Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Proud Tower

Although I don't find much time to read anything but work-related materials, I do enjoy books on tape during my long commute. I especially like to listen to works on history, a topic I studied relatively little when in school. Allow me to praise one I listened to recently: Barbara W. Tuchman, The Proud Tower, (1966), a history of Europe and the U.S. prior to W.W.I.

If you have heard of Tuchman, you probably know her as the author of the splendid book, The Guns of August (1962). Tuchman allegedly declined to call herself "a historian," instead describing herself as someone who wrote about history. Granted, she didn't have a Ph.D. in the subject. (I don't think she called herself "an historian," either. Her mastery of American English would alone have ruled out that.) But she knew how to nail the facts, write clearly, and craft a compelling narrative. Would that all history Ph.Ds could do as much!

I enjoyed The Proud Tower in part because it refreshed and enriched what few things I'd already learned about "the gilded age." In Tuchman's account, Grover Cleveland shines forth as a champion of liberty and a brilliant president. We, his all-too-few fans, already saw him that way, of course. How nice, though, to have Tuchman's second!

Tuchman gives Teddy Roosevelt a fair shake, which inevitably dislodges the bullshit that apparently filled him to the gills. Just one example: His service in the famed Rough Riders, on which Roosevelt pinned much of his claim to military glory, had him in Cuba for all of 47 days. I'll grant that Roosevelt had some virtues. Tuchman helped me remember why, though, I've always regarded him as, on net, an execrable opportunist, fraud, and blowhard.

In most respects, though, The Proud Tower caught me completely unawares. For instance, it taught me (albeit at rather more length that I might have liked) why the Dreyfus affair played so important a role in French, and ultimately European, history. Without Tuchman's explanation, I'd have continued viewing it as little more than the prosecution of a Jewish army officer. Tuchman also introduced me to Speaker of the House, Thomas B. Reed. She sympathetically portrayed Reed as a master parliamentarian, a mordant wit, and—most impressively—as a principled opponent of U.S. imperialism (see "Teddy Roosevelt, execrable," supra).


Jeff Brown said...

Is that "the proud tower" or "the high tower"?

Tom W. Bell said...

Whoops! The former, Jeff. Thanks; I'll fix the post.