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"Every Book is a New Journey"

A Conversation with Writer David McCullough

HUMANITIES, May/June 2002 | Volume 23, Number 3

When David McCullough met recently with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole, the conversation turned to McCullough’s book, John Adams, and the pleasures of bringing history to a broad audience. John Adams won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for biography. It is the second Pulitzer for McCullough, who received the prize in 1993 for Truman.

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

I was talking to someone the other day who mentioned that she had been on a trip abroad. She said how much she looked forward to coming home to her hotel each night. She was reading John Adams, and it was like coming home to an old friend. I thought that was wonderful. I would
say you’re one of a handful of people who really does that.

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. We were all readers before we were writers and we have a sense of what we hope for in a book. If I can make it clear and interesting and compelling to me, then I hope maybe it will be for the reader.

I’m more and more convinced, the older I get, the longer I work, that the advantage, always, is education. I just thank my father and mother, and my lucky stars, that I had the advantage of an education in the humanities. The privilege of being an English major at Yale, in the 1950s, was one I appreciate more and more.

When I was an undergraduate, people like John O’Hara, John Hersey, Brendan Gill, and Thornton Wilder were around. They were on the campus. You could talk to them. You could meet them. You could go to hear them lecture.

Thornton Wilder was a fellow at Davenport College, the college that I lived in. There were days when I sat down at the communal lunch table in the dining hall beside Thornton Wilder. There was also the daily themes course, which was taught by Robert Penn Warren. To have such examples at that formative stage in life was to be reminded by their very presence of how very far one had to go beyond the education that you got at Yale.

After Yale I served a necessary and 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.

I thought at first I wanted to be a novelist or a playwright. I sort of stumbled into history. But once I discovered the thrill, 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. I was lucky; I found it by the time I was about twenty-nine.

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. What a privilege! What a thrill! 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. That’s the attitude that I try to enter in to the work. I have certain heroes, certain people that I try to keep in mind as an example.

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

McCullough: Yes, I do, very often. People like Francis Parkman. The more I go back and reread 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, because you are reminded again and again of how far you have to go compared to what other people have done. You go and 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--I’ve always thought this--were I painter standing in front of Rembrandt’s Late Self-portrait in the Frick, I’d have given up. And when I read something in art history, like Kenneth Clark, I also think I ought to give it up. But it is inspiring. It does show you what can be done.

McCullough: Each of us has his own or her own personal moments when you want to gasp. 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’s so perfect. It not only puts your own abilities in perspective, but it certainly dashes any arrogance we might have about how far we’ve progressed over the centuries.

Cole: Right.

McCullough: 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: That is a glorious painting. It really is. One of the things you never get from photographs is a sense of the physicality of the painting or of its scale.

This is what happens when you teach art history. You show slides. They are exactly the same size, they are all two-dimensional, and your students only have a vague approximation. So when you actually see the thing it comes as a kind of 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. And I love the work of Paul Horgan, a writer who ought to be better known than he is. His biography of Archbishop Lamy is a masterpiece. I’m also fond of Wallace Stegner’s book on John Wesley Powell.

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, which changed my life. 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. They are all very good writers.

I work very hard on the writing--writing and rewriting and trying to weed out the lumber, weed out the redundant statements, to keep the vocabulary in character with the subject.

I’m also very aware how many distractions the reader has in life today, how many good reasons there are to put the book down. So 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? And what didn’t they know? Somebody else I think is very good is Robert Massie, who takes on these huge, ambitious subjects in his books: Nicholas and Alexandra and Peter the Great. Maybe he had the experience I did. 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. It can be very discouraging sometimes. 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 be working in the National Archives and open up a box of the death certificates kept by the French at the hospital in Ancon, at Panama City, where the personal details of those who died in that hospital are all listed--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: Fascinating. 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 the time flies. I love both. There’s an awful temptation to just keep on researching. I know some people--I won’t name them--who have been working on projects for twenty, twenty-five years.

Cole: And no book?

McCullough: And no book. One man died and the book was never written. 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, but 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: Absolutely. 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. And 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 or tropical rains or whatever it is.

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 than I had pictured them.

And I like to get a sense of scale--whether it’s a battlefield or a room or a house. The little 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. It’s like one of these little houses here in Georgetown. I find that very eloquent that it’s so small. It’s like Carpenters’ Hall. Have you ever seen Carpenters’ Hall, in Philadelphia?

Cole: No.

McCullough: To me it’s one of the most moving places in America. It’s a beautiful little Georgian red brick structure, about fifty by fifty, beautifully balanced. It has all the ideals of the eighteenth century: balance and light. And 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! It’s wonderful. And it’s still owned by the Carpenters’ Company, in Philadelphia, dedicated to integrity in building. Isn’t that beautiful?

Cole: Wonderful. The framers did absolutely good work. I was amazed about the populations of New York and Boston--and 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, and that really there are only a handful of people like you who write so successfully for a larger audience. Should our academic historians be not only doing specialized work, but also thinking about communicating what they do to a larger audience? It’s always seemed to me that if you’re passionate about something, you want to communicate that to the widest possible audience. You want to get it out because you’re enthusiastic about it.

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

On the one hand, I could be fairly 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 could 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, Gordon Wood, 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, and 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. Once that’s clear to me and once the subject is in focus, then I can just go. I’ve never met a deadline yet. (Laughs.)

Cole: Good for you.

McCullough: My publisher has been infinitely patient, tolerant and indulgent. All the books have taken longer than I thought they would take.

Cole: I understand 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.

I started work on my first book when I was working at American Heritage in New York. I would walk down Fifth Avenue about three blocks to the Forty-second Street Library. I worked principally in the genealogical room there, because they had wonderful basic sources for doing biographical research. The people in that room taught me the ropes. 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. Some of the geography was incorrect. I at least knew that. 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 see it performed on the stage.” I thought, well, why don’t you try and write the book about the Johnstown flood that you wished you could read?

Cole: You weren’t necessarily thinking about writing a book at all before this.

McCullough: I wanted to write books, but I thought, well, it’s going to be a novel or maybe it will be a play.

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 whom 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, will take time out of their weekend 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 all 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. I think that 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, and so forth. I think that’s one of the reasons that people are so drawn to your books. It’s not true of all historical writing.

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.” I think that’s true if you’re writing for somebody who’s six years old or somebody who’s sixty-five years old.

It’s the sense of discovery or rediscovery that keeps me propelled. People ask, “Are you working on a book?” I say, “Yes. That’s right.” But I really want to say, “No, I’m working in a book. I’m inside it.” And I want to be inside the time.

There are so many mistaken views that people have. First of all, you could 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 was their present, not our present, and they didn’t know how it’s going to come out and 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. And, of course, Pepys had no idea how it was going to come out or whether, of course, anyone would read these things.

McCullough: Right. 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, temperature in the twenties.
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 them in paintings 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 yes, of course, they were not gods. Particularly talking to college audiences, I say, never, never think of them as gods. They were human beings with all the failings, flaws, and weaknesses that are part of the human condition. They were imperfect. Life was so short and they knew it could end almost 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 really 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 really almost have to have a scene in my mind. It isn’t an idea so much as something I see.

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. It’s anything but dry. You scratch the supposedly dead past anywhere and what you find is life. It starts to come alive in your head and you pray to God that you can convey that onto the printed page.

Cole: Wonderful. 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. 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 and I’m still doing research right up until the end. I sometimes do research after the book has been published. On some subjects I’ve just never lost interest. The Brooklyn Bridge, I’ve never lost interest in the Brooklyn Bridge. I’m still curious about some questions that remain unanswered.

I spent the last twenty years on biography, and so the next book is not biography. I’m going back to history. There are great advantages to biography, but there are disadvantages, too. 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 through much of life. 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, and 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 whole 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 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 on who had counted most 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? We learn a great deal about the man. Thank you for taking the time to talk about the making of history--and the writing of it.

McCullough: I’ve enjoyed it.