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? …