Award-winning novelist leaves lasting impression

Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

By conventional historical wisdom, all pioneers went west.

David McCullough, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, begs to differ. He does so in his fascinating book, “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” a 558-page look into the wave of young Americans, beginning in the 1830s, who made their way to the City of Light to ultimately claim fame in art, education, literature, medicine, music, and technological innovation.

Despite its length, the book is a page-turner and those who have read McCullough’s award-winning works are well aware that he can make a compelling case on virtually any subject. He certainly was convincing when I heard him more than a decade ago during a speech at the University of Michigan. That day in June 2007, McCullough delivered a riveting 75-minute talk at Rackham Auditorium, lamenting the lack of “basic historical knowledge” among high school and college students, claiming that the federal “No Child Left Behind Act” is pushing history “not only to the back burner, but right off the stove.”

Author of “John Adams” and “Truman” among other best-sellers such as “1776,” McCullough presented his lecture, “Ambition to Excel,” to a crowd of nearly 1,000 at the Michigan venue, earning a standing ovation for his take on the current “state of affairs” in American education.

In “1776,” McCullough drew on historical sources at the Clements Library on the U-M campus to “piece together a portrait of American life and revolutionary character that critics have lauded as a brilliant and powerful rendering of the circumstances and people who shaped extraordinary events,” according to U-M officials. Such painstaking – and eye-opening – research has been a “large part of the joy” of his writing career, McCullough said during his presentation.

“I have never undertaken a book on a subject that I knew much about,” the now 85-year-old McCullough acknowledged. “A lot of the fun is the chance to be a detective, to learn as much as possible about the subject at hand. I never cease to be amazed at how much I will learn when writing a new book. It’s truly an education in itself.”

His book on “The Johnstown Flood” was a case in point, McCullough indicated. The book traces the tragedy surrounding the May 31, 1889 catastrophe that killed more than 2,000 people when an earthen dam gave way, sending a wall of water thundering down a mountain into the booming coal-and-steel town in Pennsylvania. His knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the flood was as “basic” as the classic “mashed potatoes” story that explains – in visible and easily understandable terms – what happened that fateful day.

“It’s as easy as this,” McCullough said in putting his once rudimentary knowledge of the flood into proper perspective. “You have a plate loaded with mashed potatoes and gravy. You draw a line with your fork through the mashed potatoes, the gravy immediately flows into the peas, and that was the Johnstown Flood in a nutshell,” he said, drawing his own flood of laughter from the Rackham audience.

His initial quest to learn more about the Johnstown tragedy led him to snag a book off the library shelf. It proved to be an unsatisfying literary journey for the Yale alumnus, who in December 2006 received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. He then decided to answer the rhetorical question, “Why don’t you write the book you’d like to read about the Johnstown Flood?”

He did, of course, mesmerizing readers in his first book with a “meticulously researched, vivid account of one of the most stunning disasters in U.S. history,” according to praise lavished upon the author by Time magazine.

McCullough’s road to literary stardom was “not paved in gold,” he admitted. It was, however, heavily influenced by teachers and professors who had an appreciation for the “big picture” in education, instructing him “not to get bogged down by mindless memorization” of names and dates.

“No one is more important in our society than our teachers,” McCullough proclaimed. “They are our educational life-line. They deserve more support and acclaim than they will ever receive. What they are doing will have the greatest effect in the long run on how well we succeed.”

Colleges, said McCullough, need to revise their curriculums to include more required courses.

“We need to get back to requiring courses in history and foreign languages for graduation,” he said. “Students need to get used to the idea that there are some things in life that you have to do whether you like it or not. I believe that young people want structure, that they want rules and regulations in their life.”

Otherwise, said McCullough, we run the risk of “dumbing down the language” and the “learning curve” for a generation bordering on becoming “historically illiterate.”

A case in point came after a speech that McCullough delivered at the University of Missouri. A student came up to congratulate the renowned historian on his magnificent speech, noting that, “Until I heard your talk today, I didn’t know that all 13 colonies were on the East Coast.”

“It was as if a bucket of cold water was dumped on me,” McCullough confessed, noting that he was equally dismayed when a student asked him if “John Adams and Harry Truman were the only presidents” he had interviewed. “We must laugh about this, so we don’t cry about it.”