By Mary Lou Beatty
“History teaches and reinforces what we believe in, what we stand for, and what we ought to be willing to stand up for,” David McCullough writes. “History is about life--human nature and the human condition and all its trials and failings and noblest achievements.”
For nearly half a century McCullough has been creating portraits of memorable figures in American history. He writes about a Civil War veteran whose fierce determination builds a bridge to Brooklyn; he writes about a man who endures long absences from the wife he loves for what may be a greater love of country; he writes about a World War I artillery officer who discovers “he could lead men and liked that better than anything he had done before.”
The man, Captain Harry of Battery D, became thirty-third president of the United States and is the subject of McCullough’s book, Truman, which won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1993. McCullough received a second Pulitzer in 2002 for his book on another American president, John Adams. The honors continue: two National Book Awards, two Francis Parkman Prizes, and honorary doctorates from thirty-five universities.
McCullough is this year’s Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished achievement in the humanities. It is his second recognition from the Endowment. In 1995 he received the Charles Frankel Prize, now called the National Humanities Medal, for his contributions to public understanding of the humanities through his books, and his work on television as the voice of American Experience and documentaries such as Ken Burns’s The Civil War.
“If nations appointed historians laureate,” book critic Edwin M. Yoder Jr. once wrote, “David McCullough would surely be ours.”
McCullough, who was born in Pittsburgh and was graduated from Yale, lives in West Tisbury, Massachusetts. He and his wife Rosalee have five children and sixteen grandchildren. His avocation, he tells Endowment Chairman Bruce Cole, is painting. As a young man he was interested in becoming an artist, but decided he would not make a living that way and shifted careers. The change has suited him.
“To me, history ought to be a source of pleasure,” McCullough has said. “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.”
His study of America and its past has taken him from a natural disaster in a mining town in Pennsylvania to the pleasure of pony rides with the Roosevelts at Oyster Bay. At the moment he is working on another defining scene in the American canvas, a book about 1776 and the testing of George Washington at Valley Forge--a time that McCullough describes as the nadir of the American Revolution.
The choice of subject should not be unexpected. When McCullough received an honorary degree from Yale in 2000, the citation read, “As an historian, he paints with words, giving us pictures of the American people that live, breathe, and above all, confront the fundamental issues of courage, achievement, and moral character.”
Finally, in this issue of Humanities we leave the early days of our democracy to travel half a world away to the anything-but-democratic intrigues of czarist Russia. This year marks the three-hundredth anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg, the city that would become the emblem of a young aristocrat with colossal ambitions. His schemes were on a grand scale and some may have remained unrealized, but the city’s cultural inheritance endures.