David McCullough-Chronicler of America

By Billington, James H. | Humanities, May/June 2003 | Go to article overview

David McCullough-Chronicler of America


Billington, James H., Humanities


AN APPRECIATION

DAVID McCULLOUGH IS the citizen chronicler of the American story for our time.

McCullough is a unique-and uniquely American-humanist. He is a historian who immerses himself deeply in primary materials, a literary artist of the first order, and a trusted person who has projected serious reflection out to an unprecedentedly wide audience.

He is a humanist in the literal meaning of that word. He is interested in people rather than "the people." he takes the reader inside the social and mental worlds in which his subjects live; and he lets them speak for themselves with generous and illuminating citations from their own writings and speeches.

McCullough has spoken of the inspiration Thornton Wilder provided him when McCullough was an undergraduate at Yale. Wilder was the author not only of the quintessentially American play Our Town, but also of the tragic tale of the five people in The Bridge of St. Luis Rey who lost their lives when that bridge collapsed in eighteenth-century South America. McCullough wrote his first two major books about an even greater tragedy and a far larger bridge in nineteenth-century North America; and he somehow made us all feel that wherever we lived these things happened in our town.

He tells us that seeing pictures of the Johnstown flood at the Library of Congress got him started. And his entire subsequent historical writing is filled with images that help us see and hear people and places from the American past at important points in our history.

His first three books were written about inanimate objects: The Johnstown Flood, The Great Bridge, and The Path Between the Seas. But McCullough's focus was always on the human beings who created and were affected by each of these "things." The Path Between the Seas was a progression over forty-four years of the creation of the Panama Canal, and it pointed to the new direction that his work would shortly take, because it covered the widely diverse and often unexpected cast of characters that participated in the drama. Next came the first of his presidential biographies, Mornings on Horseback. It took the story of Theodore Roosevelt only up to his second marriage in 1886, but McCullough managed (as one academic reviewer noted) to make a special contribution to a well-worked subject by taking "the entire family as his subject, and recreating the human formation of this often-superhuman personality."

His next book, Brave Companions, was a collection of vignettes about a wide variety of people often depicted as" figures in a landscape." In this, as in all his subsequent work, McCullough paints pictures with words. Indeed, McCullough's "earliest ambition was to be an artist . . . a portrait painter," he writes. The book begins with the story of how John Singer Sargent started his famous painting of Theodore Roosevelt. His lead essay in the collection is on the great intellectual polymath Alexander von Humboldt. It begins with young Humboldt arriving at the White House with Charles Willson Peale for an intellectual summit with Thomas Jefferson; it ends with Jefferson, the aged sage, sitting without any of his decorations for a final portrait.

The epic stories he tells include victimized as well as victorious figures. His range of human sympathies is as broad as the audience he reaches. He reports on past events like a good journalist, but without practicing what the French call haute vulgarisation (a simplified account based on other people's research). McCullough begins his major works by immersing himself in the time, the place, the menus and the reading lists of his key characters-preferably by visiting the spots where they lived, tasting the food that they ate, and reading the books that shaped their thinking. As an independent scholar, he is not beholden to any of the ideological causes or methodological fads that often take possession of otherwise good historians in bureaucratized academia-and cause them to end up writing more for each other than for a general audience. …

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