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David McCullough

Interview: David McCullough
Two Pulitzer Prizes for Biography

June 3, 1995
Williamsburg, Virginia

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Was there a particular experience in your youth that you believe had a formative influence on you?

David McCullough: One of my own children once said to me, "Pop, I don't think you're going to be a great writer, because you had such a wonderful childhood and all of our great writers have supposedly had miserable childhoods." I had a marvelous childhood.

I grew up in a family of four sons who are all quite different from each other and who all had very active interests. I have a brother who is a wonderful musician and very interested in the history of music. I have a brother who is a scientist and gifted in technology who builds computers for use under water in oceanographic studies. I have another brother who is a very good businessman and who has had a strong and important career in business.

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We went to the public schools, and we had lots of friends, and we played on baseball teams and football teams, and ran on the track team, and all of that. I was in the dramatics at school, I worked on the newspaper. I thought I was going to be a painter. I drew the cartoons for the paper. I painted portraits. I sang in the glee club. I did all of that, and I loved all of it. I loved school, every day. It wasn't cool to say you liked school, of course, but I did. And it was the same in college, and it's been the same since.

I think it's very important not to typecast people and especially yourself. Because what you may be interested in now, or what you may show signs of ability in now may not be what you're interested in later on, or may not be where your ability emerges later on.

When did you first have an idea of what you wanted to do?

David McCullough: I had many ideas of what I wanted to do. The question was, "Which one would I do?" I think I ran through the usual spectrum of imagined futures. I thought I would like to be an architect, an actor, a painter, a writer, a lawyer, for a while a politician. I considered going to medical school.

I knew I didn't want to be in business, and I knew that I wanted to get to New York as soon as I could, and once I got to New York, one thing sort of led to another. A lot depends, of course, on who you happen to meet, what your economic needs are of the moment.

When I arrived in New York, I needed a job, and I was fortunate enough to be taken on as a trainee in a brand new magazine that was just starting called Sports Illustrated. And I think now, in retrospect, that what I did in the next 12 years was to serve a kind of apprenticeship in different jobs, different magazine jobs, primarily editing, writing. And after I'd done that for about 10 or 12 years, I felt that I had reached the point where I could attempt something on my own.

We had many children by then, and I had a good job. I liked my job.

It wasn't that I was rebelling against the imprisonment of a vocation that wasn't for me. I liked the people I worked with. I went in every day very eager to do whatever we had to do. I was an editor then at American Heritage Publishing Company, but I had an idea for a book, and I began working on it at nights, and on weekends, and on vacations, and it took me three years. And when that book was published it had a reception -- both critically and publicly, with the reading public -- that was far beyond what I had expected. And at that point, I decided that I would cut loose and try it on my own. And, because I had a wonderful partner, editor-in-chief, wife, who was equally willing to take that risk -- biggest risk we ever took. I did it. Had I not had someone in my life who was as willing as I was to take the step, I might not have done it.

What was that first book?

David McCullough: The first book was The Johnstown Flood.

I had been an English major in college.

I had no anticipation that I was going to write history, but I stumbled upon a story that I thought was powerful, exciting, and very worth telling. And I taught myself, in effect, how to do the research, how to dig out the pieces, both large and small, of the past. I discovered in the process that -- contrary to the notion that the past is a dead thing -- that in fact, wherever you scratch the surface, you find life. And it was the life -- the people and what happened to them -- that was the pull for me.

I had read a lot of history, read a lot of very good writers who had chosen to write history as a kind of other territory, almost like another country. The past is another country, another part of the universe.


David McCullough: Barbara Tuchman, Bruce Catton, all in effect, in a way, what I was, which was a lapsed journalist. The work of people like Margaret Leech, for example, that wrote a wonderful book called Reveille in Washington, about life inside of the government and in Washington during the Civil War. That encouragement that one gets, that lift one gets from the books that move you and change your life! Books do change your life.

I read a wonderful account of, in an interview with Thornton Wilder, the great playwright, in a collection of interviews done by the Paris Review called, Writers at Work. I still go back and read those interviews for inspiration and understanding; these date from the late 1950s/early 1960s. And in that conversation with the interviewer...

Thornton Wilder was asked how he got the ideas for his books, and he said -- or his plays -- and he said, "I imagine a story that I would like to read, or see done on the stage. And if nobody has written that book or that play, I write it so that I can read it or I can see it on the stage." Well, I wanted to be able to read a really first-rate book about the incredible story behind the disaster at Johnstown in 1889, and I found there was no such book. But having read that interview I thought, "Well maybe you could write the book that you would like to read." And I am convinced that the only way we ever really learn anything is by doing it.

I found that with my next book even more so.

I set out to try to understand how the Brooklyn Bridge was built -- the engineering, yes, but also the human story, which is very complicated, and dramatic, and moving, and I had to teach myself the engineering involved. I found the material, the treasure house of letters and diaries stowed away in an attic. That's supposed to be a mythic experience. That happened to me. I found all of those letters and diaries of the Roebling family, which -- they were responsible for the bridge, the design and the building of the bridge -- in a closet up in the attic of a library in Upstate New York, at Troy, New York, at the RPI, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the material was untouched. It hadn't been catalogued, it hadn't been sorted out, hundreds and thousands of items stuffed away in a big storage closet, and I had to unscramble it all. It was like the ultimate tangled fishing line that I had to slowly put back the way it was meant to be, and then I had to try and understand it, and it took the better part of several years just figuring that out. Now if I had gone to a lecture, or if I had been given a textbook, I could have absorbed what was in the lecture, I could have absorbed what was in the textbook, and I could have had it in my head long enough to take the test to pass the course. But probably six months, maybe a year, certainly six years later it would be gone out of my head. But it's now been almost 25 years since I did the work on that project, and I could sit down and take a test on all of that and do very well right now because I had to do it myself.

I think what we must do in education, for example, is to bring the lab techniques used in science to the teaching of the humanities, to the teaching of history, and English, and journalism, and the arts. That's the great thing about the arts. You don't learn to paint, except by painting. You don't learn to play the piano, except by playing the piano. By the same token, I think you become an historian, I think you become a scholar by being required to do original scholarly work, original detective work of a kind that's involved with doing scholarly research. And once you do that, once you get on that track, you catch the bug, and you find out that this is really exciting.

Now scientists know that, and scientists know that when they teach science. But in English, in the humanities, I think we're behind on it. And make no mistake...

The humanities are immensely important, and the arts are immensely important, and this decline in the teaching of the arts and the humanities in our school system -- particularly our public school system, and in the grade schools of our country -- is a disgrace. It's a shame. We're cheating our children. And the idea that the arts are any less important, any less vital to a culture than history or mathematics or science is a dangerous misconception; bad for the country, bad for our way of life because all of these things are an extension of the experience of being alive.

What books do you think influenced you when you were growing up?

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David McCullough: We had the classics, published by Scribners, all the great stories by Robert Louis Stevenson and the rest which were illustrated by the great N.C. Wyeth. In those days, when childhood diseases were extended, you were home with the measles or mumps or chicken pox for two or three weeks at a time, and you were supposed to stay in bed. There wasn't any television, there wasn't much to do, so I would stare at those paintings in those books by the hour.

I didn't read them all. I loved to just look at those pictures and study every detail. I could sit down and draw most of those pictures right now without having to refresh my memory because they were so exciting to me. I entered into that. "What was it like to have been there?" You know, those wonderful pictures in The Last of the Mohicans, for example. And the imagination ran wild!

Then I began reading, and I couldn't read enough. I couldn't stop. I read mostly fiction. I write history and biography, but for my own pleasure I read fiction, and poetry, and drama.

What are your favorites?

David McCullough: Oh, my. Almost all of Willa Cather, and Wallace Stegner, who I think is one of the literary giants of our time.

I love to read mysteries. I love Dickens -- who doesn't love Dickens? -- either on stage or movies, but more in the printed page. And, I love the theater. I saw Frank Fay in Harvey when the road company came to Pittsburgh. I saw Brando in Streetcar. I saw plays like Inherit the Wind, and I thought, "Look at the possibilities in history as drama!"

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All of those things you wanted to be as a kid you really can be as a historian, can't you? You're putting on a drama.

David McCullough: Well you can. I don't think you can underestimate the impact of the movies on my generation.

I don't think we're going to understand that for a long time, but the movies were how we saw the world.

When I said earlier...

I couldn't wait to go to New York, it was because of the way New York was portrayed in the movies. When you got to New York, boy, you know, there it was. "You can do anything, be anything!" And it wasn't all about work and manufacturing and business, which really was what Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was primarily about. And the heroes of those movies -- very important to understand that -- the Henry Fonda characters, the Spencer Tracy characters, real heroes. And Jimmy Stewart! I think Jimmy -- If I were to ask who most influenced me, maybe it was Jimmy Stewart, the parts he played and the way he was. And of course the fact that he came from Western Pennsylvania, which is not very far from where I grew up.

There's a resemblance, too.

David McCullough: Oh, you think so? Oh, that's a wonderful compliment. His father ran a hardware store and he went off to Princeton, and my father had an electrical supply business and I got to go to Yale, and I thought that's fine. But, you see...

Jimmy Stewart -- the part Jimmy Stewart is playing -- is very important. He's almost always playing the same part, and that is the seemingly ordinary, decent American who -- when put to the test in an extreme situation -- rises to the occasion and does the extraordinary. And that's an old, old story in our American way of life. In fact, it's the story of Harry Truman, which is what I've spent the largest part of my creative writing life working on, a project of 10 years. That's the story of Harry Truman, the seemingly ordinary fellow who -- put to the test -- rises to the occasion and does the extraordinary. And, I think we like that story because that's the story of our country.

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We are all, in effect, ordinary people who have been given an extraordinary opportunity and presented, therefore, with an extraordinary problem. Can we rise to the occasion and be extraordinary? We had the Founding Fathers, who set this very idealistic, lofty, aspiring set of rules, and guidelines, and design for the ultimate culture, civilization, way of life we were going to create here, and then they leave the stage. Can we live up to the promise of their concept?

And that's the story of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The father has the dream of this extraordinary bridge, this unprecedented bridge. He is killed. He dies at the very beginning. His son has to take over. Can he carry out the father's exceptional, idealistic conception? Those early Founders of our country, in a way, set the bar -- if you've ever been a high jumper -- set the bar very high. Can we -- are we up to jumping that high? And if we don't, that's all right. We're at least trying.

What does the American dream mean to you?.

David McCullough: I think the American dream is the good society. It's the city on the hill. It's what the Founding Fathers talked about, where justice is a way of life, where fundamental rights of citizenship are honored, where the individual counts, but where pulling together in the spirit of all being in the same boat can achieve more than any individual can in isolation or independently. I think it means education. This country was founded on the idea that education for all -- education at its best -- is not just good for the individual, it's essential to the system. The system won't work unless we have an educated population. Democracy demands it. It's the old line in Jefferson: "Any nation that expects to be ignorant and free, expects what never was and never will be."

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You find yourself in education. When you go to college, and later when you decide about graduation school or vocation, don't limit your focus. It would be as if you walked into a wonderful buffet banquet, and you took your plate, and you went up and filled the plate with the first thing you saw because it looked so good. Look it all over. Sample a little bit of everything for as long as you can, because that's why you're going to college. And when you finish college, that's just the beginning. It doesn't stop. It keeps on going.

If your experience is anything like mine, the most important books you're going to read in your life you're going to read after college. The most important and inspiring people you're going to meet in life are going to come after college. The windows, the doors will be flung open for you in college by very fine people, and that certainly happened to me.

When I got to Yale, I had the privilege, the exciting experience of being one of the students of Vincent Scully. He was simply magnificent for generations of Yale undergraduates, because he opened up the doors. He opened up our eyes to so much more than we ever had had before, and that keeps on happening right through life. It's like gravity, it's accelerative, and it's fueled by curiosity. It's fueled by our innate human desire to know, to experience, and to be lifted out of ourselves -- both our physical selves, and by the limitations of our biological clocks -- to a much larger world.

Time and place. You, all of us, each of us, is limited to how much time we have on Earth by the biological clock. Now do we want, therefore, to have the experience of being alive constrained to that time only? No. It would be like saying, "You live there. You must stay in that one spot where you are in space all of your life." So you are no more required to stay in one spot in time than you are in space and that time travel you can do is in history. It's in the past, which is the larger experience of humankind on Earth. And the past isn't just history in the usual literal sense. It's music, art, history. It's culture, language, culture, and you can experience all of that, the more you know, because you can go back as far as you want, out as far as you want, and suddenly you're infinitely more alive, and that's what history is about. History is about life, about people.

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What is your next passion? What is your next project?

David McCullough: I'm often asked, "What's the favorite of all of the books you've written?" Well, my favorite is always the one I'm working on.

The one I'm working on now, which is now my favorite, is a book about the criss-crossing lives of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, two immensely different men, without whom our history -- our country -- would be very different than it turned out, who came in a way from two different countries, because Massachusetts and Virginia in the 18th Century, were as different -- or more different -- than England is from France today. Two different men who had strikingly different talents, strikingly different emotional make-ups.

Jefferson was very contained, very restrained, did not want anybody to know what he truly felt, what kinds of passion was within or at odds with him -- at odds within. Whereas Adams wore his emotions on his sleeve. Adams, who was very eloquent on his feet, a great speaker, a great convincer of juries and delegations at the Continental Congress; Jefferson, who couldn't speak on his feet to save his life, a terrible public speaker, but who could express himself on paper, as few people ever have. And how they started off as friends and co-revolutionaries, ultimately became political rivals, even adversaries, in a harsh fashion nearly. Who didn't speak to each other for years, who, in a way, were responsible for the political divisions that set up our two-party system, and who then have a great reconciliation after each has served in the presidency and become great friends, again. And correspondence! Carrying on some of the most eloquent correspondence in our history, and in our language. And who then -- incredibly, unimaginably -- die on the same day, and the same day is the 4th of July, 50 years to the day of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which they created! Now, that doesn't happen in real life. That couldn't happen on the stage or in a movie, because nobody would believe it, but it did.

How did the country react to that? It's all part of the story, and it's got me very excited.

I want to ask you a little bit about the technique of what you do. Do you have a regular schedule? Do you write a certain amount every day? How do you go about it?

David McCullough: Years ago, when I was first brave enough, when I'd summoned the courage to decide I was going to attempt writing a book, I met a man one night at a party. And he was an elderly fellow, and I was about 28 years old, and I had heard -- his name was Harry Sinclair Drago, and he wrote Westerns -- and a friend said to me, "You see that old fellow over there? That's Harry Drago. He's written over 100 books." And I thought, "I'd like to talk to him." So I went over, and I said, "Mr. Drago, I - -somebody told me that you've written over 100 books." He said, "Yes, that's right." I said, "How do you do that?" He said, "Four pages a day, that's how you write 100 books. That's how you write books."

I try to do the research, up to maybe the point where I think 60-some percent of it is done, and then I begin writing. And it's in the writing that you begin to find out what you need to know, and what you don't know, and it's perhaps circumstantial, but I don't think so. I try to write four good pages a day. That's double space, typewritten pages. I still work on a typewriter, a manual typewriter, because I love the feeling of making something with my hands. Maybe it's because I started out as a painter and a sculptor. I like the feeling of working physically with my hands, and I also like the idea that if there is a power failure, or if something happens, that I won't be unplugged. I can keep working. I am the power source, not that plug in the wall. And, I love it when you swing the bar, and that little bell rings. It's like an old trolley car. And I also am superstitious about many things concerned with the craft, and I think I find most writers are -- many much more so than I am. And, I've written all my books on that typewriter, and it probably has 250,000 miles on it now.

That's a lot of typewriter ribbon.

David McCullough: A lot of ribbon and a lot of overhauls over the years. Maybe the typewriter is writing the books, so maybe I better stay loyal to that one. It's a marvelous machine. It's a beautiful example of a great piece of machinery made in America.

Thank you very much. It's been a great pleasure talking with you.

David McCullough: You're welcome.

This page last revised on Feb 14, 2008 17:08 EST