With Thanks to David McCullough



Image credit: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File

I happen to be reading David McCullough's Path Between the Seas right now, and have been remembering as I read how much pleasure I've received over the years from reading him -- and thinking with some angst that, actuarial tables being what they are, we would soon lose him.  So I was not surprised, but no less saddened, to learn of his passing earlier this week at age 89. 

I took up the story of the building of Panama Canal both because McCullough's a wonderful storyteller, and because of an interesting observation he made about the difference between American and French engineers and their relationship to nature. I have been trying off and on without success for a year to find the speech in which I first read the remark. I could swear I wrote about it once here at the blog, but if I did I didn't title or label it anything that springs to mind now and my internet searches have turned up diddly. That is until McCullough's passing this week, when, in remembrance, someone posted it from Imprimis (I should have known.) 

You should read that speech on knowing who we are from knowing history. It's a charming reflection on the work of the historian, and also sage advice about studying it -- and what we do and don't have the right to judge.

What I want to do here is just say thank you to him. Some friends of mine were chatting elsewhere on the internet the other day about which of his baker's dozen of books on American history were our favorites and what we loved about them.  We all love 1776 and think it bears re-reading. McCullough does such a wonderful job there and in all his work of doing what he describes in that Imprimis speech linked above:

...[I]t seems to me that one of the truths about history that needs to be portrayed—needs to be made clear to a student or to a reader—is that nothing ever had to happen the way it happened. History could have gone off in any number of different directions in any number of different ways at any point along the way, just as your own life can. You never know. One thing leads to another. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Actions have consequences. These all sound self-evident. But they’re not self-evident—particularly to a young person trying to understand life.

Nor was there ever anything like the past. Nobody lived in the past, if you stop to think about it. Jefferson, Adams, Washington—they didn’t walk around saying, ”Isn’t this fascinating, living in the past?“ They lived in the present just as we do. The difference was it was their present, not ours. And just as we don’t know how things are going to turn out for us, they didn’t either. It’s very easy to stand on the mountaintop as an historian or biographer and find fault with people for why they did this or didn’t do that, because we’re not involved in it, we’re not inside it, we’re not confronting what we don’t know—as everyone who preceded us always was.

There's of course John Adams, which for a while everyone knew because of the Paul Giamatti portrayal for HBO. (I partly read it and partly listened to it on tape one summer when I repainted our kitchen. It was excellent company for monotonous labor and kept me at it in marathon timing because I wanted to keep listening. Here and here are two posts contemporaneous from when I was read/ listening in 2011.)

Interestingly, though we each appreciate the most famous presidential biographies, we each had "smaller" favorites. One friend loved The Great Bridge, about the Roebling family and the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. Another loved his book on The Johnstown Flood.  "Each brought unique insight and knowledge to my world," a friend wrote, "so many things I'd not have known about: identification of mosquitoes in Path Between the Seas; Roosevelt's childhood with asthma; the description and accuracy in Johnstown Flood." 

Adams and 1776  might be more important, but I think my favorite is The Greater Journey, about American expatriates in France in the 19th century. I learned from it that my education had taught me nothing at all about the 19th century except the American civil war. And I learned about pioneers of art and architecture and medicine (and more about amputation than I really cared to, TBH), and therefore not only about our political, but cultural, development -- and about the human spirit. (Here's a good interview with McCullough about the book.)

I also learned something truly useful from Mark Twain's Paris salon. Many evenings Twain threw his rooms open to the most interesting French and American notables, and sometimes they overstayed their welcome. When Twain had had enough, he would clear his throat and ask in Stentorian tone, "So. What is art?" And folks would take the hint and go home. A witty, and very useful, trick! 

For that, for the delight of knowledge, for many wry or poignant observations, for hours of reading pleasure, and for so much to think about, I am grateful.