David McCullough, Author, Narrator, Historian & Lecturer
When he was about 15 or so and was reading about writers and their lives, one of my sons turned to me one evening and said, “Dad, I don’t think you’re ever going to be a really great writer.” “Why is that?” I asked him. He said, “You had way too happy a childhood.” And I certainly did.
I was born at Allegheny Hospital in Pittsburgh in 1933. According to my mother, it was one of the hottest days she ever remembered, and they didn’t have much in the way of air conditioning back then. I was the third of four sons. Both my mother and father were Pittsburghers, as were their parents. In fact, my family goes back to well before the Revolutionary War in Pittsburgh.
My father, more than anyone I knew, was an ardent Pittsburgh devotee; a Pittsburgher through and through. He was in the electrical supply business and, if he ever talked about doing foreign trade, he was referring to maybe getting a little business over in Ohio. He was that way all his life and it was very endearing. He told stories about Pittsburgh in the days of yore, recalling the fires, labor strikes and floods, and the peculiar people in our family, of which we had our share.
So I grew up hearing all kinds of stories at the dinner table and loved them. And I believe that the dearth of dinnertime conversation in American life in recent decades has had damaging consequences. The dinner table is not just a place to learn to listen, but to learn how to ask questions as well. I notice that young people today ask few questions, which is a shame because curiosity is a very big part of the learning process throughout one’s life, and not just in school.
From beginning to end, I loved school. I was always happy there. I had marvelous teachers who enhanced and changed my life. I went to Linden Grade School in Point Breeze and Shady Side Academy, and then on to Yale. I never considered going to college anywhere else because my two older brothers had both gone there. Of course, my father wanted us to stay home and go to Carnegie Tech or Pitt. He didn’t see any sense in going “all that way east.” But my mother, to her great and enduring credit, insisted that going away was an important part of the college experience, and believed that we all should leave home and go wherever we wished to go. As it turned out, all four of us McCullough boys went to Yale, but we were very different, one from another.
My oldest brother was a great violinist and pianist, Hax McCullough, who became a noted figure in Pittsburgh until his death in 2007. His company produced the programs for the Pittsburgh Opera, and he even wrote a wonderful book that was published posthumously about the Pittsburgh Symphony. My brother George became an engineer. As a kid, he was a whiz with the erector set. My brother Jim also was more scientifically inclined and became an oceanographer. As for me, I loved to paint and draw—and to write. I wrote for school publications in grade school and took extra drawing and painting lessons. Then in high school, I worked on the newspaper, was the editor of the yearbook and the literary magazine—and again, took all the drawing and painting classes I could. But I couldn’t decide, all the way through my time at Yale, whether I wanted to be a painter, writer, actor or architect. I loved it all. So, I thought, after college, “I know what I’ll do. I’ll just go to New York and see what happens.” That’s what I did, in 1955, and wound up getting a job as a trainee at Time-Life, working first at their new magazine, Sports Illustrated.
Believe it or not, back then, for someone with my background, it was easier to find a job in New York than it was to find an apartment. The place was jumping with magazines, newspapers, television work and ad agencies. They were scooping up anyone who came along. If you had gone to Yale, as I did, majored in English and worked on the Yale News or the yearbook, it was almost as if you had gone to a trade school. All you had to do was get on the train, go to Manhattan, and get a job. And I had terrific jobs. I stayed at Time-Life for six years, but when John F. Kennedy came along and asked us to do something for our country, I took it to heart, quit Time-Life and went to Washington to look for a job in government where I could be of service. I wound up working at the United States Information Agency (USIA) for three years, which, in many ways, was the best thing that could have happened to me. I was thrown into a job that was way over my head. It was truly a “sink or swim” situation. I was put in charge of a magazine that the USIA published for the Arab world, and I knew absolutely nothing about the Arab world. I told this to the fellow who had hired me, and all he said was, “You’re going to learn a lot then.”
In time, what I learned is that I could do that job. It was a very valuable apprenticeship and I got educated, not just about the Arab world, but about how to run a publishing concern, because I had to keep the whole thing going. Now, our budget and staff were both quite limited, so in order to do a lot of the things I wanted to do with the magazine I had to work seven days a week. In fact, on weekends I was off trying to find material or to get photographs. And it was during one such session at the Library of Congress that I, completely by chance, happened upon a magnificent collection of photographs taken in Johnstown right after the flood of 1889. I was so bowled over by those photographs because I had heard about that event all my life but really didn’t know what happened. I had no idea about the destruction and loss of life. So I took a book out of the library to read about it, and it wasn’t very good. For one thing, it had the geography of western Pennsylvania wrong, and even I knew that. Then I took out another book—and it was worse.
When I was a student at Yale, I had the good fortune to spend some time with the writer Thornton Wilder. One day, he was asked how he got the ideas for his novels and plays. He said, “I imagine a story that I would like to see produced on stage or read in a book, then I check around and, if nobody has written it, I write it.” So after reading those books about the Johnstown Flood, I said to myself, “Why don’t I just write the book that I want to read?” And I had never imagined myself writing history. I thought I would be writing novels or plays. But I really wanted to write books of some kind, and as soon as I started work on that project, I knew almost immediately that this type of writing was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
“The Johnstown Flood” was published in 1968 and turned out much better than either I or the publisher had ever imagined. But then I recalled what an older, wiser writer once said to me: “It’s not the first book that matters; it’s the second.” “Why is that?” I asked. He said, “Because it will show the world whether or not you mean business.” Almost anyone can get lucky with a first book, and I did. But was I really in it for the long haul? At the time, I had two different publishers chasing me (other than Simon & Schuster, which has been my publisher all along). One wanted me to do a book about the Great Chicago Fire, and the other wanted one about the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. They were offering very tempting advances. But I was not in the least interested because I didn’t want to become “Bad News McCullough.” I’m really not much interested in catastrophes and tragedies. What interested me about the Johnstown story was that it was caused by human beings, not just by nature, and it need never to have happened. I wanted to know why it happened and what lessons could be learned from it. For my follow-up, I wanted to write a book offering an example of human beings doing something really difficult and doing it right, and it took me quite a while to come up with an idea. Then one day, when I heard two friends, who were both engineers, talking over lunch about the Brooklyn Bridge and what wasn’t known when the project began, I knew right away that was it. I like stories about people who accomplish things and who do so not just because they’re talented or ingenious, but because they know such things can’t be accomplished without hard work and determination. History is human: “When, in the course of human events.” The operative word is “human.” That’s the way it should be written and that’s the way it must be understood.
Luckily, I received what, at the time, seemed like a whopping advance to write “Brooklyn Bridge” and, as a result, had the wherewithal, financially, it seemed to me, for three years to research and write it. Mind you, I had no other source of income, no trust fund, and no savings. All I had was my advance and whatever I received from the sales of the first book. On top of all that, my wife, Rosalee, and I had four children—and a fifth on the way! But she was game. She was ready and believed we could do it. That was the biggest decision we ever had to make about our lives but, in many ways, it was the easiest because it was what we wanted to do. And we were young enough and I felt confident enough that I had to go ahead. I was still in my 30s then, and knew I had a lot of improving to do when it came to my writing. And I knew very little about research, but loved it, and developed my own way of going about it, which is how it should be for everybody. There’s no one way to conduct research, just as there’s no one way to tell a story. And in the end, it’s the story that counts. I believe we need stories. They’re an essential part of the human experience.
There’s a lot going on today that I don’t like, in Washington and throughout the world. Much of it is not conducive to bettering ourselves as people or our nation. That said, however, I don’t think there’s any way to predict what a given era, individual or society may, in fact, produce. Consider the Golden Age. What a rotten time: corrupt politics, corrupt banking, excessive greed. Yet out of that time, which was dismissed by so many historians for so long, came a masterpiece, a triumph like the Brooklyn Bridge, and a genius called Mark Twain. You can’t predict the timing of the creative impulse. Genius happens, often when least expected. To me, one of the most infuriating ideas that is commonly expressed by supposed wise men and women is that other days were “simpler.” There were no simpler times. Would you like to have lived in the midst of the Civil War? How about World War I? How would you like to have suffered through the influenza epidemic of 1918 or the Great Depression? Those were not simpler times. They were different times. And we must understand why they were different and why the people who lived through them were different. No matter what some may tell you, those people weren’t “just like us.” To write or understand history, you must try as best you can to put yourself in the shoes of those who lived in those other times. You have to marinate yourself in your subject, in the time and place. You have to go where things happened, walk the streets, smell the air, and hear the voices.
When I embark on a new project, I’m often asked, “What is your theme?” In truth, I seldom have any idea what my theme is, not at the outset. I’ve never known much about the subjects that I’ve undertaken before I decided to undertake them. One of the reasons I decide to write a book is to find out. If I knew all about something, I wouldn’t want to write a book about it because the learning that comes with the process is the real reward. The experience that those four, five or even 10 years will provide is what I’m after. Take Truman, for example. Had I known how much I didn’t know and how much I would have to learn, I probably wouldn’t have taken it on. But because I didn’t know, I did it, and now I’m glad I didn’t know because I’m glad I did it!
In addition to writing, I’ve also loved the work I’ve done on documentary films. I’ve introduced and/or lent my voice to more than 100 of them over the years. I also loved the work I did with Tom Hanks on HBO’s adaptation of “John Adams.” And I loved narrating the feature film, “Seabiscuit.” But I’ve also loved lecturing. I get a kick out of being with people who’ve read my work or who are interested in the kinds of subjects that matter to me. The writing life, for me, has never felt lonely or isolating because of all the students I’ve taught and people with whom I’ve worked at archives and libraries, not to mention all the specialists on this subject or that. And it isn’t just about assembling material. You must take a good, close look at it. People also ask me, and it’s a perfectly understandable question, “How much of your time do you spend doing research and how much do you spend writing?” They never ask, “How much of your time do you spend thinking?” And that’s perhaps the most important part of all.
This summer I will turn 80. If I had retired at 65, I would not have written “John Adams,” “1776,” or “The Greater Journey.” And I have no intention of stopping. It’s what I do. To me, work is life. I’m as excited with the book I’m working on now as I have been with anything I’ve undertaken. In the end, the popularity of my books does amaze me. I try not to think about that, however. To me, the reward is in the work itself. To be off and running on a new project—trying to absorb it, trying to see it, hear it, smell it and understand it—is an adventure of a kind that makes me want to get out of bed every morning. What more can you ask of your work than that?