One of the great biographers, in fact, authors of our time is David McCullough. I think that his biography about President Truman (Truman, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992) is one of the very best I have ever read.
Many people may not know that he is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes.
Today, in the Wall Street Journal (April 16-17, p. C11), Alexandra Wolfe published a new article about him. In the by-line, it says, “the author on how history can serve as an antidote to self-pity.”
Here is that article:
“Despite all of the turmoil in U.S. politics lately, David McCullough thinks that the country isn’t in such bad shape. It’s all relative, says the 83-year-old historian and author of such books as the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies “Truman” (1992) and “John Adams” (2001).
He points to the Civil War, for instance, when the country lost 2% of its population—that would be more than six million people today—or the flu pandemic of 1918, when more than 500,000 Americans died. “Imagine that on the nightly news,” he says.
History gives us a sense of proportion, he says: “It’s an antidote to a lot of unfortunately human trends like self-importance and self-pity.”
Mr. McCullough aims to spread that message in his latest book, “The American Spirit,” a collection of speeches that he’s given over the past few decades. Ranging over various topics, from presidential lives to storied places such as Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia (“one of the most eloquent buildings in all of America”), he calls on his readers to see history “as an aid to navigation in such troubled, uncertain times,” as he puts it in the introduction.
Mr. McCullough was born in Pittsburgh, the son of a businessman and a homemaker. After getting a degree in English at Yale University, he moved to New York, where he worked at magazines including Sports Illustrated. In the 1950s, “it was much easier to find a job than to find an apartment,” he says.
When President John F. Kennedy “called upon us to do something for our country, I took it to heart.” He moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the U.S. Information Agency, which supported U.S. foreign policy abroad and was then under the direction of the great broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow.
There Mr. McCullough ran a magazine published for the Arab world, and he used to visit the Library of Congress and the Agriculture Department to search for material. One day, he ran across photographs of the 1889 Johnstown Flood, which occurred when the South Fork Dam broke in Johnstown, Pa., killing more than 2,200 people. “I could not believe the level of destruction in the photographs,” he says. Wanting to learn more, he borrowed a few books about the flood, but he quickly saw that they weren’t very good.
He thought back to something that the playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder had said while a fellow at Yale during Mr. McCullough’s undergraduate days. When Wilder heard a good story and wished to see it on the stage, he wrote the play himself. When he wanted to read a book about an interesting event, he wrote it himself.
So Mr. McCullough went to work. “Once I started doing it, I knew it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he says. His first book, “The Johnstown Flood,” was published in 1968, and “The American Spirit” is his 11th.
He continues to take a similar approach to his subject matter. “I have never undertaken a subject about which I knew very much,” he says. “I tell that to my academic friends, and they just think that’s pitiful, but if I knew all about it, I wouldn’t want to write the book.”
One book can lead to the next. When he was working on “The Path Between the Seas” (1977), about the making of the Panama Canal, he became intrigued by Theodore Roosevelt and “how this frightened little boy turned into the essence of masculine vigor,” he says. In 1981, he published “Mornings on Horseback,” about Roosevelt’s life.
Beyond writing, Mr. McCullough is also known for his rich, deep voice. His audio career started when filmmaker Ken Burns interviewed him for a 1981 documentary on the Brooklyn Bridge. Mr. Burns was so taken with his voice that he asked Mr. McCullough to narrate the whole film. He has since narrated many documentaries and served as the host of “American Experience” on PBS from 1988 to 1999.
Even today, Mr. McCullough doesn’t use a computer for research or writing. He still goes to libraries and archives to find primary sources and writes on a typewriter. He lives in Hingham, Mass., with his wife, Rosalee, who edits his work and often reads his drafts out loud to him so that he can hear how they will sound to a reader. They have five grown children and 19 grandchildren. For leisure, he enjoys painting and drawing.
Mr. McCullough is currently working on a book about settlers in the Old Northwest Territory, an area formed in the late 1700s including the lands that became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. The settlers fought wildcats and snakes and had difficulty farming the heavily forested land. Local Native Americans tried to drive them away with tactics such as killing all the wild game around the new towns the settlers tried to build. They also weathered floods and “virtually any adversity you can imagine,” he says. Almost all of them were veterans of the War of Independence who had been given the land in lieu of pay for their service.
Mr. McCullough laments the fact that students today don’t seem to be as interested in history as he was in his youth:
“I think in some ways I knew more American history when I finished grade school than many college students know today,” he says. “And that’s not their fault—that’s our fault.” History, he adds, is “often boiled down to statistics and dates and quotations that make it extremely boring.”
The key to generating interest, he says, is for professors and teachers to frame history as stories about people.
He takes comfort in the fact that great works of history remain widely available. “I do know this,” he says. “There are still more public libraries in this country than there are McDonald’s.”
He is certainly one of the great writers of our time. Truman (Simon & Schuster, 1992) is a terrific and comprehensive biography of America’s favorite autocratic president. The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (Simon & Schuster, 2011) makes you want to book a flight and get in a time machine to travel backwards.
There have been plenty of books about the Wright Brothers, and their escapades with the flying machine. But, something tells me that in McCullough’s book, we will experience that familiar story in a way that no one else has provided it.
McCullough is a two-time Pulitzer prize winner. He also wrote books about John Adams and Albert Einstein. He weaves details in a storybook fashion that few writers can copy. I found this positive quote about him on the web site for the National Endowment for the Humanities, of which he was a 2003 Jefferson lecturer: “David McCullough throws himself into the research of his subjects, tracing the roads they traveled, reading the books they read, and seeing the homes they lived in. His diligence pays off in detailed and engaging narratives.”
We are just under two months away from its release, and his new book is already # 1 on the Amazon.com best-selling list in scientists, aerospace, and history. Overall, it is # 303 in book sales – two months away!
And, just for credibility, my order for the book is in the queue.
We may see this book at the First Friday Book Synopsis. That all depends upon how “businessy” the book turns out to be.
In the meantime, May 15 cannot come soon enough.
I have believed that two of the greatest living biographers are David McCullough and Douglas Brinkley. I have blogged before about their best-selling works.Please add to their companionship the name of Paul Dickson, whose biography, Bill Veeck (New York: Walker Publishing, 2012), is as thorough and entertaining of this type of book that I have read.
One given is that it doesn’t take a lot to get great material when the subject matter is Bill Veeck. As a major league baseball owner of several teams, no one has ever had stranger techniques or wilder promotions. He also was one of the great “givers” that the game has ever known, particularly from the owner’s box.
This book details these techniques and promotions well. Who could ever forget sending a midget up to bat to ensure a sure base on balls? Or, how about disco-burning night, where more fans than could fit into the stadium showed up to contribute their albums to both a literal and figurative blow-up?
And, how humanitarian Veeck was. He sat with fans in the bleachers. He gave thousands of tickets away to kids who could not afford them. He wore a prosthetic most of his life, but it did not stop him from parading onto the field to play the national anthem as part of a spirit crew. And, he showed great courage by bringing players of color into the limelight, especially the great pitcher, Satchel Paige.
But this book is not just a recount of Veeck’s history. Dickson skillfully weaves sports, politics, economics, and other aspects of our culture into the story. It is a compelling tale, told by a skillful author, who has researched his focal person and subject well.
This is Paul Dickson’s seventh book. Not all are about baseball, and not all are biographies. But, this book clearly places him among the best currently writing.
I can’t present this book at the First Friday Book Synopsis in Dallas. It did not make a best-seller list, which is our requirement for selection. But, I hope someday to get to talk about it formally for some audience, somewhere.
Consider buying and reading it. It will be well worth your reading time.
NOTE: I am aware that I have done a very poor job with these posts, especially concerning my views about advances in technology. Those posts were highly misaligned with the books we have presented about technology, so I will not write about that subject anymore. However, I will share some thoughts about some of the books that I have read recently in order to inspire some of you to consider reading them.
Kati Marton is a veteran ABC and NPR news correspondent. She has written seven books, and I have two of them. In this post, I will call your attention to her newest best-seller that I read over the holidays entitled Paris: A Love Story (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012). Before all of you guys reading this think that book must be too “mushy,” it is actually less about loving people, and more about loving her experiences in the wonderful Parisian context.
You may remember the feelings that I expressed about David McCullough’s work in the same setting. In 2011, he published The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), in which he shared experiences from politicians, artists, and other entrepreneurial Americans who visited, lived, and worked in Paris at the turn of the century. The experiences were spellbinding, and he wrote the book so well that you wanted to jump out of your chair, get on an airplane, and wind back the clock to join them.
There is something magical about Paris. I was there once, but only for 36 hours, and as a member of a whirlwind tour party. That is not how to see Paris. In fact, that is not how to see anything.
But, Marton’s Paris is special, because it documents experiences with her two famous late husbands. The first was Peter Jennings, ABC’s news anchor, who divorced her in 1993, and died in 2005. The second was Richard Holbrooke, a diplomatic troubleshooter who worked for every Democratic president since the late 1960s, and who at the time of his death, still married to Marton, was the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Holbrooke died in 2010.
Paris was an important place for both of these relationships, and in her book, you see it as both foreground and background to important events in her life, the lives of both men, and the troubles of America and the world. While she loved both her husbands, the book also includes brutal honesty about her extramarital affairs while in both relationships.
Paris became Marton’s refuge. After settling all the affairs of the estate, she writes, “I need to get away. Paris seems the right place. It is where Richard and I started our lives together and lived our happiest times. But, well before that, it is where I became who I am. In a life of multiple uprootings, Paris has been my one fixed point. Once before I found happiness and beauty in Paris. I was a young girl then, the child of political refugees who settled in America….Paris is the place where good things seem to happen to me. In a way, every story with Paris at its heart is a love story. So is mine. It is where I fell in love, first with the city, then with the man who became the father of my children. Then, in middle age, I found lasting love in Paris with Richard. So, in Paris, I will relearn how to live” (pp. 32-33).
And, thus, the story ends with Marton celebrating Christmas with her family in Paris. The final photo caption in the book reads, “the start of a new life, alone, in Paris.”
This book was so well done that I ordered a book she wrote in 2006, entitled The Great Escape: Nine Jews who Fled Hitler and Changed the World (New York: Simon & Schuster). The book is out of print, so I had to order a copy from a used book service. The context is Budapest, Hungary. The story has deep familial roots for Marton, as both her parents were Hungarian journalists for AP and UPI, and who were imprisoned during the war. I have not yet finished this one. I am reading it slowly to fully absorb the context and bravery that jumps off every page. When I finish, I want to share some insights that I am gaining from that book.
I am thrilled to read that David McCullough will be the featured speaker for the JFK Memorial Anniversary ceremony on November 22, 2013. This event will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the fatal shooting in downtown Dallas.
McCullough has positioned himself as the premier biographer in contemporary literature. You are aware of his prolific work on John Adams and Harry Truman, but I thought that 1776 and The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris were simply over the top.
To read more about his selection as the keynote speaker, go to this link:
I have studied the JFK assassination for many years. I was 9 years old when he came to Dallas. My mother let me stay home to watch his speech on television, which, of course, he never gave. The conspiracy theories are interesting, but when you look at what we know, not what we can speculate about, there was only one killer in Dealey Plaza on November 22. The best resource for this is the amazing and comprehensive work by Vincent Bugliosi entitled Reclaiming America.
The 50th anniversary of this event will bring about many more books. Right now, at the top of the non-fiction list is Bill O’Reilly’s book Killing Kennedy. How many more will we see? How many more do we need?
I don’t know the answer to those questions. But I do know this – the anniversary is not a VIP-event, but it does require a ticket. There will be only a few available. You can bet your bottom dollar that I will have one. I will be there – it will be a memory of a lifetime.
What do you think? Let’s talk about it really soon!
You may have been mildly surprised to read the story on Sunday distributed by the Associated Press, revealing that Clifton Truman Daniel, the grandson of former President Harry S. Truman, visited Hiroshima, where he attended a memorial service for the victims killed by the August 6, 1945 bombing, and laid a wreath at the Peace Memorial Park.
You can read the entire text of that article by Eric Talmadge here.
The weight of making the decision on President Truman to drop the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were never better chronicled than in the great biography, Truman, written by David McCullough (Simon and Schuster, 1993). His account actually makes you feel as if you were agonizing over that decision as well.
Note that Daniel’s visit was the first ever to the site by a member of the Truman family, some 67 years after the bombings. During the visit he said, “I think this centopath says it all – to honor the dead, to not forget, and to make sure that we never let this happen again….There are other opinions, there are other points of view, and I don’t think we evr finish talking about that.”
The article notes that Daniel chose to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki because he needed to understand the consequences of his grandfather’s action, and that he is committed to help achieve a nuclear-free world.
I don’t know about you, but the tone seems to indicate that, under the same circumstances, he would not acted as his grandfather, and would not have dropped the bombs. Does his presence and activity there signal regret, or go even further, as an apology?
I find that still today discussions about the two bombings are acrimonious, with people taking sharp polar positions about the legitimacy and need for the atomic attacks. I also find that very few people understand the agony that President Truman experienced while making the decision. A re-read of McCullough’s biography will help fill that gap. Young people in history classes are taught to consider the ethics of the action.
I find myself unsure what good this visit by Truman’s grandson really produced. It was not an official visit by an American elected official, nor sanctioned by the United States government. From all appearances, he did this for himself, by himself, and perhaps that is all it was, to provide personal fulfillment.
But, the visit was also symbolic. Ignoring it for 67 years as the family had done speaks for itself; calling it to attention in the limelight such as this event raises new questions. Regardless, it doesn’t bring back the 210,000 people who were killed, and it simply gets us to speculate about familial solidarity. More importantly, it doesn’t help us understand the two bombings any better, and it doesn’t prevent it from happening again.
And what do you think about it? Let’s talk about this really soon!