“My love is to tell a story”: An interview with David McCullough

“My love is to tell a story”: An interview with David McCullough

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough spoke with Vision editor Melanie Bengtson about his books, his perceptions of today’s youth and his advice for the future.  McCullough will speak in the Curb Event Center at Belmont University on March 30 at 7 p.m.  Tickets are free to the public and can be reserved through the Curb Ticket Office at 460-8500.

We couldn’t bear to edit David McCullough’s responses, so his words are all here–lengthy and unedited. We’ve taken the liberty of drawing up a table of contents and setting bookmarks for each question to make it a bit easier to digest.

  1. Do you feel that one subject matter is more important than the other?
  2. What draws you to certain stories more than others?
  3. What are values that make us uniquely American?  What has and will last?
  4. What is your message to my generation?
  5. Do you still write on the same typewriter you started your career with?
  6. Do you have a favorite book that you have written?
  7. When you’re faced with so much information, how do you choose what gets into a book?
  8. If you could write a biography about a current living person, event, place, something like that, what would it be?

Vision: Your first book was published over 40 years ago, that was The Johnstown Flood.  Since then, you have focused on both major events in our history and important people, garnering you recognition as both a biographer and a historian.  Do you feel that one subject matter is more important than the other?  (People v. events)  Why?

McCullough: I feel very strongly that history is about everything. It isn’t just about politics or the military or social issues.  If art, music, engineering, science, medicine, finance, the world of architecture and technology – if those are left out, then you’re not getting a full sense of the human condition. History is human and we human beings are involved in all kinds of things and that’s part of our humanity.

I’m also of course very interested in those people or events or subjects which tell us something particularly revealing about the American story and the American people and I feel that history is in many ways the most important of all subjects because it is about everything and because it’s about who we are and how we came to be the way we are.

My love is to tell a story but I like stories that evolve from character, from the nature of the individuals involved. History isn’t just what happened, but what happened to whom and why and what would have been different if the cast of characters had been different.

Vision: Your work creates an amazing narrative of American history, in snapshots of different people and places in our history. What draws you to certain stories more than others?  Why Truman and not Eisenhower, the Brooklyn Bridge and not the Golden Gate?

McCullough: That’s a very good question and I’m not sure I can answer it. Something clicks, something happens … It has to be an idea that makes me want to get at it and I think that what’s at the root of that impulse is the desire to learn. The desire to know more about a subject, an era, or an individual.  The people I choose are nearly always people who – and I see this more in retrospect that I ever did when I was working on the subject – they are people who showed courage and fortitude in the face of difficulties and adversities.  And people who went on a journey so to speak – it may not always be a geographic journey it can be an inner journey.

When I was writing the Adams books, for example, I was very concerned that when Adams left the presidency in 1801 he went home to Quincy mass and never went anywhere else or did much of anything else for 25 years. And I thought how in the world am I going to sustain all that time and that percentage of his total life where he never did much but then I found that it was then, after his professional career was over, that his inner  journey began.  And in many ways the inner journey was as interesting and as eventful as the political or career journey.

You have to get inside the people you are writing about. You have to go below the surface.  And that’s to a very large degree what all writers are doing – they’re trying to get below the surface.  Whether it’s in fiction or poetry or writing history and biography. Some people make that possible because they write wonderful letters and diaries.  And you have to sort of go where the material is.  A man like John Adams was ideal because he wrote letters all of his life – wonderful letters all his life. his wife wrote wonderful letters. He kept journals and he was incapable of writing anything dull or short. So he was a dream come true in that sense.

I don’t pick my presidents because they were great presidents.  I’m not much interested in ranking presidents and who is the best and who is the worst. I am much more inclined to be interested in them if they had an interesting life and if they were a complete person – and by that I mean they also had flaws and failings. The most interesting people are never perfect.

Vision: In a lot of ways it seems that America is at a crossroads – economically, ideologically, politically.  As a historian and someone who so brilliantly has told the American story from so many different angles, what are values that make us uniquely American?  What has and will last? What has lasted through the difficult times before and what will last now?

McCullough: You’re very good.  You are. Those are very good questions and not easy to answer.

I think we have some very distinctive qualities.  First of all, anyone who wants to become an American. I don’t mean just by having citizens’ papers, but who wants to be an American, as one of us and embrace the ideals and the aspirations that have been consistent in American life is welcome to do so.  You could go to France and live in France for the rest of your life but you would never be a Frenchwoman.  It just isn’t possible. But we have an open door and we particularly welcome people who want to be useful and who want to help make the kind of society we all dream of creating happen. The individual matters here, still.

And we still dislike hypocrites.  It’s a very American characteristic.  We still like people who have ideas and who are willing to stand up for what they believe in.  We’re very forgiving of failures and very willing to give people a second and third chance if they mean to do better and are sorry for what they’ve done.

Vision: Do you think there are historical reasons for that?  I’ve never heard anyone phrase it, “we’re forgiving of failures”?

McCullough: We’ve been replenished as it were by people who have come from failure.  Who haven’t done well or Things haven’t gone their way elsewhere and they come here.  We’ve got work to do. We’ve always had work to do and we welcome people who are willing to pitch in and help push the car out of the mud.

We also believe fervently in education and that’s a very strong constant theme from the beginning that one can raise oneself – I don’t mean just necessarily in their standard of living but in their enjoyment of life – through education here. And that everybody wants their child or their grandchild to have a better education than they had or the best possible education, to make the most of what they are, of who they are.

Though we’ve fallen behind in lots of ways – including in education – we are still seen by the rest of the world as the best place in the world to come and get an education.  It’s our ingenuity and our brainpower, our inventiveness, our capacity for innovation that is very distinctly American and is our most valuable natural resource by far. Now we’ve been blessed with great natural resources but the most important blessing we have is that attitude.

I could talk for 3 hours on this question, but it’s a very, very good one.

Vision: What is your message to my generation? The future leaders. How do we take on this mantle of this society that we’ve inherited?

McCullough: First of all I’m very concerned that your generation is by and large historically illiterate.  I have lectured all over the country at colleges and universities for more than 25 years.  I know how much you don’t know. And that’s not your fault.  We can’t blame you for not knowing what you haven’t been taught.  So I say that in preface to what I consider to be the larger suggestion, and that is to read.

Read.  Read. Read. Read.  Read great books.  Read poetry, history, biography. Read the novels that have stood the test of time.  And read closely.

You’ve got to remind yourselves  and its something that everybody tells you and it’s something that’s often said particularly in commencement speeches that your education never stops and that college is just the beginning.  You come out of college with a huge advantage in that you’ve ideally and more times than not you’ve come out with a love of learning and that’s what matters above all. And that love of learning will never let you down.  You can have a quest for money, you can have a quest for power, you can have a quest for fame and they are sometimes gratifying and sometimes self-destructive.  The love of learning is always gratifying and never self-destructive. The more educated, the more cultivated a society becomes, better off is everybody.

I think that because of the present economic troubles, a lot of people are waking up to the fact that the days of spending money on things you don’t need with money you haven’t got are over.  We’ve got a lot of hard work to do and very big problems to solve but if you have a sense of history, you know that we’ve solved bigger problems before.  We’ve been through more difficult times before – much more difficult times before. And as some of our leaders are rightly saying, if we work together we can solve them. And we can come out of this. And we can come out of it better off for having been through the experience.

I think to that a good education ought to be in part the idea that ease and joy are not synonymous. Some of the most fulfilling pleasures of life are to be found in work – found in work you love to do, work you want to do, work that makes you want to get out of bed in the morning.

My advice to all students and soon to be graduates is to find something to do that you love because then the work itself is always the reward not the recompense. And if you love what you’re doing you probably do better at it than doing something you don’t love and therefore you’ll be compensated appropriately.

I find great reasons to be hopeful in knowing your generation.  And I think your intelligence and your capacity to know a lot and do things that we never new how to do is sometimes to me breathtaking.  I also know how much enjoyment awaits you in knowing more about subjects that you probably need to know more about but will find infinite pleasure in knowing more.  To shut yourself from history is to shut yourself off from say music or painting or the theatre, literature for the rest of your life.  It would be to cheat yourself of the pleasures of life.

Why limit yourself to the experience of your own relatively brief time on earth, according to your biological clock, when the whole realm of the human experience reaching back infinitely far is available to you? We all would like to travel back in time, we’d all like to know more about why we are the way we are, why we think the way we do, why we talk the way we do.  The sky’s the limit.

And I always tell new freshmen, advise them, take the teacher not the course.  Find out who the great professors are – the great teachers – and take their courses because a subject that you may not think you’re interested in may turn out to be infinitely fascinating because of the way it’s taught. Whereas conversely, you may have a subject that you think you’re very interested in but if it was taught by a boring teacher, that teacher can kill your interest in it.

Vision: I think my favorite thing that I discovered in researching for this interview was an interview you did with the Academy of Achievement in which you said that you’ve written every book on the same typewriter.  That was in 1995.  Do you still write on that typewriter?

McCullough: I do write on the same typewriter.  I bought the typewriter second hand in 1965. I probably paid $25 for it. It’s a Royal, upright standard typewriter and it was made in 1940.  I have written everything I have had published on that typewriter and there is nothing wrong with it.  It works perfectly. It was made in the USA and made superbly well.   I like it because I like the feeling of making something with my hands. I like pressing the key and a letter comes up and is printed on a piece of paper. I can understand that. It’s not out in the ether somewhere.   I like it when I swing the carriage lever the little bell rings like the old trolley car.  Lots of people including my own children tell me, remind me how much faster I could go if I used a word processor.  I don’t want to go faster.  If anything I’d  like to be able to go slower because I don’t think all that fast.  And maybe the typewriter is writing the books.  I don’t want to risk changing it. As long as it holds up, I’ll hold up.

Vision: Do you have a favorite book that you have written?

McCullough: It’s always the book I’m working on.

Vision: Are you working on one right now?

McCullough: I certainly am.  It’s about Americans in Paris.

Vision: What drew you to that subject?

McCullough: It stretches over a good span of time and has to do with those people who because they went to Paris, did something or learned something that changed life in America.  It is about how much we owe to the experience they had in Paris.   It includes writers, novelists, playwrights, composers, musicians, dancers, architects, sculpturs, inventors, physicians because Paris for much of the 19th century was the greatest medical center in the world with the greatest medical education in the world. A lot of people who are very well known – Samuel FB Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, James Fennimeore Cooper, Oliver Wendell Homes Sr., people like Whistler the painter, John Singer Sargeant, Mary Cassatt. A whole range of people of all kinds. The engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge who went over to Paris to study how they built underwater foundations..  Edison.  Mark Twain.

It’s the story of the country.  Most people don’t appreciate sufficiently how much of our culture and how much of history has been influenced by France and the French. More American history took place in France than in any other country in the world but our own.  For example we fought two horrendous wars there. More Americans are buried in France than any other country but out own. Our capital, Washington DC, was designed by a Frenchman. The symbol of our welcoming to new arrivals, the Statue of Liberty, is a gift from France, Look at all the towns on a map of American that have French names.  It’s one of the most interesting things I’ve worked on.

Nobody’s written this book before.  The material is rich in much the way the Adams material was because so many of the people who went to France wrote marvelous letters about it or kept journals that are filled with wonderful material.

Vision: When you’re faced with so much information, how do you choose what gets into a book?

McCullough: That’s again a crucial question and a big part of the process.  You have to decide what to leave out and whom to leave out.  You have to try and know enough to see it clearly and that’s hard.  One of the ways you do it is you start writing.  When you start to write things begin to come into focus in a way they don’t when you’re not writing. It’s a very good way to find out how much you don’t know because you learn specifically what you need to know that you don’t know at the moment by writing.   It’s so important in College to take all the writing you can., to do all the writing you can. Take courses that require writing beyond just English courses.

Vision: If you could write a biography about a current living person, event, place, something like that, what would it be?  Why? Or what do you think 40 years from now the next David McCullough or someone who’s aiming to be perhaps the next David McCullough, would write about from right now?

McCullough: Very, very hard question.  Somebody living today?

Vision: Or an event, or a place. Something worthy of your stature.

McCullough: I think I would write about somebody doing something in medicine. Someone who’s.  We talk a great deal about the cost of medicine and the injustices of the insurance system and so forth, but we forget how miraculous modern medicine truly is and how far ahead we are and how interesting it is.  I don’t know enough to say who that person might be.  Maybe it would be about Johns Hopkins or some great medical center in wherever.  That’s one idea.  It might be someone who’s had a really interesting life but it would come to you as a surprise that this person has had a really interesting life, but I don’t know who that would be.


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