- Historic Sites
“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
Yes. Of course, the Puritans all kept diaries as a way of measuring if they were improving, to sort of examine themselves. So the diary tradition is very deep in American life, and it starts to fade out, I suppose, with the advent of the telephone. But Theodore Roosevelt’s command of the language is exceptional. He had the advantage of a Harvard education and of growing up in a house with books and cultivated people. What to me is maybe more striking is the quality of the prose of what one would assume to be everyday people.
For example, when I was working on my book about the Panama Canal, I read the reports of the young naval officers who went to the Isthmus of Panama and Mexico and elsewhere, looking for the best route to build the canal. Those reports are wonderfully written, and they didn’t have any public relations department at the Navy to brush up this prose.
Samuel Eliot Morison, once talking about the decline of the quality of the oratory on the floor of the House and Senate in Washington, said that he thought it could be dated from the time when Latin was no longer required in the schools. His generation was raised on Latin and on the models of Bunyan, A Pilgrim’s Progress , Shakespeare, and some very good poets, and it rubbed off. They couldn’t spell to save their lives (which I think is quite endearing, because I’m sympathetic to that problem). Jefferson, Adams, they couldn’t spell at all. In fact, Andrew Jackson said he would never trust a man who has so little imagination as to be able to spell a word only one way.
Does it ever worry you as a historian that comparing the way things seem to have actually happened with the way people said they happened will lead you to mistakes?
Yes, indeed. There are many times when you’re like the umpire at home plate with a very close call, and you have to call it. Sometimes you’re wrong. Sometimes you make a mistake. It’s less of a problem than you think, though, because there are so many accounts of the same incident and so many documents on paper.
“The Johnstown flood is really a lesson, a morality lesson… a story of human shortsightedness.”
A big part of writing a book, a biography or history, is in what’s called in too fancy a way the analysis. You collect all the material. That’s the research, and that’s wonderful fun. That’s joy. That’s like working on a detective case. The hard stuff is the writing. I used to think that the way to do this is that you gather all the research and then you simply write the book. But I’ve found that is not the best way to do it, at least for me. Because it’s only when you start writing that you find out what you don’t know. You find out what you need to know. And you find yourself coming to conclusions or having insights that you don’t have unless you write. Because the process of the writing forces you to think about the material and sometimes gives rise to inspiration.
What kinds of standards do you have as a historian?
I like to think my standards are every bit as high as those of anyone. The great difference, I expect, is that I’m writing for you. I’m writing for everybody. I’m not writing just for other historians. I couldn’t survive if my books weren’t read. Now I’ve never tried to take subjects that would be popular or to write in a popular way. There’s no need to gussy it all up and somehow sugar the pill or whatever. You don’t have to do that.
I remember some instances where I told people what I was going to be working on, and they would say, “Well, who would want to read about that?” If the story pulls me, if I’m excited about it, then my hope is that I can find some readers who will also feel the same way. I’m a narrative historian. And I want a reader to sense that those were real human beings and that they didn’t know how it was going to come out, any more than we do in our time.
But you know how it came out.
I do know how it came out. But I want the reader at some point early in that book to say, “I wonder if they’re going to be able to do it,” or, “How are they going to do it?” And that’s going to be revealed by their story, and it will be revealed as it happens to the people in the story.
I don’t want the reader to think of their time as past. There isn’t really, if you think about it, any such thing as the past. The people in the story didn’t live in the past. They didn’t walk around and say, “Oh, isn’t this fascinating, living in this great old time?” They lived in the present, their present. Now, their present was different from our present, and more different than we know.
The hardest thing to convey in writing history or teaching history is that nothing ever had to happen the way it happened. It could have gone off in any number of different directions at any point, for any number of different reasons. But the tendency in teaching or writing history is to say, “This followed this, this followed that, and that’s the way it was.” As if it were all on a track and preordained. And you’d better memorize it because there’s going to be a test on it on Wednesday.