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OPINION | EDITORIAL: David McCullough

It’s the little things that make the book August 10, 2022 at 4:05 a.m.


Philip Martin has said, on a couple of occasions, that one day Bill Murray won't be around any more. (Depressing thought.) We'd add that one day, Sir Paul, Ringo, Mick and Keef won't be around, either. And Tom Hanks and Tommy Lee Jones. Death doesn't take a day off. Or a bribe.

A rock star of sorts, certainly a celebrity, died this week: David McCullough, of whom we can honestly say we have been, on more than one occasion, jealous as all get-out. And not just because of the way he piled up awards.

One Pulitzer wouldn't be enough for this historian; he needed two--for "Truman" and "John Adams." He was also a narrator and host of television specials. But to some of us he was a writer first, and for his books we'd do the modern version of waiting for the ticket booth to open for front-row seats. That is, we'd Google what he was working on and try to find ways to get early editions.

The gifted writer makes the read fast. That's a compliment. Because the reader isn't stopped by boring asides, sandpaper paragraphs, or worse, adverbs. Mr. McCullough knew the best way to keep readers, uh, "engaged," as the creative writing professors call it.

In the middle of setting up defensive positions in Brooklyn--or what was called Brooklyn, but was spelled Breucklyn, Broucklyn, Brookland or Brookline in the 1770s . . . .

Suddenly, with the impact of an explosion, news of a Loyalist plot to assassinate the commander-in-chief burst upon the city. A dozen men were arrested, including the mayor of New York, David Matthews, and two soldiers from Washington's own Life Guard. The plot reportedly was to kill Washington and his officers the moment the British fleet appeared.

Patriot mobs took to the streets to hunt down Loyalists. Those they seized were beaten, tarred and feathered, burned with candles, or made to 'ride the rail,' the cruel punishment whereby a man was forced to straddle a sharp fence rail held on the shoulders of two men, with other men on either side taking a grip on his legs to keep him straight and thus the victim was paraded through the streets . . . .

It's the little things that Mr. McCullough was expert at finding. And dropping into his work--to give the reader a sense of place, which, for a historian, is important. That may help explain why a biographer kept selling books by the truckload.

"Truman" stayed atop The New York Times' best-seller list for nearly a year! "John Adams" debuted at the top of that list, and went through several printings. Some of Mr. McCullough's books were made into HBO mini-series.

The papers say he had 40 honorary doctorates. The Presidential Medal of Freedom. Two National Book Awards to go with those Pulitzers.

His critics would call him "blinkered," because he chose topics that he seemed to like, and people he apparently thought good thoughts about. And how could he write an entire book about the western movement of white people into Ohio ("The Pioneers") and find so many good things to say about them? Especially when these people had displaced Native Americans? And although most of these people wanted the region to be closed to slavery, weren't they still people of their backward time, and still had an awful racial hierarchy? These days, the more woke writer would have found only fault with early Americans.

The historian in Mr. McCullough was better able to look back with a clear view, rather than satisfy modern sensibilities.

Strange as it may seem, many of us (many, many of us) were able to enjoy his books anyway. Maybe many of us aren't modern enough yet.

"People often ask me if I'm working on a book," he told The New York Times in 1992. "That's not how I feel. I feel like I work in a book. It's like putting myself under a spell. And this spell, if you will, is so real to me that if I have to leave my work for a few days, I have to work myself back into the spell when I come back. It's almost like hypnosis."

Even in his obituary, he puts it best.

David McCullough died this week at 89. We think tonight we'll pick up "1776" again, and read the chapter of the Christmas crossing. We could use a little picking up.


Print Headline: David McCullough

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