David McCullough

David McCullough has a new book: The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris !!!

This is always exciting news for me as I love his work which results from painstaking, detailed, fascinating research. This time he is taking us to Paris, between 1830 to 1900 when so many American artists, politicians, writers, doctors, architects, painters, scientists and others went to centers of excellence to advance their skills, learning, friendships and experiences as well as to escape restrictions at home. It was an exhilarating time brought for by many first hand accounts: letters, journals, diaries some for the first time, are explored by McCullough and provide illuminating intimacies into the turbulent times. There are so many characters here that I love: Emerson, Hawthorne, Twain, Henry James, James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel F B Morse, Elizabeth Blackwell, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary Cassett, Singer Sargent. And then there are others that we should know much more of: Charles Sumner, George Healey, Elihu Washburne. The epilogue is particular poignant, although you always have the feeling that it is “enough just being in Paris”  – for all the succeeding Americans, including myself (only as tourist!). The illustrations are excellent and pertinent. The index, bilbiolgraphy and source listing are wonderful for continued reading.

His own biography would be quite fascinating: the following is gleaned from Wikipedia, interviews and The Writers’ Almanac of Garrison Keillor:
McCullough was born today in Pittsburgh (July 7th 1933) and is a three-time presidential biographer, the winner of two National Book Awards and two Pulitzer Prizes, and one of the best-selling historians of all time. He learned about presidential politics early and often in raised voices. He said: “My father was totally against FDR. My mother thought FDR could do no wrong. They were both quite hard of hearing … the decibel level at our dining room was high.”

He wanted to be a painter. But when he got to Yale in the 1950s, John O’Hara, John Hersey, Brendan Gill, and Thornton Wilder were there on campus, and he decided to major in English instead. Professor Wilder became his mentor and inspired McCullough to become a writer. Wilder told McCullough how he chose a subject for his plays or novels: He would find something he wanted to learn more about, go out and see what was written about it, and if there wasn’t much or it wasn’t good, he would write it himself. He worked in journalism for a decade: as a reporter for Sports Illustrated, then for the United States Information Agency, and then for American Heritage. He was doing research for an article at the Library of Congress when he found some photographs of the flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1889. McCullough had grown up in Pennsylvania, and he had heard of the flood, but he didn’t realize how serious it had been. He wanted to read more about it, so he checked out some books, but they were all really boring. Then he remembered Thornton Wilder’s advice, and he decided to try writing about it himself. He worked all day at American Heritage, came home and had dinner and put his kids to bed, and then researched and wrote at night. Three years later, he published The Johnstown Flood (1968), and its success meant that he could write full time.

He wrote The Great Bridge and  then The Path Between the Seas (1977), on the Panama Canal, which President Jimmy Carter used as a key reference book in negotiating the Panama Canal treaties. McCullough is well known for his three biographies about U.S. presidents. The first, about Teddy Roosevelt called Mornings on Horseback (1981) won the National Book Award. The second, on Harry Truman, took him 10 years to research and write. Truman (1993) won the Pulitzer Prize. The third presidential biography he wrote was about John Adams. There were no interviews or photographs around to help him with his research, but he read all of Adams’ diaries and over 1000 letters between John Adams and his wife, Abigail. McCullough wanted to get inside the head of John Adams, including reading what Adams read for pleasure in the 18th century. He read classics by Swift, Defoe, Samuel Johnson, Smollett and Pope. He said reading these books allowed him to “marinate” his head in John Adams’ thoughts and vocabulary. When John Adams was published in 2001, it became one of the fastest-selling nonfiction books in history. McCullough won another Pulitzer Prize for it. He has won numerous honors and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian award.

David McCullough, who said: “You can make the argument that there’s no such thing as the past. Nobody lived in the past. 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, “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.”

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