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Pleasant style hides lack of historical judgment
on 11 May 2009
The "Proud Tower" is one of Barbara Tuchman's many popular historical works. The Ballantine (mass paperback) edition is a reprint of the 1966 original, probably made because Tuchman's pleasant and accessible writing style has guaranteed excellent sales on all her books. In this particular work, she sets out to describe how the late Victorian period (indicated here as roughly 1890-1914) was not a time of peace and progress, as is often the way it is portrayed in the most simple and shallow of historical descriptions such as those in high schools, but in reality a period of upheaval and tension, making World War I rather a climax than a sudden break.
But it is here also that the content does not merit the style. Tuchman clearly has a good knowledge of her subject and a popular historian's love for storytelling, but what mars her project is her obvious bias and unfairness towards some of the subjects she writes about. For example, her first chapter, on the British upper class, pays absolutely no attention to any of the striking class differences of the time, to the role of Labour leaders, to the economic basis on which the British rentier system was based, etc.
On the contrary, all we are given is some sixty pages meant to convey the utterly clich?d conservative message: that the British aristocracy was perhaps a little far detached from current events, but nevertheless their leisure allowed them to rule the country well thanks to the virtues of upper class education and their lack of "greed".
The same approach is taken towards the other end of the spectrum, in this case incidentally in the next chapter, where Tuchman discusses the anarchist movements. At no point is she willing to even entertain the idea that the anarchists might have had legitimate ideas and that perhaps the lack of enfranchisement and opportunities was a cause for their, admittedly, radical and violent approach. Oh no. Instead the reader is bombarded with phrases such as "the Idea", "the bomb was to be the Messiah", "throbbing with the consciousness of Martyrdom", etc. etc. At each and every turn Tuchman takes her time to discredit every lower class attempt at lashing back, to speak her contempt for the ideals of young, suffering people ("a rebellious soul", "a highly excitable nature"), and to underline how much she hates the idea of revolution even if it is from the horrors of industrial age capitalism and hardly or not at all democratic states ("his goal, like his hate, was generalized toward destruction", "[he] wrote wrathfully for the revolutionary press", "behind the poor foolish megalomania (...) glowed the Idea") and so on. Her own 'insight' into anarchism seems to be best represented by this callous quote: "One of them [the poor] with a sense of injury or a sense of mission, would rise up, go out and kill-and sacrifice his own life on the altar of the Idea". I am myself no anarchist, but her treatment of desperate people, so crushed by their society that they see no other way out than the violent overthrow of even the whole idea of governance, is nothing but cruel and stupefying.
Looking at the following chapters in the book proves this to be no accident. Her description of the transformation of the United States from an isolationist country to a more imperialist approach is positively gushing (expansionists being invariably described as "an adroit master of political strategy and tactics" and "shrewd, worldly, forceful" etc.), she blames the assassination of McKinley for ending attempts to block the negative sides of this imperialism (never anywhere mentioning McKinley's corruption and support for union busting etc.), and when by Chapter Five Tuchman was trying to explain how futile the attempts of the various Peace Conferences were and she describes one of the main expansionist thinkers, Admiral Mahan, as "trying to instruct the public to take an honest look at war", I had enough. Only the chapter about Dreyfus seemed untainted by her dubious look at history, although this is of course easy since the good and the bad side are quite clear to distinguish from hindsight in that particular affair.
This book may be fun for light reading and informative if you know little about the period, but I would not ever rely on it for an honest view of the people or events described in it. For that, it is simply too tainted by her constant awe for all aristocrats and her equally strong contempt for all attempts at political change. Progressive minded people, beware.