ON HISTORY AND WRITING
By David McCullough
Question: How did you become a historian?
McCullough: Like a lot of things in life, I backed into it, quite by chance. I was working on a project for the U.S. Information Agency in the 1960s. I was often at the Library of Congress doing research. One Saturday, I came across some photographs taken in Johnstown, Pa., soon after the disastrous flood of 1889. I had grown up in Pittsburgh, which is not very far from Johnstown. I'd heard about the Johnstown Flood during my childhood but never really understood what happened. When I saw the level of destruction in those pictures, I was curious to know more about what happened. I took a book out of the library to read about it, and it wasn't much good. The author didn't seem to understand the geography of western Pennsylvania. I at least knew that. So I took another book out and found it even less satisfactory. I began to think, "Why don't you try to write the book about the Johnstown Flood you'd like to read?" So that's what I did. I was about 29 at the time. I'd never done historical research. So I had a lot to learn, but I had found what I wanted to do with my life.
Question: Does "writing the book you would like to read" guide your writing approach in general?
McCullough: Yes. I write for the general reader. I hope that the aficionados, the scholars, the specialists will like what I write, but I also hope that the fellow who lives next door will like what I write, that somebody of 17 and somebody of 87 will enjoy it. I'm just trying to write the best book I know how. Obviously, I care very much about accuracy and the validity of the tale, getting it right. And I love the research. But the writing is what I care about the most.
Question: You have said that in your research process you try to feel what it was like to live in the given time. How do you that?
McCullough: By reading what they wrote, their letters, their diaries. By reading what they read—that's very important. By literally walking the walk, visiting the site, spending the night where they were, soaking it up in every way possible. By looking at their clothes, looking at the houses they lived in. By trying to understand what getting through a winter in a house that had nothing but a fireplace for heat was like. By experiencing what it is like to swing a pick or a shovel in the heat of Panama in the rainy season or going into the jungle at night without a flashlight.
Question: How do you choose a subject to write on?
McCullough: It's a peculiar thing, and I can't really pin it down, but it can be something someone says at a lunch, which was the case in my book about the Brooklyn Bridge. It can be something that I said, not realizing that I was saying it. When I was talking with my editor about what my next book would be, he suggested a biography of Franklin Roosevelt. And I said no, I didn't want to do Franklin Roosevelt. If I were ever to do a 20th-century president, it wouldn't be FDR, I said, it would be Harry Truman. I'd never before thought for five minutes about that. I don't know why I said it. It just came out.
Sometimes the subject derives from my previous book. The Path Between the Seas, my book about the Panama Canal, was an idea that my editor had. And from writing it, I'd become quite interested in Theodore Roosevelt and particularly his childhood. So that led to Mornings on Horseback. The book 1776 comes out of the experience of writing the Adams biography, as I was very aware of how much was going on of importance—vast importance—that Adams was playing no part in, namely the war itself.
I've never written a book because I thought there would be a market for it or because there was going to be an anniversary celebrated three years hence. You can't predict interest.
I think you have to do what you really want to do, what compels you, because you've got to get up your own head of steam every day and get out there and work. And if it isn't something you really want to do, if it just becomes an obligation, a routine, it's not likely to be very good. It will show that you're just going through the motions.
Question: What do you think about present-day academic history?
McCullough: I think there are some marvelous historians today working in traditional academic history—David Hackett Fisher, Gordon Wood, James McPherson, John Lukacs. They are superb historians and very good writers. And there are others, of course.
What worries me are the historians who are writing only for other historians and who don't seem to care at all about whether they're writing anything that anyone besides other historians would want to read. I really do believe that if history isn't written to be read—if those who write history don't at least aspire to writing literature as others have done, beginning with Homer and Thucydides—then history will die. Nobody will want to read it.
I do what I do in my way as best I can. I write narrative history. And I love to read narrative history. People say to me, "Your books read like a novel." Well, that's exactly how I want them to read. For years I read historical novels. I loved them. But always there was the nagging thought, "How much of this is true and how much isn't?" And "Wouldn't it be wonderful to read a book where it was all true but it read like this?" And that's what I have tried to do.
Question: Who are your heroes from history after doing the research you've done?
McCullough: Oh, Abigail Adams, John Adams, Emily Roebling, Washington Roebling, George Washington, John Stevens—the American engineer who worked on the Panama Canal.
But sometimes the heroes aren't necessarily the ones you'd most like to write about. I loved writing about Boss Tweed, and he's certainly not a hero. I loved writing about some of the less-than-virtuous people in the Truman years. I like vivid characters, I love people who speak their mind, who leave us some trace of their personality and individual identity.
Question: You have said we should use history as a source of hope and strength in the hard times of our lives. Which story from history has served you as a source of strength and hope?
McCullough: Because I've been so close to them the last 10 years or more, I would say the story of the Adams family and the whole Revolutionary War era.
I've found tremendous inspiration in the story of the Roebling family and the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and all that it took to make that possible. I think the Brooklyn Bridge is a great symbol of affirmation, a symbol of Americans struggling against the odds to do something unprecedented and surpassing, something that, in fact, turned out to be a great American symbol, a great work of art.
Question: What do you think are some of the most pressing problems facing our nation today, and as a historian, do you see any lessons or solutions from the past that could be applied?
McCullough: I think the most pressing problem we face today is lack of self-confidence and pride in who we are and what we've done and what we have the capacity to do. And I think if we lose our self-respect and our trust in our neighbor and our faith in what we stand for, we're really in the soup. We're up against a foe who believes in enforced ignorance. And we don't. We have to hold to our beliefs and our trust in who we are and not allow circumstances to vitiate our better natures.
I think we face very serious environmental problems. I think we face very serious problems of how to be competitive and maintain anything like the standard of living we have enjoyed in a world that is fast learning how to do so much that we do.
Question: Are there other lessons you have taken from your study of history?
McCullough: One is that there was no "simpler time." People will say, "Well, that was in a simpler time. That was back before life got complicated." There wasn't any simpler time. It was just different. And I think that comes through in any close study of how people lived and the fears and the hardships and the uncertainties that they had to live with every day—disease, the hazards of occupations, all of that.
We're softies compared to people from past centuries. We truly are. We have no idea the discomforts and the inconveniences they knew. Life beat them up a lot, and it showed on their faces—missing teeth, scars, casts in the eye. John Trumbull the painter had the use of only one eye as the result of a childhood injury, but that didn't stop him from being a painter. Imagine. Imagine going to an 18th-century dentist. Imagine what it was like for Abigail Adams the second, Nabby, as she was called, having a mastectomy performed with no anesthetic. Unimaginable. Think of what it was like for her parents standing outside that room, knowing what she was going through. Unimaginable.
That is one of the lessons that ought to be conveyed in understanding American history. We are all descendants of people who went through rough times—for us. I think that there is an overemphasis on how dangerous and dark and bleak and critical our own times are. After Sept. 11 we heard people on television saying this is the darkest time we have ever been through. Anyone who thinks that has no sense of history, because we have been through worse times. We were through worse times in 1776. We were through worse times during the Civil War. We were through worse times in the Depression. The first few months of 1942 were about as dark a time for the world as there ever was. There was no guarantee that the Nazi machine could be defeated, none whatsoever. Half our navy had been destroyed at Pearl Harbor. We had recruits drilling with wooden rifles. We had virtually no air force. The Germans were sinking our oil tankers right off the coast of New Jersey and Florida within the sight of the beaches—and there was nothing we could do about it. That was a dark time. And in the midst of that dark time, Winston Churchill came across the Atlantic and gave a very powerful speech in which he said, "We haven't journeyed this far because we are made of sugar candy."
I think another lesson we should draw from history in general is that there is no such thing as a self-made man or woman. We're all the products of a multitude of influences—other people, teachers, parents, friends who've helped us or badgered us or reprimanded us when we didn't do it right; people who have been our rivals or our competitors; people who have given us inspiration, new ideas, called on us to do something more than we thought we could do; and people we never knew because they lived long ago in another day. We're beholden to them more than we know. They've shaped us. I love to point out to people how we walk around every day, all of us, quoting Shakespeare, Pope, Cervantes, Swift and not even realizing it. The very words we speak we owe to other people.
Certainly another lesson is that democracy doesn't come easily. You don't just find it on the road and pick it up and put it in your pocket. It doesn't just drop off some kind of a democracy tree. It's a struggle, often a long, bloody, costly struggle.
One of the greatest lessons from those who went before us is to never, never, never stop learning. Until their dying days, many of them were still reading, thinking, still daring to write and speak.
Question: Do you feel that God had a hand in the Revolution?
McCullough: I feel that some force beyond our understanding entered in. Did miracles happen? Yes indeed. I think it's a miracle that it turned out the way it did. I won't get into a theological explanation of that. That's personal and beyond my capacity to explain.
Question: In your books, the pictures you have painted of characters like John Adams, King George, and others have differed from traditional conceptions of them. Is your role as a historian to revise and correct our way of remembering the past?
McCullough: I think in many ways, I want to give credit where credit is due. I want to be fair and to break through some of the inadequate or inaccurate interpretations or portrayals by historians, which have just been repeated over and over and over because one historian just repeats the other. If one goes and studies all the available material, the letters, the diaries, all the primary source evidence, and comes to a different conclusion, that's fine. What I object to is when they just continue to use the same old adjectives, the same old supposedly damning quotations and don't bother themselves to look to see what the man really said or really did.
All history is revisionist history. It has to be. So when somebody says, "What do you think of these revisionists?" I think that's just the way it is. If you aren't going to revise how an event or individual is described or interpreted or analyzed, then why do it? History is never static. It never stays the same. It is taking new looks because times are changing and because new information comes to light all of the time, out of areas where you think there couldn't possibly be anything more that isn't already known. And then, lo and behold, things turn up.
Question: In John Adams, 1776, and other projects that you've been involved in, you seem to respect the bravery and courage of some of these characters. What do you make of the many modern histories that are cynical about the character of the Founding Fathers and others from the past?
McCullough: That's what I would call the hubris of the present, the idea that we are somehow superior to them and we can therefore look down on them, even down on the best of them. I don't like hero worship; I don't like hagiography; I don't like rose-colored glasses, because that isn't the truth. All you're trying to do, it seems to me, is make history as interesting as it really was and to give them a little benefit of the doubt. You weren't there. You don't know what it was like to have no sleep for three nights in a row and to march in the rain and mud all that time and be so hungry you're ready to eat your knapsack. You don't know what that's like.
Question: Many of the patriots of the Revolution are lost in our current understanding of history. How can we learn more about people like the 3,000 who stayed by Washington's side in 1776? Where are these common people's stories registered?
McCullough: We have no photographs of them. We have no recordings of their voices. We have no film, no television outtakes. We don't even have any reportage. No newspaper reporters covered the Revolutionary War the way reporters covered the Civil War, for example. No artist correspondents covered the Revolutionary War the way Winslow Homer covered the Civil War.
The soldiers' stories are available in their own words. What we do have are their letters and diaries. They are in books. They are in anthologies. There is a wonderful two-volume anthology, edited by Henry Steel Commager and Richard B. Morris, called The Spirit of 'Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants. It's the letters and diaries from all sides, not just the American side, but British, Hessian, loyalists, and innocent bystanders. In that collection, you can then find out what the source is and whether there are larger collections of the letters of individuals.
The Revolution is a rich field, and there are wonderful libraries all over the country that have specialized in the period. You can go and read the original documents yourself—hold those letters in your own hand. And there's nothing quite like that to bridge the gap between then and now.
To me, one of the most thrilling, almost unbelievable stories of 1776 is the successful feat pulled off by Henry Knox in bringing the guns from Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York down the Hudson River and over the Berkshire Mountains in the midst of winter, all the way to Boston, a distance of nearly 300 miles. It's like something out of mythology, yet it really happened. In the Massachusetts Historical Society there is the original diary that Knox kept through the whole trek. If you ever go to Boston and want to see it, go to the Massachusetts Historical Library, ask them to bring it out, and look at it. It's right there.
Our great libraries are open to all, thank goodness. If you're serious about it, if you're a student, a scholar, or just a citizen who really cares, they'll be happy to show you such treasures.