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Learning from the Best

One of our daughters recently asked my wife and me to accompany her to a library book sale. She was looking specifically for good children's books for her two daughters, both of whom are learning to enjoy reading early. One is in first grade, the other in second. I tagged along, vowing not to buy anything. I was there merely to lend my approval and encouragement to my granddaughters' growing addiction to reading.

While my wife and daughter rummaged through the stacks of books, I roamed the crowded room and kept an eye on my granddaughters. At some point while I was being tugged along by a tiny hand hanging onto my finger, my eye glimpsed a sign indicating a small stack of books labeled "History" amid the mass of fiction titles. I couldn't resist the siren call. I paused to flip hurriedly through the uninteresting (to me) titles, until one book caught my eye, not because of its title but because I recognized the author's name: Barbara Tuchman.


Because much of my reading involves military history, her name was already familiar to me. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Guns of August is an oft-quoted classic about the runup to and first month of World War I. I haven't read the book because it doesn't deal with my eras of interest, but I readily recognized her much-respected name.

The title of the book by Tuchman that caught my eye, however, wasn't The Guns of August but Practicing History. Resisting the energetic and impatient tuggings of my granddaughter, I flipped through the pages of the book, reading the chapter titles. They convinced me that I had to have that book.


Spying a chair on one side of the room, almost in the corner and out of way of what Thomas Gray famously referred to as "the madding crowd" of bibliophiles, I convinced my granddaughter that we needed to sit quietly for a few moments while I took a closer look at the book. Those fleeting moments convinced me that I had found a pearl of great price--and at only a dollar. Reading it later only confirmed my initial valuation.


In Practicing History, Tuchman first told and then showed, through examples of her own writing, how to "do history." It all begins with a love of what one is studying. She wrote that "it is this quality of being in love with your subject that is indispensable for writing good history--or good anything, for that matter." There must be in the would-be historian a "compulsion to write," and not only that but also a "desire to be read."


Tuchman then described the process that one must follow in one's writing of history. "The first [step] is to distill," doing "the preliminary work" of gathering the information, analyzing it, selecting what information to include and what to leave out (because one simply can't include it all), arranging the essential information, and then creating "a dramatic narrative." While doing all this, the historian must "stay within the evidence." Going beyond the information is merely fiction writing, and that's not history.


But the most impressive thing I learned about Tuchman and her "doing" of history was not so much her process of writing, her erudition, or the many awards her writing has won her. It was the fact that she did not have any advanced degree in history. She was a non-academic historian.


That fact set me to reflecting upon the fact that many of my favorite writers of history were, in fact, not professionally trained to be historians. Neither did they hold exalted tenured positions in universities. They were, however, great writers who loved and wrote well about history.

Take, for example, a man I've written about before in this blog (see https://www.dennislpeterson.com/post/reflections-on-the-work-and-life-of-david-mccullough)--David McCullough. His degree was in English, not history. He had no special training in history. Yet, he wrote riveting history. He won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for his book Truman and another for his biography John Adams. He wrote for the average reader who had an interest in history, not for academics. Time and space do not permit me to enumerate his many other prizes and awards. Suffice it to say he was a good writer and a good historian, and yet a non-academic.

And then there's Winston Churchill. He is known as an icon of history for his role as prime minister of England in World War II and a prophet of the Cold War that followed on the heels of that conflict. But he was also a master writer of history, authoring numerous volumes, including The Gathering Storm, Their Finest Hour, The Grand Alliance, The Hinge of Fate, Closing the Ring, and Triumph and Tragedy.


And, of course, Tuchman herself, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, one for the aforementioned The Guns of August and another for Stillwell and the American Experience in China. She averaged a new book every four years. And she did not have an advanced degree in history.


But all of these authors had several things in common. They loved their subjects. They enjoyed doing research and discovering facts. And they were compelled to share those discoveries in writing so that others could enjoy them too. Moreover, they stayed within the evidence. And the prizes they won attest to the fact that others acknowledged them as true historians although none was an academic. Perhaps that is why so many academics were jealous of their publishing successes and consequent fame and looked down upon them because of their lack of academic credentials.


I have no illusions of being as great a writer as those historians. But their example can inspire and encourage me and every other non-academic, independent historian to keep on "practicing history" as it was meant to be done. If they could do it, I--and you--with effort and determination, can, too!

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