History Interviews David McCullough: Author & historian has Americans reading U.S. history

HISTORY BUZZ: HISTORY NEWS RECAP

History Buzz

HISTORY BUZZ: HISTORY NEWS RECAP

JACQUELYN MARTIN / Associated Press

Author David McCullough, in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., said one finds the purest forms of history in art.

Source: Sacremento Bee, 10-10-11

Few authors have done more to popularize American history than David McCullough. Not only has the historian-lecturer made it more accessible than ever, he has made it sing.

Take his bestselling 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning “John Adams,” for instance. The biography of the prickly founding father had a first printing of 350,000, a staggering number for a history book and a tribute to McCullough’s stature. In 2008, the HBO miniseries “John Adams” took home a load of awards, including three Golden Globes.

“The pre-eminent master of narrative history,” as he is known, has cast an unusual eye on the American landscape for his subjects: the youth of Theodore Roosevelt (“Mornings on Horseback”), the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge (“The Great Bridge”), the marvel of the Panama Canal (“The Path Between the Seas”), the dam failure that destroyed a town (“The Johnstown Flood”). More mainstream were “Truman,” “1776″ and “John Adams.”

Along the way, McCullough has collected two National Book Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, a Presidential Medal of Freedom and two Francis Parkman Prizes from the American Society of Historians.

Now comes “The Greater Journey” (Simon & Schuster, $37.50, 576 pages), chronicling how life in Paris helped shape the achievements of hundreds of Americans who lived there between 1830 and 1900.

“His books are wonderful contributions to the public discourse, and they bring a lot of people into thinking about areas of history they might not otherwise have,” said Eric Rauchway. He is both a history professor at the University of California, Davis, and the author of five books, including “The Great Depression and the New Deal” (Oxford University Press, $11.95, 160 pages).

“McCullough benefits tremendously from academic history, and in turn he gives a lot back by putting forth bold theses that academics sometimes must reckon with. Such as whether building the Panama Canal was a good idea,” Rauchway said. “Beyond that, he serves a valuable role in terms of talking to the public sphere about the uses of history.”

I caught up with McCullough, 78, by phone at his Boston home. He and his wife, Rosalee, have five children and 18 grandchildren.

Where did the idea for “The Greater Journey” originate?

When Gene Kelly starred in “An American in Paris,” that really got to me. I imagined myself as a painter in Paris (McCullough is a part-time artist.), with all the beautiful girls interested in me.

Many years later in Paris, I wanted to show that history is much more than just politics and the military. The idea that I could concentrate on painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, medicine and the world of ideas was more of a draw than just the setting.

Why was Paris a magnet to Americans of that era?

It was the cultural capital of the world, with a high standard of education you could not get here. If you wanted to be better than you were, Paris was the place to go.

Who are two of the Americans you write about?

Samuel F.B. Morse went to Paris to perfect himself as a painter but got the idea for the telegraph. Another was Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., a poet and essayist. He decided to become a physician and was so affected by (his teachers in Paris) that he came back and taught at the Harvard Medical School.

Are we Americans losing touch with our own history?

Yes, we are, because we’re doing a grossly inadequate job of teaching history to our children and grandchildren. I’ve lectured at more than 100 universities and have seen (an ignorance of history) everywhere. What (students) don’t know is sometimes almost humorous. It’s not their fault, it’s ours. We need to do a better job of teaching the teachers.

Your best advice to students?

Read everything, and try to read a little above what you think is your level. Read the classics, they’re damn good.

Do you watch the History Channel?

I don’t have time for TV, though once in awhile I’ll watch “The American Experience” on PBS (which he hosted for 12 years). My spirit plummets when I read that the average daily time spent watching TV in American households is seven hours.

Don’t history-related TV shows give the subject some exposure?

Sure, they’re better than the drivel that’s on. But the way to get people involved in history is to get them reading original letters, diaries and autobiographies. There’s a wonderful literature of history, too, (including) “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara, about the Battle of Gettysburg. And the World War II novels by Herman Wouk are superb (“The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance”).

It’s said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

I’m not sure that’s true. Harry Truman said the only new thing in the world is the history you don’t know. I think that’s a better quote.

It’s also said that history is written by the victors.

That’s a vast oversimplification, but, yes, history does change in perspective as time goes on. All history is revisionist history because we know what followed. Otherwise, why write it?

Where do we find the purest forms of history?

Architecture is a very pure one, and so are painting and music. For some civilizations, all we have of their histories is their art.

History is the human experience. It’s about people, not just facts and figures. One of the most effective history teachers I had in college would not hold us (students) accountable for any (historic) dates. He said, “That’s what books are for, you can look them up.” It was as if he had told me I could put on a pair of wings and fly. It released me to really start to enjoy history.

As a writer, which is more satisfying – the research or the writing?

The writing is what I take more to heart because it’s the part that’s all up to me. The research is like being on a detective case.

When I write, it’s as if I go into this other time and place, as if I’m under a spell. In many ways, the (research subjects) become more real to me than the people I know in life, because I know so much more about them. In real life, you don’t get to read other people’s mail.

If you could time-travel back to historical era?

I would love to come back here to Boston in the years just before the Civil War, the late 1850s. I would like to see the abolitionist movement in full gear, and some of the intellectual life that was going on. I would love to meet people like (poet Henry Wadsworth) Longfellow and (poet-essayist Ralph Waldo) Emerson. And hang out in a good bar and soak up some of the stories the Irish were bringing in.

What will history have to say about you?

I hope it will say, “He tried his hardest.”

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