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David McCullough obituary | history books


David McCullough, who died at the age of 89, was America’s most popular historian. His books were bestsellers; his biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams have both won Pulitzer Prizes and been picked up for television by HBO. Two other of his books, on the creation of the Panama Canal and the early years of Theodore Roosevelt, won the US National Book Award.

But McCullough was perhaps best known for his voice, as the narrator of documentaries, including Ken Burns’ epic series The Civil War (1990) and the Disney film Seabiscuit (2003), about the sensational racehorse of the 1980s. 1930, and as host of the long -running PBS series American Experience.

The American experience was central to everything McCullough wrote, and his narrating voice, a soft, high-pitched baritone, made him sound like a relaxed teacher telling familiar stories.

In 1998, when he received an honorary degree from his alma mater, Yale University, the citation read: “He gives us images of the American people who live, breathe and above all confront the fundamental questions of courage, success and moral character.

David was born in Pittsburgh, the son of Christian McCullough, president of the McCullough Electric Company, founded by David’s great-grandfather, and Ruth (née Rankin), a leading figure in the Pittsburgh company. David followed his father to Shady Side Academy, Pittsburgh’s fanciest prep school.

He then went to Yale to study English. His teachers included John O’Hara, John Hersey, Robert Penn Warren and, above all, playwright Thornton Wilder, from whom he learned to maintain an “air of freedom” to avoid giving a reader a story; he applied it to his own writing, even though the results of the story are still considered known. He was also a member of the secret society Skull and Bones, many of whose members had a profound influence on history.

At the Rolling Rock country club in Pittsburgh in 1951, he met Rosalee Barnes. After graduating from Yale, they got married. Intended to be a playwright, he worked for Luce magazines, including the brand new Sports Illustrated, then worked for the US Information Agency and finally for American Heritage magazine, then published by Forbes.

His first book came out after he “stumbled” on the story of the Johnstown Flood of 1889, a disaster that struck the steel town an hour east of his own hometown. The Johnstown Flood (1968) garnered excellent reviews, and McCullough decided to become a full-time writer. It took four years before his next book, The Great Bridge, was published; McCullough became so immersed in Washington Roebling, the force behind the construction of the bridge, and one of the many killed in its construction, that he grew a beard exactly like Roebling’s.

He followed five years later with The Path Between the Seas (1977), the story of the Panama Canal, which won the National Book Prize as well as three other major history prizes, including the Francis Parkman. He was an adviser to President Jimmy Carter on the treaty that gave control of the canal to Panama; Carter credited the book with making the treaty possible. Mornings on Horseback followed in 1981, winning its second National Book Award.

David McCullough in 2008 in New York at the premiere of John Adams, the HBO television series based on his Pulitzer-winning biography of America’s second president and starring Paul Giamatti. Photography: Dave Allocca/Starpix/Rex/Shutterstock

By then Burns had acquired the rights to make a documentary based on The Great Bridge; he liked McCullough’s voice so much that he used him as the narrator of Brooklyn Bridge – the first of six PBS documentaries McCullough narrated for Burns, including The Congress (1988), which McCullough also co-wrote, and The Civil War, where the storytelling served as a bridge between the two main interviewees, the house ideas of Shelby Foote’s “Lost Cause” and the more revisionist takes of Barbara Fields. McCullough also narrated The Donner Party (1992), about the group of hapless pioneers whose survivors resorted to cannibalism, for Ric Burns.

His success in storytelling led him to work on the Smithsonian World series, then to host and occasionally narrate American Experience, a total of 48 episodes between 1988 and 2001. He was also an advisor for their programs on Truman and Teddy Roosevelt , and returns in 2022 to tell an episode about the history of jeans.

He worked for 12 years on his biography of Harry Truman, which was published in 1992 and won his first Pulitzer Prize and second Parkman Prize. It was made into an HBO movie, Truman (1995), starring Gary Sinise. It took nearly a decade to research and write John Adams (2001), which also won the Pulitzer, and was turned into a hugely successful HBO miniseries starring Paul Giamatti as the second President of the United States. United.

Both books were huge bestsellers. They dealt with presidents whose own achievements were overshadowed by predecessors who had led the nation through major conflict, and Truman in particular was somewhat criticized for his apparent partisanship for his subject. McCullough followed with 1776, around the year of the Declaration of Independence, an offshoot of his research on Adams. It managed to be comprehensive while telling an instantly recognizable story of American mythos.

His later books were received with less success. The Greater Journey (2011) was more of a collection of stories of Americans transformed by Paris, including some less familiar characters. He returned to determined fighters against nature with The Wright Brothers (2015), the story of their quest to fly.

McCullough had always maintained a publicly neutral political stance, but ahead of the 2016 US presidential election, he made a short video for a Facebook page called Historians on Donald Trump, in which he called the future president “reckless… obviously unprepared.” , unqualified and, it often seems, unbalanced”. This may have influenced his next book, The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For (2017).

David McCullough receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W Bush at the White House, 2006.
David McCullough receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W Bush at the White House, 2006. Photography: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

His latest book, The Pioneers (2019), followed in the footsteps of historian Francis Parkman, telling the story of settlers in the Northwest Territories. Like his presidential and 1776 biographies, his focus on the heroism of those who made America was now criticized for, in its romanticism, downplaying the plight of Native Americans. Years earlier, McCullough had commented, “Some people not only want their leaders to have feet of clay, but to be all clay.” It was not his way.

McCullough received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006, and in 2008 was the subject of his own HBO documentary, Painting With Words. In 2012, 16th Street in Pittsburgh was named after him. He was also one of many contributors to the 2016 documentary California Typewriter.

Rosalee died two months before him. He is survived by their daughters, Dorrie and Melissa, and their sons, David Jr, William and Geoffrey.

David Gaub McCullough, historian and writer, born July 7, 1933; passed away on August 7, 2022

This article was last modified on August 18, 2022. As David McCullough’s date of birth indicates, he was 89 when he died, not 93 as an early version stated.