A conversation with historian David McCullough

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On Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, historian David McCullough will visit Baylor University to deliver the 2016 Beall-Russell Lecture in the Humanities. He will speak on “The Incomparable Advantage of Intellectual Curiosity” at 3:30 p.m. in Waco Hall. The lecture is free and open to the public, but tickets are required as seating is limited. Tickets will be available in the Bill Daniel Student Center Ticket Office through Friday, Sept. 23.

McCullough has been widely acclaimed as a “master of the art of narrative history.” The 83-year-old Pennsylvania native is a two-time winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. His books, including Truman, John Adams and his latest work, The Wright Brothers, routinely top the New York Times Best Sellers list.

In addition, his resonant voice has become familiar to audiences as the narrator or on-camera host of numerous historical documentaries and television series such as American Experience and Smithsonian World.

Earlier this year, Randy Fiedler, director of marketing and communications for the Baylor University College of Arts & Sciences, spoke by phone with David McCullough about his upcoming trip to Waco and Baylor. The interview is featured here in its entirety.

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RANDY FIEDLER: Do you have any memories of Texas?

DAVID McCULLOUGH: Since the time I was 16 I have been coming to Texas and I love it. (At 16) I came out there to help a friend of my older brother get back to Dallas in time to go to his ROTC summer duties. We drove night and day and I had never been out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is where I grew up. He went off for his ROTC service and the night before he left he took me out to dinner. I got quite ill that night and had to be rushed to the hospital to have my appendix out. I have been going back steadily (to Texas) and been to virtually every major city. I lectured in universities and I’ve received honorary degrees there. I’ve helped Mrs. George Bush Sr. with her literacy program several times and I have several college classmates that live there. It’s almost a second home for me.

Have you ever made it to Waco?

Yes, I have.

Anything special about that you remember?

I just remember being very happy to be back in Texas. I love the exaggerations. It used to be more evident than it is now. When Texans get talking they know any story worth telling is worth exaggerating. I always got a kick out of that. It just seems to be so American, so human.

What project nowadays is taking up most of your time?

I’m busy with a number of ideas for my next book. I’m not ready to say what it is yet because I haven’t decided, but I’m exploring two research interviews and so forth. Several different ideas, each of which I am confident would make a very good book, but something has to click and I suddenly realize “this is the one,” and that hasn’t happened yet.

How much research do you typically do before you start writing a book?

This may sound odd. I used to not say it aloud to anyone, particularly to my academic friends, but I never undertake a subject I know much about. If I knew all about it I wouldn’t want to write the book. For me the research and the writing of the book is the joy, the adventure, the travels to a continent I’ve never set foot on. I spend several months, maybe as many as six months, researching the first part of the book and then I get going, because if you spend too much time on research at the start you’re going to wind up going down a lot of roads you don’t need to bother with. When you start to write you realize not only how much you don’t know, but what specifically you need to pursue. So I do the research and the writing all the way along, from start to finish. I don’t really want to know how it comes out. I don’t really want to know what surprises there are going to be along the way.

So, you’re not one of those people who consider research just a necessary evil –– you enjoy it?

Oh I love it, but I have to stress that I do research very much more than just working in a library with letters and diaries and so forth. All that is extremely important, but I also look at films, I look at photographs and I go to the place where things happened. I spend as much time there as possible, soaking up the atmosphere that shapes these people I’m trying to understand as human beings. That’s essential! To understand Harry Truman, you have to spend a lot of time in Independence, Missouri. To understand the Wright Brothers, you’ve got to spend a lot of time in Dayton, Ohio. You learn not just from the lay of the land, the home ground, but you learn by listening to how people talk and how they respond to life, and I love that. That to me is a big part of it. Also, I spend a lot of time thinking. People ask how much of your time do you spend doing your research and how much of your time do you spend writing, and it’s a perfectly good question. But they never ask how much of your time do you spend thinking, and that’s very often the most important part of all.

dmc-no-2Since you never start on a book where you already know the subject, which of your books surprised you the most, where it turned out in a way you weren’t expecting?

They have all surprised me, and in no case have I failed to find something that’s new, something hasn’t been written about before. It may not be new in the sense that it was sitting there plain as day, but people didn’t pay any attention to it.

Any examples off the top of your head?

Yes –– this last book, my most recent book on the Wright Brothers (concerning) the big turn in Wilbur Wright’s life. Wilbur was the genius of the two. He was the boss, he was the big brother. Not that Orville wasn’t ingenious and innovated technologically, but Wilbur had a mind like very few people ever. His big swerve in his whole story happened when he was hit in his teeth by a hockey stick in a hockey game when he was about 18 by a local pond in winter time. It knocked out all his upper teeth and it disfigured his face, and he was a very handsome fellow before then, (more) than he was later on once he recovered. He went into a state of depression and closed himself off from life virtually for nearly three years. But it was during that time that he began to seriously read in all directions, as it were, including aeronautics, ornithology and the miracle of life. He had shown little or no interest in that up until then. So the question I had was, who hit him with the hockey stick, and was it accidental or intentional? It turned out that this is recorded in the diary his father kept (and) it was only revealed in the diary after Wilbur had died. Wilbur died in 1912, much too soon in life. He was only in his mid-forties but the next year, 1913, the father wrote in his diary that the man who had hit him turned out to be one of the most notorious murderers in the history of Ohio. He not only killed his own mother and father and brother, but he killed an estimated 12 other people besides. So, he was a kid in the neighborhood, he lived right around the corner. I think that helps to emphasize that this wasn’t just a kind of Norman Rockwell neighborhood. You had genius growing up in one house and this essence of evil growing up in the other house. Whether he did it intentionally or not we don’t know. The book does not reveal that, Wilbur’s father wrote, but the chances are almost definite that he did do it intentionally. Why, we don’t know. It’s unbelievable, and that was mighty exciting.

I’ve never heard that before. Nobody else had picked up on that?

No, and the brothers and their sister and father wrote well over a thousand very private, personal family letters, and nowhere in any of that did we find anything of the kind. It was only in the diary.

Do you think there is more of an interest in history these days among the public?

I think there’s much more interest, but of course in good part because of the attention the television medium and film are giving it. I think some of it is superb, and I admire tremendously many of the producers and directors that are doing it. I’ve worked with a lot of them. I thought that the production of my John Adams book by Tom Hanks that ran on HBO was about as good as anything could be, and I worked with the people that did the films quite a lot and came to admire their determination to get things right in a way that was wonderfully surprising. I think too there is a need for this in general everywhere, because the attention given to history in our educational system has been declining steadily and we’ve been raising several generations now of young Americans who are by and large historically illiterate. There is no question about it. It’s been shown again and again, and it’s not getting much better very fast. As a consequence, people get to be in their 30s or 40s and realize how much they don’t know about Theodore Roosevelt or the Great Depression, whatever it might be. So when they hear that there is going to be a good documentary on television or a new movie out, they will go to it. I thought the recent Tom Hanks-Stephen Spielberg movie Bridge of Spies was absolutely a marvelous movie. That’s based on a real incident, something that really happened. Tom Hanks is now working on a film based on my Wright Brothers book, which will be done. I’m very excited about that. People will say they leave things out or they tighten it up, make things different than they were. Of course they do. It’s as if you are going to have a songwriter’s composition played by different performers on different instruments. The movie, the screen is a different instrument from a book and yes, there were things that were not quite the way they happened, or the way they looked, or the way somebody was cast or miscast, but that’s minor. It particularly creates added curiosity or an eagerness to know more among the people who watch it.

You mentioned the decline in the attention given to history in schools. Do you think that’s because the people who decide the curriculum don’t think it’s important, and the other things they have added to the curriculum have pushed history to the side?

I think the humanities are being pushed aside. It’s not just history –– it’s the use of the English language. Something like half of the business schools or nearly half in the country now require their incoming freshmen (to) take a basic writing course because they can’t write a presentable letter or report or proposal. Now that’s really a serious problem. It’s the same with history. I think it’s nearly 80 percent of all the colleges and universities in the country today no longer require any history at all in order to graduate. Now, I’m a firm believer that history should be required and I’m a firm believer that English should be required, and I believe this not only because I do think it’s necessary that we know these things, but I think it’s also important to convey to young people that in life some things are required.

So, are you worried a little bit about the country?

Oh, very worried, yes. I’m talking about it up and down the land and I’ve become kind of a crusader or evangelical on the subject. I get wonderful response from audiences. I’ll be talking about this when I get to your town. I think the people really are aware of this and are worried about it, and should be worried about it. I lecture constantly at universities and colleges so I know how much they don’t know –– these present day students. I’ll give you an example. I was teaching a lecture at a university in Missouri a while back. Afterwards this young woman, a very bright looking sophomore, came up and said she was so glad she came to hear my talk because until she heard what I had to say she never realized that the original 13 colonies were all on the east coast!

That’s incredible.

Yes, exactly. I conducted a seminar for several weeks at Dartmouth College some years ago with 25 students –– all seniors, all honor students. To get the conversation going the first morning I asked them how many of them knew who George C. Marshall was. None of them. Finally one young fellow said, “Didn’t he have something to do with the Marshall Plan?” I said yes, indeed he did, and we were off and going. It’s real, and it’s dangerous. It’s a form of amnesia that is not healthy for the country.

Does this relate somehow to the debate between academics and teachers about what kind of history should be taught? Some believe the old style of history, the “history of dead white men,” should be deemphasized.

It’s politically corrected, oh sure, they’ve watered the whiskey. Everybody gets in there, everybody is special today, and if you haven’t got the required quota of a certain race or religion, you’re in trouble. The textbooks are so boring. There are a few that are not. I don’t mean to castigate all of them, but they’re so heavy –– literally and figuratively –– and that’s why I’m glad to say that the writers who are trying to do what I do, and there are plenty of them, are reaching larger and larger audiences as am I every year with every book. There is a hunger for it; there is a need for it. And, there are many teachers to be sure who are teaching the way they ought to be teaching, which is to love what you are teaching. One of the problems is that people are coming out of college who want or intend to teach and have majored in education. They’ve not majored in a subject. Well in order to teach a subject you’ve got to know what you are teaching. In order to love the subject you’ve got to know your subject, you can’t love someone you don’t know, and you can’t love some aspect of learning that you don’t know. The whole energy, the whole magic of a great teacher is that he or she loves what they are teaching and conveys that enthusiasm, that eagerness to learn and know more to their students. I think our teachers are the most important people in our society and they should be respected, honored and supported by all of us for that very reason. They are the ones who are going to shape how these young people are going to turn out.

Well, the faculty in the history department here at Baylor is going to enjoy hearing your words on the importance of teachers, and I’m sure they are in agreement with you.

I really am all for them. Now, I’m not for all teachers. It’s the good ones I’m all for, and those young ones who aspire to be good and not just go through the motions in order to get a paycheck.

Is this topic of the value of history in society what you’re going to be talking about when you come to Waco?

Yes, the main thrust of my talk will be the importance of history. Why history? Why do we bother with it? Why do we need to know it? Not only the essential need that it fills, particularly for leadership, but for the joy, the pleasure, the fulfillment of our curiosity that it provides. How can people wave flags and talk about how patriotic they are and all that and not know a thing about history?

dmc-no-3Do you anticipate a day when you’ll say you’re going to set your pen down and retire from research and writing?

Oh, sure I do –– but I don’t think I will because I “retired” 50 years ago when I set out to write my first book. I’ve been doing exactly what I love to do most. There is nothing I could do in retirement that I would enjoy as much as I do working.

Writers are always asked how they write. Are you a person who writes in longhand, or do you dictate or type? What is your method?

I work on the old standard Royal office typewriter that I bought 50 years ago secondhand when it was 25 years old at the time I bought it in order to write my first book, and I’ve written everything I’ve ever written on it. It’s 75 years old and there is nothing wrong. I have to change the ribbons every now and then. People say to me, don’t you realize how much faster you could go if you used a word processor? Of course I know –– I don’t want to go faster. If anything, I’d probably do better if I went slower.

Does the slowness help you think as you’re composing?

Exactly. I don’t think all that fast. I normally type and retype it. I try to write the “hear” as well as the “eye,” so my beloved wife reads everything I write aloud to me. You know this –– you can hear things that you don’t necessarily see, particularly looking at those same pages for months at a time.

So your wife reads your first drafts and you listen for that?

Yes, and then I retype it. Sometimes I think I’m not a writer –– I’m a rewriter. The hardest thing of all is to learn to edit yourself.

Is there anything else about your life that I haven’t asked and you want to mention?

I think that reading is essential to not just education but to a good life, and I read a lot. I have to read so much history and biography as part of my work, but when I’m reading for pleasure I read fiction and reread fiction that I’ve read 20 or 30 years ago, and I find I don’t necessarily react to it as I did then –– whether I think it’s better than I thought it was then, that sort of thing. And I love to paint. I feel that anybody who wants to write, wants to become a writer, should take courses in drawing and painting because it requires that you see things in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise.

So, you’re on the Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower plan, I guess. They painted in part to help them think about things.

Absolutely! That’s exactly right, (as well as) Katherine Hepburn, Tony Bennett, Morley Safer who just died, a dear friend, and some wonderful writers.

Do you paint more landscapes or portraits?

I do landscapes and I love to do architecture, paint buildings.

Have you ever displayed your work or collected it in book form?

No, not yet. I’m thinking about it. People are encouraging me to do it. I’m tempted to write a book with my own illustrations. I think it’s good for the spirit. As you know, you don’t think about anything else when you’re (painting). And you don’t have to use any words. It’s a real vacation. People say, “I’m not very good,” (but) you don’t have to be good to enjoy it.

I read somewhere that Winston Churchill was actually criticized for taking away time from thinking about the war by playing around with paints. He explained that if he didn’t do that, he just wouldn’t make it.

He’s the one that got Eisenhower painting. When Ike first arrived there to take command of the D-Day invasion, Churchill asked him if he had any hobbies or interests that he could turn to to relieve the burden of his responsibilities for a while, and Ike said, “no I don’t.” Churchill said well, you’ve got to have it in this job or it’s going to break you. He said I’ve found painting does it for me. If nothing else maybe you’d like to try that, so Ike started painting, and he would do it for the rest of his life. He never was as good as Churchill was, but he loved doing it and it did help him a lot. Have you seen Churchill’s little book about painting?

I actually have a copy of it and another book that collects a lot of his paintings. I’m not an art critic, but I’ve heard it described that while Churchill was not quite to the level of the masters he was well above an average painter.

He could be quite uneven, but that’s human and he knew what he was doing. He knew what it was about. The guy was an incredible human being, absolutely incredible. He’s exactly the kind of person these young people need to know about. I like to stress that yes, there are great waves of circumstance or changes in technology that change history, but what is so remarkable is how often history hangs on the individual. I tell them about how a killer tried to assassinate Franklin Roosevelt in Florida and missed, and how Churchill got hit by a taxi in New York and nearly died. He was in the hospital for quite a while. Imagine had that killer killed Roosevelt and imagine if the taxi had killed Winston Churchill. Would things have turned out the way they did? No, not at all.

One more question. Where do you stand on another debate about history –– namely, is history the result of the actions of great men and women, or is it driven by larger movements?

They’re both right. Movements in history are incredibly important, as is luck. Plain old luck can be good luck or bad luck. Take for example the comparative successes, or lack of success, of President Carter and then President Reagan. Reagan was lucky again and again. Carter was often plain unlucky. Not by any fault of his, but Reagan (knew) how to create luck. Someday someone is going to write a good book about luck, the role of luck in the human story.

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More information on the 2016 Beall-Russell Lecture is available here.

One Response

  1. Laura Aschenbrenner at |

    Mr. Fiedler,
    Mr. McCullough is one of the only contemporary author’s that has given me anything really worthwhile to chew on. I appreciate that. My jaw was getting flabby. Thank you for this interview. It was a pleasure to read. I wish that I could thank Mr. McCullough as well. Please forward my sentiments if it is in your power.
    Sincerely,
    Laura Aschenbrenner

    Reply

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