David McCullough, Pulitzer-winning historian, dies at 89
A cheerful and tireless student of the past, McCullough has dedicated himself to sharing his own passion for history with the general public. He saw himself as an ordinary man with a lifelong curiosity and the ability to talk about the topics that mattered most to him. His fascination with architecture and construction inspired his early work on the Panama Canal and the Brooklyn Bridge, while his admiration for leaders he believed to be good men drew him to Adams and Truman. 70-80 years old, he indulges his affection for Paris with the release in 2011 “The Greater Journey” and for aviation with a bestseller on the Wright brothers released in 2015.
Beyond his books, the handsome, white-haired McCullough has had perhaps the most recognizable presence of any historian, his fatherly baritone known to fans of PBS’s “The American Experience” and the epic documentary “Civil War.” by Ken Burns. “Hamilton” author Ron Chernow once called McCullough “both the name and the voice of American history.”
McCullough’s celebrations of America’s past have also led to the harshest criticism of him – that affection too easily turned into romanticism. His 2019 book “The Pioneers” has been accused of downplaying the atrocities committed against Native Americans as 19th-century settlers moved west. In earlier works, he has been accused of avoiding the harshest truths about Truman, Adams and others and of placing storytelling above analysis.
“McCullough’s specific contribution has been to treat large-scale historical biography as another kind of viewer appreciation, an exercise in character recognition, a reliable source of pleasant edification and upliftment,” wrote Sean Wilentz. in The New Republic in 2001. Interviewed this same by the Associated Press, McCullough responded to criticism that he was too soft by saying that “some people not only want their leaders to have feet of clay, but that they be all clay”.
But even peers who found flaws in his work praised his kindness and generosity and recognized his talent. And millions of readers, as well as the small circle of winners, have been moved by his stories. For years, from a wireless cottage on the grounds of his Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts home, McCullough did work on a Royal Standard typewriter that changed minds and shaped the market. It helped boost the reputations of Truman and Adams, and it launched a wave of American Revolution bestsellers, including McCullough’s “1776.”
McCullough received the National Book Award for “The Path Between the Seas,” about the construction of the Panama Canal; and for “Mornings on Horseback,” a biography of Theodore Roosevelt; and Pulitzers for “Truman”, in 1992, and for “John Adams” in 2002. “The Great Bridge”, a long exploration of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, was ranked No. 48 on the list of the 100 best works not novels from the Modern Library. of the 20th century and is still widely regarded as the definitive text of the great 19th century project. On his 80th birthday, his hometown of Pittsburgh renamed the 16th Street Bridge the “David McCullough Bridge”.
McCullough was also a favorite in Washington, D.C. He addressed a joint session of Congress in 1989 and, in 2006, received a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Politicians have frequently claimed to have read his books, especially his biographies of Truman and Adams. Jimmy Carter cited “The Path Between the Seas” as a factor in pushing for the 1977 treaties that returned control of the Panama Canal to Panama, and politicians on both sides of the issue cited it during the debate . Barack Obama included McCullough among a gathering of scholars who gathered at the White House shortly after his election.
The historian has been nonpartisan for much of his life, but spoke out against Donald Trump in 2016, leading a group of historians that included Burns and Chernow to denounce the Republican presidential candidate as a “monstrous clown with a monstrous ego”. McCullough also had an emphatic cause: education. He worried that Americans knew too little about history and did not appreciate the sacrifices of the Revolutionary era. He spoke often on campuses and in front of Congress, once telling a Senate committee that because of the No Child Left Behind Act, “history is shelved or taken out of the fire completely in many schools. or in most schools, in favor of math and reading. .”
McCullough was also active in the preservation of historic areas. He opposed the construction of a residential tower near the Brooklyn Bridge and was among 1990s historians and authors who criticized the Walt Disney Company’s planned Civil War theme park in a northern area of Virginia of special historical significance.
“We have so few authentic and real ones left,” McCullough said at the time. “Replacing what we have with plastic and artificial history, mechanical history is almost sacrilege.”
McCullough took a few rogues in his books, notably the conniving New York politicians involved in the Brooklyn Bridge, but he preferred to write about the people he loved, likening it to choosing a roommate. Revulsion at Pablo Picasso’s private life caused him to abandon a book project on the artist, when his biography on Adams was originally meant to be about Adams and Thomas Jefferson, whose character became also proved too flawed.
McCullough, whose father and grandfather founded the McCullough Electric Company, was born in Pittsburgh in 1933. As a child he loved history, remembering lively dinner conversations, portraits of Washington and Lincoln which seemed to hang in each house and from the excursion to a nearby village. site where Washington fought one of its earliest battles. He majored in English at Yale University and met playwright Thornton Wilder, who encouraged the young student to write. McCullough worked at the United States Information Agency, Sports Illustrated and the American Heritage Publishing Company before deciding he wanted to try a book about an event that happened in his home state. in 1889 – the Johnstown Flood, which killed more than 2,000 people and was as much of a disaster in its day as Hurricane Katrina was more than a century later.
McCullough researched the book in his spare time and unsuccessfully pleaded with Little, Brown and Company to publish it. He ended up with Simon & Schuster, who published the book in 1968 – for a $5,000 advance – and remained its publisher for the rest of his career.
“The Johnstown Flood” was successful enough that McCullough feared being branded as a failed author, “Bad News McCullough.” Publishers were asking him to write about the Chicago fire and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. So for his next book, “The Great Bridge,” he told a success story. “The fact that I know little or nothing about civil engineering, that I have never done well in mathematics or physics or that I am very interested in mechanics has not discouraged me at all,” he wrote. there later. “I was so excited. There were so many things I wanted to know.
McCullough followed with “The Path Between the Seas”; and “Mornings on Horseback”, published in 1981 and hailed by Gore Vidal as “part of a new and welcome genre: the biographical sketch”. “Mornings on Horseback” won the National Book Award, but, Vidal noted, was overshadowed by the release of Edmund Morris’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.” It would be the last time a McCullough book would receive a second billing.
He had envisioned a biography of Franklin Roosevelt, but rather linked to Roosevelt’s less dynamic and more direct successor, Harry Truman. McCullough spent the next decade writing the book, living for a time in Truman’s hometown of Independence, Missouri, and making a daily routine, as the former president did, of a morning walk.
“Truman,” released in 1992, was a million seller plateauing and confirming a long rise in the position of a man who had left office 40 years earlier with an approval rating below 30% and who was now practically canonized as an honest and tenacious leader. . Fans of the book included presidential hopeful Ross Perot, who compared himself squarely to Truman, and first President Bush, who even consulted McCullough during his unsuccessful re-election bid.
“John Adams,” published in 2001, was equally popular and equally useful about him, with Congress passing legislation later that year to build a monument to honor the second president. “1776” was released in 2005, followed by an illustrated edition two years later. An HBO miniseries based on “John Adams”, starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, aired in 2008. Tom Hanks was planning a miniseries based on McCullough’s book about the Wright Brothers.
McCullough had five children and an affinity for happily married politicians such as Truman and Adams that could be traced to his wife, Rosalee Barnes, whom he married in 1954 and who died in June. She was his editor, his muse and his closest friend. At his home in Martha’s Vineyard, McCullough proudly showed visiting reporters a photo of their first meeting, at a spring dance, with the two gazing at each other.