February/March 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 1
DAVID McCULLOUGH tells why he thinks history is the most challenging, exhilarating, and immediate of subjects
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.
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?
The Johnstown flood is a fascinating subject. You wondered if I consider the darker aspects of history. Well, the Johnstown flood is really a lesson, a morality lesson about our pathetic human inclination to think that because people are in positions of responsibility, they are therefore behaving responsibly. The Johnstown flood is largely a story of human shortsightedness. After I wrote it, I was looking for a symbol of affirmation. I had two publishers come to me; one wanted me to write about the Chicago fire, and the other wanted me to do the San Francisco earthquake. And I said to myself, “I’m going to be typecast as ‘Calamity’ McCullough.”
So I was looking for a subject where human beings in a cooperative, concerted effort did something right. It was not easy finding one. And because of some remarks by friends at lunch one day, I knew it would be the Brooklyn Bridge, that wonderful American triumph, that great achievement, which was possible only because of corruption and the bad people who were mixed up in it. You know, nobody wants to write about saints. I was thrilled every time I could write about Boss Tweed, because he’s rotten, and he’s charming, and he’s effective, and he’s human. But out of all this amalgam of idealism and ambition and greed and political corruption and courage—I think more than anything it’s a story of courage—out of that comes that superlative work: great work of art, great work of engineering, great event in the history of the American city. The bridge was the beginning of heroic New York—highrise New York—and there it stands today still. It was built in the horse-and-buggy days, built when all those rivets were hand thrown.
And they didn’t know they were going to succeed. Of course, nor did the Founding Fathers, who were at Philadelphia in 1776, know they were going to succeed. In fact there was every reason to believe they weren’t going to succeed. That’s why it’s so important to put yourself in their place, in their time, to perceive reality as they saw it. That makes what they did seem all the more extraordinary. When you think of what these people did and what they were, it can make you feel as if you’re a pygmy in comparison, because of how much they accomplished in a single life.
You said that just looking at the Brooklyn Bridge made you feel good.
It still does. It is this triumphant structure, rising up out of those cities, rising up out of that distant time, telling us that we can build, we can do things well that will have a long life, that are enduring. Bridges were falling down all over the place then. What the Brooklyn Bridge is saying is that if you really care about who you are and what you do, about what your work is, you will want it to stand the test of time. That civilization is saying to us, “This is the best we can do, and it is very good.”
The bridge represents a collective effort drawing on ideas and ideology and aspirations that come from elsewhere, built by immigrants who did the hard labor at the risk of their lives, and designed by a German immigrant, John Roebling, but carried on by his son. The father, the old man, who was a tyrannical, humorless, and sometimes abusive man, was the great suspension-bridge genius of the nineteenth century. He died in 1869, just as the bridge was about to begin. He was killed as a consequence of an accident—died of lockjaw, a terrible way to die, an awful death. And his son took over. His son was then in his thirties, and most of the engineers who worked on that bridge were young men. The average age was about thirty-two. In a way, that’s a metaphor for our society, our country. The founders, if you will, created the plan, the ideal concept. But then they went away, and it’s been up to us to try to make it work, to build a nation.
Did you have a particular interest in engineering when you began that book?
I had no interest in engineering or mathematics. But I did find out that if you’re motivated, if you want to know how something was done, if you want to understand physics and mathematics and civil engineering, you can do it. When you learn things that way—by doing it yourself, figuring it out yourself—you learn it in a way that you never forget.
The Panama Canal book and the Brooklyn Bridge book were exciting adventures for me because I got to know those people. One of the advantages is that unlike politicians and military heroes, they didn’t have the sense that, “Oh, I’m going to be a figure in history. So I’m going to write this letter. I’m going to keep this diary, so some future historian will admire me for what I’m saying and how I’m behaving.” So their letters, their diaries, their stories are often much more genuine, not so self-conscious.
What’s the cultural significance of the Panama Canal? I know it saved a lot of shipping time, but what did it mean for America to have built that?
Well, the fact that the French had failed, I think, was a very powerful motivating force, because we were going to pick up where Europe had not done the job, and we were going to show them that we could do it.
The lesson to be learned from the Panama Canal is that it succeeded by taking its greatest problem and making the problem an advantage. The problem was the rainfall and the Chagres River. The region had some of the heaviest rainfall anywhere in the world. That river could rise twenty feet in twenty-four hours, and how in the world were they going to get through that? How were they going to divert it or tunnel under it or bridge over it? The French never could figure it out. The key was not to try to dig a Suez type of canal, a great sea-level trench from ocean to ocean, but to create a lock-and-lake canal, where the ships are lifted up by a series of locks to a man-made lake, and then they sail across that lake, and then they are set back down on the other side by another series of locks. Well, the source—the constant supply—of the water was the Chagres. It was exactly the way jujitsu uses the opponent’s strength to overcome the opponent. And I think we really could apply that attitude toward lots of problems that we have. The solution to the problem is in the problem.
It’s incredible that we went to Panama, two thousand miles from our source of supplies, brought everything there, and confronted the diseases that were there. One of the most important of all forces in history is epidemic disease, yellow fever and malaria in particular. Our capital isn’t in Philadelphia because it had a great yellow fever epidemic in 1793. We conquered—if that’s the word—both yellow fever and malaria in Panama. We built the canal for less than it was estimated to cost, but we did it with a serious loss of life—though not the loss of life that the French experienced. The French lost twenty thousand people, trying to build the Panama Canal. We lost about five thousand.
I suppose, then, the canal got you moved toward Teddy Roosevelt?
Yes. There is a line of progression. A large part of the story of the Johnstown flood is the Pennsylvania Railroad, and the Pennsylvania Railroad was surveyed through Johnstown by John Roebling, who built the bridge. And when I was writing about the Brooklyn Bridge, one of the events of the time in New York was that Ferdinand de Lesseps came to New York to pump up an interest in his stock company to build the Panama Canal. When I did the Panama Canal book, I ran into Theodore Roosevelt, and I got very interested in what he didn’t say about his life in his autobiography. You know, what people leave out is often very important. And while doing Roosevelt didn’t lead me directly to Truman, it did lead me to this office we call the Presidency.
The Roosevelts were rather prosaic, stay-at-home, moneymaking, conservative people of a somewhat narrow perspective. In my view, Theodore Roosevelt is, in truth, much more like his mother, who was a Bulloch from Georgia. They were romantic, eccentric daredevils, adventurous, brave, and lovable, in their way. I’m not sure how lovable some of those old Roosevelt Dutchmen were.
Did they really speak Dutch at the dinner table?
In the grandfather’s house, yes.
Why didn’t any of the Roosevelt men fight in the Civil War?
Well, as you know, in those days, you could purchase a substitute, hire somebody to go in your place, and that was done by a lot of people. There was no social stigma attached to it. It’s important that Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., the father of the President, hired a substitute. To his son, Theodore, this was the one flaw, the one disappointing passage in the life of his father, who was his hero all his life. I don’t like to use psychological jargon, but to a degree one could say that Theodore Roosevelt was compensating, trying to compensate for that aspect of his father’s life by wanting to get into every war that ever was and show what a hero and courageous fellow he could be.
Theodore Roosevelt was an eccentric. If he were around today, people would really wonder about him. I think he was a genius. He could read two books in a night and quote from them five years later. He could recite all of the Song of Roland in its original archaic French. He knew all about the big vertebrates of North America, probably as much as any zoologist at the Smithsonian, maybe more. He wrote—I don’t know—some twenty-two books. He embraced life with such zest, and he exuded such confidence and optimism, that people were at times inclined to believe that was the whole man.
It was not at all. He had a very deep melancholy and a withdrawing quality, where he would go into a dark room, and close the door and sit and read the poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson, which is very down, blue, dark. He closed off whole sides of his personal life, and wouldn’t talk about it, because that was his way of coping.
He’s complicated and interesting. The John Singer Sargent portrait, I think, captures that. There’s a wistful sort of sad quality in that portrait that’s missing in the usual photograph of the grinning, toothy, fist-waving Theodore Roosevelt. Sargent saw something much closer to the real man.
Reading Mornings on Horseback , your biography of young Theodore Roosevelt, I was filled with awe at the letters that his mother wrote and the diary that he kept, never missing a day, with the acute observations of a tenyear-old boy.
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.
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.
But that isn’t the way it happened. In the nineteenth century, for example, when the world was all sort of giddy over the ideal and the promise of progress, they didn’t know that World War I was just over the horizon. They didn’t know what the machine gun and poison gas and tanks and all that were going to do. They didn’t know. But for us to say, “Wasn’t that naive of them to believe in progress?” It wasn’t naive. They were judging from experience. Things were getting better all around them, and there wasn’t any reason not to expect that they would continue to get better.
Don’t you have to resist the temptation to condemn those people for being naive?
Absolutely. You have to fight what you might call the hubris of the present. I think if a historian or a biographer could build up a quality in the way one would build up a muscle, it should be the capacity for empathy. Put yourself in their place, in their shoes, in their time. You hear so often, “Oh, that was a simpler time.” There was no simpler time. It may seem simpler to us, but it certainly didn’t seem simple to them. Some say we live with greater horrors than they did, but is it worse to die with a spear through your chest or to have gone down in an airplane? I don’t know.
We will probably never be able to comprehend, for example, how honest, kind, Bible-reading, decent Americans could actually own people. How could they have had slavery? What was on their minds? What was wrong with them? We see that, and we feel that intensely. But you can be sure that someday they’re going to look back at us and say, “What in the world were they thinking about? What kind of blinder were they wearing?” It’s anyone’s guess what that will be. I suspect it will be what we’re doing to the environment. They’ll say, “Look what they did. Had they no sense of the time, no sense of responsibility? Look what they did.”
Is that why Thomas Jefferson has become “politically incorrect”?
Well, some historians seem to have just discovered that Jefferson had slaves. I think that’s been known. What is bothersome about Jefferson’s position in our life is that he was such a very lofty idealist, and therefore the reality that he was living on the labor of people in bondage, that that provided him with his wealth, his free time to think lofty thoughts, seems a huge contradiction and hypocritical. And it is.
I think Jefferson was in many ways a tragic man, because he was the captive. He kept people in captivity, and he was captive to the way of life that captivity creates. Just as he was, in a way, a captive of the Southern tradition of hospitality, generosity. He was giving great parties, everybody was welcome to his house. He served the finest wine. And the man was bankrupt. But he kept on doing this, as if he was incapable of not doing it, because that was the way of life. Just as holding people in slavery was the way of life, and he didn’t know how to get out of it.
Everybody is a contradiction within himself. All of us are inconsistent, contradictory, and at times hypocritical.
I personally think that Jefferson is perhaps best understood if we see him as an artist. He was, after all, one of the greatest American architects ever. He was very inventive, very imaginative, very creative. Now, when you think of great composers, or great painters or playwrights, they all in their real lives were hypocritical, contradictory, inconsistent. But Jefferson’s idealism flies in the face of that. And one tends to say, “Hey, wait a minute.”
I think there’s too much of a tendency not to give credit where credit is due. We have swung away from the great man theory of history, which is right. But in going that far, sometimes we tend to forget that there were indeed great men and women who did very great things. That doesn’t mean greatness is synonymous with perfection. Often our predecessors were quite imperfect, flawed, their feet mostly clay, but they rose to greatness and did things of which we are the beneficiaries.
Do you think most of our Presidents rose to greatness?
There’s a theory that we have great Presidents only when there’s a time of crisis: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, great men, great times, faced with great national crises. But there was no crisis in the time of Theodore Roosevelt. He was a force unto himself. And he changed that office, he changed our attitude as we entered this new twentieth century.
Do you like Harry Truman because he was himself? Is that the quality you admire in him?
I liked Harry Truman primarily because he’s a great story, a great American story. I wanted to focus on a very different kind of American after writing about Theodore Roosevelt.
At the Truman Library, I found that Harry Truman had poured himself out on paper to an extraordinary extent—really amazing—in letters and diaries—heartfelt letters, revealing, genuine, wonderful letters. So much so that even if he hadn’t become President, one would be tempted to write a book about this guy out in Missouri who is writing all these letters and trying to win the favor of the girl in town who lived in the big house, who wouldn’t pay him much attention. It’s just a great story. But you know, I have to stress that I just don’t want to write about people I think are wonderful. They may have done some wonderful things, but I don’t want to write about saints. Heaven help me, I’d much rather write about a good scamp than a saint.
I felt I could break some new ground, and that’s very important to a writer always, which was true with the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal and the Johnstown flood and the early life of Theodore Roosevelt. I was doing something different, and I don’t like to repeat myself. I don’t want to keep doing the same kind of book. Right now I’m venturing into the eighteenth century, where I’ve never set foot before. It’s all new country to me. I’m very interested in the impact of France on America.
I think it’s a great story. More American history took place in France than anyplace in the world except our own country. And the influence of France on our country was immense. When you’re working on the Revolutionary War, as I’m doing now, you realize what the French did for us. We wouldn’t have a country if it weren’t for them. It wasn’t just that they sent the fleet and Rochambeau: They bankrolled us. They were supplying money and equipment and all kinds of things when we were in desperate need of it.
I want to cover events that should never have come out the way they did. The Revolutionary War is one of them, and the Revolutionary War is the most important war in our history.
You think it is?
Oh, yes, indeed. I certainly do. I didn’t think that before, but I do now. It changed the world. Thomas Paine was right. We were going to change the world; what happened here was going to change the world. It doesn’t have the scale and the grand-opera quality of the Civil War. It doesn’t have the slaughter of the Civil War, but, proportionately, it was slaughter. I mean, we were a very small country. People don’t realize how few people there were.
What is it in our national character that causes Americans to have such a loose grip on their past?
We have always been very interested in the future. We greet each other on the street and say, “What’s new?” Nobody tells you, “I just turned over an old leaf.” We recently had a President win an election talking about building a bridge to the future, think about tomorrow, think about what’s down the road and all that, which is a very American trait, and understandably. Because the future was going to be better, and we were building for the future.
But what is happening now, I’m sorry to say, is that we are raising a generation of young people who are historically illiterate to a large degree. We’ve done a very poor job of teaching history and conveying the nature of who we are and how we got to be where we are. And that’s bad. We’re cutting them off from the pleasure of all that. It’s as if something were eating away at the national memory. And believe me, it’s real. What students at good universities and good colleges today don’t know about basic American history is appalling.
How did it get that way? I mean, history is required in high school. It’s required in grade school.
It’s not the fault of the students. We got into this situation because in very many cases—in fact, in most cases nationwide—the people who are teaching history, particularly in the grade schools, didn’t like it when they were in school or weren’t good at it. Very often in high school, history is assigned to the coach. He has to teach something, so let him teach history. Now, I happen to have gone to a high school where the coach taught history, and he was a terrific history teacher. I’m not denigrating all coaches.
I was a coach who taught history.
There’s no trick to teaching history. You know that. It’s the most appealing subject in the world if it’s taught right. But if it’s made a matter of dates and memorization of obscure provisos and ancient treaties, if it’s made boring, if it’s made dull, how can you blame anyone for turning away from it?
If you were to teach a course of American history, what half-dozen events or documents could you not leave out?
Well, I did teach a course at Cornell University on American history, and I began with the Battle of Gettysburg and I ended with Lyndon B. Johnson, because he was President when my students were born. And each lecture was not on a subject but on a person or a group of persons. But of course, by knowing those people, you got to know that subject. And I gave them a project for their assignment, their term paper, that really was the essence of the course and the essence of what I believe ought to be the way we learn history. Each student—there were 180 some students—was given a photograph. And no two photographs were the same. The assignment was to write a term paper that derived from that photograph. There was no right or wrong answer. And nobody else in the class was doing the same job, so you weren’t competing with other people. You were competing only with yourself.
One student received a Winslow Homer drawing of a Union officer in the Civil War. Another student was given a photograph of an American oil tanker being sunk by a German submarine off the coast of Florida. Another fellow got a photograph of Sergeant York. He may not have even known in what century World War I happened, but he wrote a wonderful paper on Sergeant York. And by learning about Sergeant York, he learned about the whole war.
We have wonderful students today, maybe the best ever. But many of them have gotten to where they are because they’re very skilled at reading a teacher’s mind. And I wasn’t going to tell them what I wanted. Some students, I think, discovered that history is great fun. And they changed their major. In a couple of cases they found their vocation.
How did you find your vocation?
I found my vocation because I was messing around up at the Library of Congress one day and I ran across some photographs taken in Johnstown after the flood. I wanted to know about those photographs, so I took a book out of the library. One thing led to another, and pretty soon I had gotten very interested in the Johnstown flood.
People would say, “You must have known a lot about the Johnstown flood before you started off on that project.” I said, “No, I didn’t.” All I knew was that when we were growing up in western Pennsylvania, in Pittsburgh, we used to make a lake of gravy in the mashed potatoes and then we’d take our fork and break it, and the gravy would flow down among the peas. As that happened, we’d say, “The Johnstown flood,” not knowing why we did that, not knowing that a dam had broken and so forth.
And that’s the kick. It’s the discovery. It’s the adventure that comes with discovery and getting on a project and finding things out yourself. It’s suddenly seeing things come into focus and realizing, “Oh, my goodness, look at this. Yes, I see. I understand now.” If it happens that way, you never forget it.