Tag Archives: Reading

Reading Barbara Tuchman

I post this from Worcester, Massachusetts, where I’m close to wrapping up my time doing research at the American Antiquarian Society.

Since that’s the case, you might be wondering, “Why is Jonathan posting about a European historian of the last generation?”

One of my secondary goals for my sabbatical has been to read books that are outside the normal circle of my professional interests in early American history.

For a number of years, I’ve wanted to take the time to read Barbara Tuchman, but I haven’t. My interest in Tuchman stretches back to my college days, when several of my European history professors mentioned her. One of them even used a Tuchman book as lighter reading for a 19th century Europe class. (Since I was auditing that class, I decided I needed to be reading other things at the end of a semester.)

In spare time this year, though, I plowed through both Tuchman’s The Proud Tower and her most famous work The Guns of August. They’ve actually been released together in a Library of America edition, which looks great but at over 1200 pages is a bit heavy to hold.

The Proud Tower is subtitled A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914. Tuchman believes that something as horrendous as the Great War doesn’t emerge out of serene circumstances. Thus, even though the early twentieth century seems in retrospect to have been a belle epoque, Tuchman wants to dig down and find the tumult below the surface. Of course, she doesn’t have far to look, from labor unrest to the anarchic art of The Rites of Spring to the Dreyfuss Affair. On the other hand, this was also the era of intermarried noble houses and usually capable aristocrats, including Lord Salisbury (who exercised by riding an adult-sized tricycle). Overall, Tuchman thinks Europe increasingly welcomed chaos and therefore looked forward to the conflict that would destroy that older world.

This story thus links nicely to Tuchman’s Guns of August, which is centered around the moves of the European nations in the earliest days of World War I, culminating in the Battle of the Marne, which saved Paris but produced a protracted and tragic conflict. Here, I was struck by how narrowly focused the story was. There was an opening look at the military thinking in the various countries, but very quickly she began a daily accounting of the military moves in August 1914.

As an American historian working in 2013, I was struck by how the books are almost exclusively narrative. The argument is subsumed or non-existent. In The Proud Tower she makes the claim that “A phenomenon of such extended malignance as the Great War does not come out of a Golden Age.” This sets up her story, but it doesn’t suggest how the pieces fit together. Similarly, in The Guns of August, readers are expected to root for the French and hiss the Germans, but this attitude is never entirely explained.

I know that in Tuchman’s day, since she was writing for a popular audience and outside the academy, the question was often raised as to whether she was a “real” historian. This suggests to me that her writing did not sit well with many academic historians of past decades, either.

In a sense, Tuchman was the David McCullough of her day. Is that a fair comparison? I’d be interested if readers think there’s a parallel there.

I’m also aware that most European historians would have issues with her interpretations and sources. In a conversation with a friend, he pointed out that Tuchman (during the Cold War) only had limited access to archives, with only Western ones available. Further, she viewed the Great War as essentially the Germans’ fault, suggesting there was something Teutonic in their violence that produced the upheaval. They could be the bad guys in the story.

I would be curious if other European historians would have the same opinions.

I’m well aware that discussions of the fin de siecle and the causes of the Great War have advanced considerably since Tuchman wrote. Still, I wonder if there might be a lesson in her writing for professional historians. Might we benefit from studying her style, her ability to tell stories, even if they stretched out for hundreds of pages? She kept readers’ attention even while narrating military maneuvers in a single month. Let’s credit her for her lucid writing and adapt that to write clear and rigorous history that people inside and outside the guild will want to read.


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Reading Liao Yiwu

After my post last week about Jonathan Spence, I thought I would continue on the East Asian theme.

One of the best books about Modern China I’ve read in the past year has to be Liao Yiwu’s God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China.

God is Red Cover

Don’t let the title fool you–it is not meant to imply that Liao believes God supports the “Red” Communist Government. Rather, since Red is the Color of Life in Chinese Culture, it comes from the assertion within the book, by a Christian convert, that God is Life.

The book allows many Chinese Christians to speak for themselves and explain why they find Christianity compelling.

Liao came to this subject in an interesting way. He was originally a musician and a poet. In the wake of Tienanmen Square in 1989 he became a dissident. Being outside of official recognition pushed him into contact with common people from all walks of life. Liao would interview them and interject his own reflections. This method was first evident in his book The Corpse Walker. (If you want to think about “dirty jobs”–how about picking up a corpse and “walking” it back to its village?) In his wanderings, Liao discovered that Christians were some of the few people who 1) seemed to have hope in dire situations and 2) showed real concern for the poor and outcast. The best example of the second impulse comes from a doctor. Although well-trained, he practices his medicine among the Miao people, healing their bodies and supporting the indigenous church.

For this project, Liao decided to focus on Christians in contemporary China. He largely allows the Christians he meets to speak for themselves, so there are long passages of interview transcripts. These “unfiltered” reflections speak powerfully to the experience of Christians in China over the past century.

Four moments encapsulated both the pathos and triumph that has to be part of the story. First, Liao and a friend visit an overgrown graveyard down a side road. It turns out this was part of a European missionary complex in the first half of the twentieth century. The missionaries had been expelled and the compound torn down, but a few memories remained, and churches in the area could still trace their roots to those endeavors. Second, Liao visited a Catholic monastery compound. The only remaining nuns were very old, but they were determined to keep it operating until their deaths and perhaps to see it revitalized with a few younger novices. Third, Liao visited with a Christian family that had suffered under the Cultural Revolution. Family members had suffered physical and psychological torture, and they had lost all of their possessions. Still, they maintained their Christian confession intact. Even that great suffering could not trump their beliefs. Finally, Liao visited a House Church pastor who was under house arrest. He and his family recounted their deprivations, as well as their on-going games of cat and mouse with the authorities. Altogether, these pointed to the weight of official persecution that had occurred, yet how remarkably resilient these Christians were.

In short, this is Chinese Christianity at the ground level. The result is profound.

In the last chapter, though, Liao interviews a young, urban male convert. He seems more interested in Christianity because it’s popular than because of any specific doctrines. This may point to a challenge in the coming years. As the Church expands, how does it continue to engender commitment among growing numbers of converts? On the other hand, continued pressure from authorities (whether directed by Beijing or not) could continue to keep the movement constantly alert.

In the global expansion of Christianity (highlighted a decade ago by Philip Jenkins), the growth in China has to be given a very prominent place. Since solid statistics are impossible to achieve, the exact numbers aren’t currently possible. However, the magnitude is definitely huge. Even more remarkable, this growth has occurred as an indigenous movement. Western Missionaries have been gone for sixty years, but the Church has exploded. Further, the development of the Church in China will continue to be important for World Christianity. To that end, Liao’s book might be read profitably next to David Aikman’s Jesus in Beijing.

Finally, let me say that I think this book would be great to teach. I can’t foresee an opportunity to teach it, but you can be sure that I’m looking for one.

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Reading Jonathan Spence

One of my goals during my sabbatical has been to attempt to read widely. In other words, I’m been trying to read beyond early American history to other historical fields and even–shockingly–outside of historical works. These explorations will provide plenty of grist for blog posts.

I thought I would start out this series with some reflections on Jonathan Spence’s work Treason by the Book.


Spence is the legendary Yale Historian of China, now emeritus. Over his career, he’s written widely on China. Most students agree that people should start with his Search for Modern China (now, I see, in its 3rd edition). He’s also written on the Chinese Revolution and produced a life of Mao.

But Spence also has a great gift for microhistory. In grad school I read his Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, a book that caused me to be even more impressed with Ricci than I already was. That’s also apparent in his well-known Death of Woman Wang, as well as in my recent read, Treason by the Book.

In Treason, Spence takes a series of events built around a tendentious suggestion that a general and provincial governor overthrow the Manchu Emperor Yongzheng in the late 1720s. A treasonous letter prompted a manhunt which tracked down the instigator, a scholar by the name of Zeng Jing. While Zeng was in custody, the Emperor managed to convince him of the error of his ways. The Emperor then ordered documents related to the case, closing with Zeng’s complete recantation of his earlier views, published, distributed throughout China, and publicly read at regular intervals.

Spence uses this account to reflect on the nature of governance under the Manchus, the systems of scholars and ties between scholars and the bureaucracy, the political ideologies of Rule, and effects of gossip both in society and at court. So, this one event that never came close to threatening Imperial control could actually illuminate quite a bit about eighteenth-century China.

Let me reflect on the work as an early Americanist. First, as to method, I have to give a “thumbs up” to his use of microhistory. In this case, where Spence has plenty of documentation, it works quite well. I wonder if a parallel could be drawn to John Demos’s Unredeemed Captive, which reflects on events that took place only twenty-five years previous to those Spence describes–albeit on the other side of the globe.

Next, I wonder if some comparative reflections are in order. There’s an interesting comparison to be drawn between the Chinese Imperial order at this time and some Absolutist Monarchies in Europe. I was most impressed by how the Manchus, even though outsiders, had adopted Chinese political culture. For them, the idea of legitimacy was wrapped up with the notion of “the Approval of Heaven.” I realize there’s a great difference theologically, but it seems there’s at least a similarity with Louis XIV claiming a divine right to rule. Further, just as Louis had the bureaucracy to carry out his wishes, so the Emperor had an entire mechanism to spread his decrees to the furthest corners of Chinese rule. By contrast, I don’t think you can see that level of governance in most of European colonies in America, and definitely not in British North America. Of course, the Crown had governors in place, along with other officers, but that didn’t suggest a very significant reach. The Crown was too far away to project the level of control demonstrated in China.

All in all, then, Treason was definitely a good read.

So, for those with more reading in Chinese History than I–any comments on this book or Spence’s contribution generally?


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What to Read in 2013

I saw this a week ago, but it’s still good advice. Ross Douthat makes a suggestion as to what to read in the new year. He counsels:

So use the year wisely, faithful reader. For a little while, at least, let gridlock take care of itself, shake yourself free of the toils of partisanship, and let your mind rove more widely and freely than the onslaught of 2014 and 2016 coverage will allow.

Douthat makes the suggestion to read differently in 3 ways:

1. Read those whose opinions you don’t share.

2. Read broadly on a geographic level. Here, I’m particularly interested in checking out Douthat’s suggestion of paying attention to Walter Kirn. After living in New Jersey, I’m convinced that Douthat is absolutely right that “Even in our supposedly globalized world, place still shapes perspective…”

3. Read those who are marginal to the conversation and exist outside of the Left/Right divide.

As for me, I plan to read up on more foreign policy, paying especial attention to Walter Russell Mead’s blog the Via Meadia and the articles and books Andrew Bacevich.

What do you plan to read in the coming year?


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