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Remembering Our Friend David McCullough

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David McCullough, one of the nation’s most decorated historians and authors, died Sunday at the age of 89 at his Massachusetts home. He was a good friend of American readers and he was a good friend of the Library.

McCullough twice won the Pulitzer Prize and twice won the National Book Award (not to mention the Presidential Medal of Freedom), telling the story of both powerful and ordinary Americans, explaining the nation to itself in a genial and direct tone. He did this both in print, on the stage and on television, a thoughtful, reassuring presence. He was an honorary member of The Madison Council, the Library’s lead donor group, and appeared most recently at the National Book Festival in 2019 (before COVID-19 halted in-person festivals for two years).

“I’m saddened to hear about the passing of the great  historian David McCullough,” said Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress. “His dedication in telling this nation’s story taught us more about the American spirit and its value to our collective history. For that we are forever grateful. He truly was an American treasure.”

He was known for his deep research and incisive narratives built on the accumulation of details and the personalities of those he studied — all traits that endeared him to librarians. He won Pulitzers for two presidential biographies: “Truman” in 1992 and “John Adams” in 2001. One of his National Book Award-winning works also focused on the presidency, “Mornings on Horseback: The Story of Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt,” in 1981. The other NBA winner looked at the nation’s ambition and beginning world impact in “The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914.”

He was popular everywhere he went — several of his books were major bestsellers — and of course he found huge audiences at the NBF. He was at the first NBF and when he was introduced at the 2019 event, the applause went on and on.

In conversation on stage with NBF director Maria Arana, he said that only late in his career had the theme of his work become apparent to him: “I see now that almost all of my books are about Americans who set out to accomplish something worthy that they knew would be difficult and was going to be more difficult even that they expected, and who did not give up and who learned from their mistakes and who eventually achieved what their purpose had been in the first place.”

McCullough was born in Pittsburgh in 1933, had a childhood which he always recalled fondly, and studied literature at Yale. He often had lunch with Thornton Wilder, the playwright and author best known for his timeless “Our Town,”  itself a look at America through a fond but accurate eye. He retuned to his native Pennsylvania for his first book, “The Johnstown Flood,” an account of the 1889 disaster, launching his career from there.

David McCullough at the 2019 National Book Festival. Photo: Shawn Miller.

Comments (13)

  1. Sorry to hear of this loss to our world.

  2. This is so sad. I thought that he would live and write forever. There is still so much history to write about. You and your insights will be missed tremendously.

  3. David got things right. He did his homework, writing beautifully researched elegant books about people and issues that matter.
    And he had time for his friends, supporting their work when it helped. I was lucky, my agent was one of David’s longtime pals, so he read my books and said nice things about them in quotable prose and, oh my, how helpful that was. Besides he had a big smile, was fun to be with, loved his wife, and wrote books that are classics. It’s a legacy to make anyone proud.

  4. David McCullough was not only a wonderful historian, he was a beautiful writer who loved painting pictures with his words. Moreover he was a researcher’s researcher. I was hoping for one more book to add to the McCullough section of my bookcase.

  5. When I was the television critic of The Arizona Republic newspaper, I had a long interview with Mr. McCullough in conjunction with the PBS Ken Burns documentary “The Civil War,” in which Mr. McCullough played a major role. Because our conversation also coincided with the 30th anniversary of the Kennedy-Nixon presidential TV debates, I talked to him about that as well for a separate column. He was wonderfully accessible, and a good listener — in fact, even as a listener, he taught you about history. Two years later when I was recovering from surgery, I read “Truman,” his biography about Harry S. Truman. I grew up in Truman country, Kansas City, Missouri — I attended both the opening of the Truman Presidential Library and Truman’s funeral. One portion of the book dealt with John F. Kennedy’s trek to Missouri after seizing the Democratic nomination for president to mend political fences with Truman. I was there for a pivotal stop on JFK’s trip, and met Kennedy and took some pictures of him. I also had begun my journalism career with The Kansas City Star, and Mr. McCullough worked with some researchers at the paper that I had known to help him with background on his book. I was so taken with “Truman” that I wrote to him, sending along copies of the photos I took of JFK at the rally mentioned in his book, providing an anecdote or two along with the pictures. He replied with a lovely note that I still have and treasure. A footnote: I traveled to Dallas on the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, and Mr. McCullough gave the anniversary’s keynote address in Dealey Plaza. Last fall, I was invited by the Sixth Floor Museum in Dealey Plaza to participate in its Oral History Project, taping an interview with Stephen Fagin, the museum’s curator. As I spoke, I found myself trying to emulate the same directness about facts and history that I had learned through my conversation with Mr. McCullough, listening to his speeches, and in his television in interviews and documentaries. Although we have lost his physical presence, his wisdom and eloquence lives on for those who were fortunate enough to meet him, read his books, or watch him on television. We better understand the complicated world in which we live because of him, and also how to accept it and attempt to make it better. May he rest in peace.

  6. I came to recognize David McCullough after he agreed to introduce a video biography of the Wright brothers. He was describing the two brothers, and he ended the sentence with “… and brave.” I was well on my way to becoming an authority on the Wright brothers myself, but I had never realized how much they risked their lives to design and test an airplane that a human can fly AND CONTROL. McCullough had sorted through mountains of data on the Wright brothers, but he could still see something everyone else, in my opinion, missed. I was thrilled when he published his book on the Wright brothers (entitled The Wright Brothers). August 8, 2022: RIP David McCullough.

  7. Upon learning of DM’s passing I stopped what I was doing (writing a poem) and took an hour to listen to McCullough.
    Now, the LOC categories list is tempting me to drop down a rabbit hole. Who knows what I might learn. I’m sure McCullough would approve. Rest. Peace.

  8. David McCullough was an exceptional American. I stopped in my tracks whenever he appeared on television. With two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards, it seems implausible that he would be an even better speaker than author, but he was. He changed my entire approach to history and helped me understand its importance. In his honor, we need to do better.

  9. I am astounded by the wonderful man who igniting memory am forwarding future reading of history. Noteworthy .

  10. David research and plain-speak opened my eyes to help me appreciate the shoulders of giants upon whom I owe a debt of gratitude. The so-called “good old days” we’re fraught with many more existential hardships that our ancestors faced and overcame through sheer work and determination. Much of which is sorely lacking today.
    Thanks David for helping me become cognizant of those great people who went before me. RIP

  11. I will forever be grateful for Mr. McCullough”s work. The cadence of his word structure, the depth of his research and the power of his voice will be a treasure to me as long as I live.

  12. I did not know of this “special” Americans passing BUT we have ALL benefitted from his “special” life!!!
    P.S. I thought of asking him to help me write a TRUE story of my most unusual life BUT I am sure he got many such requests and perhaps most of us think our life has been “special” too!!!

  13. Great man because of him I read history

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