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Reflections on the Work and Life of David McCullough

I learned earlier this week that one of my favorite history authors had passed away. David McCullough left this world on Sunday, August 7, almost two months after his wife, Rosalee, passed on June 9. He recently had celebrated his eighty-ninth birthday.

McCullough was one of my favorite authors for several reasons. One was that he, like I, was interested in history and wrote about historic events and people. But a lot of people also do that, and I don't like their work. But McCullough was different. He wrote in a way that made me enjoy what he was recounting.

The first of his books that I read was 1776. I was hooked. Next came Truman. Then John Adams. (And I wasn't even a fan of either Truman or Adams as historic figures.) Then The Path Between the Seas. And on and on. One book led to the next. It wasn't until later that I read the first book McCullough had written and that had launched him on his now legendary journey as a writer: The Johnstown Flood.

As so often happens when one becomes enamored of an author, sports figure, or other famous person, I became curious to know more about the man McCullough, what had sparked his pursuit of history, and--most importantly--what about his life and writing could help me become a better writer. Not that I ever entertain the idea of becoming as great at the craft as he was, but simply to improve what I do.

McCullough was born July 7, 1933, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He attended Yale from 1951 to 1955, graduating with a degree, not in history or writing, but in English literature. After college, he got a job with a fledgling magazine called Sports illustrated, a Time-Life publication. He also worked for several other Time-Life magazines early in his career, but during the 1960s, he worked as a writer and editor for American Heritage and, briefly, the U.S. Information Agency.

While doing research in the Library of Congress for an American Heritage assignment, he chanced upon photos of the aftermath of the Johnston flood. They sparked his curiosity and led to more research on that event, its causes, and the aftermath. He wrote the book after work, after having put his children to bed at 9:00 p.m. He committed himself to write two pages a night. The book was published in 1968, and his literary floodgates were opened, resulting in the following works during his lifetime:

  • The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 (1977)

  • Mornings on Horseback (1981)

  • The Great Bridge (1983)

  • Brave Companions: Portraits in American History (1992)

  • Truman (1993)

  • John Adams (2001)

  • 1776 (2005)

  • The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (2011)

  • The Wright Brothers (2015)

  • The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For (2017)

  • The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West (2019)

As prolific as McCullough was as an author, he undoubtedly loved not only his subject but also the process of research and the craft of writing. In fact, he once admitted, "I would pay to do what I do if I had to." And he told fans, "Real success is finding your lifework in the work that you love."

And McCullough certainly found success. He won two Pulitzer Prizes (for Truman, 1993, and John Adams, 2022). And neither of those books was a lightweight; they were both tomes! He also won two National Book Awards (for The Path Between the Seas, 1978, and Mornings on Horseback, 1982); the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2016); and many other awards.

Surely, the life of such a prolific and likeable author has something to teach aspiring writers and authors striving to improve their craft. McCullough's does.

In one interview of McCullough that I read, I discerned four key lessons that were lessons for me.

  1. The need for close observation. Rather than always looking for something new, if I observe closely, I can often discover insights about what has been sitting under my nose all the time. Jesse Stuart gave a young writer similar advice. Taking him into an old country store, he encouraged him to stand still and listen and smell and feel the environment so he could better describe it.

  2. The need for curiosity. Something as simple as a photo or a quotation should prompt questions that lead me to dig deeper into a subject to discover the real story behind it. Curiosity pursued reveals all sorts of fascinating and enlightening things that can improve one's writing.

  3. The need for system and discipline. How much more I could write and publish if I disciplined myself to follow a proven pattern of behavior, a writing system that produces results! Although I consider myself a disciplined writer, I know all too well that I'm often guilty of laziness, procrastination, and looking for the easy way. But real writing, writing that produces results (i.e., publication) is work that demands discipline.

  4. The preferability of primary sources. This is especially true when one is writing about historic events or people. Rather than relying on what others have said about my topic, why not let the subjects or the eyewitnesses of the time and event tell about it in their own words? That's not always possible, but it is preferable to relying solely on secondary sources.

The reasons are clear why McCullough has been called "a master of the art of narrative history." But most of all, I think, it's because of his work ethic as a writer and a historian. Although I can no longer expect the announcement of the release of another of his books, he'll nevertheless always be one of my favorite writers of history.

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