The Wall St. Journal has published a review of the œuvre of Barbara Tuchman, author of The Guns of August and one of the most engaging historians of her generation (Mrs. Tuchman passed in 1989). I almost wrote “most engaging popular historians” but hesitated, realizing that “popular” remains a derisory term in certain quarters. I doubt Mrs. Tuchman would have objected to being called popular, much to her credit.
The review–penned by Bruce Cole, former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities during the younger Bush Administration–exhorts intellectuals to abandon the inscrutable and impenetrable style that dominates in graduate schools and to write more for the educated public:
Now, to return to Tuchman’s point about the virtues of not pursuing a doctorate in history: Is a Ph.D.—the union card for the professorate—a hindrance to approaching history as Tuchman did?
Alas, the answer is likely “yes.” The years-long slog of course work, exams and the laborious, footnote-laden dissertation—written strictly to be read by other scholars—have a way of hard-wiring habits of the mind that are difficult to overcome. A few academically trained scholars do survive the tyranny of their doctorates and reach a wide reading audience. But inside the Ivory Tower, where most historians dwell, professors write books, articles, and conference papers for other professors, and mainly for those colleagues toiling in the same small subset of the past.
In A Superfluous Man‘s estimation, we have a good few popular historians to carry Tuchman’s torch, Niall Ferguson for one, as well as a number of excellent long-form journalists who fill a similar role (see, e.g., Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001). So long as purist academics continue to contemplate their post-modern navels, there will always be a market for history aimed at the unpretentiously curious.