Sunday, December 05, 2004

Tuchman, Practicing History (Rachel)

Rachel Moe
Barbara Tuchman, Practicing History
Published 1981, 306 pages

Practicing History is a collection of essays by Pulitzer prize-winning historian Barbara Tuchman. The first section of Tuchman’s book is titled The Craft and emphasizes the various aspects of historical writing. The second section, titled The Yield, is a collection of her historical essays while the third section, Learning from History, touches upon the premise that history is not quantifiable. Tuchman writes for the general reader and is not concerned with the writing and research process used by the academic world. Her approach is refreshing and she gives valuable guidance on writing. Tuchman’s tips for writing historical accounts are of interest to me, because I will probably conduct a historical analysis of some aspect of the Hispanic media as part of my applied project.

In Practicing History, Tuchman dismisses any notion of pure objectivity and says that there is no such thing as a neutral or objective historian. She hesitates to answer the question as to whether her book offers any philosophy of history. She believes that philosophies “contain a risk for the historian of being tempted to manipulate his facts in the interest of his system, which results in histories stronger in ideology than in ‘how it really was.’” She does believe that the material must precede the thesis because the result will be invalid if it is written from hindsight instead of what was known and believed at the time.

Tuchman emphasizes the importance of using primary resources such as private diaries, letters, messages, and reports. She believes using secondary sources, other than to gain initial knowledge of a subject, is rewriting someone else’s book. She believes it is important to know when to stop researching and to have the ability to discard irrelevant information, because the selection of material determines the ultimate product. As a historian, it is important not only to be enthralled with the subject but also to know how to “communicate the magic.” Although research provides material and theory, she thinks that it is through communication that history is heard and understood. Tuchman gives numerous tips for writing history and uses selected essays to exemplify her advice.

Tuchman believes history is not quantifiable and she is suspicious of prefabricated systems of history. The systematizers “arrange systems and cycles into which history must be squeezed so that it will come out evenly and have pattern and a meaning.” She does not think history is a science because man is what she calls the “Unknowable Variable.” Human behavior is not predicable and illogical and includes a number of variables that are “not susceptible of the scientific method nor of systematizing.” It is impossible to isolate or repeat a given set of circumstances in history, which makes it difficult to use history as a way to predict future events.

Tuchman’s book has given me insight into the process of writing a historical analysis, which will be invaluable to me when I begin my own research. Her self-proclaimed lack of higher education (beyond her bachelor’s degree) gives her writing an interesting perspective that the academic world does not have. This perspective has allowed me to see the downfalls of trying to quantify history and the importance of communicating history clearly and concisely.

Many of Tuchman’s thoughts parallel Foucault in his book The Order of Things. For instance, the classification of history into systems and the idea that history is not a science are both topics Foucault examines. Tuchman also discusses the impact of narrative and the power of language, which are topics we have touched upon in class. Overall, in Practicing History, Tuchman shares an interesting and practical perspective about historical writing. Although we will never be able to escape biases and actually write an accurate account of “history”, we can continue creating stories that may give people a glimpse of the past, even if it is based upon the interpretation of the historian.


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