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Conversation

McCullough

A Visit with Historian David McCullough

HUMANITIES, May/June 2003 | Volume 24, Number 3

Last year, David McCullough and NEH Chairman Bruce Cole talked about the humanities and the role they play in a democracy. This article is adapted from that conversation.

Bruce Cole: In many ways, you're the ideal historian because you bring first-rate scholarship to a wide audience in a way that is both literary and accessible.

David McCullough: Well, thank you. It's what I try very hard to do. My shorthand answer is that I try to write the kind of book that I would like to read. If I can make it clear and interesting and compelling to me, then I hope maybe it will be for the reader.

I just thank my father and mother, my lucky stars, that I had the advantage of an education in the humanities. Being an English major at Yale in the 1950s was a privilege. People like John O'Hara, John Hersey, Brendan Gill, and Thornton Wilder were around on the campus. There were days when I sat down at the communal lunch table beside Thornton Wilder. There was the daily themes course, which was taught by Robert Penn Warren. Their presence was a reminder of how very far one had to go beyond Yale.

After Yale I served a valuable apprenticeship, first at Time and Life, then at the U.S. Information Agency, then at American Heritage, trying to learn how to do this. Once I discovered the endless fascination of doing the research and of doing the writing, I knew I had found what I wanted to do in my life.

Every book is a new journey. I never felt I was an expert on a subject as I embarked on a project. Mary Lee Settle, who is a writer whose work I greatly admire, said, "I write to find out." That says it perfectly.

With a book like John Adams, I've spent six glorious years in the eighteenth century. To go into that time, it is necessary not to just read what they wrote--"they" meaning John and Abigail Adams and others in their circle--but to try and read what they read. To go back and read Swift and Defoe and Samuel Johnson and Smollett and Pope--all those people we had to read in college English courses--to read them now is to have one of the infinite pleasures in life.

To me history ought to be a source of pleasure. It isn't just part of our civic responsibility. To me it's an enlargement of the experience of being alive, just the way literature or art or music is. I have certain people that I try to keep in mind as an example.

Cole: Do you think about them while you're writing?

McCullough: Yes, very often. The more I go back and reread Francis Parkman, the more admiration I have for him. I paint, too, and--maybe it's true in all the arts--it's an antidote to hubris. You are reminded again and again of how far you have to go compared to what other people have done. You stand in front of one of those great paintings or you pick up Samuel Johnson's essays or Francis Parkman's works on the French and Indian War, and it's humbling. But it also is affirming in the sense that you realize that you're working in a great tradition.

Cole: Absolutely. Were I a painter standing in front of Rembrandt's Late Self-portrait in the Frick, I'd have given up. But it is inspiring. It does show you what can be done.

McCullough: The first time I saw Botticelli's The Birth of Venus in the Uffizi Gallery, it was as if I'd been struck. First of all, it was so much bigger than I ever had any idea it would be. And it's so glorious. It not only puts your own abilities in perspective, it certainly dashes any arrogance we might have about how far we've progressed over the centuries. Who in the world could do that today? Nobody. I would have flown all the way to Italy, taken the train up from Rome and back, and then home again, just to have seen that painting.

Cole: One of the things you never get from photographs is a sense of the physicality of the painting or of its scale.

When you teach art history you show slides. They are exactly the same size, and your students only have a vague approximation. When you actually see the thing it comes as a revelation.

To return for a moment to this question of history for a larger audience, aside from Parkman who are your heroes?

McCullough: There are certain books that I like very much. Reveille in Washington. I love Barbara Tuchman's work, particularly The Proud Tower. Paul Horgan's biography of Archbishop Lamy is a masterpiece. Wallace Stegner's book on John Wesley Powell I'm fond of.

I like some of the present-day people: Robert Caro's first volume on Lyndon Johnson was brilliant. I care for some of the best of the Civil War writing: Shelby Foote, for example, and Bruce Catton's The Stillness at Appomattox. It was Catton's Stillness at Appomattox that started me reading about the Civil War, and then on to people like Tuchman and others. There is a wonderful book called The Reason Why, about the Charge of the Light Brigade--and biographies--Henri Troyat's Tolstoy, for example.

I work very hard on the writing, writing and rewriting and trying to weed out the lumber. I'm very aware how many distractions the reader has in life today, how many good reasons there are to put the book down. To hold the reader's attention, you have to bring the person who's reading the book inside the experience of the time: What was it like to have been alive then? What were these people like as human beings?

When I did Truman, I had no idea what woods I was venturing into. Had I known it was going to take me ten years, I never would have done it. In retrospect, I'm delighted now that I didn't know.

I love all sides of the work but that doesn't mean it isn't hard. There have been times when a book was taking year after year--not with this one so much, but with The Path Between the Seas--when I'd come down to Washington to do research in the National Archives, hoping I wouldn't find anything new because it could set me back another year or two.

By the same token, to open up a box of the death certificates kept by the French at the hospital in Ancon, at Panama City and to read the personal details of those who died--their names, their age, where they came from, height, color of eyes--was a connection with the reality of them, the mortal tale of that undertaking, that one can never find by doing the conventional kind of research with microfilm or Xeroxed copies.

Cole: Do you find the research or the writing harder? I think writing is just an agony that we're all addicted to.

McCullough: To me it's very hard. There are days when you just can't get it right. But I love both. There's an awful temptation to just keep on researching. There comes a point where you just have to stop, and start writing. When I began, I thought that the way one should work was to do all the research and then write the book. In time I began to understand that it's when you start writing that you really find out what you don't know and need to know.

Cole: I feel that way myself. It's a clarifying process. It really shows you where you have to fill in the gaps.

McCullough: You can target your efforts much more clearly. I love to go to the places where things happen. I like to walk the walk and see how the light falls and what winter feels like.

Cole: Have you done this for every book?

McCullough: Every book, yes.

Cole:At what stage during your writing do you do that?

McCullough: I've done it two ways: With the Truman book, I wrote the entire account of his experiences in World War I before going over to Europe to follow his tracks in the war. When I got there, there was a certain satisfaction in finding I had it right--it does look like that. But there were also many things that were quite different from what I had pictured.

And I like to get a sense of scale--whether it's a battlefield or a room or a house. The house that the Adamses lived in in London--our first embassy there--still stands. It's the only eighteenth-century house left on Grosvenor Square, and it's tiny. I find that eloquent that it's so small.

It's like Carpenters' Hall in Philadelphia. That's a beautiful little Georgian red brick structure, about fifty by fifty. It has all the ideals of the eighteenth century: balance and light. You go in there and you think: This is where the first Continental Congress met? One of the greatest beginnings in all of history began in this little room?

Cole: I was amazed about the populations of New York and Boston--how small they were and how big the British army was. That does help put it into perspective.

McCullough: When I read that the British army had landed thirty-two thousand troops--and I had realized, not very long before, that Philadelphia only had thirty thousand people in it--it practically lifted me out of my chair. They landed an army bigger than the entire population of the largest city in the country.

Cole: That's an amazing fact. It would be wonderful if there were more historians working in the way that you do. It seems to me that many academic historians are writing more and more for specialized audiences. It's always seemed to me that if you're passionate about something, you want to communicate that to the widest possible audience.

McCullough: I feel I'm working in a tradition that goes all the way back to Thucydides or Gibbon, if you want. They weren't academic historians either.

I can fairly be called an amateur because I do what I do, in the original sense of the word--for love, because I love it. On the other hand, I think that those of us who make our living writing history can also be called true professionals.

Cole: Absolutely.

McCullough: I don't feel that there is a great divide between the work that I and others do and those in the academic world. There are superb writers who are academic historians: Bernard Bailyn, William Leuchtenburg, Kenneth Jackson. And there are people who are trying to write history for the general reader who can be quite tedious. That said, I do feel in my heart of hearts that if history isn't well written, it isn't going to be read, and if it isn't read it's going to die.

Cole: I agree.

McCullough: I feel that what I do is a calling. I would pay to do what I do if I had to. I will never live long enough to do the work I want to do: the books I would like to write, the ideas I would like to explore. I have to have the form in mind before I can write the book.

Cole: You find the architecture. Then when you get into it, do you find all sorts of surprises?

McCullough: Absolutely. It's why everybody should be able to go into the stacks. You find the books you didn't know you were looking for.

Cole: One of my mentors said, "Never use the card catalog. Get into the stacks and you'll make wonderful discoveries." I took that advice, much to the chagrin of librarians.

McCullough: I could not do what I do without the kindness, consideration, resourcefulness and work of librarians, particularly in public libraries.

It happens all the time. I have librarians that will call up and say: "You remember that thing you were looking for a year, two years ago, and we didn't know where it was? Well, we found it."

What started me writing history happened because of some curiosity that I had about some photographs I'd seen in the Library of Congress.

Cole: What were they?

McCullough: They were photographs taken of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, after the flood. A Pittsburgh photographer had somehow gotten his heavy glass plates and all that paraphernalia over the mountains into the city.

My wife and I--it was a Saturday--had gone to the Library of Congress to look up some things in the old prints and photographs department. There was a marvelous man there named Milton Kaplan, a specialist on prints and photographs. He took me to a table where they had just spread out these photographs they had acquired. We stopped to look. I was astounded by the violence of what had happened and the drama of it. I grew up in that part of Pennsylvania and I had heard about the Johnstown flood all my life. I knew that a dam had broken, but beyond that I didn't know anything, and I was curious. I took a book out of the library, and it wasn't very good. I took another book out and it was, if anything, even less satisfactory.

I remembered a line from an interview that Thornton Wilder had given to the Paris Review about how he came up with the ideas for the novels and the plays he wrote. He'd said, "I imagine a story I'd like to read in a book or see performed on the stage and if I find nobody has written it, I write it so I can read it in a book or perform it on the stage." I thought, well, why don't you try and write a book about the Johnstown flood that you wished you could read?

Cole: It was just this chance encounter with these photographs.

McCullough: Yes. Once I started doing the research I realized there were survivors of the flood still alive that I could interview--and I just knew I'd found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I had been writing for about twelve years. I knew pretty well how you could find things out, but I had never been trained in an academic way how to go about the research.

Cole: An amateur in the true sense of the word.

McCullough: People are so helpful. People will stop what they're doing to show you something, to walk with you through a section of the town, or explain how a suspension bridge really works.

Cole: They sense your enthusiasm.

McCullough: I do get enthusiastic. I have this urge to say, "Come on over here. Look at this. This is really worth your time."

Cole: That comes through in your books.

McCullough: All you are trying to do is to make it as interesting and as human as it really was. You don't have to gussy it up. The pull, the attraction of history, is in our human nature. What makes us tick? Why do we do what we do? How much is luck the deciding factor? I'm drawn particularly to stories that evolve out of the character of the protagonist.

Cole: It seems to me that so much of history is about vast, impersonal forces which act on people. Your books are not about that. Your books are about people, their strengths, their flaws, their heroism. I think that's one of the reasons that people are so drawn to your books.

McCullough: Well, Barbara Tuchman said, "There's no trick to interesting people in history or children in history." She said, "You can explain it in two words: Tell stories."

People ask, "Are you working on a book?" I say, "Yes." But I really want to say, "No, I'm working in a book. I'm inside it." I want to be inside the time.

First of all, you can make the argument that there's no such thing as the past. Nobody lived in the past.

Cole: That's right. They didn't know how it was all going to work out.

McCullough: They lived in the present. It is their present, not our present, and they don't know how it's going to come out. They weren't just like we are because they lived in that very different time. You can't understand them if you don't understand how they perceived reality and you don't understand that unless you understand the culture. I wish we had a less fancy word than "culture," because it sounds too pretentious.

Cole: And vague.

McCullough: Yes. What did they read? What poetry moved them? What music did they listen to? What did they eat? What were they afraid of? What was it like to travel from one place to another then?

Cole: One of the most vivid experiences I've had in that way was taking a couple of years to read all of Pepys's diaries.

McCullough: Wow. That's no small undertaking.

Cole: It took me years. It was bedtime reading. But that is exactly what I found so riveting: the sense of night without any illumination, no telephones, the communication, the hygiene, and the like told in this marvelous prose. It does transport you.

McCullough: That's one of the reasons I began John Adams as I did, with these two lone men on horseback riding through a bleak, cold winter landscape. For all intents and purposes, they're anonymous. They are coming through that winter scene, the snow and the wind, and they're going to ride nearly four hundred miles in that kind of weather, on horseback, to get to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

These were tough people. We see the men in their frilled shirts and their satin pants and the powdered hair and they look like fops. They look like softies. Nothing doing. They were tough. And life was tough.

And yet, of course, they were not gods. Particularly talking to college audiences, I say, never, never think of them as gods. They're human beings with all the failings, flaws, and weaknesses that are part of the human condition. They were imperfect. Life was short and they knew it could end almost at any time.

I've gotten so fascinated with the eighteenth century, I'm going to stay there. I once told my wife, "I may never come back." My next book is also set in the eighteenth century. It's about the Revolution, with the focus on the year 1776. It's about Washington and the army and the war. It's the nadir, the low point of the United States of America.

Cole: Do you have a title?

McCullough: No. The title always comes last. What I really work hard on is the beginning. Where do you begin? In what tone do you begin? I almost have to have a scene in my mind.

Cole: Does your training in painting help you?

McCullough: I expect so, or maybe it's just we've all been so conditioned by movies. I love Dickens. I love the way he sets a scene. He said, in his great admonition to writers, "Make me see." I try to make you see what's happening and smell it and hear it. I want to know what they had for dinner. I want to know how long it took to walk from where to where.

Cole: That's what makes it human.

McCullough: Yes. You get into it almost the way an actor gets into a part. I want to get into this material. You scratch the supposedly dead past anywhere and what you find is life.

Cole: That's wonderful.

McCullough: There are innumerable writing problems in an extended work. This book on Adams took a little more than six years. You, the writer, change in six years. The life around you changes. Your family changes. They grow up. They move away. The world is changing. You're also learning more about the subject. By the time you're writing the last chapters of the book, you know much more than you did when you started at the beginning.

Cole: What do you do with those early chapters?

McCullough: The voice has to stay the same. So you go back and work on them, in a way, as a painter will work all over the whole canvas. I work on the front and the back and the middle all at once.

I think it's best to pick a biographical subject who lives to a ripe old age. Older people tend to relax and speak their minds. They're dropping some of the masks that they've been wearing. There's a candor.

With Adams, for example, I had a character who was in motion virtually all of his life up until he left the White House in 1801. He was going to go back to Braintree, Massachusetts, and never leave there for twenty-five years, holding no office, having no influence. How in the world was I going to sustain that?

As it turned out, that's when the inward journey begins for John Adams, and that to me, in many ways, was the most interesting part of the book. He begins to realize that many of the things that he has thought or held to for so long he doesn't see as he did before.

The concept, for example, of the Enlightenment, that if one applied the combined intellectual efforts of a good society, there was no answer that couldn't be found. Well, he decided that really wasn't so, that inevitably there were unsolvable mysteries about life and that it was best that way.

Many of his reflections on his friends and what events in his life had mattered most went through transitions.

Cole: What promised to be an uneventful passage turned out to be quite an interesting segment of Adams's life, didn't it?

McCullough: Indeed.

Cole: You mentioned that your new book is about the American Revolution. That brings to mind a study done not too long ago that surveyed fifty top colleges and universities. The students were asked questions taken from a high school curriculum, and the lack of historical knowledge was really appalling.

This strikes me as something that the tragedy of 9/11 brings home. That is, our country has been attacked. Not only the World Trade Center but really the idea of our country, the ideas generated by the founders. How are we going to defend this if we really don't know much about it?

McCullough: I have been lecturing at colleges and universities continuously for twenty-five years or more. From my experience I don't think there's any question whatsoever that the students in our institutions of higher learning have less grasp of American history than ever before. We are raising a generation of young Americans who are, to a very large degree, historically illiterate. It's not their faults. There's no problem about enlisting their interest in history. None. The problem is the teachers so often have no history in their background. Very often they were education majors and graduated knowing no subject. It's the same, I'm told, in biology or English literature or whatever.

If we think back through our own lives, the subjects that you liked best in school almost certainly were taught by the teachers you liked best. And the teacher you liked best was the teacher who cared about the subject she taught.

There was a noted professor of child psychology at the University of Pittsburgh named Margaret McFarland, whose most influential disciple is Fred Rogers, who has taught more children than any human being who ever lived. Fred Rogers likes to say that all he's done with his programs is based on the teachings of Margaret McFarland.

What she taught in essence is that attitudes aren't taught, they're caught. If the attitude of the teacher toward the material is positive, enthusiastic, committed and excited, the students get that. If the teacher is bored, students get that and they get bored, quickly, instinctively.

In my view, we have to rethink how we're teaching our teachers. There's very good work in this field being done by the National Council for History Education, which conducts summer seminars or clinics primarily for grade school teachers from all over the country. People like Ted Rabb, who is at Princeton, and Ken Jackson, who is at Columbia, are real American heroes. They are the ones that got this going.

Cole: Ted Rabb has worked closely with the NEH over the years.

McCullough: It's not just something that we should be sad about, or worried about, that these young people don't know any history. We should be angry. They are being cheated and they are being handicapped, and our way of life could very well be in jeopardy because of this.

Since September 11, it seems to me that never in our lifetime, except possibly in the early stages of World War II, has it been clearer that we have as a source of strength, a source of direction, a source of inspiration--our story. Yes, this is a dangerous time. Yes, this is a time full of shadows and fear. But we have been through worse before and we have faced more difficult days before. We have shown courage and determination, and skillful and inventive and courageous and committed responses to crisis before. We should draw on our story, we should draw on our history as we've never drawn before.

Cole: Our strength comes from our story.

McCullough: Absolutely. If we don't know who we are, if we don't know how we became what we are, we're going to start suffering from all the obvious detrimental effects of amnesia.

Cole: Collective amnesia.

McCullough: Furthermore, we face an enemy who believes in enforced ignorance. And it's what all that we stand for . . . is the open mind--

Cole: Right. Tolerance.

McCullough: --the generous spirit, the ideal of tolerance, freedom, education, opportunity. All that is in the paragraph that John Adams included in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which is the oldest written constitution still in use in the world today. It predates our national constitution by ten years. "Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties"--you have to have wisdom and knowledge as well as virtue to preserve your rights and liberties--"and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people"--in other words, everybody--"it shall be the duty"--the duty--"of legislators and magistrates in all future periods of this commonwealth to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them. . ."

Then he goes on to say what he means by education. And what he means by education clearly is everything. No boundaries. It's all important. ". . . to encourage . . . for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings, sincerity, good humor"--there will be good humor--"and all social affections"--

Cole: That's wonderful.

McCullough: --"and generous sentiments among the people."

There had never been any such statement in any proclamation or constitution ever in the history of the world. This was radical in its day. It's saying not just that it would be a good idea to educate people, it's saying it's the duty of the government.

The pursuit of happiness. What did they mean by "the pursuit of happiness"? They did not mean material wealth. They did not mean ease, luxury.

Cole: Happiness in our sense.

McCullough: As near as I can tell, they meant the life of the mind and the life of the spirit.

Adams wrote a letter to his boy, John Quincy, concerned that the boy not just be studying Greek and Latin, but that he be reading the great works in his own mother tongue, and particularly the English poets.

He says, "Read somewhat in the English poets every day. You will find them elegant, entertaining and constructive companions through your whole life."

Then he says, "In all the disquisitions you have heard concerning the happiness of life, has it ever been recommended to you to read poetry?" That's when he says this famous line, "You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket."

Cole: That's wonderful.

McCullough: Even more to the point is a very well known paragraph where he says, "I must study politics and war, so that my"--

Cole: "So the next generation"--

McCullough: --"can study art, music"--

Cole: That's one of my favorites.

McCullough: Absolutely right. At the very end of Adams's life, Adams's doctor wrote a letter to John Quincy to say, "I've just been to see him. But as weak as was his material frame, his mind was still enthroned."

Cole: That's wonderful.

McCullough: Yes. One of the regrets of my life is that I did not study Latin. I'm absolutely convinced, the more I understand these eighteenth-century people, that it was that grounding in Greek and Latin that gave them their sense of the classic virtues: the classic ideals of honor, virtue, the good society, and their historic examples of what they could try to live up to.

Cole: Yes. We have a new initiative at the NEH called "We the People," which is a response to 9/11. It is aimed at getting people in all walks of life thinking about what it means to be an American--our liberties, all those things we were attacked for. After 9/11, it seems to me that this is something essential. That's why it is so alarming that you have this kind of historical amnesia.

McCullough: There is a notable rise in popular interest in history as measured by the success, for example, of The History Channel on television. There are other measures: the long run that The American Experience has had on PBS, the success of the presidential series that C-SPAN ran, the reading audience for books like mine and Edmund Morris's Theodore Rex and others. The level of knowledge of those we're educating seems on the decline while the general interest seems to be on the rise.

Cole: That's the paradox. I think of The History Channel and The American Experience as a kind of public university.

McCullough: Maybe because so many people didn't learn these things in college, they're curious to find out. But we need to get them young. Little children can learn anything, just as they can learn a foreign language. The mind is so absorbent then. There ought to be a real program to educate teachers who want to teach grade school children about history.

Another good classroom program has the children act a part. In my granddaughter's fifth-grade class, two sections are doing the American presidents. Each child is a president and/or a first lady. I was astounded by how much they know. The child who is Dolley Madison or James K. Polk--they're never going to forget that.

I'm absolutely positive it's in our human nature to want to know about the past. The two most popular movies of all time, while not historically accurate, are about core historic events: Gone With the Wind and Titanic. There is a human longing to go back to other times. We all know how when we were children we asked our parents, "What was it like when you were a kid?" I think it probably has something to do with our survival as a species. For nine-tenths of the time that human beings have been on earth, knowledge that was essential to survival was transmitted from one generation to the next by the vehicle of story.

My strong feeling is that we must learn more about how we learn. I'm convinced that we learn by struggling to find the solution to a problem on our own--with some guidance, but getting in and getting our hands dirty and working it.

Cole: So we really understand it. When we do it that way, we really know it. It's not superimposed.

McCullough: If you had to take that typewriter or that automobile engine apart and put it back together, you'd never forget it.

Cole: That's right.

McCullough: I opened a closet in the attic of the old library at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute one beautiful fall afternoon, and there were all the records and the private correspondence and the scrapbooks and the photographs and the drawings of the Brooklyn Bridge, just stashed in that closet, no catalog, no index--nobody really knew what all was there--bundles of letters tied up with shoestrings the way it had been when the Roebling family turned it over.

I spent three years trying to untangle all that, trying to understand it. It's been thirty years, and I'm sure I could sit down now and take a test and do extremely well on that subject. I'll never ever forget it.

Cole: You put that engine together.

McCullough: We've all crammed for exams, maybe did very well on the exams, and three weeks later--

Cole: It's gone.

McCullough: --it's gone. So I think we have got to bring the lab technique to the teaching of the humanities to a far greater degree than we have. There are ways that can be done. And they're exciting.

I am adamant that we must not cut back on funding of the teaching of the arts in the schools: music, painting, theater, dance, all of it. The great thing about the arts is that the only way you learn how to do it is by doing it. If a child learns nothing but that as a guide to life, that's invaluable. You can't learn to play the piano without playing the piano, you can't learn to write without writing, and, in many ways, you can't learn to think without thinking. Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That's why it's so hard.

Cole: That's right. I don't think you know what you know until you write it.

McCullough: Exactly. We all know the old expression, "I'll work my thoughts out on paper." There's something about the pen that focuses the brain in a way that nothing else does. That is why we must have more writing in the schools, more writing in all subjects, not just in English classes.

The talent, including the talent for history--and I do think there are people who just have a talent for it, the way you have a talent for public speaking or music or whatever--it shouldn't be allowed to lie dormant. It should be brought alive.

Cole: Terrific. Thank you for taking the time to talk about the making of history--and the writing of it.

McCullough: I've enjoyed it.