How an acclaimed historian dusts the cobwebs off the past; Practicing History: Selected Essays, by Barbara W. Tuchman. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $16.50.
There are some things one does, I was told when I was growing up in England, and some things one does not do. One of the things one did not do was talk shop at the dinner table; polite conversation was "general" conversation. Ever since , I have been trying to make up for all the shop talk I missed. Now along comes Barbara Tuchman, who is not only eager to share her trade secrets but does it in a most entertaining way. For instance, she shows us how anecdotes rescue historical figures from the misty past, wife off the cobwebs, and present them as real people.
The birthday present Kaiser Wilhelm II gave his wife is a good example. Every year without fail he presented her with 12 hats -- hats he had chosen himself and which she was obliged to wear. That, says Mrs. Tuchman -- and I agree with her -- reveals something about the Kaiser and the Germany of his day.
When she was researching for her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Stilwell and the American Experience in China," a strip of film brought the general to life for her; it showed him "lying in the dust next to a Chinese soldier at the Ramgarh training ground and demonstrating how to handle a rifle. . . ."
She likes to get us involved in the quiet excitement of sleuthing for facts and atmospheres and even weather in old documents, in people's memories, in films, and even in novels and paintings.Thanks to Proust, for instance, "you can see Paris of the nineties, horse cabs and lamplight, the clubman making his calls in white gloves stitched in black and gray top hat lined in green leather."
A painter provided the inspiration for one of Miss Tuchman's books. In his portrait of Lord Ribblesdale, John Singer Sargent captured a glimpse of "such natural arrogance, elegance and self-confidence as no man of a later day would ever achieve." This attitude and the reason for its disappearance intrigued Miss Tuchman, and from her curiosity grew her book "Proud Tower.'
"Practicing History" is not just about writing history. Or even about reading history with newly opened eyes. What she has to say applies to all forms of communication and to both the giver and the receiver of it.
She tells about Catherine Drinker Bowen, who has a sign over her desk: "Will the reader turn the page?"; quotes Lytton Strachey's aim, "The exclusion of everything that is redundant and nothing that is redundant and nothing that is significant"; considers Emerson's use of telling words in "By the rude bridge . . ." and asks you to imagine "how it must feel to have composed those lines."
Now that I have made it clear how much I enjoy "Practicing History," it seems safe to say what I don't like. Perhaps it is unreasonable to want an index in such a short, conversational type book, but i do. And I shouldn't complain because the book is what its subtitle says it is: "Selected Essays." But "The Yield" and "Learning from History" never come up to the standard of "The Craft." There are exceptions -- the obvious one being a Jefferson lecture that lives up to its heartening title, "Mankind's Better Moments."
But despite the chapter or two that I find disappointing, I would still apply to "Practiing History" Charles Lamb's praise of Izaak Walton's "Compleat Angler": "It would sweeten any man's temper to read it."