If you are fan of American History, you probably know David McCullough from his books, his PBS specials, his commentary, and narration (notable documentaries include The Civil War and Seabiscuit). McCullough is also a presidential biographer, the winner of two National Book Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, and one of the best-selling historians. He learned about presidential politics early and in raised voices: “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.”
McCullough wanted to be a painter. However, at Yale he decided to major in English influenced by John O’Hara, John Hersey, Brendan Gill and Thornton Wilder. Wilder inspired McCullough to become a writer. Wilder told him how he chose a subject: he would find something he wanted to know more about, learn what was written about it, and if there wasn’t much or it wasn’t good, he would write it himself. The success of McCullough’s first book The Johnstown Flood (1968), enabled him to write full time. He then wrote a book 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 wrote 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 (also Pulitzer winning) presidential biography concerns founding father John Adams. There were no interviews or photographs to help him with his research, but McCullough read all of Adams’ diaries and the letters (over a thousand) between John and Abigail. McCullough wanted to try to get inside the head of John Adams, not just to read what Adams wrote, but also to read what Adams read for pleasure in the 18th century. He read the English classics of Swift, Defoe, Samuel Johnson, Smollett, and Pope. These books allowed him to “marinate” his head in John Adams’ thoughts and vocabulary. He 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.”
Recently McCullough published a book on Paris, the City of Light, one of my favorite places: The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. Yet again McCullough has artfully written about many Americans who went in search of themselves, noting “Not all pioneers went west.” This wonderful book is a series of vignettes, placed in broad categories during an incredibly productive, mesmorizing, exciting era (1830s-1900s). Many of the people you will recognize from Mark Twain to Samuel Morse, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Hawthorne and Emerson. New faces and names were vividly brought to life (Elihu Washburne, Charles Sumner, Henry Bowditch and Thomas Gold Appleton). This history incorporates the cultural dynamics and innovative era which was crucial to and had a profound effect on the development of the American nation. Paris was the place to be for Americans from every state (24+) and from many other countries, in nearly every profession (artists, doctors, writers, politicians, architects, scientists, etc). It was four times the size of NYC and the cultural center of Europe. Our nation owes France much for their timely support during our Revolution, subsequent recognition and trade (the Louisiana Purchase also made our westward expansion possible) and their cultural exchanges. McCullough brilliantly captures the essence of 1800s Paris, from the simple joys of living in the city to the cultural delights to the cultural changes and improvements. We can’t physically travel back in time, but his books are a banquet experience. The Greater Journey is well researched, well paced (riveting even!) and always interesting.
One of the joys of reviewing a book is that I get to revisit, re-reading the pages, the quotes, the emotions which so often lead me on to further books, works, people or adventures. I can’t believe I have never been to Saint-Gaudens Memorial Garden National Park in NH. I will rectify that this summer. I have already made a separate trip to see the Farragut Monument in Madison Sq Park, NYC. The extensive Bibliography has given me wonderful treasures for further exploration.
It seems we will always have Paris. Read on and make it your own.
Opening Line: “They spoke of it then as a dream of a lifetime, and for many, for all the difficulties and setbacks encountered, it was to be one of the best times ever.”
Closing Line: “What the new century might hold for them and their generation, there was no telling. For now it was enough just to be in Paris.”
Great Quotes:”It is a queer feeling to find oneself a foreigner.” Nathaniel Willis
“Good Americans when they die go to Paris” Thomas Gold Appleton (quoted by Oliver Wendell Holmes)
“We had no money…but we wanted for nothing.” Isadora Duncan
~ Helen McIver