David McCullough on Books & Life

David McCullough
David McCullough

Master storyteller David McCullough, touring with his new book, entertained an unabashedly admiring San Francisco audience recently with stories historical, literary and political. Including more than a few stories about the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, subjects of his latest literary achievement.

McCullough was interviewed – to the extent that anyone needs to provide a launch for a McCullough commentary – by Roy Eisenhardt for a City Arts & Lectures event. To McCullough’s story about The Little Engine That Could being the most important book he’s read – “I kept saying ‘I think I can, I think I can’’’ – Eisenhardt remarked, “I think you did.”

So far in his career – and he gives no indication of retiring any time soon – McCullough has won two Pulitzer prizes (for Truman and John Adams), two National Book Awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But it is his down-home, one-of-us persona that wins over audiences (and readers) and provides the unshakable foundation for his comments and stories. Following are a few from the City Arts & Lectures event:

Another favorite childhood book was Robert Lawson’s Ben and Me, “the true story of Benjamin Franklin as told by his friend, Amos the mouse.” Though Amos lived in Ben Franklin’s house, McCullough explained, he left 25 siblings back home in Christ Church. “I wondered if their relatives weren’t still there. And every time I go to Christ Church I wonder if they’re not somewhere behind those walls.”

Johnstown Flood
Aftermath of the Johnstown Flood

The motivation for his first book, The Johnstown Flood published in 1968, came from happening upon an extensive collection of photos of the event. He was struck by the fact that “it was an entirely preventable tragedy, caused by human actions,” and by what he could discover through looking deeply into the photos. McCullough said he had been fortunate to know many great writers when he was at Yale, including Thornton Wilder. “If you want to write a book,” Wilder had told him, “write a book you’d want to read.” Looking closely at the Johnstown flood photos, McCullough said, “I thought there had been a lot of bad books about it, and I wanted to write a good book – a book I’d want to read.” Judging by its thousands of enthusiastic reviews, and the fact that it is still selling nearly 50 years after publication, a lot of others seem to have found McCullough’s Johnstown Flood a book they want to read.

A few McCullough observations on literature and life:

How does one become a writer? “Start writing. And thinking. John Adams sometimes in his diaries would simply make a one-line entry: ‘At home, thinking.’ Imagine anybody doing that today?”

Wright Brothers plane
Orville Wright aloft, 1908

About Wilbur and Orville Wright’s achievements despite having only three (Orville) and four (Wilbur) years high school education? “They grew up in a home which encouraged and stimulated intellectual curiosity.” Reading the classics that filled the home amounted to what McCullough terms a liberal arts education. “There are over 1,000 letters (written among the Wright brothers and family members) and it is humbling to read those letters. Not only were the brothers brilliant, they were superbly educated.”

Is there anything about American law and politics you would change? “The role of big money has become a disgrace. It is rank corruption. I think of Harry Truman. After he left office, he would never accept a fee for making a speech or serving on a board because it would be a disgrace to the office of president. When the Kennedy campaign announced they were having a dinner to raise money, Truman said, ‘There goes democracy.’”

After lamenting the fact of political fundraising dinners with $50,000 price tags, McCullough closed the San Francisco event by leaning forward in his chair and addressing the audience with a mix of righteous indignation and urgency: “We need someone who will lift the American spirit,” he said; “don’t you agree?”

He got a responsive standing ovation.