David McCullough, Historian and Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author, Dies at 89

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david mccullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose carefully crafted narratives on topics ranging from the Brooklyn Bridge to Presidents John Adams and Harry Truman made him one of the most popular and influential historians of his time, has died, said his publisher Simon & Schuster. He was 89.

McCullough died Sunday in Hingham, Massachusetts, surrounded by his five children, his family said in a Facebook post announcing his death. “The McCullough family is so grateful for the support during this difficult time and the support of their many readers over the years,” the Facebook post read.

McCullough died less than two months after his wife, Rosalee.

“David McCullough was a national treasure. His books brought history to life for millions of readers. Through his biographies, he dramatically illustrated the most ennobling parts of the American character,” Simon & Schuster CEO Jonathan Karp said in a statement.

Obituary of David McCullough
Writer and historian David McCullough appears at his Martha’s Vineyard home in West Tisbury, Massachusetts on May 12, 2001.

Steven Senne / AP


A tireless and cheerful student of the past, McCullough dedicated himself to sharing his own passion for history with the general public. He saw himself as an everyday man blessed with a lifelong curiosity and the opportunity to tackle the issues that mattered most to him. His fascination with architecture and construction inspired his early work on the Panama Canal and the Brooklyn Bridge, while his admiration for leaders he believed to be good men drew him to Adams and Truman. In his 70s and 80s, he indulged his affection for Paris with the 2011 release “The Greater Journey” and for aviation with a bestseller about the Wright brothers that came out in 2015.

Beyond his books, the handsome, grizzled McCullough may have had the most recognizable presence of any historian, his fatherly baritone known to fans of PBS’s “The American Experience” and Ken Burns’ epic “Civil War” documentary. “Hamilton” author Ron Chernow once called McCullough “both the name and the voice of American history.”

McCullough’s celebrations of the American past also gave rise to the harshest criticism against him: that affection turned too easily into romanticism. His 2019 book “The Pioneers” was criticized for downplaying the atrocities committed against Native Americans as 19th-century settlers moved west. In earlier works, he was accused of avoiding the harshest truths about Truman, Adams, and others and of putting narrative before analysis.

“McCullough’s specific contribution has been to treat large-scale historical biography as yet another genre of viewer appreciation, an exercise in character recognition, a reliable source of edification and pleasing elevation,” Sean Wilentz wrote in The New Republic in 2001. Interviewed that same year by The Associated Press, McCullough responded to criticism that he was too soft by saying that “some people not only want their leaders to have feet of clay, they want them to be all clay.”

But even peers who found fault with his work praised his kindness and generosity and recognized his talent. And millions of readers, and the smallest circle of awardees, were moved by her stories. For years, from a wireless cabin on the grounds of his home on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, McCullough completed work on a Royal Standard typewriter that changed minds and shaped the market. He helped elevate the reputations of Truman and Adams, and started a wave of best-sellers on the American Revolution, including McCullough’s own “1776.”

Obituary of David McCullough
President George W. Bush, right, awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to writer and historian David McCullough during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington on December 15, 2006.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP


McCullough received the National Book Award for “The Path Between the Seas,” about the construction of the Panama Canal; and for “Mornings on Horseback,” a biography of Theodore Roosevelt; and Pulitzers for “Truman,” in 1992, and for “John Adams” in 2002. “The Great Bridge,” an extensive exploration of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, ranked 48th on the Modern Library’s list of 100 best works of non-fiction. of the 20th century and is still widely regarded as the definitive text of the great project of the 19th century. When he turned 80, his native Pittsburgh renamed the 16th Street Bridge the “David McCullough Bridge.”

McCullough was also a favorite in Washington, DC He addressed a joint session of Congress in 1989 and, in 2006, he received a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Politicians frequently claimed to have read his books, especially his biographies of Truman and Adams. Jimmy Carter cited “The Road Between the Seas” as a factor in driving the 1977 treaties that returned control of the Panama Canal to Panama, and was cited by politicians on both sides of the issue during the debate. Barack Obama included McCullough among a gathering of academics who met at the White House shortly after his election.

The historian was nonpartisan for much of his life, but he spoke out against Donald Trump in 2016, leading a group of historians that included Burns and Chernow in denouncing the Republican presidential nominee as a “monstrous clown with an ego.” monstrous”. McCullough also had an emphatic cause: education. He worried that Americans knew little about history and did not appreciate the sacrifices of the revolutionary era. He spoke often on campuses and before Congress, once telling a Senate committee that because of the No Child Left Behind Act, “history is taking a backseat or fading out altogether in many or most schools, in favor of math and reading.”

McCullough was also active in preserving historic regions. He opposed the construction of a residential tower near the Brooklyn Bridge and was among the historians and authors in the 1990s who criticized the Walt Disney Company’s planned Civil War theme park in a region of Northern Virginia of particular importance. historical.

“We have so little left that is authentic and real,” McCullough said at the time. “To replace what we have with plastic, contrived history, mechanical history is almost sacrilege.”

McCullough took on some scoundrels in his books, particularly the New York political schemers involved in the Brooklyn Bridge, but he preferred writing about people he liked, likening it to choosing a roommate. Disgust with Pablo Picasso’s private life led him to abandon a planned book on the artist, while his biography of Adams was originally supposed to be about Adams and Thomas Jefferson, whose character also proved too flawed.

McCullough, whose father and grandfather founded the McCullough Electric Company, was born in Pittsburgh in 1933. He loved history as a child, recalling lively dinner conversations, portraits of Washington and Lincoln that seemed to hang in every home, and a trip to a place where Washington he fought one of his first battles. He majored in English at Yale University and met playwright Thornton Wilder, who encouraged the young student to write. McCullough worked at the United States Information Agency, Sports Illustrated and the American Heritage Publishing Company before deciding he wanted to try out a book about an event that took place in his home state in 1889: the Johnstown flood, which killed more than 2,000 people and was as disastrous in its day as Hurricane Katrina was more than a century later.

McCullough researched the book in his spare time and pleaded in vain with Little, Brown and Company to publish it. He ended up with Simon & Schuster, which published the book in 1968, for an advance of $5,000, and remained his publisher for the rest of his career.

“The Johnstown Flood” was so successful that McCullough worried he would be typecast as the author of the flop “Bad News McCullough.” Publishers asked him to write about the Chicago fire and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. So for his next book, “The Great Bridge,” he told a success story. “That I knew little or nothing about civil engineering, that I had never done well in mathematics or physics, or that I had a great interest in mechanical things did not stop me in the least,” he later wrote. “I was too excited. There was so much I wanted to know.”

McCullough followed up with “The Road Between the Seas”; and “Morning on Horseback,” published in 1981 and praised by Gore Vidal as “part of a welcome new genre: the biographical sketch.” “Mornings on Horseback” won the National Book Award but, Vidal noted, was overshadowed by the release of Pulitzer Prize-winning Edmund Morris’s “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.” It would be the last time a McCullough book received a second billing.


Historian David McCullough on “The American Spirit”

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He had considered a biography of Franklin Roosevelt, but instead became involved with Roosevelt’s less dynamic and more direct successor, Harry Truman. McCullough spent the next decade writing the book, living for a time in Truman’s hometown of Independence, Missouri, and making a daily routine, as the former president did, of a morning walk.

“Truman,” released in 1992, was a million-dollar bestseller that capped and confirmed a long rise in status for a man who had left office 40 years earlier with less than 30% approval ratings and was now virtually canonized as an honest and tenacious leader. . Among the book’s supporters were presidential hopeful Ross Perot, who bluntly compared himself to Truman, and the first President Bush, who even consulted McCullough during his failed re-election bid.

“John Adams”, published in 2001, was just as popular and useful for its subject matter, and Congress passed legislation that same year to build a monument honoring the second president. “1776” aired in 2005, followed by an illustrated edition two years later. An HBO miniseries based on “John Adams” starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney aired in 2008. Tom Hanks was planning a miniseries based on McCullough’s book about the Wright Brothers.

McCullough had five children and an affinity for happily married politicians like Truman and Adams that goes back to his wife, Rosalee Barnes, whom he married in 1954 and who died in June. She was his closest editor, muse and friend. At his home on Martha’s Vineyard, McCullough proudly showed visiting reporters a photograph of their first meeting, at a spring dance, the two of them looking at each other.

As newlyweds, they lived in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, according to “60 minutes“, which inspired him to write “The Great Bridge,” his second book and first bestseller. He described the bridge as “America’s Eiffel Tower.”

“If you could lift this bridge up and flip it over, it would say ‘Made In America’ underneath,” he told “60 Minutes.” He continued later, “This is a bridge over movement. Ships pass under it, people walk the boardwalk, traffic flows 24 hours a day. It still serves its purpose.”

He said it would go on “forever, if we have a civilization wise enough and grateful enough to take care of it.”

Simon & Schuster is a division of Paramount, the parent company of CBS News.

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