Meet David McCullough – Engaging Author, Historian, and Man of Common-Sense

You likely have heard of David McCullough, and so had I. I knew him to be a prolific author/historian who wrote several books including two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies, Truman, and John Adams. Two of his books, 1776 and John Adams had been sitting unread on my bookshelves for some time, waiting their turn for my reading fancies to turn to the history of that period. I even had the unopened HBO DVD based on John Adams waiting and gathering dust on the shelf – a requested birthday gift from my wife last year.

Books David McCullough

Two weeks ago, the CBS program, 60 Minutes, featured Mr. McCullough. The piece revealed a most engaging character, a fine author, and a man of most uncommon…. common-sense. I thoroughly enjoyed the piece, all the while savoring McCullough’s wonderful insights into people and history and his ever present sense of humor. For him, history is not about places and dates, politics and wars; it is about people, it is about music, art, science and medicine and their influence on the lives of human beings. It is about the course of human events. Amen.

 Over the past several months, our longtime friends, Linda and Gil who live at Lake Tahoe, have been having fun with my blog-writing and the fact that I published my book on science history a couple of years ago. Gil insists that I should have a writer’s hideaway, an intimate refuge for me and my typewriter (electronic version, of course) where I can toil away undisturbed. Accordingly, he has playfully sent us pictures of several ridiculously tiny cabins, even sheds, as “possibilities.”

 You can imagine my amazement and pleasure when 60 Minutes revealed that is precisely how David McCullough writes – in an eight-by-twelve foot rustic clapboard “cabin” set apart from his Martha’s Vineyard farmhouse, sitting quite by itself in the woods. No electronics or facilities are available – only bookshelves, a lamp, and his trusty antique Royal typewriter which he purchased second-hand in 1965 and on which he has written every one of his eight major books – mind-boggling prospect! My wife and I were delightedly amused during the program as the camera focused on that clapboard cabin amongst the foliage with a white-haired figure visible through the pane-glass window and a clearly audible tap-tap, tap-tap emanating from the tiny refuge – what he calls his “World Headquarters.”

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I love it! McCullough reportedly once said that nothing good was ever written in a large room! Amen. My den is small and cramped; maybe that offers some hope. Amen!

Wanting to know more, I went to the internet and found a piece on You Tube about McCullough titled Painting with Words which is precisely what he does. This piece is a work of art in terms of video biography. Barely a half-hour in length, it is a wonderful, light, and ultimately profound look at the man, his family, his work and his philosophy. No one who watches that will come away without real respect and affection for the subject and his work.

I’ve discovered there are some interesting coincidences between my life and David McCullough’s. For example, I knew the very first day I met Linda, my wife of 46 years, that she was a woman I could marry… and that I just might. I told my parents the next day about “this girl I met at a party yesterday” and that “I think I may have found my wife.” McCullough disclosed that when he met Rosalee, he was “head over heels from the beginning….I knew, I just knew – this was it!” I got a kick out of the fact that we both “just knew” right off the bat. Our gut-feel seems to have worked out just fine for us both given all the combined years of marriage!

McCullough’s second major book, The Great Bridge, published in 1972, is the story of the Brooklyn Bridge, its construction and its iconic importance. Coincidence has it that Linda and I took our vacation in New York last October, and one of our major goals was to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and to spend some time walking around Brooklyn Heights – which we did. Mostly, this was Linda’s idea; her mother spent her early years in Brooklyn, so I went willingly along. Neither of us had any knowledge of McCullough and his book at that time. I received my used, first edition, first printing of The Great Bridge in yesterday’s mail; I look forward to reading it. I particularly wanted the first printing.

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We had a marvelous day walking the bridge and exploring the venerable, old brownstone apartment buildings along the tree-shaded streets of Brooklyn Heights. It turns out that McCullough and his young family lived right there, in the shadow of the bridge – where we walked – while he wrote his book. After seeing him walking the bridge and strolling through his old neighborhood on 60 Minutes, the memories of our day there have become even more poignant.

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In so many particulars, I have found Mr. McCullough and myself to be precisely on the same page – having discovered all of this only within these past two weeks. Two things especially stand out, although there are others.

In the nearly finished manuscript of my next book on science and math education, I examine the overall poor performance of our students in science and math (See my recent post of July 7, 2013, What’s Gone Wrong at Our Schools? It’s Not What You Might Think!). As I mention in that recent blog post, and contrary to so many popular indictments of the schools and teachers, I primarily blame parents and guardians for failing to prepare their children for the “learning experience” before they even begin school. With great interest, I learned from watching 60 Minutes that McCullough also singles out “the parents and grandparents” for blame when addressing the historical illiteracy of so many students in this country.

There is one revelation from McCullough at the very end of Painting with Words that made a huge impression upon me – first, because it agrees so strikingly with several sections in my new book, and, second, because it validates our very similar outlooks and attitudes. Here it is:

When pondering during what auspicious occasion, at what particular time and place in history, he would like to have been a “fly on the wall,” McCullough concluded he wished to have been present in 1825 when Ralph Waldo Emerson, fresh out of Harvard, went to Quincy, Massachusetts to visit John Adams during the last year of  the great man’s life. McCullough noted that Emerson wrote down much of what transpired that day.

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As the camera rolled at the John Adams House in Quincy, McCullough strode into the old dining room, walking up to the portrait of Adams hanging on the wall. He related that he wished he were there when Adams told Emerson, “I would to God there were more “ambition” in the country; by that I mean ambition of the laudable kind…..to excel!”

McCullough added, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could reinstate, through what we do as parents and grandparents, as teachers and legislators, that old noble ambition….to excel.”

To which I say, “That sounds so familiar; amen, amen!”

Postscript:

 I have since begun reading John Adams, and my wife and I have watched the fine HBO production on DVD of the same title. To my great pleasure, I find that Painting with Words is an added feature on the DVD, providing much better viewing than does the internet.

If you come to know Mr. McCullough and his work through the programs cited above …and through his books, I can guarantee you will be very glad you took the time to make his acquaintance.

 Parting Comment:

As always, I have no connection with any product I mention on this blog except my desire to relate to you, my followers, something that I deem to be of great value or merit.

11 thoughts on “Meet David McCullough – Engaging Author, Historian, and Man of Common-Sense

  1. He has become one of my favorite writers. “John Adams” was a masterpiece. “Mornings on Horseback” and his book on the Panama Canal were also great reads. That he is a nice guy helps too!

    • Hi Eric,
      Thanks for your comments. My wife read “Mornings on Horseback” and thoroughly enjoyed it, too. Have you seen the short video on him that I referred to, “Painting with Words?” If not, be sure to catch it; I love his sense of humor and his persona as displayed in the film. Really, a nice guy, as you said.

  2. AS YOU KNOW, WE SAW DAVID MCCOLLOUGH AT THE GRANADA IN SANTA BARBARA A COUPLE YEARS BACK. HE WAS VERY ENGAGING AND RELATED HIS “METHOD” OF WRITING THAT YOU DESCRIBE. 1776 WAS ASSIGNED IN AN UNDERGRADUATE COURSE THAT I TA’D FOR AND I ENJOYED IT VERY MUCH. A YEAR OR SO AGO I READ JOHN ADAMS, WHICH I ALSO ENJOYED. TRUMAN IS SITTING ON MY SHELF…

    • Mr. McCullough would be high on my list of people I would like to have lunch with. I have a first edition copy of Truman in the mail, on its way here. I am particularly interested in his take on Truman’s relationships with Stalin and Churchill as well as Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb on Japan.

  3. We loved the segment on David McCullough also! I was very impressed with his “uncommon good sense” and the twinkle in his eyes that said to us he had intelligence and a sense of humor as well. I will be putting “John Adams” on my reading list. We also would love to one day walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.

  4. I, too, loved the 60 Minutes segment on David McCollough, his insights and his common sense. In addition I fell in love with his voice a number of years ago after hearing his narration of the Ken Burns Civil War series. Like you, I have 1776, which I have read, and John Adams, which I have not. Added to those I now have The Great Bridge, purchased several weeks ago (before 60 Minutes aired) as a birthday present for you! My gain, but now I have to think of something else for you! Great blog, Alan, and interesting coincidences in your lives.

  5. Do you know he also narrated and helped Ken Burns with some of his earlier documentaries? I think they are called tge “American Stories,” there are four of them, the two I remember are “The Shakers” and “The Brooklyn Bridge.” Like the rest of Ken Burns’ stuff, they are available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc. for free streaming video.

    Mornings on Horseback is also a worthy read. I would recommend reading it before reading the Edmund Morris biography trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt (also wonderful) because it gives insights more about everyone else in Roosevelt’s life (e.g., parents, siblings, extended family) that Morris doesn’t cover. John Adams was amazing, though I “read” it on unabridged audiobook when I was doing a whole-house clean over Christmas break in 2010. I liked 1776, and found it insightful…but dry. I am a social historian, that one tipped a bit too far into military historian territiry for my taste (but still a worthy read). The one that surprised me was The Johnstown Flood — that is a terrible story beautifully and masterfully told.

    The ending to John Adams is also masterfully woven, but you’ll find that out soon enough.

    Happy reading!

    (My only lament is that Simon and Schuster refuses to release their titles to Overdrive, so I’ve not been able to get his titles as library e-books and e-audiobooks)

    • Thanks for the inputs, Val. McCullough also narrated The Civil War – great voice for narration. My wife has just begun Mornings on Horseback and also mentioned his penchant for detailing the characters in Roosevelt’s circle. I was thinking I would like to read The Johnstown Flood to see how far McCullough’s writing skills progressed from that first book to John Adams; it sounds like he hit the ground running, however!

      • You’re right, I forgot about The Civil War, I’ve never been able to watch that one all the way through while house sitting (no TV since 2006).

        McCullough doesn’t have a degree in history, he was an English or Literature major or some such thing, but he is a social historian’s social historian. As I have a bend toward being a social historian, this works for me.

        He did hit the ground running.

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