A Visit with Historian David McCullough

Humanities, May/June 2003 | Go to article overview

A Visit with Historian David McCullough


HISTORIAN DAVID MCCULLOUGH, WINNER OF PULITZER PRIZES FOR HIS BIOGRAPHIES OF HARRY TRUMAN AND JOHN ADAMS, IS THE 2003 JEFFERSON LECTURER IN THE HUMANITIES.

IT IS THE HIGHEST HONOR BESTOWED BY THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT FOR DISTINGUISHED ACHIEVEMENT IN THE HUMANITIES. HE AND ENDOWMENT CHAIRMAN BRUCE COLE TALKED LAST YEAR ABOUT THE HUMANITIES AND THE ROLE THEY PLAY IN A DEMOCRACY. HERE ARE HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE CONVERSATION.

BRUCE COLE: In many ways, you're the ideal historian because you bring first-rate scholarship to a wide audience in a way that is both literary and accessible.

DAVID McCULLOUGH: Well, thank you. It's what I try very hard to do. My shorthand answer is that I try to write the kind of book that I would like to read. If I can make it clear and interesting and compelling to me, then I hope maybe it will be for the reader.

I just thank my father and mother, my lucky stars, that I had the advantage of an education in the humanities. Being an English major at Yale in the 1950s was a privilege. People like John O'Hara, John Hersey, Brendan Gill, and Thornton Wilder were around on the campus. There were days when I sat down at the communal lunch table beside Thornton Wilder. There was the daily themes course, which was taught by Robert Penn Warren.

After Yale I served a valuable apprenticeship, first at Time and Life, then at the U.S. Information Agency, then at American Heritage, trying to learn how to do this. Once I discovered the endless fascination of doing the research and of doing the writing, I knew I had found what I wanted to do in my life.

Every book is a new journey. With a book like John Adams, I've spent six glorious years in the eighteenth century. To go into that time, it is necessary not to just read what they wrote-"they" meaning John and Abigail Adams and others in their circle-but to try and read what they read. To go back and read Swift and Defoe and Samuel Johnson and Smollett and Pope-all those people we had to read in college English courses-to read them now is to have one of the infinite pleasures in life.

To me history ought to be a source of pleasure. It isn't just part of our civic responsibility. To me it's an enlargement of the experience of being alive, just the way literature or art or music is. I have certain people that I try to keep in mind as an example.

COLE: Do you think about them while you're writing?

McCULLOUGH: Yes, very often. The more I go back and reread Francis Parkman, the more admiration I have for him. I paint, too, and-maybe it's true in all the arts-it's an antidote to hubris. You are reminded again and again of how far you have to go compared to what other people have done. You stand in front of one of those great paintings or you pick up Samuel Johnson's essays or Francis Parkman's works on the French and Indian War, and it's humbling. But it also is affirming in the sense that you realize that you're working in a great tradition.

COLE: Absolutely. Were I a painter standing in front of Rembrandt's Late Self-portrait in the Frick, I'd have given up. But it is inspiring. It does show you what can be done.

McCULLOUCH: The first time I saw Botticelli's Birth of Venus in the Uffizi Gallery, it was as if I'd been struck. First of all, it was so much bigger than I ever had any idea it would be. And it's so glorious. It not only puts your own abilities in perspective, it certainly dashes any arrogance we might have about how far we've progressed over the centuries. Who in the world could do that today? Nobody.

COLE: One of the things you never get from photographs is a sense of the physicality of the painting or of its scale.

When you teach art history you show slides. They are exactly the same size, and your students only have a vague approximation. When you actually see the thing it comes as a revelation.

To return for a moment to this question of history for a larger audience, aside from Parkman who are your heroes? …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

A Visit with Historian David McCullough
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.