It’s should come as no great surprise that a famous historian has discovered Charleston’s charms and opted to rent a carriage house downtown, ensuring he spends a month or two each spring indulging his civic enthusiasms.
David McCullough, 83, is the author of books that have garnered two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards and several other honors, including a Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has written about the Johnstown flood, the Brooklyn Bridge, Harry Truman, the Wright Brothers, Theodore Roosevelt and John Adams. He has narrated numerous television documentaries, including several by Ken Burns. And he has hosted the PBS shows “Smithsonian World” and “American Experience.”
This is the second time he and his wife, Rosalee, have come to Charleston for an extended stay, and McCullough said he has every intention of returning annually.
Show the man a library and you will see him go all soft. Many years ago he was approached by a high school librarian on Martha’s Vineyard who was concerned about state funding cuts. She asked him to help her raise some money, and he quickly agreed — and quickly refused to deliver the expected lecture (too boring, he thought). McCullough opted instead to put together a musical-historical revue with his pal, pianist Ed Wise.
McCullough and Wise are performing that revue once again Tuesday, this time to assist the Charleston Library Society, of which the famed historian has grown quite fond.
The show, called “TR Tonight,” was inspired by a bit of history and a bit of writing. McCullough was working on his book “Mornings on Horseback,” or maybe he had just finished it, when the request came. He had learned that Scott Joplin, upon learning that Teddy Roosevelt had welcomed Booker T. Washington to the White House, was so moved he wrote a rag, “The Strenuous Rag” — “a fantastic piece of genius,” McCullough said. “That’s Ed’s big number in our show.”
The decision to work up an entertainment of this sort is not frivolous.
“I am a very strong believer, and it’s become sort of a continuing preachment with me, that it’s a great mistake to teach history, or picture history, as only about politics and war,” McCullough said. “History is human. It’s about everything. It’s about education. It’s about medicine. It’s about science. It’s about art and music and literature, and the theater. And to leave (all that) out is not only to leave out a lot of the juice and the fun and the uplifting powers of human expression, but it is to misunderstand what it is. In many cases, the only real evidence we have of some vanished civilization is in their art, in their sculpture, their architecture, whether you’re talking about the cave paintings or whatever it might be.”
McCullough relays this example:
“One day I was driving down Massachusetts Avenue in Washington on my way to an appointment with somebody ... and it was right in the morning rush hour, and I hit a terrible traffic jam at Sheridan Circle. I was right by the circle and cars were just stopped. And I looked over and there was old Phil Sheridan up on his high horse with a requisite pigeon on his hat, and I thought to myself, ‘I wonder how many of these people who come around this circle every day, thousands of them, have any idea who that is. Probably five.’
“I was obviously annoyed with the traffic jam, I was late for my appointment. ... I had the car radio on and all of a sudden Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ came on, and it just lifted me right out of my doldrums and out of my car seat. And I thought to myself, ‘Who’s more important to our story as a people, to our culture and what matters, Phil Sheridan or George Gershwin?’ The point is, you can’t leave the Gershwins out.”
Art of writing
Actually, McCullough is an artist, a painter who pulls out his brushes most days he’s in town. Once he considered writing a biography of Pablo Picasso. “It was not my idea. It was urged on me by my editor and publisher and agent, very understandably. I love to paint. I love art. They thought there was a place for a very good biography of Picasso. And I didn’t mind the idea of having to go live in the south of France for a year or two, and I liked the size of the advance they were talking about. It was all very appealing.”
But once he began to do a little research, he realized his mistake. So he mustered up the courage to call his publisher and back out.
So why didn’t McCullough want to write about the great 20th-century master?
“He never did much, in my view, that was admirable. He was talented, he got famous. But he goes all through World War II worrying mostly about how his tomato plants are doing. He’s a communist who’s salting away millions of dollars in Switzerland. He changes women the way you get a new car, with about as much art. He had one son who was trying to get his father’s attention, and was obviously sick, and chained himself to the fence around Picasso’s palace, and Picasso’s reaction was to call the police and tell them to come and cut this guy down and take him away, his own son! I don’t want to write about that (expletive).”
These historical figures become the biographer’s roommate for years, McCullough noted. “I know there are great books to be written about people like Adolf Hitler,” he said. “Somebody else do that, not me. I don’t want to be hanging out with that (expletive).”
Someone he does want to hang out with though is Manasseh Cutler. Cutler is the protagonist of McCullough’s book-in-progress, “The Pioneers,” which tells the story of how the Northwest Territory was secured, settled and cultivated.
“This current book that I’m working on I just stumbled on because of a request to give a talk at Yale that led me to uncover material about a character I’d never heard of named Manasseh Cutler, who was a minister in Ipswich, Massachusetts, but who was also a classic 18th-century polymath, somebody who’s interested in everything, and who succeeded in convincing Congress to pass the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which was the ordinance that established what would become five states: Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin,” McCullough said. “The more I read about this man the more intrigued I became.”
The Northwest Territory was ceded to the United States by Britain at the end of the Revolutionary War, thanks to the Treaty of Paris. It doubled the size of the country.
“The idea was to compensate Revolutionary war veterans with land, because they were given money certificates, which were worth virtually nothing,” McCullough said. “Cutler managed to get Congress to include in the ordinance that there will be no restrictions on religion — total religious freedom — there will be public support of education all the way through college and there will be no slavery. Wow.”
Safe to say Cutler was no Picasso. Or Hitler. The historian had found his subject.
“I got interested in this Northwest story and that took me to Marietta, Ohio, to the Marietta College, and there I found in their archive one of the greatest collection of letters and diaries that I’ve ever seen,” McCullough said.
Marietta was the first settlement of the territory, established not by adventurers but by families from New England. “They’re bricklayers or toolmakers or doctors or lawyers or ministers, and they’re all needed in order to make this thing grow and work.”
So McCullough decided to focus on this town, and the central figure of Manasseh Cutler, in an effort to tell the whole story of the Northwest Territory.
“One of my favorite works of theater is (Thornton Wilder’s) ‘Our Town,’ and I’ve always wanted to do a nonfiction version of ‘Our Town,’ a work of history about people you’ve never heard of. Instead of having historic celebrities to get you into the tent, as it were, you’ve never heard of any of these people, but my hope is if I do their story justice, you will be pulled in very quickly.”
McCullough knows a lot about American hardship and political crisis. He is not one to overreact to troubling strains in current affairs. But even this sober, prize-winning historian is taken aback by what’s been happening lately in Washington, D.C., he said.
“Because I saw the way things were going during the (presidential) campaign, ... Ken Burns and I rounded up a number of historians, and we each made a two-minute statement for Facebook. I’d never done this before. I always stayed out of politics. That wasn’t what I felt someone who’s trying to be an objective observer should do, at least publicly. ... But this seemed to many of us beyond all previous experience.”
The statements “had a very large reach,” he said, but they didn’t keep Donald Trump out of the White House.
“Since the election has turned out as it has, I’ve been wondering what could I do to remind people of who we are and what we stand for, and what our values have been and the importance of truth and tolerance and honesty,” McCullough said.
So with help from one of his daughters, he assembled a collection of speeches delivered over the past 25 years. They address issues such as the importance of education, the significance of our three-part government, the accomplishments of important Americans and more.
The book is called "The American Spirit," and will be published April 18 by Simon & Schuster. "I hope maybe it might have some effect,” McCullough said.
“I have 19 grandchildren, and I’m trying to do everything I can, not just for them but for their generation, to reassure them that we’ve been through these tough times before and we come out all right and sometimes better off even than before they began,” McCullough said. “So my feeling is ... not to say ‘Oh my God, what have we done?’ ... but I want to remind us how we came to be where we are, and who we are, and what we stand for and what our values are."