David McCullough didn’t always know he wanted to be a historian.
The first time he felt a pang of interest in the past was during a post-lecture discussion he attended as an English major at Yale.
He remembers the moment well. The teacher announced he would exempt his students from remembering dates and quotations ascribed to important periods in history; he would be instead concerned that they knew the story, its plot, and its players.
David McCullough. Photo by Deidre Davidson Photography
The announcement, as it were, changed McCullough’s life.
“To me, at that moment in my life, it was as if he’d gone over, thrown the window open, let all the fresh air from the Rocky Mountains in, told me I could get up on the windowsill and jump out and fly,” McCullough told a packed audience at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center Tuesday night. “I felt free, released.”
He would be forever intrigued by the human narratives of history. Years later, after graduating from Yale, he took particular interest in a series of photographs he discovered at the Library of Congress. The images, which laid bare the terrible destruction spawned during the Johnstown flood of 1889, piqued his interest. Ultimately they led him to study the disaster that would become the subject of his first book.
“One thing led to another, and I got very interested in the subject, and that became my first book and became really the gateway for me to my life’s endeavor,” McCullough said. “Because once I started work on that book and doing the research and going to Johnstown and interviewing people, I knew this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
Today, decades later, McCullough is one of America’s most celebrated living historians. A two-time winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, he has written the definitive biographies of John Adams and Harry Truman and spoken to many an audience about what he learned in the process. He has also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award a civilian can obtain in the United States.
This week, McCullough spoke before hundreds of Speaker Series ticket holders at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center. For more than an hour he shared snippets from the personal lives of past presidents, proved his theory that teachers are “the most important people in our society,” and spoke of history not as stale subject matter but as a dynamic web of human interaction and experience.
“There’s no reason for history to be boring, absolutely none,” McCullough said. “It isn’t. It’s about people.”
To him, the characters in the drama of history are as real as if they drew breath.
“In some ways I know these people better than I know people in real life,” McCullough said. “Because you spend every day either reading what they wrote, reading their letters, their mail, their private correspondence – something you can’t do with people in real life. And you are reading the opinions of those who grew up with them or worked with them or were against them in political campaigns or whatever, and you get inside their lives. You have to do that because history is about people, and that’s what’s so important to keep in mind.
“It isn’t dry facts, dull provisos, obscure treaties or something. It isn’t memorizing dates and to have it taught that way or written that way, to me, is a great disservice not just to the individuals but to our country.”
McCullough wants people to understand the narrative of history for two reasons: to learn from people who got it right, and to learn from people who got it wrong.
To him, people like Harry Truman belonged to the former category.
“When Harry Truman [left office] all he had was his Army pension. There was no presidential pension. He would not for the rest of his life…exploit any large corporations for a salary or give speeches for a fee because he thought that was commercializing the presidency,” he said, adding a facetious, “Imagine!”
“When Harry Truman found out that the Kennedy campaign was going to create $100 a plate dinners to raise money for the campaign, he said, ‘There goes democracy,’” McCullough said. “In the last election, both Obama and his opponent had $60,000 a plate dinners. Now, that is a big problem.”
McCullough firmly believes each of us has a role to play on the historical stage. Everything we do, he said, ripples the canvas of world history.
“One of the things history teaches is cause and effect,” McCullough said. “You do something, there will be a consequence. It may be large, it may be small, it may be not very important in the long run. That’s the lesson of history. And another thing it teaches is the importance of learning from failure. I’m always very interested to know what has been the nature of an aspiring leaders’ past and how much and how many times he [had] to face failure, because you have to learn how to react to it.”
But perhaps most importantly, McCullough believes studying the past inspires hope. Even during difficult times, the country – indeed, the world – and its people pulled up their bootstraps and forged ahead. He believes these stories of resilience serve as a kind of antidote to the stresses of the present.
“It might sound strange, but I’m an optimist,” McCullough said Tuesday night. “Because I know all the times in the past when there has been good cause to see doom and gloom everywhere, we come out of it. We solve the problems, we move on.”
The author and historian warned against over-simplifying the past. When we reduce it to facts and figures, we forget that it’s about human stories. We forget that our present — its worries and its joys — will become someone’s past.
As humans we tend to generalize, cognitively typecasting decades and presidents and groups of people, McCullough said. In our minds, the thirties were a bleak decade of despair and unemployment; in reality, they were marked by both hardship and triumph. During that decade, many were unemployed, but many others had work. Many were hurting, but many others were creating.
Our minds go so far, he said, as to distort even the memory of our own experiences.
McCullough remembers his father calling Truman’s election “the end of the world.”
“Twenty-five, thirty years went by and I was back home, and he started about how the world was going to the devil, the country was going to the devil,” McCullough recalled. “I’d heard this much of my life. And he paused and said, ‘Too bad old Harry isn’t still [in office].’”
As the story about McCullough’s father demonstrates, we romanticize the past as a “simpler time.” We forget that the past, like the present, comprised both success and struggle.
“You have to step back from it, and it all comes into focus,” he said.
The best way to gain insight into the narrative of history, he said, is to read historical fiction, which humanizes and contextualizes larger trends, converting them into relatable snapshots of human experience.
At 80, McCullough shows no signs of slowing his search for historical focus. He is writing the story of the Wright brothers, but he’s also teaching and speaking and continuing to devour knowledge about people and periods past.
“The joy of learning is that it so enlivens our curiosity,” he said, “and our curiosity, let’s never forget, is what separates us from the cabbages.”