Robert Caro, the biographer of LBJ and Robert Moses, delivered a talk about a fellow historian, Barbara Tuchman, to a standing-room-only crowd at the Links Club on a recent evening. The event was sponsored by the Library of America, which was marking its reissue of her masterwork about the events leading up to World War I, “The Guns of August.”
The Library of America may not be familiar to all—it’s actually not a library but a nonprofit publishing house—but most bibliophiles would probably recognize its handsome series (241 volumes and counting) in matching black covers decorated with a red, white and blue stripe. The series is devoted to great American writers; most, but certainly not all, are deceased.
So expertly and elegantly are the books published, and so affordably priced, that I have a hunch: Were an author offered the option of a Library of America edition and an unmarked grave, or no book and a splendid sarcophagus, he or she would choose the former.
Mr. Caro talked about how Tuchman, who died in 1989, influenced him and his work when he’d left his job as a journalist at Newsday in the 1960s and, uncertain of himself, was embarking on his next career as a historian and his monumental Moses biography, “The Power Broker.”
“I remember quite vividly reading that opening paragraph,” he told the audience, referring to the sweep and poetry of “The Guns of August.” And he said he thought: “That’s what history should be. That’s what I want to do.”
By the way, here is the first paragraph from The Guns of August:
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 blue and green 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.