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.