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Literary Essays Power of Words by Katherine Bailey

Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August

Certainly the opening paragraph of Barbara Tuchman’s 1962 popular history of World War I, The Guns of August, is one of the best examples of the power of words that creative non-fiction has to offer. It is an expression of Tuchman’s conviction that readers want to experience an event, not merely receive a report of it. It took her eight hours to write the amazing paragraph:

“So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and green and blue and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens – four dowager and three regnant – and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.”

The Guns of August, an immediate, overwhelming success with both the public and critics, is essentially a military history of the first month of “the war to end all wars.” Today, almost half a century since its publication, it retains its popularity. Its wealth of vivid detail keeps the reader immersed in events, almost as an eye witness. Tuchman combines a prose style that is transparently clear, intelligent, controlled and witty with a cool detachment of moral judgment. Never is she preachy or reproachful.

As historian Robert K. Massie points out in his forward to the book, she displays an uncanny ability to persuade the reader to suspend any foreknowledge of what is about to happen. She wants to tell the story her way.

Tuchman’s narrative sets in motion a gigantic German Army wheeling through Belgium, marching on Paris. Massie writes, “This tidal wave of men, horses, artillery and carts is cascading down the dusty roads of Northern France, sweeping implacably, apparently irresistibly, toward its goal of seizing the city and ending the war in the West, just as the Kaiser’s generals had planned, within six weeks.”

Most readers know that the ambitious German advance failed and that millions of troops on both sides were forced into trenches to endure four long years of unspeakable warfare. So compelling, however, is Tuchman’s rendering of events and conjuring of characters – her very sense of story – that the reader forgets that he or she already knows what is going to happen.

There is magnetism in her narrative, and there is also tolerance. She must depict the vain, the pompous, the greedy, the foolish and the cowardly. She does this in human terms and gives all her characters the benefit of the doubt.

Tuchman described herself as “a writer first whose subject is history.” Her precisely controlled, elegant language proved to be the perfect means to give voice to history. She believed fervently in the possibilities and power of the English language. “I am seduced,” she stated, “by the sound of words and by the interaction of their sounds and sense.” To be sure, the first paragraph of The Guns of August is evidence of her obsession. With intense effort, honesty of purpose and her brilliant imagination, Tuchman capitalizes on the power of words. She has written history with immediacy and fluency.