This Week in History

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Barbara Tuchman delivers Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities

April 24, 1980
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Translated into thirteen languages, the eminently readable, meticulously researched histories by Barbara Tuchman won two Pulitzer Prizes and a loyal audience that made them best-sellers.

Institution: American Jewish Historical Society


Barbara Tuchman, who was born in 1912, never earned a graduate degree in history, but her best-selling books made history come alive for millions of readers and earned two Pulitzer Prizes for their author.

Raised in a privileged New York family, Tuchman traveled extensively with her parents before attending Radcliffe College, where she studied history and literature. After her graduation, she wrote about the Spanish Civil War for The Nation, and then worked at the Office of War Information during World War II, traveling in Asia. These reporting stints sparked Tuchman's interest in the history of war.

Tuchman's first book, Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour (1956), expressed strong sympathy for Zionism. She is best known, however, for two books that won Pulitzer Prizes: The Guns of August (1962), about the First World War, and Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945 (1972). The Guns of August was later made into a movie of the same name.

Although her relationships with professional historians were sometimes strained, Tuchman did garner recognition, serving as the president of the Society of American Historians (1970-1973), and as president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1979).

Tuchman was the first woman invited to deliver the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Humanities. An invitation to give the Jefferson Lecture is the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities. In her lecture, presented on April 24, 1980, Tuchman took "Mankind's Better Moments" as her title and theme, reflecting her general optimism about the human condition. Tuchman repeated the lecture in London a week later, the first time that a Jefferson Lecture had been repeated abroad, marking her international renown as a writer. Tuchman published her last book, The First Salute, just a year before her death in 1989.

To learn more about Barbara Tuchman, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.

Sources:Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 1414-1416; New York Times, February 28, 1980, April 25, 1980; www.neh.gov/whoweare/jefflect.html.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "This Week in History - Barbara Tuchman delivers Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities." (Viewed on April 17, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/apr/24/1980/barbara-tuchman>.