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Historian in the Arena

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books and culture

Historian in the Arena

David McCullough’s elegant style and his belief in the American story brought him a wide audience, but the consensus under which he wrote is disappearing. August 15, 2022
Arts and Culture

David McCullough, who died last week at 89, was a gregarious man in what is normally a somewhat cloistered profession. He wrote a gregarious kind of history, in which people took precedence over events. He saw the world as driven by individual character more than by mass, impersonal shifts. “To me, history ought to be a pleasure,” McCullough said. “To me it’s an enlargement of the experience of being alive, just the way literature or art or music is.” Because he sought to share this pleasure, and did so in a clear, vivid prose style, his books frequently became bestsellers. He was a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and as the narrator of PBS’s The American Experience series and Ken Burns’s The Civil War documentary in particular, his voice became identified with the great events of our national story.

McCullough’s death has been met with warm tributes, but the future of his reputation is less certain. The story he told over and over, of how America became America, is one that fewer of his countrymen seem to want to hear. McCullough’s monuments in prose will inevitably be attacked by those whose view of that history is a good deal darker than his. The patriotic speeches he gathered in The American Spirit (2017) were criticized as naïve. His last book, The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West (2019), was denounced for presenting stereotypes of Native Americans and downplaying the effects of Western expansion on indigenous people. Academic historians generally thought his work vivid but shallow.

At Yale, where he graduated in 1955, McCullough took classes from John O’Hara and formed a relationship with Thornton Wilder, then at the height of his fame as the author of Our Town. McCullough resolved to be a writer, abandoning other possible vocations in politics or medicine and at first imagining that he would be a novelist or playwright. His early jobs were in magazine publishing and then at the United States Information Agency in Washington.

First books are usually telling, either in inaugurating a style or making a misstep later overcome. McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood (1968), begun when he was still working at USIA, belongs to the former category. The assuredness of the prose is astonishing in a writer so young. Here is McCullough’s description of a veterans’ parade held downtown on the eve of the disaster:

The fire department marched, the Morrellville Odd Fellows, the Austrian Music Society, the Hornerstown Drum Corps, the Grand Army Veterans . . . It had been nearly thirty years since Lincoln had first called for volunteers. Grant and Lee were both dead, and there were strapping steelworkers with thick, black mustaches standing among the crowds along Main Street who had been born since Appomattox.

McCullough described coming across a book of photographs of the flood’s aftermath and learning that no serious history of it had been written. With his wife’s encouragement, he decided to do such a history himself. Rosalee Ingram Barnes was a considerable beauty and, as the daughter of a politician, at ease in public life. Winning her hand and being buoyed by her confidence must have been crucial in the formation of McCullough’s self-belief.

McCullough cited the Civil War historians, Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote, as inspirations. What he had in common with them was a commitment to narrative art and to the belief, as Foote said, that history “has a plot.” “I don’t think of myself as a historian in a conventional sense,” McCullough said. “I am a writer who has chosen other days from our own as his field.”

McCullough’s Truman (1992) sold enormously well but also met with criticism. McCullough did not deny his admiration for FDR’s successor, and some thought the book a transparent effort to bolster Truman’s reputation. To the prevailing idea of Truman as a “little man”—the failed haberdasher from small-town Missouri—McCullough added an appreciation for Truman’s ability to grow into an office that had been thrust upon him, and for the challenges he faced at the Potsdam Conference, where he impressed Churchill as a quick study. Above all, McCullough admired Truman’s depth of character, which he cast in homely, Middle American terms.

As for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, McCullough was criticized for his careless handling of contemporaneous government memoranda assessing the American casualties that would result from a push to take the Japanese mainland, criticism to which he did not respond gracefully. One senses that McCullough’s anger was less on Truman’s behalf than his own, the somewhat pardonable arrogance of a man of great status when confronted with impertinent questions from scholars of narrower gauge. Inflating the numbers of American casualties avoided, of course, would tend to make Truman’s decision look inevitable. Even if that number is at the lower end of the figures discussed at the time, however, it was still not less than 25,000 American dead, in addition to the much larger number of Japanese. Crucially, no member of Truman’s inner circle argued against the bombings.

In an ideal historiographical world, the popularizer and the academic specialist would have a symbiotic relationship. They are not even mutually exclusive, as the work of Joseph Ellis, Gordon Wood, and others has demonstrated. Popular history needs to be written and written well; the democratic process withers without it. Tensions are, inevitable, however. When these tensions break into the open, the public is likely to side with the popularizer. Our sympathies are instinctively with the man in the arena, the one who takes the big swing.

The premise of McCullough’s career was that Americans know too little of their own history and have too little understanding of how easily things might have gone differently. What does all our talk of “freedom” mean if we do not know what it cost? “Future generations who will reap the blessings shall scarcely know the hardships we have endured on their behalf,” Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, in words McCullough frequently quoted. McCullough hoped to prove her wrong, and his John Adams (2001) and 1776 (2005) were written in that spirit. No history is ever “definitive” for long; subsequent events have a way of modifying those that came before. Future historians will write in one way or another against the consensus that David McCullough represented. What McCullough did, though, was to make some of the wax figures of American history come to life once more. For that, he has millions of grateful readers.

Photo by Nancy Lane/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images

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