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David McCullough knows it’s the least titillating spring break story imaginable, but he relishes telling it, especially when he’s speaking to library groups.
“When I was in college I did a very nerd-like thing one spring vacation. I decided I would not go off and away. I’d stay right there. It was my junior year at Yale so I stayed on campus through spring vacation to do research on a big paper I was attempting on the American writer Richard Wright.
“There was virtually no one in the Sterling [Memorial] Library, which is one of the great libraries in the country. To go in that library with no professor looking over my shoulder and no other people around to distract me and sit at one of the big tables with no one to bother me, and do that all day, I had the best spring vacation I’d ever had,” he said chuckling.
“It sort of dawned on me that maybe there’s some kind of work I might do some day that would involve this. I had no idea what I wanted to do at that point, but it really made a vivid and lasting impression on me.”
As befits a man who is one of the pre-eminent historians of his era, thanks to a remarkable run of thoroughly researched and eminently readable books about John Adams, Harry Truman, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Johnstown Flood, and others, he speaks in long, articulate thoughts that lack even a whiff of pretension.
He loves talking about libraries because they provide the raw material for his work. They are where he spends literally years poring over documents, digging through research, and perhaps most important, simply thinking about his subjects.
Which makes him eager to take a break from his latest work on a book about the Wright brothers to travel from his Martha’s Vineyard home and speak Saturday at the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library for its Epic Journey celebration.
“I really believe in libraries and feel they have been [some] of the most important institutions in the history of this country. We should never take them for granted. This is a subject that really means a great deal to me, so when I’m invited to a library to talk, I’m very enthusiastic to do so.”
The real people
Along with Robert Caro, Walter Isaacson, and Doris Kearns Goodwin, Mr. McCullough is a member of a group of historic writers who manage to be both popular and respected. Since The Johnstown Flood in 1968, the Pittsburgh native has written nine books, including 2011’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.
He has won the Pulitzer Price twice — for Truman (1992) and John Adams (2001) — and was the host of PBS’s American Experience from 1988 to 1999. He also has narrated several Ken Burns documentaries, including The Civil War.
At 80, he shows no signs of slowing down and is researching a book on the Wright brothers, which is the direct result of The Greater Journey. The book followed influential late 19th century Americans such as Samuel Morse and James Fenimore Cooper during their time in Paris.
The Wright brothers also spent time in Europe, and they fit Mr. McCullough’s prototype for a good historical biography, given the large amount of correspondence that they engaged in, which provides fodder for his work.
“I have to see what the material is because I’m not really a historian — and I know that sounds strange — but I’m a writer and I try to write what really happened about real people, so I have to find those real people.
“I have to find a human being behind the name in the history book and that derives almost entirely from what are called original sources: letters, diaries, the testimony taken in court, what they were actually saying, what they actually recorded of how they felt, what frightened them or excited them.”
Not surprisingly, he abhors the general ignorance that many young Americans have of history.
“We’ve been raising a couple of generations of Americans who are by and large historically illiterate, and it’s a very regrettable and even dangerous development. It’s like this creeping amnesia taking over,” he said.
Mr. McCullough placed most of the blame on the educational system. He said history teachers should be trained in college to teach specific subjects rather than get an education degree and then be assigned a subject and that classroom textbooks often are poorly written.
“History ought never to be boring. It ought never be written as something extremely boring and it ought never be taught by someone who makes it extremely boring. There’s no excuse for that. History is human, history is about people, it’s about an endless quantity of stories, large and small. It should not be taught by people who are bored by it.”
He pointed out that his books and those of his contemporaries climb to the top of best-seller lists, which he attributed to people becoming more curious about history when they reach middle age. But he said academicians who write dull textbooks need to work on their writing skill.
“Some of these books are so boring that if someone told you you had to go home and read that book for an hour you’d think, ‘What did I do so wrong that I’m being punished this way?’” he said. “They should not be asked to read anything that the teacher or you wouldn’t want to read for pleasure ... It’s a curable problem.”
‘Life in Ohio’
His latest research on the Wright brothers brings Mr. McCullough back to a topic that has always fascinated him: Ohio. Orville and Wilbur Wright did much of their work in the Dayton area, where they spent most of their lives.
Mr. McCullough said that while growing up in Pittsburgh he was fascinated by the Ohio River. His historical research into the founding fathers sparked an interest in the Northwest Territory as well. The appeal has much to do with the values of the state, he said.
“It’s so very American without being boastful or phony about it. There’s a wonderful line where Wilbur Wright was asked soon after they became world famous if they had any tips for someone if they wanted to succeed in life,” Mr McCullough said.
“And he said, ‘If I were giving a young man advice on how he might succeed in life I would say to him: Pick out a good father and mother and begin life in Ohio.’ ”
Contact Rod Lockwood at: email@example.com or 419-724-6159.