David McCullough Reading List
David McCullough – where to start? This guy has written many, many books; let me append that and say many, many very good books.
He once said that “history is the story of people,” and I think that is the key to his success. He really brings his subjects to life. I interviewed him in 2001 after his biography John Adams was published, and as I listened to him, I felt that I was talking to someone who KNEW John Adams. Personally. It was a little eerie, considering that John Adams, our second president, had lived 250 years before the time McCullough was writing about him.
In a Paris Review interview, McCullough said,
“Not only do I want the reader to get inside the experience of the events and feel what it was like—I want to get inside the events and feel what it was like. People often ask me if I’m “working on a book,” and I say yes, because that’s what they asked, but in fact they’ve got the wrong preposition. I’m in the book, in the subject, in the time and the place. Whenever I go away for a couple of days, I have to work to put myself back in it, to get back under that spell.”
McCullough’s secret – he puts his readers under that spell. I can’t mention every book he has written, but here are some of the more noteworthy.
The Johnstown Flood. This1968 book was McCullough’s first, when he decided to, as he put it, quoting his writing teacher at Yale, Thornton Wilder, “to try to write the book I wanted to read.”
He came upon the subject when he was working for American Heritage magazine. This 1889 catastrophe, in which 2,000 people died because of a dam collapse, had all the elements of a great book – class differences, suspense, and a cataclysmic event that cried out for a great storyteller. But the event had largely faded into history.
It’s the story of a Pennsylvania dam which created a lake for the leisure and pleasure of the ruling class of the 19th century. Well-heeled folks on the level of Andrew Carnegie belonged to the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, where the East Coast’s elite would come to, well, fish and hunt.
Downstream lay Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where the everyday folks lived. McCullough developed a lifelong readership with his attention to historical detail and his capacity for creating characters that the reader could empathize with, even as the reader knows they are doomed.
His 1977 book, The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914, won the National Book Award as well as a pocketful of other history prizes.
This book is, of course, about the building of the Panama Canal. What a story. The French attempted it first, and the whole thing collapsed in the mire of tropical complications, including the horrific mosquito-borne diseases everyone connected with the project kept getting.
Again, McCullough took a people-oriented approach. He came up with two main characters. There was engineer John Stevens, who began as a common laborer but who rose to a supervisory position. He took charge of the collapsing canal project. His counterpart was Dr. William Gorges, who conquered malaria and yellow fever in a region where people died of both diseases by the boatload.
In 1981, McCullough began to evolve from big-project or big-catastrophe books and towards biographies with his book Mornings on Horseback. This is the story of Theodore Roosevelt’s transformation from a sickly child to the robust, larger-than-life explorer, outdoorsman and politician who would eventually run the country. It focuses heavily on Roosevelt’s family – you could almost say that it’s a group biography of his parents, his brothers, and his sisters. This was a psychologically complex group and a mysterious alchemy for forging a leader, but for whatever reason, Roosevelt became a memorable one.
Truman, McCullough’s Pulitzer-prize-winning biography of Harry Truman, came out in 1992. Who would have thought that Harry Truman would have made for a compelling biography? David McCullough did, and he was right.
Harry Truman was a throwback of sorts – he stuck to his Midwestern values, particularly that of speaking his mind honestly. He might have remained a minor political figure except for Franklin Roosevelt’s untimely death.
Talk about someone thrown into a maelstrom – the end of World War II, the Potsdam conference, where Truman had to confront Stalin’s plans for the domination of vast swaths of Europe, the decision to drop the atomic bomb, the war in Korea, the decision to can General MacArthur, the World War II hero. And then…..he had to run for election, and pulled the fat from the fire in a race that everyone expected Thomas Dewey to win – remember that famous erroneous headline from the 1948 election, “Dewey Defeats Truman”? Again, McCullough recognized a great story in a subject that was unrecognized for its historical importance and human interest.
Finally, I want to save my favorite David McCullough book for last – John Adams.
This 2001 book was a masterpiece.John Adams was a great subject – he had an incredible life, from his life as an American revolutionary wanted by the British (with a death sentence on his head) to his years as Ambassador to France to finally, his service as the second president of the USA. It’s a great story, and McCullough brought him to life, warts and all.
Adams was an emotional man who expressed himself continually through letters and other writings, particularly to his wife Abagail Adams, who was a splendid writer and correspondent in her own right.
This book is not just a story of a great man, it’s the story of a great love affair, between John and Abigail. And McCullough, with his gift of ferreting out the telling detail, paints a masterful portrait of what America was like during the time of the Revolution, and how quickly it changed afterward.