In my column today, I relate a memory from grad school. A classmate of mine asked a distinguished historian, “Barbara Tuchman: Is she a historian?” The professor reflected for a moment. Then he said, “She’s a writer.” Some of the students snickered. At that moment, I figured Tuchman must be worthwhile. Which she is.
I shared this memory with Jeff Jacoby, who had quoted Tuchman in a column. He answered, “I guess the snickers were because her writing was clear, lively, perceptive, and free of cant or sanctimony. But then, we can’t all be Howard Zinn.”
All of this is prelude to a letter, from a reader:
In my undergraduate studies at a middling state university, I finally confessed to my Roman-history prof that I had read Colleen McCullough’s novels set during the Republic. (If you haven’t, they are wonderful.) She theatrically looked around her office, motioned me closer to her desk, and produced the latest novel from under a pile of papers, whispering, “Me too — don’t tell anyone.”
I took as many classes from her as I could after that.
A couple of years later, I arrived at another state university, a bit higher-status, as a grad student. A few weeks into the term, one of the profs sneered at my copy of a biography by Manchester — American Caesar, I think.
Those two experiences reflected the natures of those departments. The first department was part of a “glorified community college,” in the words of one of the professors. The second had some pretension to academic respectability. I learned more from the former than from the latter (and had a lot more fun in the process).
Once, someone wrote a scalding letter to WFB, accusing him of everything in the book. At the end, he said, “By the way, your syntax is lousy.” WFB answered him, refuting all the charges. There was a P.S., as I recall: “If you had my syntax, you’d be rich.” And if merely academic historians could write like Tuchman, McCullough, and Manchester . . .