David McCullough in conversation with Kenneth Whyte

On presidents who were failures, the trouble with historians, and how to tell a story
Kenneth Whyte
MACLEANS-DAVID McCULLOUGH-06.28.11-TORONTO,ONTARIO: American writer, David McCullough speaks to the media about his new book, The Greater Journey, during an interview at the Spoke Club on King St. West, in downtown Toronto, Ontario.
On presidents who were failures, the trouble with historians, and how to tell a story
Photographs by Cole Garside

Historian David McCullough has won the Pulitzer Prize twice, for his biographies of John Adams and Harry Truman. His new book, The Greater Journey, is about high-achieving Americans in Paris between 1830 and 1900, and how they changed the world.

Q: This should be easy. I’ve only got one question. How do you tell a story?

A: I grew up with stories. My father was a wonderful storyteller. He enjoyed the person he was telling the story about, some character who did something odd or had figures of speech. He was a salesman and he met all kinds of people, from going down into coal mines to calling on the executives of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company. I grew up with three brothers, and we all loved the stories of days past when there had been floods or fires or some adventure that he’d been on or knew about. I’m not quoting exactly, but E.M. Forster said, “If I tell you the king died and then the queen died, that’s a sequence of events. If I tell you the king died and the queen died of grief, that’s a story.” So it’s understanding the human equations involved, and I particularly have always liked plays, movies, novels where plot derives from character rather than outside forces. All my books, not just this one, are about a journey.

Q: I guess even in [the 1987 book] The Johnstown Flood you start with the water where it’s supposed to be, at the top of the hill, and then it’s all about the journey to the bottom, and the people…

A:    Their journey, how they come out of this catastrophe. Right after that book, one publisher wanted me to do the Chicago fire and another wanted me to do the San Francisco earthquake. I was hardly out of the gate as a writer, being typecast as Bad News McCullough, but in fact I was searching for a symbol of affirmation. I know that we human beings can be very short-sighted, irresponsible, stupid, but that we aren’t always. So I wanted [a subject] that was admirable, noble, and has stood the test of time. That’s when I did The Great Bridge. The [builders of the Brooklyn bridge] did it right, and against horrific odds and all manner of unexpected problems, and human frailty, human greed, human deceit. Out of that gilded age rose this magnificent accomplishment, which is still the primary symbol for the city of New York. When 9/11 happened, the very next morning, front-page photograph in the Times, towers in flames—and in the foreground, people fleeing the city by way of the Brooklyn Bridge. So the bridge was not only saving lives but also reminding us that some things still stand.

Q: When you sat down to write, everyone knows the bridge eventually gets built.

A:    Right. How do you keep them guessing? That’s the big challenge. How could I make you wonder, are they possibly going to do this? Will they live to do it? It’s how you unfold it, and what you hold back, without trickery. You put yourself in their time, in their shoes. Remember they don’t know how it’s going to turn out. I like to talk about the hinge of history. And as often as not, it goes one way or the other because of a person or a group of people and how they respond, what they are willing to endure, what ingenuity they have. What they’ve made. I’m not a sports fan, and there are probably all kinds of reasons for that, but when the game’s over, what have you accomplished? And why do people have to walk for cancer? Why don’t they make something? I’m happiest when I’m making something about the lives of people who have made something. I’ve loved every subject I’ve undertaken, but I’ve had the best time of any with [The Greater Journey], because it’s about people making something.

Q: What made it fun?

A: How much I learned. I knew nothing about August St. Gaudens, I knew very little about Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., I’d never heard of Elizabeth Blackwell, on and on. And I really do care about music and art and architecture, and feel it’s a mistake to teach history, write history, leaving all that out. History isn’t just politics and the military. Sometimes what lasts the longest is the architecture, the art, the poetry.

I didn’t want to write about people who just went to Paris to make a social splash or sell a lot of mousetraps or whatever. I wanted people who had ambition to excel, and who knew they had to find out if they were any good. “If they tell me here in Kansas City I’m good, how the hell do they know? I gotta go somewhere where they know.”And they had to have sufficient talent that once it was given a chance to blossom it really did, and they had to have written letters, diaries, whatever. It’s when you find the letters of Mary Cassatt’s father, her mother, her sister, her friends, the woman who got mad at her—that’s when she really starts to come alive.

Q: Could you write a story about someone who was ultimately a failure?

A: It would depend in what realm he was a failure, or who considered him a failure. One can make a very good case that John Adams was a failure as a president. What interests me is the life. What a life he lived.

Q: And Truman?

A: Truman is very representative of not just Middle America but of the experience of that generation who went off to fight in France and came back changed by that journey, as the world was. There’s an old writer’s adage: keep your hero in trouble. But Truman, I never had to worry about that. He was in trouble all the time!

Q: So when you begin, do you need to know that all those elements are there, or do you trust you’ll find them along the way?

A:When I first started out, I thought, well, you do the research and then you write the book. But I very soon realized that’s not the way to do it. You’ve got to do enough research to get started, then begin writing, because when you’re writing it really becomes clear what you need to know, and you can target your research far more efficiently. I’m often surprised at the turns the book takes.

Q: You don’t have a sense when you start?

A: I don’t want a paint-by-the-numbers.

Q: So with one of your biographies, you would start at the beginning of the life without knowing what happened in the last half?

A:Right. I haven’t read those letters yet, where he reveals the true secret of whatever. I also feel I have to be able to see it, smell it, hear it, I’ve gotta visit the places, I’ve gotta be in the jungle at night, get up and walk by the Seine in the morning, or whatever. And I tell students, “Tell people what you’re working on. You never know who knows something, or someone.”

Q: A lot of writers are solitary. For you, writing a book seems to be a communal event.

A:People say, “Oh, it must be a lonely profession.” Far from it.

Q: You obviously have no anxiety about…

A:Somebody stealing my terrific idea? Baloney, that’s not going to happen. When you go into a library it’s not just the treasures of manuscripts and rare books that are in there, it’s the people that work there who are often the more important source because they can tell you about the batch of letters no one’s ever looked at. There are people who will write about Augustus St. Gaudens and never look at the letters his wife wrote. Stupid! It’s often the secondary characters who give you the most insight.

Q: I find you remarkable as a writer not only for what you do, but for what you don’t do: no tangents, and not a lot of psychologizing about your characters’ motives.

A: I can tell you some of my other house rules: no contractions, no “can’t,” “don’t” and so forth. No quoting of present-day living historians to substantiate my point—leave them out, that’s off-stage. And I was raised with the old adage, “Don’t tell me: show me.” Don’t tell me he’s a miser, show him being a miser. Also, I don’t like to write history as viewed from the mountaintop. If I can’t try to make what happened as real and compelling as a made-up what-happened, then I don’t want to write it. And if critics are bothered by it, that’s fine, doesn’t bother me. What pleases me most is when, on the one hand, somebody educated or well-read praises what I’ve written, and then a guy jumps out of a Brinks truck on Michigan Avenue in Chicago on a sunny morning and tells me he loves my books. I don’t think history ought to be reserved for the high priests of academe. That’s one reason our children are so inadequately educated in history.

Q: When you’re writing about someone who’s been written about by a lot of historians, do you feel you have to argue with them?

A: No, no. There are all kinds of still lifes of peaches, but that doesn’t stymie me from doing a watercolour of a plate of peaches on my kitchen table. I once worked for an editor who had a big rubber stamp that said, “Dull,” and if you handed in something and he didn’t like it—boom! Wouldn’t tell you why it was dull, just said, “Dull.” Made a big impression. How do you keep the lumber out of it? How do you keep the tedious, patronizing flim-flam out? You move it along. When I read for pleasure I read mostly fiction, and I admire most those people who can turn it around in a page or two, everybody from Trollope to Elmore Leonard to Ruth Rendell. I consider myself a writer, not a historian, who happens to write about what happened in other days. I try to get as close as I can to those people in every way possible, and to tell their story truthfully, and be faithful not just to what happened but to them, to do them justice. And if they were less than admirable—or outright evil—to do that justice, too. You can’t do light without shadow. That’s how you see light.