Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Swarthmore, Delaware County
A Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author of The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman spent a year at Swarthmore.
Awards: Pulitzer Prize
Barbara Tuchman was an American historian renowned for her dramatic histories. Born Barbara Wertheim in New York City on January 30, 1912, she graduated from Radcliffe College in 1933 and soon afterwards began a career as a journalist, only later moving on to history. Fame—and the first of her two Pulitzer Prizes—arrived with the 1962 publication of her account of the start of World War I, The Guns of August. While looking after her children and writing, she also found time to lecture at Harvard and the U.S. Naval War College, among other institutions. Barbara Tuchman died of complications arising from a stroke on February 6, 1989.
Barbara Wertheim was born on January 30, 1912, in New York City, the newest addition to an already renowned family. Her grandfather had been President Wilson’s ambassador to Turkey and Mexico; her uncle, President Roosevelt’s secretary of the treasury; and her father, a successful banker and respected philanthropist. With such a family behind her, she was well on her way to becoming what she critically termed in Newsweek “just a Park Avenue matron.” After matriculating from the preparatory Walden School, she enrolled at Swarthmore College in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, in order to pursue interests of her own. Unfortunately, to her dismay, her distinguished ancestry worked against her at this respected institution; at the time, Swarthmore’s fraternities and sororities did not welcome Jews in Greek life. After this brief stay in Pennsylvania, she transferred to Radcliffe College, graduating in 1933. Due to the stock market crash of 1929, paying jobs were difficult to find. Following an assistantship at the Institute of Pacific Relations, however, she managed to secure a job at the Nation, a newspaper her father owned. As a foreign correspondent, she covered the Spanish Civil War from both London and Madrid, an experience that provided the background for her first book, The Lost British Policy: Britain and Spain since 1700. The outbreak of further violence in Europe—World War II—brought her back to New York City. Once settled, she met Lester Tuchman, a physician, and the two were wed in 1940. The demands of her wartime job at the Office of War Information, and new role as a mother, however, stifled her strong desire to write. It was not until after World War II that she would embark upon her career in earnest. Although she would receive honorary Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.) degrees from prestigious institutions such as Yale, Harvard, and Columbia in her later life, Mrs. Tuchman did not attend graduate school, a decision she never regretted. “It’s what saved me, I think,” she said in the New York Times. “If I had taken a doctoral degree, it would have stifled any writing capacity.” Indeed, it was her writing capacity—her ability to grab a reader and not let go—that secured her fame. An example of this facility with language can be found in her 1979 book lecture at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. As she intended, the technical ability and flowing prose act silently. One cannot help feeling that its guardians sometimes miss the point of literature, which is not to cut gems of flashing and exquisite rarity but to communicate, to convey a meaning, an art, a story, a fantasy, even a mystery, to someone. The writer must have a reader as the yin must have a yang. Literature does not exist in a vacuum; indeed, if it is not read, like music without listeners, it cannot be said to exist at all. As the war ended and the demands of her role as a mother increased, Tuchman found it increasingly difficult to write. Raising three daughters—Lucy, Jessica, and Alma—she had to fight against a stereotype of women that was prevalent at the time; professionally, she found it difficult to be taken seriously. “If you’re an ordinary female housewife,” she said, again quoted in the New York Times, “people say, ‘This [writing] is just something Barbara wanted to do; it’s not professional.’” She managed to continue, however, and soon found great success. Indeed, her 1962 book The Guns of August, a work detailing the beginning days of World War I, won the Pulitzer Prize. Similarly, her style allowed her to bridge the gap between academic and popular histories; she related complex events and trends in a dramatic and readable manner, a skill which fueled her popularity. In doing this, Tuchman was always careful to inhabit the time of her subjects, leaving the twentieth century behind. “These labels [sexist, racist, imperialist],” she said of some historians’ modern judgments of past events in her printed lecture The Book, “represent attitudes of our time, and it is quite absurd, not to say unhistorical, to apply them retroactively.” Although her fame increased with the publication of further works (Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945 earned her a second Pulitzer), she always maintained the highest and humblest respect for the written word. In fact, she delivered one of the first lectures endorsed by the Library of Congress’ new Center for the Book. “Without books,” she said, “history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill... Books are humanity in print.” In her later years, Mrs. Tuchman left New York City for the peace of Cos Cob, Connecticut, where she became a commentator on American culture. It was at her home here that she suffered a stroke; she died on February 6, 1989 in nearby Greenwich, Connecticut. She was 77-years-old. In addition to her two Pulitzers, Tuchman received many other honors. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences presented her with the gold medal for history; the Kingdom of Belgium, the Order of Leopold; and the State University of New York, the Regent Medal of Excellence—and this is but a sampling. In her later years she also lectured at Harvard and the U.S. Naval War College. By the time her obituary appeared on the front page of the February 7, 1989, New York Times, Mrs. Tuchman, without ever having attended graduate school, had served as a trustee of Radcliffe College and the New York Public Library, served as president of the Society of American Historians and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and published over a dozen histories. She was not, by all accounts, just another Park Avenue matron.
The Lost British Policy: Britain and Spain since 1700. London: United Editorial, 1938.
Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour. New York: Ballantine Books, 1956.
The Zimmerman Telegram. New York: Viking Press, 1958.
The Guns of August. New York: Macmillan, 1962.
The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World before the War, 1890-1914. New York: Macmillan, 1966.
Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945. New York: Macmillan, 1970.
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century. New York: Knopf, 1978.
The First Salute — A View of the American Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1988.
Practicing History. New York: Knopf, 1981.
Notes from China. New York: Collier Books, 1972.
The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. New York: Knopf, 1984.
“Barbara Tuchman.” The Annual Obituary 1989. Ed. Deborah Andrews. Chicago: St. James Press, 1990.
“Barbara W(ertheim)Tuchman.” The Gale Literary Database: Contemporary Authors Online. 2004. 2005. <>http://www.galenet.com>.
Pace, Eric. “Barbara Tuchman Dead at 77; A Pulitzer-Winning Historian.” New York Times 7 Feb. 1989, late ed.: A1.
Tuchman, Barbara. The Book. Washington: Library of Congress, 1980.