition with another of Tuchman's books, "The Proud Tower," her work detailing the quarter-century of events in Europe before World War I. The volume is edited by Barbara MacMillan, the author of "Paris, 1919" and currently the warden of St. Antony's College at Oxford University.

Tuchman becomes just the third historian -- the other two are Francis Parkman and Henry Adams -- to have her work published by the Library of America in its 30 years of publishing some of the finest writers in American history.

With neither a graduate degree or academic post, Tuchman was a self-made historian at a time when there were relatively few women in the field. Of her lack of an advanced degree she said, "It's what saved me. If I had taken a doctoral degree, it would have stifled any writing capacity," which the New York Times observed in reporting her death at 77 in 1989.

She was born Barbara Wertheim in New York on Jan. 30, 1912. Her father was an investment banker and her mother was the sister of Henry Morgenthau, who would become Secretary of the Treasury under Franklin D. Roosevelt.

After graduating from Radcliffe with a degree in history and literature in 1933, she worked for the American Council of the Institute of Pacific Relations. In 1934, she went to Japan to help work on an economic handbook of the Pacific and wrote for two journals, Far Eastern Survey and Pacific Affairs.

She later went to work for The Nation, which her father had bought to keep the magazine from going bankrupt. In 1937, she covered the Spanish Civil War, traveling to Valencia and Madrid. She married Dr. Lester Reginald Tuchman in 1939 and the couple started a family. After World War II, she began writing histories as her time as a wife and mother allowed.

"When the children were small," she once recalled in an interview, "I worked in the morning only and then gradually, as they spent full days at school, I could spend full days at work. I could never have done any of this work if I hadn't been able to afford domestic help. "

Over the next 40years, she published nine books. Published in 1962, "The Guns of August" earned the best critical response by winning a Pulitzer Prize. She would receive a second Pulitzer years later for "Stillwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45," her book on  Gen. Joseph Stillwell, the tough-minded U.S. Army officer who had a key role in Chiang Kai-shek's China during World War II.

None of her books, however, have quite the impact  as the opening lines of "The Guns of August." Chapter 1 is titled "A Funeral":

 So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens--four dowager and three regnant--and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history's clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.

-- Jon Thurber, book editor


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Image: Barbara Tuchman's "Guns of August" and "The Proud Tower." Credit: Library of America