The start of a new semester always includes introductory level history courses full of students whose primary interest is not necessarily history. At my institution, I teach intro history courses in American history and modern church history, and since those courses are required, I can always count on there being students in the room who may not have the enthusiasm as, say astronaut John Glenn orbiting the Earth for the first time. On the first day of every intro history course I teach, I break the ice with a somewhat awkward question: how many of you don’t like history? There are always a few brave souls who will raise their hands, and the most common answer to that question given by people who say they don’t like history is that history is boring and/or irrelevant.
If you are one of those people who find history amounting to nothing more than a bunch of names, dates, places on a map—or you think of dead people who inhabited a world so foreign to our own as to be virtually impenetrable—then you should get to know David McCullough.
But David McCullough is dead, you say. Sadly, you speak the truth. We lost him just recently, on August 7, 2022. For most of us, death will swallow us up and obscurity will eventually erase our memory and silence our voices as the years advance. But not so with David McCullough. McCullough is a voice that will be with us for many years and many generations to come. Though dead, David McCullough still speaks.
He speaks through his writing and through his narration. I first encountered David McCullough as a college student listening to him narrate Ken Burns’ Civil War series as I watched it air on PBS. The most famous personality emerging from the production of that series was probably Shelby Foote, with his distinctive deep-South drawl. All my relatives sounded like that, so I was not mesmerized by Foote. But I was mesmerized by McCullough. For years after, whenever I read anything on the Civil War, my mind heard the deliberate diction of David McCullough.
McCullough first introduced me to Theodore Roosevelt in his 1981 Mornings on Horseback. And I say “introduced” on purpose, for McCullough’s telling the story of Roosevelt’s early life was so vivid, so picturesque, and so personal that it was as if I was there with Roosevelt as a first hand witness to his life. McCullough’s biographies place the reader in the position of an invisible witness, even a participant (though passively) in the lives he brought to his readers.
McCullough’s earliest ambition was to be a portrait painter. In a way, he accomplished that childhood dream, but with an exponentially greater luminescence as a writer. It is no wonder that he won the most prestigious prizes for his writing, like the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It is also not at all surprising that many of his books were made into movies and documentaries.
A lot of historians are rather snooty about what is sometimes described as “popular history.” Their snootiness is ironic in the face of declining numbers of history majors and the canceling of history departments in colleges and universities all over the country. Professional historians can learn a thing or two from a popular historian like David McCullough, because his writing was animate. The titles of his books were not by-words of toil and tedium among students, like a few of the books I had to read when I was a history major in college. One of the reasons his writings were so vibrant was that he focused on the humanity of his subjects. And one common trait of all human beings, those who lived and died in the past, those who inhabit the present, and those yet to be born, is that we are all finite. None of us knows what our own future brings, and not one of us can anticipate every consequence to everything we do and say. McCullough put it this way in his 1991 Brave Companions: “The past after all is only another name for someone else’s present. How would things turn out? They knew no better than we know how things will turn out for us.” McCullough showed us what we in the present have in common with those who lived in the past—a common humanity, a shared heritage for good and for ill, and wisdom for our own world and time.
When I ask the students in my intro courses who among them are not fans of history, one of my goals is to show them that they do, in fact, love history. For one thing, everyone loves to talk about themselves, to tell their stories about their past experiences. That’s history! McCullough told history in such a way that is relatable to everyone who reads a story about a person’s life and experiences. We may not resonate with every story—but the act of storytelling is itself imminently relatable, because who doesn’t love a great story?
I will close these thoughts on David McCullough with a few lines he wrote at the end of his anthology of stories, Brave Companions. In these words, he gets to the heart of what the study of history can be for the one who is open to its possibilities. For over fifty years, he was the historian who did not just write about something abstract like “American history.” He was a portrait painter of the past. He wrote about subjects that were not simply abstractions. He wrote the history of us.
I feel so sorry for anyone who misses the experience of history, the horizons of history. We think little of those who, given the chance to travel, go nowhere. We deprecate provincialism. But it is possible to be as provincial in time as it is in space. Because you were born into this particular era doesn’t mean it has to be the limit of your experience. Move about in time, go places. Why restrict your circle of acquaintances to only those who occupy the same stage we call the present?