Every Book Is a New Journey: A Conversation with Writer David McCullough

Humanities, May/June 2002 | Go to article overview

Every Book Is a New Journey: A Conversation with Writer David McCullough


WHEN DAVID McCULLOUGH MET RECENTLY WITH NEH CHAIRMAN BRUCE COLE, the conversation turned to McCullough's book, JOHN ADAMS, and the pleasures of bringing history to a broad audience. JOHN ADAMS won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for biography. It is the second Pulitzer for McCullough, who received the prize in 1993 for TRUMAN.

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

I was talking to someone the other day who mentioned that she had been on a trip abroad. She said how much she looked forward to coming home to her hotel each night. She was reading John Adams, and it was like coming home to an old friend. I thought that was wonderful. I would say you're one of a handful of people who really does that.

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. We were all readers before we were writers and we have a sense of what we hope for in a book. If I can make it clear and interesting and compelling to me, then I hope maybe it will be for the reader.

I'm more and more convinced, the older I get, the longer I work, that the advantage, always, is education. I just thank my father and mother, and my lucky stars, that I had the advantage of an education in the humanities. The privilege of being an English major at Yale, in the 1950s, was one I appreciate more and more.

When I was an undergraduate, people like John O'Hara, John Hersey, Brendan Gill, and Thornton Wilder were around. They were on the campus. You could talk to them. You could meet them. You could go to hear them lecture.

Thornton Wilder was a fellow at Davenport College, the college that I lived in. There were days when I sat down at the communal lunch table in the dining hall beside Thornton Wilder. There was also the daily themes course, which was taught by Robert Penn Warren. To have such examples at that formative stage in life was to be reminded by their very presence of how very far one had to go beyond the education that you got at Yale.

After Yale I served a necessary and 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.

I thought at first I wanted to be a novelist or a playwright. I sort of stumbled into history. But once I discovered the thrill, 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. I was lucky; I found it by the time I was about twenty-nine.

Every book is a new journey. I never felt I was an expert on a subject as I embarked on a project. Mary Lee Settle, who is a writer whose work I greatly admire, said, "I write to find out."

That says it perfectly.

With a book like John Adams, I've spent six glorious years in the eighteenth century. What a privilege! What a thrill! 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. That's the attitude that I try to enter in to the work. I have certain heroes, certain people that I try to keep in mind as an example.

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

MCCULLOUGH: Yes, I do, very often. People like Francis Parkman. The more I go back and reread Parkman, the more admiration I have for him. …

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