Sunday, January 31, 2016

'The Proud Tower' By Barbara W Tuchman

Tuchmann's Proud Tower was published 50 years ago in 1966, and covers a period which ended 52 years before its publication, the period from 1890 to 1914. In some ways the books feels much closer to the time it portrays than to the present. Most notably, it purports to present a portrait of the world before World War I, and consists of 2 chapters on England and 1 each on anarchists, the United States, France, Germany and socialists.

Eurocentrism, Tuchman haz it.

Among the places and people which do not appear in the book's index are China, Japan, India, Africa, Latin America and Gandhi. And even within its Eurocentric genre, the book is narrow for something claiming to deal with "the world." The items in the bibliographies (1 for each chapter) are mostly in English, quite a few in French, and, I believe, that's it. After reading her chapter on Germany, no-one with a sense of how much is lost in translation can be surprised to find that it was composed entirely of things either written originally in English or translated into English, plus Maurice Baumont's L'Affaire Eulenburg et les origines de la guerre mondiale. The items include something called Toward Understanding Germany by someone called Robery Harry Lowie. Lowie's effort may be magnificent for all I know. But many people have come quite a bit closer than Tuchman to "understanding Germany" very simply by learning to read German. A good half of Tuchmann's chapter on Germany, entitled, duh-duh-DUHHH, "Neroism is In The Air," in quotes, is about Richard Strauss. Mahler is barely mentioned, ditto for the Manns and Freud. Kafka, Musil and Rilke are not mentioned at all. Bahr gets 3 mentions and Kraus none. Nietzsche is described as if Tuchman knows him at 2nd or 3rd hand at best. Tuchmann writes, "Germany in painting had little but Max Liebermann." Translation: Tuchman hasn't heard of any German painters of the period except Max Liebermann. Sorry, Corinth, Blaue Reiter (that's en entire group of famous German painters of the period), Bruecke (that's another) -- well: sorry, Expressionism in general.

It's a good book, don't get me wrong. But perhaps it could have been even better if, instead of thinking of it as a book about the world before World War I, Tuchman had approached it as what it is: a book about England, the US, France, anarchism, socialism and Richard Strauss before World War I. Tuchman apologizes in the Foreward for the limited scope of this book ostensibly about "the world." But she doesn't apologize enough.

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