Growing up in Pittsburgh, David McCullough couldn’t decide what to do with his life.
“I always wanted to do things that I felt were expressions, self-expression,” he said. “When I was in college, I wanted to be a painter, I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be in the theater. I had done all of that since grade school.”
After earning a degree in English literature at Yale University, he was still unsure, so he moved to New York City with an open mind and sense of adventure. What happened was that McCullough got a job at Time Inc., writing for Sports Illustrated. There he first developed his writer’s muscle and his interest in stories about extraordinary people.
Six decades later, McCullough is among the country’s most esteemed journalist-historians, the recipient of two National Book Awards and two Pulitzer Prizes, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His face is well known to public television viewers, as is his voice. McCullough narrated Ken Burns’ monumental “Civil War” series and other TV documentaries. Two of his books, “John Adams” and “Truman,” were adapted by HBO for TV.
McCullough will be in town this week to receive the Charleston Library Society’s 2015 Founders Award during a 6 p.m. Wednesday program at Memminger Auditorium. Mayor Joe Riley and Boeing Corporation’s general counsel J. Michael Luttig will offer introductory comments. The event raises funds for the Library Society.
After six years at Time Inc., McCullough went to Washington, D.C., when John F. Kennedy was president, and worked for the U.S. Information Agency, an operation focused on foreign relations. McCullough returned to New York City and took a job at American Heritage Magazine. His interest in the history and character of America already was budding.
“During that time, I began working on my first book, at night and on weekends,” he said. “Once I started researching the book, I knew that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
The book was “The Johnstown Flood,” published in 1968, and it won the young writer acclaim, enough to prompt him to quit his day job and devote himself to his passion. It was risky. He had a wife and five children.
“There was enough success with each book to keep us afloat,” he said. Plus, he wrote magazine pieces and freelance stories to help pay the bills. And he started to lend his voice to TV projects. “It helped pay a lot of tuitions.”
After “The Johnstown Flood” came a book about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and another about the Panama Canal.
“What people don’t realize about a magnificent accomplishment like that is how much more there is to the story, and the structure, than what meets the eye,” he said.
The Brooklyn Bridge, for example, is a feat of both engineering and determination. Its foundations are deep beneath the East River, made with the use of pressurized work chambers called caissons that allowed unhappy laborers to dig away the muck until they found bedrock, McCullough said. The work was difficult and dangerous. Several workers died of the bends; another 27 or so died in construction accidents.
“That is a huge part of the story. Very few people know what went on down there,” McCullough said.
More astounding still is the fact that bridge engineer John Roebling and his son, Washington, made it up as they went along.
“When they set out to do it, they didn’t know how to do it, what they were going to come up against. Not only were they brilliant and courageous, physically courageous, but they would not give up.”
The elder Roebling died of tetanus after his toes were crushed by a ferry while he surveyed the Brooklyn side of the project. The younger Roebling suffered from a case of the bends so severe it kept him bedridden for many years. His wife Emily had to step in, conveying instructions and becoming a proficient engineer herself.
“It is a tremendously brave and admirable story of the old lessons of history: that almost nothing of consequence is accomplished alone, it’s a joint effort,” McCullough said. “And very often, those who help achieve the success of others are left unsung. My job is not only to pull back the curtain and introduce you to them, but bring them to center stage.”
Even then, McCullough was most interested in people, especially those who persevered through great trials.
“I think of history as something (in which) the people and story are as alive for us as our own time and our own cast of characters,” he said. “You just have to bring it back to life.” To do so, he relies on standard journalistic practices, like conveying clearly the who, what, where, when and why of any situation. “It’s the ‘who’ that interests me most of all. The good fortune I’ve had is to write about people who are so interesting, and who have left vital record. It’s been the case with every book that I’ve had marvelous material to work with.”
His latest book is “The Wright Brothers,” another story of American determination. In a sense, it completes an informal trilogy devoted to high achievement and the American spirit of ingenuity, which includes McCullough’s “The Great Bridge” and “The Path Between the Seas.”
“Both had to do with transportation, the movement of people,” he said. “And this event of the 20th century, that changed history in immeasurable ways, was in keeping with my other two books.”
It also is a sort of continuation of his last book, “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” which ends in 1900. Working on that book, McCullough was surprised to encounter, among many fascinating characters, Wilbur and Orville Wright in Paris, impressing the French with their intellects and savoir faire. Eager to move on to the 20th century, and growing increasingly curious about these bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, the historian began to do a little research.
“The more I read, the more intrigued I became, and I realized: This is it, this is my subject.”
The Wright brothers were loyal to one another, curious about everything, capable with their hands as well as their analytical minds.
“It seemed to me that they exemplified so much about the American story that we need to be reminded of it,” McCullough said.
Wilbur unquestionably was a genius, and both were clear about their goals and unwilling to take no for an answer, he said. Their achievement changed the world forever, and they managed it by themselves, without help from powerful people or political connections.
“They could work, work, work like very few of us could ever imagine. They would not give up. An awful lot that I’ve written is about people who would not give up when the going got tough or when they got knocked down. ... When you think that the greatest minds in history have struggled with this problem, this idea (of flight), and none of them succeeded. These two fellows, from Dayton, Ohio, who never finished high school, did it. It’s unbelievable.”
The book traces their lives from childhood — their father was an itinerant preacher who encouraged reading and intellectual curiosity, and they lived in small house with no plumbing, electricity or telephone — to their success on the world stage.
“One of the aspects of my new book that I’m most pleased and most proud about is that I’ve given Katharine (Wright) her turn,” McCullough said. The sister of Orville and Wilbur, she was a college graduate and brilliant member of the aviation team.
To write the book, McCullough relied on a wealth of original sources: correspondence, archived papers and photographs, old newspaper articles and more. He pored over more than 1,000 letters.
“None of them was capable of writing a short letter or a dull one,” he said. And nothing beats reading the written correspondence of historical figures. They provide the colors a word painter needs to present the story to maximum effect, he said. “It’s a way of getting to know people better than you can know them in real life, because in real life, you don’t read other people’s mail.”
HBO already has indicated it will air a TV documentary based on the book and produced by Tom Hanks.
McCullough, now 81, said he will take a short break from writing history. Instead, he’ll visit with family, vacation a little, paint and listen to music, especially Dixieland jazz, which he loves. And he’ll add to his list.
“I keep a running list of books that haven’t been written that I would like to read,” he said. “But very often what I end up doing isn’t on that list.”
The ideas come from many directions. Sometimes his editor will suggest a topic, or McCullough will find a seed buried in a previous book. Or he’ll have a conversation with someone that piques his interest in a particular person or event.
One thing is certain, though: “I have never taken on a subject I knew a great deal about, because if I did know the subject, I wouldn‘t want to write the book.”
For McCullough, the joy is in the adventure of discovery.
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