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If you like David Herbert Donald's story, you might also like:
Stephen Ambrose,
Shelby Foote,
Doris Kearns Goodwin,
Frank McCourt,
David McCullough,
James Michener
and Gore Vidal

David Herbert Donald is also featured in the Audio Recordings area of this web site

Related Links:
Ford's Theatre
Lincoln Library
Pulitzer Prize

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David Herbert Donald
David Herbert Donald
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David Herbert Donald Interview (page: 8 / 8)

Two Pulitzer Prizes for Biography

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  David Herbert Donald

In the 1980s, you took a different direction and published a book about the novelist Thomas Wolfe that earned you a second Pulitzer Prize.

David Herbert Donald: My biography of Wolfe was something of a surprise to everybody, perhaps including myself. I had finished several Lincoln books, about aspects of Lincoln in the Civil War, and I thought to myself, I don't think I want to do that again, right now anyway, but what would I do? About that time, we decided we'd go on vacation in North Carolina. There's wonderful areas out there in the western mountains, and we enjoyed it immensely. And driving back from the mountains, we went through Asheville, and I thought, you know, we ought to stop there and see Thomas Wolfe's house, which I had seen once before, but my wife never had, and so we did. We went through that house. It was a very impressive old house in a sense, it was huge. It was, indeed, as Wolfe's father said, "a damned old barn." It was practically empty, all these little cubicles with a light hanging down by a cord in the middle of it, a narrow flat bed, maybe one bureau and a chair. That's all it was furnished with. People came to rent rooms there because of the mountain air, and Julia Wolfe made a living for the family by renting. And I thought to myself, "Isn't it odd that Thomas Wolfe, who writes the most luxuriant prose of any American, so full of description, so full of wonderful language, should emerge from this absolutely barren background?" And I told my wife, I said, "You know, somebody ought to do something about Thomas Wolfe," and she said, oh yes, I ought to, and we drove home.

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David Herbert Donald Interview Photo
David Herbert Donald Interview Photo

It sort of buzzed in the back of my mind. I came back to Harvard, where I was teaching at that point, wondering what I was going to do, and I thought, "I wonder where Wolfe's papers are?" I began looking at it, and they're all in Houghton Library at Harvard, and I thought, "Well, this is quite unusual." So I go over to take a look at them, and I asked the curator of manuscripts, "Will you show them to me?" He took me to that wonderful building, and you go down two floors, deep into the subterranean vault, all air-conditioned and all that sort of thing, and there are rows and rows of black boxes of papers and so on. He took me to a wall that stretched probably, oh, we'll say really the length of this house that we're in now, as far as you could see. "Those," he says, "are Thomas Wolfe's papers," and I said, "You've got to be kidding." "Yes." he said, "He never threw away anything," and that is true. I thought I heard him say, three to six million pages. He later said, "I didn't really say all that, did I?" But there was a lot of paper there. And I thought, "Okay, this is something I can do while living in Lincoln, Massachusetts. This is a subject I've been interested in. It's a change from Abraham Lincoln. Why don't I do it? And so I set to work doing Thomas Wolfe, and it was quite a change. I had to teach myself something about literary criticism, about deconstructionism, about a number of matters that I had not previously dealt with. So it was an educational process for me, and I loved it! I liked the people who worked on Thomas Wolfe. They were all very helpful. So Thomas Wolfe emerged from that.

In 1988, when you received your second Pulitzer, it was 27 years later. You were a different person, with a lot more experience under your belt. Was it a different experience, receiving your second Pulitzer?

David Herbert Donald: Well, it necessarily is. After you've done it once, the second time is wonderful, but it's not quite the excitement of the first one.

Is there something about achievement that you know now, that you didn't perceive as a young person?

David Herbert Donald: When I talk about achievement, I tend to use flat, much too frequently used phrasing, namely, that you have to work hard. I think most people don't realize that writing it very hard work. It doesn't come easily to anybody. Then you have to revise and work over, over and over again. Second, it requires a lot of time to research what's behind all of this before you start writing. And third, it requires what I think many of us do not do: a lot of thinking. What does this all add up to? Why am I writing about this person? Why is he worth my time? That's hard to answer sometimes. You could mine a subject and wring a book out of it, but unless you're sure in advance that it's a major subject for you, it's probably not worth all the close attention and hard work it's going to take.

We often ask our honorees for their definition of the American Dream. What does the American Dream mean to you?

David Herbert Donald: The American Dream is one of those loose phrases that we use in too many contexts, I think. But by and large, Americans have had similar aspirations: aspirations to be free, aspirations not to be meddled with, not to be told what to do, aspirations that mean the whole future is ahead of you. You can do all sorts of different things and you don't necessarily have to do what you were slated to do in the ninth grade or the 12th grade or the first year of college. The world is really open to you, and there are so many choices that you can make, and in many cases you will do as well in one choice as another. You're not sort of fixed from the beginning: I'm going to be a scientist, I'm going to be a historian, I'm going to be a farmer. You probably could be good in all three of those roles, but you have to chose between them.

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You've spent your career examining America's past. Looking ahead, what do you think will be one of the big achievements in the next quarter century?

David Herbert Donald: Gosh. I wish I could predict what the greatest achievement in the next quarter century is going to be. I can predict what I hope it will be: a new source of energy. If we do not find for this world, this globe, a new source of energy, we are going to be running out very shortly. We already see shortages in many different areas. We need sources of energy to take care of our water supply. Atlanta, Georgia is really perishing for lack of water. We need sources of energy for our cars, or else we're going to be back to traveling on foot or bicycle. We need sources of energy for faster communication, and these have to be devised, not something immediately in sight, where we can say, "Oh well, that's going to come in ten years." We've got to spend a good deal of thought and care in producing that. It's got to be a revolution as great as the Industrial Revolution was in its time.

Thank you, Professor Donald, for a wonderful interview.

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This page last revised on Feb 24, 2010 16:53 EDT
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