America: brought to you by the citizen-soldier: David McCullough

Historian David McCullough credits Washington, character, and volunteers
By Pamela  H.  Sacks


David McCullough once thought he would be a novelist or a playwright. The way he came to be a historian had a lot to do with plain old curiosity.

John F. Kennedy was president, and Mr. McCullough was working for the U.S. Information Agency. He needed to catch up on some work over the weekend at the Library of Congress, and his wife, Rosalee, decided to accompany him. One of the curators had newly acquired photographs of the devastation wrought by the Johnstown flood of 1889; he invited the McCulloughs to take a look.

“I was overwhelmed at the level of violence and destruction,” Mr. McCullough remembered during a recent phone interview from his home in West Tisbury. “I wanted to know more and took out books from the library. They weren’t very good. They were quite inadequate.”

Mr. McCullough had grown up in western Pennsylvania and knew the territory around Johnstown. The authors had even gotten the geography wrong. Mr. McCullough started digging into archives to learn more. “As soon as I got working on it, I knew that was what I wanted to do the rest of my life,” he said.

“The Johnstown Flood” was the first of eight books Mr. McCullough would produce over the next four decades. Among other subjects, he has written about Harry Truman, Teddy Roosevelt, John Adams and the building of the Panama Canal. His latest book, “1776,” an account of the first year of the American Revolution, was published in late May.

For years, Mr. McCullough also has lectured widely in this country and abroad. At the invitation of the American Antiquarian Society, he will be at the First Baptist Church in Worcester Thursday evening talking about “1776″ and his view that higher education in America must re-emphasize the liberal arts. All tickets – some 800 – were snapped up within two hours of their availability, according to James D. Moran, AAS director of outreach. Mr. Moran said that, unfortunately, no more seating of any kind is available.

Mr. McCullough’s fascination with the characters in “1776″ developed while he was working on his sweeping, colorful biography, “John Adams.” Time and again, Mr. McCullough’s thoughts turned to the resilient, hardscrabble patriots fighting the war. “John Adams” would have included more about the fighting, he said, but the for the demands of writing about the drama surrounding the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, in which Adams was intimately involved.

“We celebrate the 4th and think of the Declaration and those who participated in making it happen, as we should, but we too often forget the people who were off-stage doing the tough, grim and discouraging work of carrying on the fight in the field,” Mr. McCullough said. Without the citizen soldiers, he added, all the grand and noble ideals would have remained just so many words on a document.

In his latest book, Mr. McCullough writes about the full range of players, from George Washington and his right-hand men, Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox, to George III, the duty-bound king determined to bring the Colonies to heel, to the Continental Army’s doughty farmers, teachers, artisans and n’er do wells, who exhibited amazing ingenuity and flinty determination. Confronting the world’s greatest military power, their survival from one battle to the next was nothing less than miraculous.

Mr. McCullough, who speaks in rolling, rhythmic sentences, is known for his vivid narrative style and his richly textured portraits of people who are long gone. He has twice won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and all of his books are still in print. “1776″ already is in its 12th edition, with 1.8 million copies in print.

“I think history is about life, and about people, and about the individual – particularly American history – because we, thank God, put so much emphasis on the value of the individual,” Mr. McCullough intoned, adding that in “1776″ he “worked hard to try to get through to the individual men in the ranks, not just through to Washington and more conspicuous figures.”

Mr. McCullough uses several techniques to accomplish his goals.

He treads the same path as the people about whom he is writing. Early on, the action takes place in London, and the author describes the magnificent 24-foot coach that takes King George to Parliament to declare that he will hold firm against the “rabble.”

Mr. McCullough went twice to look at the royal carriage.

“The first time, I was very astounded by its size and grandeur, and when I had written the chapter, I went back again to make sure I hadn’t overdone it,” he said with a laugh.

He stopped at Parliament and other locations in London and visited the sites of battles in Brooklyn, Trenton and Princeton. He spent time at Mount Vernon and the Longfellow House in Cambridge, where Washington set up his headquarters during the siege of Boston.

“I get a sense of the look, smell and size of spaces,” Mr. McCullough said. “I guess, without sounding corny, you’ve got to know the territory. I spent a lot of time looking at paintings and reading the literature of the time – what it was they were reading.”

For all his books, he gathers voluminous amounts of material and devotes many hours to thinking about what he will do with it. He remarked that he is often asked how much time he spends in research and how much in writing. No one asks him about the thinking process. In the end, he uses a small percentage of the research he has collected.

“You don’t have to trick it up and use devices,” Mr. McCullough said, explaining his narrative style. “Make it as interesting as it was and don’t squeeze the life and breath out of it. Don’t make it all about dates, because it never was, and colorless, because it never was.”

Mr. McCullough is constantly on the go and had just returned from speaking engagements in Budapest and Vienna. He was particularly moved, he said, by Hungarians who asked him to sign copies of “1776.” The American Revolution stands as a model of freedom around the world, and next year the Hungarians will mark the 50th anniversary of their uprising against Soviet domination, which proved unsuccessful.

Mr. McCullough also has been lending his voice to concerns about the general lack of knowledge of American history, even among students at the country’s top colleges and universities. He is critical of the so-called No Child Left Behind law, which has placed emphasis on reading and math to the detriment of history. In June, he testified before a Senate committee in favor of a bill that would require students to be tested in history.

There are many wonderful teachers, he said, but too many of them have studied education, rather than an academic discipline. “We need to go back to a good, solid liberal arts education, which includes a major,” he said. His own education includes a B.A. from Yale, where he majored in English literature.

At the same time, Mr. McCullough said, the education of children should not be the sole responsibility of the nation’s teachers. “We shouldn’t just leave it to the schools to take our children and grandchildren to visit a historic site or encourage reading of a wonderful work of history or biography,” he asserted.

“I have five children and 17 grandchildren, and I am very aware that life is different for them,” Mr. McCullough said. “But when people say, `I haven’t got time,’ I don’t believe it. Turn the TV off and take up the education of your children. Some children grow up and some children are raised. We have to go back to the fundamental business of raising children.”