Practicing History, or, How Barbara Tuchman saved my bacon


Barbara Tuchman is one of the best writers of history. She’s wonderful storyteller, I strongly recommend any of her books, and although she died in 1989 and I never had the opportunity to meet her, but her book Practicing History seriously saved my bacon.

I threw myself into the research as soon as I sold the China’s Wings proposal, reading and taking notes as widely as I could, and I quickly amassed a large quantity of material. Using a process I’d used to great effect prior to working on China’s Wings, I stored every note in a file I titled “China’s Wings: Raw Ideas,” but that file quickly grew to hundreds of pages and thousands of bullets — way to large for my head to embrace, and without any practical means of sorting or grouping material. Progress ground to a halt as I groped for a way to gain control of my research that would allow me to both understand what I had and allow me to more forward.

I was saved, quite by accident, when I happened to read Barbara Tuchman’s Practicing History. It’s one of her few obscure books, published in 1981, but in one of its chapters she described her method of organizing research on index cards and I instantly recognized the utility of her system.

Subject went in the upper left corner of the card, source went in the upper right, and the factoid, quote, observation, or line went in the middle of the card. It proved the perfect system for managing my research, and my office and bedroom were soon a blizzard of 4×6 cards. I’d gather related cards into stacks several inches thick, pin them in binder clips, and from the stacks grew my chapters. As a bonus, the card stacks proved easily portable, so once I had assembled the research for a chapter, I could cart it off to a library, cafe, or bar to work. All of which helped.

Here’s the “August 1937 to source and use” card stack that became Chapter 8, “Things Fall Apart”, about CNAC caught astride the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War. The cards at the bottom whose top edges are marked in blue are the research morsels¬† that I ended up using in the story. The unmarked ones on top are the tidbits that never found a home. They’re about equal in volume.

Here are a few of the cards themselves. This one is from Emily “Mickey” Hahn’s China to Me. And since my writing is next to indecipherable, sometimes even to me, that says, “Watching the war from rooftops, drinking cocktails.”¬† (I count myself the latest in the long line of men to fall in love with Mickey Hahn. And NOTE: I’ve posted about Mickey more recently, adding an anecdote that was the hardest cut from the draft of China’s Wings.)

This one is sourced from the New York Times, describing the fighting on August 14. The bullet points describe intense shelling, ground combat all day; Japanese naval gunfire; ferocious hand to hand combat; Idzumo attacked again; field guns, mortars and naval gunfire support; 8,000 Japanese v. 30,000 Chinese; Japanese stripping the crews of their warships to bolster their marine units ashore.

Percy Finch’s book Shanghai and Beyond provided the data on this card, which was used (along with MANY others) to help describe the “Black Saturday” bombing at the corner of Nanking Road and the Bund. (Shanghai and Beyond is a good book, albeit an obscure one.)

Here are described the actions of CNAC pilot Frank Havelick, taken from a letter to Andre Priester, the text of which was provided to me by Nancy Allison Wright. The DC-2 on this card became the “Hong Kong DC-2”, a massive bone of contention between Pan Am and CNAC’s Chinese leadership in August, September, and October of 1937.

This information about inflation in Shanghai caused by the outbreak of war comes from a letter “Anna to Mother, CC Kitsi [Bond]”, 8/14/1937, in the William Langhorne Bond collection at the Hoover Institute Archive.

The line “food prices tripled” in the center of the page photographed below is the line created from the “Anna to Mother, CC Kitsi” card, and I confirmed the fact in one of my interviews with Moon Chin.

And here to the right we have a conversation from an interview conducted with Harold Bixby that found its way into the Pan Am Archive at the University of Miami. That’s Bixby and TV Soong arguing about the militarization of CNAC by the Chinese Air Force.

Those factoids — from books, newspapers, letters, and interviews — are among the many dozens that went into the creation of pages 93 to 97.

And that was how the sausage got made, bit by painful bit.

Here’s a link to “A Heroine of Popular History,” an excellent article about Barbara Tuchman and Practicing History by Bruce Cole that appeared in The Wall Street Journal on March 10, 2012.

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