For six years he has marinated in the 18th-century world of John and Abigail Adams, listening to their music, walking where they did, and reading the books they loved.
In a few weeks, history sleuth David McCullough, will finish his examination of the amazing Adamses and their dramatic times. Expected to be published in mid-2001, it's his seventh book and his favorite project to date.
“I like the work I'm doing. And Rosalee would tell you that's what I always say,” said McCullough, 67, referring to his wife of 45 years.
The Pulitzer-prize-winning author will appear Wednesday at the Authors! Authors! series sponsored by The Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library. He'll speak about the inspiration of the Adamses and other great Americans, and the riches to be found in history.
Time, like space, is a dimension that begs exploration. “Harry Truman said the only new thing in the world is the history you don't know,” he said. “To shut yourself off from the past is a terrible thing to do to yourself.”
He has profiled Truman and Theodore Roosevelt, brought to life the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the construction of the Panama Canal. With well over 1 million copies sold, Truman is his most popular work. For 12 years, he was host of The American Experience, a documentary series on public television.
McCullough has a simple criterion for selecting his subjects:
“What I really like best is a great story. And I want a lot of material.”
He embarked on a biography of Pablo Picasso but decided he didn't like the artist enough to spend years recreating him.
“He wasn't really a story of a kind I like to tell. I didn't like his cruelty to his family. His repetitious affairs with women got boring. He was very selfish.”
He planned a book on Adams and Jefferson because it had a terrific ending: They were dear friends who became intense rivals and both died on the Fourth of July precisely 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. “But once I started, I realized I really wanted to write about Adams.”
In Adams (1735-1826), McCullough found an ideal candidate. John and Abigail wrote and kept thousands of letters over the course of their long lives, unlike Jefferson, who destroyed all correspondence with his wife. “They're brilliant, wonderful letters. They take you into their confidence,” he said.
The Adamses didn't have money but were well-read and gifted with expansive minds. Among the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Adams alone did not have slaves.
Moreover, the times were compelling: the Revolutionary War, the beginning of the presidency with Washington, Adams as second president, and his defeat by Jefferson. Adams was the first American ambassador to England after the war. He made trips to Paris and Amsterdam. And in his old age, he saw his son become president.
McCullough immersed himself in John and Abigail's difficult, adventurous lives. He went where they lived and traveled. He learned to speak as they did, relying on the Samuel Johnson dictionary. When Adams attended a Catholic mass, he wrote Abigail that he found it both “moving and awful.” Awful, at that time, meant full of awe, he said.
Adams was a man of “earthy passion,” he says. “He was irritable, touchy, quick-tempered, and warm-hearted and affectionate and loveable. And lots of people at the time said so.”
McCullough was impressed by the president's independence, honesty, and his courage of his convictions. “And I greatly admire his intellectual vitality, the range and reach of his mind. ... I like his flinty integrity. And I like very much his devotion to his family.”
The indefatigable Abigail was home-schooled. “She was smart as a whip. She was brave, uncomplaining. And in many ways, she had better judgment than her husband,” he said. “She wasn't necessarily easy to be around because she expected everybody to measure up. And she was very cheerful, especially in the face of adversity.”
McCullough begins a book by researching about 60 per cent of the material and grouping it into three parts. Then he starts typing.
The hardest part is to make it an exciting read. “To give what you're writing a feeling that it's happening as it happened on the page and that you're inside that other time. And to do that without any hokum,” he said.
A typical day: breakfast, a walk out to the small building behind the old farmhouse where he'll write, read, and review until a break for lunch and phone calls in the house. Then back to the cottage for more writing until 6:30 p.m. There's no phone in his writing place. “I tried it for a while, but people called and interrupted. And, I like to talk on the phone,” he said.
And there is no computer. He has written every book on a beloved 1940s-vintage Royal typewriter that he picked up second-hand about 1965.
“It's a beautiful piece of machinery,” he says. “Sometimes I think it's writing the books.” He's stockpiled a year's supply of black ribbons.
He's been told he could work faster on a computer. “I don't want to write faster. I don't think that fast.”
The couple read aloud everything he writes.
“She's been my partner, my editor, my brave cohort. She has helped with the research. She has traveled to do what digging was needed.” Earlier this month they went to Washington for the 200th birthday of the White House.
The McCulloughs have five children and 15 grandchildren. In 1972, after two successful books, he quit his job as a writer for American Heritage magazine and the family moved from New York City to Martha's Vineyard, Mass.
And lest he appear completely enthralled by history, he also likes nautical antiques, photography, gardening, sailing, architecture, going out to dinner, and travel, including trips to Wyoming, Montana, San Francisco, New York City, Italy, London, and Paris.
“I walk. I sit in the parks. Go to old bookstores, theaters, galleries, eat well. We see friends. We take rides in boats. Rent a car and drive out in the country,” he said. “I just like to hang out and talk to people.”
David McCullough speaks at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Stranahan Theater. Tickets, at $8, are available at all Toledo-Lucas County Public Library locations and at the door. Information: 259-5207.
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