"When I began, I thought that the way one should work was to do all the research and then write the book." -- David McCullough
David Gaub McCullough () (born July 7, 1933 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) is an American author, narrator, and lecturer. He is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian award.
Born and reared in Pittsburgh, McCullough earned a degree in English literature from Yale University. His first book was The Johnstown Flood (1968); and he has since written seven more on such topics as Harry S Truman, John Adams, and the Brooklyn Bridge. McCullough has also narrated multiple documentaries, as well as the 2003 film Seabiscuit; and he hosted American Experience for twelve years. Two of McCullough's books, Truman and John Adams, have been adapted by HBO into a TV film and a mini-series, respectively. McCullough's next work, about Americans in Paris from the 1830s to the 1930s, is due out in 2010.
"Every book is a new journey. I never felt I was an expert on a subject as I embarked on a project.""First of all, you can make the argument that there's no such thing as the past. Nobody lived in the past.""I can fairly be called an amateur because I do what I do, in the original sense of the word - for love, because I love it. On the other hand, I think that those of us who make our living writing history can also be called true professionals.""I had been writing for about twelve years. I knew pretty well how you could find things out, but I had never been trained in an academic way how to go about the research.""I just thank my father and mother, my lucky stars, that I had the advantage of an education in the humanities.""I love all sides of the work but that doesn't mean it isn't hard.""I love Dickens. I love the way he sets a scene.""I work very hard on the writing, writing and rewriting and trying to weed out the lumber.""I would pay to do what I do if I had to.""I'm drawn particularly to stories that evolve out of the character of the protagonist.""I'm very aware how many distractions the reader has in life today, how many good reasons there are to put the book down.""In time I began to understand that it's when you start writing that you really find out what you don't know and need to know.""May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.""My next book is also set in the eighteenth century. It's about the Revolution, with the focus on the year 1776. It's about Washington and the army and the war. It's the nadir, the low point of the United States of America.""My shorthand answer is that I try to write the kind of book that I would like to read. If I can make it clear and interesting and compelling to me, then I hope maybe it will be for the reader.""No harm's done to history by making it something someone would want to read.""People are so helpful. People will stop what they're doing to show you something, to walk with you through a section of the town, or explain how a suspension bridge really works.""The pull, the attraction of history, is in our human nature. What makes us tick? Why do we do what we do? How much is luck the deciding factor?""The title always comes last. What I really work hard on is the beginning. Where do you begin? In what tone do you begin? I almost have to have a scene in my mind.""There's an awful temptation to just keep on researching. There comes a point where you just have to stop, and start writing.""To go back and read Swift and Defoe and Samuel Johnson and Smollett and Pope - all those people we had to read in college English courses - to read them now is to have one of the infinite pleasures in life.""To me history ought to be a source of pleasure. It isn't just part of our civic responsibility. To me it's an enlargement of the experience of being alive, just the way literature or art or music is.""When I read that the British army had landed thirty-two thousand troops - and I had realized, not very long before, that Philadelphia only had thirty thousand people in it - it practically lifted me out of my chair.""With the Truman book, I wrote the entire account of his experiences in World War I before going over to Europe to follow his tracks in the war. When I got there, there was a certain satisfaction in finding I had it right - it does look like that.""You can't be a full participant in our democracy if you don't know our history."
Born to Christian Hax and Ruth McCullough, McCullough was educated at Linden Avenue Grade School and Shady Side Academy, in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. One of four sons, McCullough had a "marvelous" childhood with a wide range of interests, including sports and drawing cartoons. McCullough's parents and his grandmother, who read to him often, introduced him to books at an early age. His parents talked openly about history, a topic he feels should be discussed more often. McCullough "loved school, every day"; he contemplated many career choices ranging from architect, actor, painter, writer, lawyer, and even attending medical school.
In 1951, McCullough began attending classes at Yale University. He believed that it was a "privilege" to study English at Yale because of the faculty that included John O'Hara, John Hersey, Robert Penn Warren, and Brendan Gill. He occasionally ate lunch with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder. While at Yale, he became a member of Skull and Bones. He served apprenticeships at Time, Life, the United States Information Agency, and American Heritage., where he found enjoyment in research. "Once I discovered the endless fascination of doing the research and of doing the writing, I knew I had found what I wanted to do in my life." While attending Yale, McCullough studied Arts and achieved his Bachelor's degree in English, with the intention of becoming a fiction writer or playwright. He graduated with honors in English literature (1955).
After graduation, McCullough moved to New York City, where the recently formed Sports Illustrated hired him as a trainee. He was later hired by the United States Information Agency, in Washington, D.C., as an editor and writer. After working for twelve years, including a position at American Heritage, with a consistent concentration on editing and writing, McCullough "felt that [he] had reached the point where [he] could attempt something on my own." McCullough "had no anticipation that [he] was going to write history, but [he] stumbled upon a story that [he] thought was powerful, exciting, and very worth telling." While working at American Heritage, McCullough wrote in his spare time for three years. The Johnstown Flood, a chronicle of one of the worst flood disasters in United States history, was released in 1968 to high praise by critics. John Leonard, of The New York Times, said of McCullough, "We have no better social historian." Despite rough financial times, McCullough, with encouragement from his wife, Rosalee, made the decision to become a full-time writer.
After the success of The Johnstown Flood, two new publishers offered him contracts, one to write about the Great Chicago Fire and another about the San Francisco earthquake. However, Simon & Schuster, publisher of The Johnstown Flood, also offered McCullough a contract to write a second book. Trying not to become "Bad News McCullough", he decided to write about a subject showing "people were not always foolish and inept or irresponsible." Remembering the words of his Yale teacher, "[Thornton] Wilder said he got the idea for a book or a play when he wanted to learn about something. Then, he'd check to see if anybody had already done it, and if they hadn't, he'd do it." McCullough decided to write a history of the Brooklyn Bridge, which he had walked across many times.
"To me history ought to be a source of pleasure. It isn't just part of our civic responsibility. To me it's an enlargement of the experience of being alive, just the way literature or art or music is." ... David McCullough
He also proposed, from a suggestion by his editor, a work about the Panama Canal; both were accepted by the publisher. Published in 1972, critics hailed The Great Bridge as "the definitive book on the event." Five years later, The Creation of the Panama Canal was released, gaining McCullough widespread attention for the first time. The book won the National Book Award for history, the Samuel Eliot Morison Award, the Francis Parkman Prize,, and the Cornelius Ryan Award. Later in 1977, McCullough travelled to the White House to advise Jimmy Carter and the United States Senate on the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, which would give Panama control of the Canal. Carter later said that the treaties, which were agreed upon to hand over ownership of the Canal to Panama, would not have passed, had it not been for the book.
"The story of people"
McCullough's fourth work was his first biography, reinforcing his belief that "history is the story of people". Released in 1981, Mornings on Horseback tells the story of seventeen years in the life of the 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. The work, ranging from 1869, when Roosevelt was ten years old, to 1886, tells of a "life intensely lived." The book won McCullough's first Los Angeles Times Prize for Biography and New York Public Library Literary Lion Award and his second National Book Award. Next, he released Brave Companions, a collection of essays that "unfold seamlessly". Written over twenty years, the book includes works about Louis Agassiz, Alexander von Humboldt, John and Washington Roebling, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Conrad Aiken, and Frederic Remington. McCullough's next book and second biography continued the trend of writing about American presidents...Truman (1993) about the 33rd president. The book won McCullough his first Pulitzer Prize, in the category of "Best Biography or Autobiography." Two years later, the book was adapted into Truman, a television movie by HBO, starring Gary Sinise as Truman.
"I think it's important to remember that these men are not perfect. If they were marble gods, what they did wouldn't be so admirable. The more we see the founders as humans the more we can understand them." ... David McCullough
Working for the next seven years, McCullough released John Adams (2001), his third biography about a United States president. One of the fastest-selling non-fiction books in history, the book won McCullough's second Pultizer Prize for "Best Biography or Autobiography." It began as a book about founding fathers and back-to-back presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams; but Jefferson was eventually dropped, and the book focused solely on Adams. HBO returned to McCullough's works to adapt John Adams. Premiering in 2008, the seven-part miniseries starred Academy Award-nominated actor Paul Giamatti in the title role. The DVD version of the miniseries includes the biopic, "David McCullough: Painting with Words."
McCullough's latest work, 1776, tells the story of the founding year of the United States, focusing on George Washington, the amateur army, and other struggles for independence. Because of McCullough's popularity, its initial printing was 1.25 million copies, many more than the average history book. Upon its release, the book was a number one best-seller in the United States. HBO is scheduled to release a miniseries adaptation of 1776 in 2011, possibly involving Tom Hanks, who produced John Adams.
McCullough considered writing a "sequel" to 1776. However, he signed a contract with Simon & Schuster to do a work about Americans in Paris between the 1830s and the 1930s, which is scheduled for release in 2010. Spanning multiple topics and people, "the book will touch on achievements in literature, medicine, art, architecture, music, and dance."
David McCullough is married to Rosalee Barnes McCullough, whom he met at age 17, in Pittsburgh. He is a fan of sports, art history, and watercolor and portrait painting. The couple have five children and eighteen grandchildren. One of his sons, David McCullough Jr, is a high school English teacher at Wellesley High School. His daughter, Dorie McCullough Lawson, is an author of two books, Along Came a Stranger and Posterity; she is married to the painter T. Allen Lawson.
McCullough has received numerous awards throughout his career. In December 2006, McCullough received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award that a United States citizen can receive. McCullough has been awarded over 40 honorary degrees, including one from the Eastern Nazarene College in John Adams' hometown of Quincy, Massachusetts. For his writing, McCullough has received two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, two Francis Parkman Prizes, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and New York Public Library’s Literary Lion Award, among others. McCullough was chosen to deliver the first annual John Hersey Lecture at Yale University on March 22, 1993. (Author, Yale alumnus, and Yale writing professor John Hersey died later that year.) He is a member of the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship and the Academy of Achievement. In 2003, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected McCullough for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities. McCullough's lecture was entitled "The Course of Human Events";
McCullough has been called a "master of the art of narrative history." New York Times critic John Leonard wrote that McCullough was "incapable of writing a page of bad prose." His works have been published in ten languages, over nine million copies have been printed, and all of his eight books have stayed in print.
McCullough has narrated many television shows and documentaries throughout his career. In addition to narrating the 2003 film Seabiscuit, McCullough hosted PBS's American Experience from 1988—1999. McCullough has also narrated numerous documentaries directed by Ken Burns, including Emmy Award winning The Civil War, Academy Award nominated Brooklyn Bridge, The Statue of Liberty, and The Congress.