David McCullough: How He Writes His Books

Historians in the News

Jon Meacham, in Newsweek (5-22-05):

...The only sound in the room where McCullough works—a tiny book-lined shingled building, just 8 feet by 12—comes from the clack-clack-clack of a 1940 Royal manual typewriter, bought secondhand in White Plains, New York, in 1965. The setting is snug, almost claustrophobic, but it is here, in his backyard office on Martha's Vineyard, that McCullough's imagination roams through the American past, summoning the spirits of dead presidents and generals, resurrecting long-forgotten foot soldiers and re-creating the chaos and cannon fire of distant battles.

When McCullough looks up from his Royal, he can see the restored farmhouse where he has lived for 30 years with his wife, Rosalee. The house, McCullough says on a recent sun-splashed morning, "is part 18th century, part 19th and part 20th"—a good way to describe the canon of work he has created in this small studio office: award-winning books on subjects ranging from the Panama Canal and the Brooklyn Bridge to Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John Adams.

The pages that he pulls through the carriage of the typewriter—about four a day during prime writing season—have become the most widely read nonfiction of the age and made McCullough the central figure in a renaissance of popular history. From Ken Burns's epochal series "The Civil War" to "The American Experience," his baritone is the voice of the past for two generations of PBS viewers. And he is probably the only man in America who could inspire HBO to make a mini-series about John Adams.

Some professional historians find McCullough's work too safe and too smooth. A careful reading of his books, however, does not really support that academic critique. McCullough is the least cynical of writers, but he is also among the most clear-eyed. "History is not the story of heroes entirely," he says. "It is often the story of cruelty and injustice and shortsightedness. There are monsters, there is evil, there is betrayal. That's why people should read Shakespeare and Dickens as well as history—they will find the best, the worst, the height of noble attainment and the depths of depravity." In "1776," for instance, Washington is a great man—but his way of life, McCullough makes clear, is made possible by slavery.

There is an irony about McCullough: he is a wildly popular anachronism. In a nation of 24-hour cable and blogging, he speaks in warm, unaffected tones about the classic "Ben and Me," or about "Two Years Before the Mast," the first book he ever bought with his own money, or about how history teachers should use Gershwin in the classroom. "Reading history is good for all of us," he says, not surprisingly, perhaps, but his rationale is a fresh, somewhat bracing thought: "If you know history, you know that there is no such thing as a self-made man or self-made woman. We are shaped by people we have never met. Yes, reading history will make you a better citizen and more appreciative of the law, and of freedom, and of how the economy works or doesn't work, but it is also an immense pleasure—the way art is, or music is, or poetry is. And it's never stale."

Certainly not in McCullough's hands. Born in 1933, the son of the owner of an electrical-supply company in Pittsburgh, McCullough, the third of four boys, grew up in a largely vanished world, attending a private day school and graduating from Yale in 1955. He worked as a writer and editor at Time Inc., then went to Washington to be part of the New Frontier. He landed a post at Edward R. Murrow's United States Information Agency. Standing with Rosalee outside his writing studio, recounting the story of his job interview, he recalls being asked what he knew about Arabs. "Sir, I don't know anything at all about Arabs," McCullough replied, only to be told: "Well, you'll learn." He found himself producing a magazine—which he had never done before—directed at the Middle East. Thinking back on the time, McCullough glances at Rosalee and says, "I had to learn a lot fast, didn't I, pal?" She smiles at the memory.

comments powered by Disqus