“There Isn’t Any Such Thing As The Past”
DAVID McCULLOUGH tells why he thinks history is the most challenging, exhilarating, and immediate of subjects
February/March 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 1
“I think people are the most interesting subject of all, and I am thoroughly interested in those people who went before us,”
David McCullough happily asserts. Although he is one of the most distinguished historians working today, he received no formal training in the discipline; he considers himself primarily a writer and a storyteller, and that storytelling has won him numerous awards, among them a Pulitzer Prize for his most recent book, the universally acclaimed Truman, two Parkman Prizes, awarded by the Society of American Historians, and National Book Awards for The Path Between the Seas, his epic chronicle of the creation of the Panama Canal, and Mornings on Horseback, his biography of the young Theodore Roosevelt—all of which were bestsellers. His far-ranging interests have also led him to publish books about the Johnstown flood and the Brooklyn Bridge and essays on historic figures past and present. He is now at work on a volume about the intertwining lives of John and Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Millions of television viewers know him as the host of "The American Experience" and as the narrator of numerous PBS documentaries, including The Civil War.
McCullough is one of five historians who discuss crucial moments in America’s past on a new television program, American Heritage Presents Great Minds of History, currently airing on the History Channel (the other four are Stephen E. Ambrose, James M. McPherson, Richard White, and Gordon S. Wood). This interview is taken from an hour of that program in which McCullough talks about America’s industrial age as well as about his approach to history. The interviewer is the veteran television journalist Roger Mudd, who has been national-affairs correspondent for CBS, co-anchor of NBC’s Nightly News , and an essayist and correspondent for The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and is now the host of the History Channel. The five interviews will be published in book form by John Wiley and Sons in March.
“The bridge was the beginning of heroic New York.… there was every reason to believe they weren’t going to succeed.
Reading what you have written, I’m struck by your exuberance. You have so much optimism that I wonder whether that might have affected your choice of subjects.
I don’t think that one can see the light in life without the shadow. And there’s great shadow in the story of the past. I hope I have been not just aware of all that but that I have recorded it. I am, however, particularly drawn to those stories, those events, those lives, wherein the human spirit is victorious in the end.
Of course, I draw great pleasure from history. It’s all well and good to say that we should know history because it makes us better citizens, and it does. And that there are great lessons in history, and there are. But history is also a source of immense pleasure in the way that music and art and the theater can be sources of great pleasure. We shouldn’t deny ourselves that pleasure, and we shouldn’t deny coming generations that pleasure.
Do you ever wish you had lived in, say, the last quarter of the nineteenth century?
I’d like to go there for a couple of days, certainly.
Just a couple of days?
Yes. I think we’re living right now in one of the most interesting of all times. If living back then meant that I couldn’t live now, I would definitely stay here.
I would hate to have to face the kind of dentistry they had then. And I probably wouldn’t have had a chance to see as much of the world as I have been able to do. It would have been very much harder to make a living then. But yes, I’d certainly like to go there for a time. I feel that one can be provincial in time, as much as one can be provincial in a geographic way. And why cut ourselves off from that larger experience of all those who went before us? I can’t imagine anybody who wouldn’t want to be a time traveler at least part of his life. There’s so much to learn.
History is mostly, it seems to me, a lesson in proportions. You think times are tough? You think you are beset by adverse luck? Others have had it worse. Others have gone through worse. Others have triumphed over many more difficult obstacles. We think we’re superior because we live in this miraculous twentieth century. I don’t think anybody can feel superior standing in front of some of the great works of Botticelli, let’s say, in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, or standing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the most magnificent creations of human ingenuity and imagination that I know of.
You once said that your style, your technique, was having one subject sort of lead you to another.
Your first book was on the Johnstown flood. How did you get from the Johnstown flood to the Brooklyn Bridge?