“We’re cheating our children. . .the idea that the arts are any less important, any less vital to a culture than history or mathematics or science is a dangerous misconception; bad for the country, bad for our way of life because all of these things are an extension of the experience of being alive.”
– David McCullough
This post was going to be about summer reading and works of fiction. But As often happens, I took a detour.
When I began to think of who my favorite fiction writer might be, I had a hard time putting my finger on one particular author. It’s probably because I haven’t read enough works of fiction to comfortably make a decision.
Does it matter how many books I’ve read? I guess not. But when I thought, “Who is my favorite author?,” the answer was immediate. Non-fiction writer David McCullough, historian and biographer, is easily my favorite scribe.
McCullough’s books not only make history come alive, they make people, long gone, come back to life. In a way he’s the Dr. Frankenstein of history in America today.
I’ve read many terrific books of fiction but none of the authors and their works quite stand out in my mind like McCullough.
What got me to write this post about David McCullough was an interview I came across last week. You’ll find the complete David McCullough interview here on the Academy of Achievement website. It’s well worth a look. If you aren’t already a fan, I think you might very well become one.
Not only is McCullough an amazing writer of American history, he is a fierce advocate for education, the Arts, and so much more. But of course he is best known for his wonderful works of history.
In the interview at achievement.org McCullough naturally speaks of what brought him to become one of today’s most popular authors:
“I had no anticipation that I was going to write history, but I stumbled upon a story that I thought was powerful, exciting, and very worth telling. And I taught myself, in effect, how to do the research, how to dig out the pieces, both large and small, of the past. I discovered in the process that — contrary to the notion that the past is a dead thing — that in fact, wherever you scratch the surface, you find life. And it was the life — the people and what happened to them — that was the pull for me.”
Most of the interview is short one to two minute video clips that capture some wonderful thoughts from this amazing man. I tried posting some of them in this post but couldn’t get them to embed correctly. So you’ll just have to check them out yourself. (Here’s the link again).
McCullough talks about the authors he loves – fiction writers.
“I write history and biography, but for my own pleasure I read fiction, and poetry, and drama.” He mentions Willa Cather and Wallace Stegner, and goes on to mention other fiction, “I love to read mysteries. I love Dickens — who doesn’t love Dickens? — either on stage or movies, but more in the printed page.”
Willa Cather and Wallace Stegner, two writers I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of but I will be checking them out. And Charles Dickens – I’ve only read David Copperfield. I think I’ll be looking at his bibliography to see what else might interest me.
In the interview David McCullough even goes on to talk about movies and heroes:
“…the heroes of those movies — very important to understand that — the Henry Fonda characters, the Spencer Tracy characters, real heroes. And Jimmy Stewart!…you see…Jimmy Stewart — the part Jimmy Stewart is playing — is very important. He’s almost always playing the same part, and that is the seemingly ordinary, decent American who — when put to the test in an extreme situation — rises to the occasion and does the extraordinary. And that’s an old, old story in our American way of life. In fact, it’s the story of Harry Truman, which is what I’ve spent the largest part of my creative writing life working on, a project of 10 years. That’s the story of Harry Truman, the seemingly ordinary fellow who — put to the test — rises to the occasion and does the extraordinary. And, I think we like that story because that’s the story of our country.”
As I said in a previous post, David McCullough is a historian, able to dig up and present an enjoyable read on the lives and accomplishments of anyone he chooses as his subject. He was awarded the Pulitzer prize for two of his books on American presidents, John Adams and Truman. McCullough’s writing style is always entertaining and inspiring.
Most of my heroes are great men and women of history long gone. McCullough is one of the few still living that I am willing to honor and declare my devotion as one of his biggest fans. He’s a talent with few equals. He’s one mentor who’s enriched my life through both his writings and his life.
“I think what we must do in education, for example, is to bring the lab techniques used in science to the teaching of the humanities, to the teaching of history, and English, and journalism, and the arts. That’s the great thing about the arts. You don’t learn to paint, except by painting. You don’t learn to play the piano, except by playing the piano. By the same token, I think you become an historian, I think you become a scholar by being required to do original scholarly work, original detective work of a kind that’s involved with doing scholarly research.”
– David McCullough