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Connecting with David McCullough

A decade ago years still before John Adams would officially establish David McCullough as America's most popular history teacher McCullough accepted the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at a ceremony in New York. "History shows us how to behave," he told those in attendance. David McCullough

History teaches, reinforces what we believe in, what we stand for, and what we ought to be willing to stand up for. History is or should be the bedrock of patriotism, not the chest-pounding kind of patriotism but the real thing, love of country.

Connecting past to present and present to future, McCullough continued,

We are living now in an era of momentous change, of huge transitions in all aspects of life here, nationwide, worldwide and this creates great pressures and tensions. But history shows that times of change are the times when we are most likely to learn. This nation was founded on change. We should embrace the possibilities in these exciting times and hold to a steady course, because we have a sense of navigation, a sense of what we've been through in times past and who we are.

In John Adams (his second Pulitzer-winning biography, after Truman) and now again in 1776, McCullough navigates readers through the human events, both political and military, that thrust America on its course to independence.

Mining personal correspondence and troves of archival records to draw George Washington and his army of ragged volunteers with breathtaking candor, in 1776 McCullough turns from Adams's legislative and domestic affairs to the hardships of a fighting force whose perseverance and uncanny good fortune established The Declaration of Independence as more than an idealist's mere dream.

"McCullough's brilliant work is a model for us all. In his unrivaled mastery," commended the Boston Globe, "we are all his students."

Dave: I thought I'd start by asking about what you chose to leave out of 1776, the events that occur offstage. Everything in Philadelphia, for example.

David McCullough: I wanted to tell the military story of 1776, not the political. I'd written extensively about The Declaration of Independence and all that was involved in Philadelphia when I wrote John Adams. It was when I was writing that part of it that I realized how much more was going on besides the drama inside Independence Hall. I thought, Isn't it a shame I can't write about what else is going on? Maybe that could be my next book.

My hope is that when we remember July 4, 1776, or the year 1776, that we don't just remember The Declaration of Independence, as important and noble as it was. We must understand what the people that were fighting the war were enduring and suffering, and what kind of determination that took. Without them, it would have been just what it was called: a declaration. It wouldn't have meant anything.

Dave: When the book opens, we meet King George as a procession carries him through St. James Park past 60,000 admirers on his way to Parliament. Readers may be surprised that you begin with such a sympathetic portrait.

McCullough: I hope they'll be surprised. That was the idea.

He's going to give the speech that will change the attitude in the colonies. The war is no longer about their rights as freeborn Englishmen; everybody who is fighting for the American side is a traitor. When that speech reaches Boston on the first day of the New Year, 1776, the country is outraged as never before.

King George and the Parliament declared they were going to crush the rebellion, so now the Americans knew it wasn't going to be a short war; they knew the result wouldn't be a compromise where we would rejoin the mother country. That's when the whole idea of independence really kicks in.

Dave: Some readers may not be aware that Americans enjoyed a very good standard of living back then.

McCullough: The highest in the world.

Dave: And many were loyal to the crown, particularly in New York and New Jersey.

McCullough: John Adams estimated realistically, I think that at least a third of the country were loyal, a third were for the revolution, and a third were waiting to see who won before they made up their mind.

Dave: Two of the most prominent American generals are new to warfare. They're book-learned. Today, you might call it a start-up army.

McCullough: It's an amateur pick-up team. They're all young that's so important to the story.

Nathaniel Greene is a general at thirty-three, and Henry Knox is given virtual command of the artillery at twenty-five years old, neither of them having any prior experience. Three of the most important figures in the chronicle are Quakers, pacifists by prior faith: Greene; Thomas Mifflin, the general who performed so heroically at Brooklyn; and Thomas Paine. All three Quakers break their pacifist vows to fight what they consider is a necessary war. Some wars aren't necessary; this one certainly was.

I think what I wanted to accomplish most of all was to convey what suffering those people endured. We don't know that as well as we should; it's not part of our understanding of that time. Too many people see it as a costume pageant, with gentlemen in satin britches and powdered hair mincing around to minuets, and so forth. I wanted to convey the reality of what it was like to be in their shoes, trying to fight a war under such adverse conditions.

Dave: They were up against considerable odds. At one point, the British bring 32,000 troops to Staten Island, an army larger than the population of America's biggest city.

McCullough: Philadelphia only has 30,000 people; that's stunning, as well. When you consider that time in America, you have to make a huge shift in scale from what you're used to.

Dave: On the very first page of Mornings on Horseback, you note that in 1869 less than a hundred years later the population of New York is nearing one million.

McCullough: The explosion of population, commerce, and industry that takes place in that next hundred years is one of the most far-reaching revolutions of another kind in history.

The people of 1776 saw the growing population as a major factor in our future, in our strength. Benjamin Franklin wrote about that quite powerfully. This was going to be an empire very unlike what it was then; it was in the cards. Nathan Hale, for example, was one of six brothers who served in the revolution. Henry Knox was one of ten sons. Nathaniel Greene was the third of eight sons. They all came from huge families. Jabez Fitch, the Connecticut farmer, who was one of my favorite characters of all, had eight children.

Dave: You mention Fitch, whose journals are one of your primary sources. Is that one of the more enjoyable parts of this process for you, to read through those original source materials?

McCullough: Absolutely, and particularly if it's the men in the ranks. The combination of Fitch, Joseph Hodgkins, the Ipswich shoemaker, and young Joseph Plum Martin, the farm boy from Connecticut, they really take you into the experience the way you want to. And there's no kidding around about it; it's the real thing.

If anything, I was inclined to put in a lot more of that, but sometimes less is more. Those three in particular really carry a lot of the character of the story.

Dave: You include letters from the better known figures, as well. It's startling to realize that as the American army is falling apart the revolution could be crushed any day George Washington is writing home about the wainscoting at Mount Vernon.

McCullough: Isn't it wonderful?

Dave: It's amazing. It opens up that world in a way that no battle scenes or legislative debates possibly could.

McCullough: I think it's how he maintained his sanity. Truly.

When Eisenhower was given the command in Europe for D-Day, Churchill told him that he had to take up painting. He said, "If you don't do something to divert your mind from the burdens you're going to be carrying, you'll crack." Painting had done that for Churchill. So Eisenhower did. And he became a pretty good painter nothing like Churchill was, but good enough.

I think that the project at Mount Vernon was Washington's form of painting, the something else to turn his mind to when all these terrible problems were weighing on him.

Dave: Of your book-length subjects, Truman is by far the most contemporary. What inspired you to write about him? Did you have any idea of the scope it was going to entail?

McCullough: Absolutely not, to the last part of the question.

The ideas for these books can come from anywhere, chance remarks or something I've read. In the case of Truman, I was having a working lunch with my editor and publisher and agent at Simon & Schuster after I'd finished my Theodore Roosevelt book, Mornings on Horseback. Michael Korda, my editor, said, "Why don't you do a biography of FDR? You realize there isn't a good one-volume biography of Franklin Roosevelt." This was a number of years ago.

I said, "No, I didn't realize there was no one-volume biography, but I just spent four years with the Roosevelts, and I'm ready for another kind of person, another kind of America. And if I were ever going to do a twentieth century President, it wouldn't be FDR; it would be Harry Truman."

I have no idea why I said that. It just came out. The others at the table all said, "That sounds good. What about Truman?" I said, "Wait a minute. Let me think about it. Let me go out to Independence, Missouri, and the Truman Library and see what all is entailed here. Let me talk to Margaret and see if she's willing to be interviewed."

A month or so later, I said, "Yes, it's a marvelous subject," but I still had no idea of the volume of documentary material that is accumulated for any twentieth century President, particularly any since World War II. I'd never do it again. I could have spent the rest of my life in the Truman Library and never read all that was there, by a long shot.

As I gather, the volume in these Presidential libraries has been compounding by geometric proportions. To give you an example, when Truman was President, he could still present the budget, himself, to a press conference. It was still possible for one human being to understand the whole budget, which he did. That was the last of that era.

Dave: Teddy Roosevelt came to the White House with a broad range of life experience, but how would you compare it to your other subjects?

McCullough: Theodore Roosevelt's range of experience was quite remarkable, but he was only forty-two years old when he took office. The difference in having a moment of glory in The Spanish-American War and serving in The Battle in the Argonne in World War I, as Truman had, is like the difference in playing junior high school football and playing in a Notre Dame game.

Truman had been through terrible failure and bankruptcy. Adams, growing up on a farm in New England in the eighteenth century, really knew that life was a struggle. Granted, Theodore Roosevelt had a horrific struggle with his own physical strength and survival, his battle with asthma, but he lived in many ways a very sheltered life.

One of the reasons I was drawn to Truman was that he is almost an allegorical figure; his life journey represents almost the whole story of the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth century. He's there for everything: the Depression, financial collapse, living in a small town when that was emblematic of American life; he goes off to fight in France as his generation did and is changed by it; he gets involved with a crooked political machine in Missouri... That's a guy who really knew a lot about life. As did John Adams. And others, too.

Considering how young Roosevelt was, and how privileged he was by the wealth and position of his family, he had experienced quite a lot, but nothing like some of the others.

Dave: I spoke to Erik Larson a while back about The Devil in the White City. He was talking about how Frederick Law Olmsted became so interesting to him that he started to take over the book in ways Larson hadn't expected. To a different degree, Washington Roebling had that role in The Great Bridge.

McCullough: I love architecture, I love bridges, and I certainly have all the affection for The Brooklyn Bridge that many New Yorkers and Americans have, but it was the Roeblings that truly interested me. It was their story.

It's the human side of all of these subjects that interests me. I have no interest as a writer or historian to do an analytical appraisal of The Progressive Era. That just isn't what I do. I'm interested in the people, what happened to them and why. When I have a subject that has left a full and revealing record through personal correspondence, then I can get inside those lives, I can get below the surface and that's the job of a writer, it seems to me, to get below the surface.

This was true of Truman, who wrote such fantastic letters, particularly in the years when he had no idea he was going to be a protagonist in history; and the letters between John Adams and his wife are some of the greatest we have from any Americans over a thousand letters between John and Abigail Adams. They're all wonderfully written and long, and they tell you more than anybody else of that era about their personal lives and feelings. That's what's so remarkable about the Adams papers.

I grew up in Pittsburgh, which is one of the reasons I got interested in the Roeblings; that's where they got their start. Maybe it's from living in that city when it was the big steel powerhouse of the world that I sometimes think of research material as the ore out of which the steel of the book will be made. And it takes an awful lot of ore, carloads of it coming in from The Mesabi Range (which for me may be the Massachusetts Historical Society or the Library of Congress) it takes an awful lot of that to make the book.

Dave: One of my favorite letters in John Adams was John's advice to Nabby about finding a husband.

Daughter! Get you an honest man for a husband, and keep him honest. No matter whether he is rich, provided he be independent. Regard the honor and moral character of the man more than all other circumstances. Think of no other greatness but that of the soul, no other riches but those of the heart. An honest, sensible, humane man, above all the littleness of vanity and extravagances of imagination, laboring to do good rather than be rich, to be useful rather than make a show, living in modest simplicity clearly within his means and free from debts and obligations, is really the most respectable man in society, makes himself and all about him most happy.

McCullough: Isn't that a beautiful letter?

Dave: I was actually surprised I hadn't come across it previously.

McCullough: I wish I'd had it when my girls were young, for them to have read they both picked wonderful husbands; I'm not complaining about that. But it's also what Adams wants to be. That's the ideal man he's striving to be, though he knows full well he probably won't attain it. He understands his limitations better than anyone.

Dave: Were you caught off guard by the success of John Adams?

McCullough: Everybody was. My publisher was astonished. People were saying to me when I was working on it, "You're writing a book about John Adams? Don't expect that to do what Truman did." And I thought they were probably right, but that isn't why I was writing.

The years writing John Adams and 1776 have been the most exhilarating, happiest years of my writing life. I had never ventured into the eighteenth century before, never set foot in it. I told my wife the other day that I might never come back. I love it.

Dave: Do you have an idea about what you might do next?

McCullough: I have several ideas, but I'm thinking about it. There's a letter that Joseph Hodgkins, the Ipswich cobbler, wrote to his wife in July of 1776. He says, "If I get out of this alive, I think I might like to rest for a spell." That's sort of the way I feel. I'd like to rest for a spell.

Dave: I'd imagine that after all this time there must be many subjects you've been excited about but for one reason or another haven't pursued.

McCullough: I have a list, and I think there are twenty-five ideas on it. Some of them, I still think, That would be a terrific book. Very often, they're books I would like to read that don't exist, which is how I got into this in the first place. I wanted to write a book that I would like to read about The Johnstown Flood.

There are probably seven or eight ideas dealing with the eighteenth century and the rise of America, the revolution, and the new government. I just hope I live long enough. I'll probably have to live to about 125.

They're hard work, books like this. At least, they are for me. I know there are lots of people who write books very fast and also write articles. To me, it's very hard work, and all-consuming, which I love.

Do you know the work of the novelist Mary Lee Settle? She's a very good historical novelist, a wonderful person whom I've gotten to know over the years. She said once, "I write to find out." I think that's the perfect description. For me, the four years or five years or ten years that I'm working on a project, it's like attending Oxford or some great university and having that chance to explore a subject or an era full-time. The learning part is what I like the best.

Dave: In your National Book Award acceptance speech and elsewhere, you've talked about a growing problem of historical illiteracy in America.

McCullough: It's a big problem, and I'm doing everything I can to try to help.

Dave: How can people get involved?

McCullough: There's a very good organization that was started by a professor at Princeton, Theodore Rabb, and another professor at Columbia, Ken Jackson, called The National Council for History Education, which has been growing steadily. I've been involved in it almost from the beginning. It's an effort to do something about how we're teaching the teachers, which is a critical part of the problem. We have such a vast number of teachers, particularly now, more and more, who are the graduates of schools of education, or they have a degree in education. They don't know a subject; they haven't had a real major. They're assigned to teach botany or physics or history, and they don't know anything about the subject.

The federal government is also trying to do some things. Senator Byrd and Lamar Alexander are very much in the forefront of that, along with Senator Kennedy.

I feel strongly that we've got to revise how we teach the teachers. I would abolish schools of education. I think what every teacher ought to have is a good liberal arts education. And there are signs of hope. At the University of Oklahoma, for example, you can no longer graduate with a degree in education; you have to have a major. But there are also terrible setbacks. The state of Alabama has stopped the teaching of history through the first eight grades. State-wide, no more history.

One of the problems with having a teacher that doesn't know the subject he or she is teaching is that they are more dependent therefore on the textbooks, and the textbooks, though there are some exceptions, are appallingly bad. Dreary, deadly it's as if they're designed to kill any interest you might have in history. And you can't love something you don't know any more than you can love someone you don't know. If the teacher doesn't know any history, how is he or she really going to love it? We know from our own experiences that it's the ones that really love what they're teaching that teach you the most.

But I don't think the problem is the teachers, entirely. I think the problem with education in our country is us. We're not doing anywhere near enough as parents or grandparents to talk about history with our children, to talk about the books we've loved about historical subjects or figures. And taking our children or grandchildren to historic sights... we can't leave that for the schools because they don't do it much anymore. Reinstate the dinner table conversation. Reinstate dinner as part of family life. I grew up that way. It's another era, I know, but there's nothing wrong with the idea that you'd talk about history or current events and politics at the dinner table. Every night. Go with your children to Fort Necessity or Monticello or someplace like that. They never forget it. It changes their life.

I know from teaching as a visiting professor or guest lecturer at universities for more than twenty years now that what our students don't know about American history is absolutely appalling. It's stunning. It leaves you gaping when you first encounter it. You think, How can this be? But it's correctable.

That's an awful long answer, but I do care about this passionately.

Dave: What was the last book you enjoyed that someone else gave you? Something you might not have encountered on your own.

McCullough: It's a historical novel, somewhat of a murder mystery, called Rosa. It's by an extremely gifted new writer called Jonathan Rabb. His father, Ted Rabb, the one who started this NCHE, gave it to me. It's set in Berlin in 1919. I was not particularly interested in Berlin or 1919, but I started to read the book and it pulls you right into that world, the politics and the underground, undercover plotting, the embryonic signs of fascism and Hitler coming. It's a riveting book.

Dave: I haven't read it.

McCullough: Do you know the novelist Alan Furst?

Dave: I do. He's very popular among Powell's employees.

McCullough: He's superb, and this fellow is somewhat like that. Furst is writing mostly about 1939 and 1940, and oh my God is he good. Set it Europe. Rosa, of course, is twenty years earlier.

Dave: It must be thrilling to see your work reach such a wide audience.

McCullough: I find it very gratifying to receive phone calls and letters from people who've read my work and express gratitude, but particularly those who come from people in their twenties or thereabouts. I'm very pleased that what I'm doing is reaching that generation as well as my own.

David McCullough spoke from New Haven, Connecticut, on May 25, 2005, in advance of his visit to Portland for a reading at the First Congregationalist Church.

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Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. 1776: The Illustrated Edition Used Hardcover $18.50
  2. 1776
    Used Hardcover $8.50
  3. The Course of Human Events New Compact Disc $14.00
  4. Johnstown Flood (Touchstone Books)
    Used Trade Paper $4.95
  5. Brave Companions Used Trade Paper $6.95
  6. Mornings on Horseback: The Story of...
    Used Trade Paper $6.95
  7. The Path Between the Seas: The...
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  8. The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of...
    Used Trade Paper $9.50
  9. John Adams
    Used Trade Paper $4.95
  10. Truman
    Used Trade Paper $6.95
  11. Mornings on Horseback: The Story of...
    Used Trade Paper $6.95

  12. John Adams
    Used Trade Paper $4.95
  13. 1776
    Used Hardcover $8.50
  14. Truman
    Used Trade Paper $6.95

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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