Bookish Diversions: David McCullough, RIP
Remembering an American Historian, His Life and Influence, What Motivated His Work, More
¶ David McCullough:
History helps us keep a sense of proportion.
—from his 2003 Jefferson Lecture.
¶ We lost a big one this week. David McCullough, award-winning historian and author of many wonderful books, including a landmark biography of John Adams, died Sunday, just two months after his wife and literary partner, Rosalee, passed away. He was 89. You can read the canonical obituaries at the Associated Press and New York Times, which give the full sweep of his life. The National Endowment of the Humanities has a useful selection of his work and an appreciation of his contribution, including the full transcript of his 2003 Jefferson Lecture. Worth reading in full.
¶ What motivated his writing? Here’s McCullough from an interview with NPR back in 1992:
What I’m trying to do is show readers—especially young readers—that things didn’t have to turn out as well as they did.
I want them to know that life felt every bit as uncertain to people back then as it does to us today. There were these moments when they had to be thinking, there is no way we can get this bridge built, or get this canal dug.
But things worked out—because individuals behaved in certain ways, with integrity and resilience. They figured out how to work with other people, and they tried to do the right thing. And my hope is that these stories will inspire some readers to behave the same way in the face of the uncertainty in their lives.
¶ That thought is echoed in a Hillsdale College address, also worth reading in full. Reading history is a reminder just how contingent everything is. Choices matter. “One of the truths about history that needs to be portrayed . . . is that nothing ever had to happen the way it happened. History could have gone off in any number of different directions in any number of different ways at any point along the way, just as your own life can. You never know. One thing leads to another.”
¶ Some people realize the importance of it all and catch the bug. McCullough succeeded in many ways, not least encouraging others to become historians themselves. Here’s Lindsay M. Chervinsky’s story: “I think someone gave a copy of John Adams to my dad as a gift . . . and like a typical teenager, I decided it was mine. I inhaled it. I loved the John Adams I found in McCullough’s words—stubborn, self-righteous, insecure, virtuous, and utterly devoted to his fiercely intelligent wife. I didn’t know it at the time, but it turns out that book would stick with me in ways I couldn’t possibly imagine.” Years later, Chervinsky gave up going to law school after realizing what she really cared about was history. Her own biography of John Adams comes out in 2024.
¶ McCullough often criticized how history was taught in American schools. History, he said, “should be taught for pleasure: The pleasure of history, like art or music or literature, consists of an expansion of the experience of being alive, which is what education is largely about.” Elsewhere, he pointed out that teachers often have degrees in eduction but are not subject-matter experts. “People who come out of college with a degree in education and not a degree in a subject are severely handicapped in their capacity to teach effectively,” he says. If they don’t love history, they can’t teach it well. But, he says, “you can't love something you don't know anymore than you can love someone you don't know.”
¶ Passion starts immersion. “We are what we read more than we know,” he said in his Jefferson Lecture. He always encouraged reading. Here’s his advice from one commencement address:
Read for pleasure. Read what you like, and all you like. Read literally to your heart’s content. Let one book lead to another. They nearly always do. . . . Take up a great author, new or old, and read everything he or she has written. Read about places you've never been. Read biography, history. Read the books that have changed history. . . .
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What a wonderful tribute to McCullough. I remember reading his tome on Harry S. Truman in an upper-level history class on Truman that I took at Hillsdale College, incidentally. Burt Folsom was my professor. Years later, I discovered my husband (a software engineer) enjoyed McCullough’s book on John Adams. It was fun to share a love of history, sparked by McCullough in both cases.
I had a history professor in college that brought the thrills and spills of the past to life. I always was interested but he showed me the way. I ended up majoring in History instead of art. McCullough was a titan for sure.