Book review: Barbara Tuchman's 'The Guns of August' showed the end of the old world

2012-08-04T23:00:00Z 2015-01-22T14:30:30Z Book review: Barbara Tuchman's 'The Guns of August' showed the end of the old worldBy CHARLES STEPHAN / For the Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

Today's program looks back 50 years to 1962 when Barbara Tuchman's magnificent book "The Guns of August" was published.

And we also look back to a century ago, 1912, the year that Tuchman was born. So today we mark both anniversaries.

Tuchman, who died in 1989, was not an academic historian; indeed, her formal higher education did not go beyond an undergraduate degree from Radcliffe College.

She didn't start out at Radcliffe, but at Swarthmore. When she realized that because she was Jewish she automatically would be excluded from a sorority there, she transferred to Radcliffe.

She was born in New York City, and one of her grandfathers was Henry Morgenthau Sr., who was our ambassador to Turkey during the First World War. One of her uncles was Henry Morgenthau Jr., who was FDR's Secretary of the Treasury for more than 12 years.

In her early years she traveled widely, living in England for a year in the late 1930s and later in Japan and China. She regarded herself, in her words, "as a writer whose subject is history." She said she didn't miss not having a Ph.D. and noted, for all who might object -- and some did -- that neither did Herodotus, Gibbon, Thucydides or Parkman. She even wrote that what saved her as a writer was not having a Ph.D., that "the requirements of conventional academic life can stultify imagination, stifle enthusiasm and deaden prose style."

One need not agree, but it is clear that as a writer of history she had great enthusiasm for her subject and that her prose style was first-rate. She once said that her ultimate objective "was to make the reader turn the page." A good many readers turned the page when they first opened "The Guns of August."

Her opening paragraph, she later said, took her a whole day to write. Here it is:

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-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.

Who would not turn the page? The book told the story of the events that led to the First World War and of the first months of the war itself. It would win Tuchman the Pulitzer Prize, but not for history. The Pulitzer Committee, forbidden by the donor's will to reward a book of history on a non-American subject, decided to award her the prize for General Nonfiction.

No matter. The book was an immediate commercial and scholarly success, and I think it fair to say that every book of hers that followed -- and there were to be eight -- also were highly successful. One of them, "Stillwell and the American Experience in China" won her a second Pulitzer, this time for history.

Her writing style captures the reader as do her insights into character. Near the beginning of the book, she writes:

The Czar, neither well endowed mentally, nor very well educated, was, in the Kaiser's opinion, "only fit to live in a country house and grow turnips."

And later we find this:

Joffre looked like Santa Claus and gave an impression of benevolence and naivete -- two qualities not noticeably part of his character.

This is not so much about the war as it is a book about what led up to the war. Bismarck had seen the conflict before it began, predicting that the next war would occur "because of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans."

It is of interest that nearly half a century later, President John F. Kennedy, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, would refer to Tuchman's just-published book and tell his attorney general that, "I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time and call it "The Missiles of October."

Noting this double anniversary I looked for my copy of "The Guns of August" and found a 95-cent Dell paperback with print that must have grown smaller over the years.

But in a trip to a used book store, I found a 1994 trade paper edition. This spring The Library of America has published a new edition, and combined it with her 1966 book "The Proud Tower."

Charles Stephan is host of "All About Books" on NET Radio.

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