Today, my favorite American Historian turns 88, David Gaub McCullough. Though I adore other historians' works, I always find myself returning to my McCullough collection when I get my history fix.
I discovered him when I was helping one of my kids with a school report. In flipping through American Heritage magazine, I got distracted reading one of his pieces. I have loved history since I was a kid, but never had I been as carried away by historic prose as I was that day. I asked the librarian if they had any other magazines around that I could look through to find any more of his pieces. Graciously she led me to the basement where the stacks were kept.
I felt like a kid in a candy store. As I sat down to sift through the piles, she quietly left. Ten minutes later she returned with three books by Mr. McCullough. My jaw dropped; he came in book form. Holy cow!!! My haul from the library that day consisted of ten American Heritage magazines and John Adams by David McCullough. I would have taken everything but I didn't want to be Veruca Salt.
In time I would read nearly all his books. They sweep me off to worlds unknown. So deftly potent are his words, I find myself hours later still stuck in the era and setting he has built with words.
In the cold, nearly colorless light of a New England winter, two men on horseback traveled the coast road below Boston, heading north. A foot or more of snow covered the landscape, the remnants of a Christmas storm that had blanketed Massachusetts from one end of the province to the other. Beneath the snow, after weeks of severe cold, the ground was frozen solid to a depth of two feet. Packed ice in the road, ruts as hard as iron, made the going hazardous, and the riders, mindful of the horses, kept at a walk.
For years I would list 1776 and John Adams as my favorite McCullough books. Then one year my oldest daughter gave me a copy of The Wright Brothers. I thanked her for it, but knew inside I wasn't interested. I'd heard the story of Orville and Wilbur plenty of times. I had the basic gist of it, two guys made an airplane, and it worked. However, my mom taught me to always respect gifts, so I cracked it open. Before I finished the first chapter, I was in love. Before me was a story I thought I knew, when in truth I knew very little. This book is so beloved and inspiring to me that it is the only McCullough book that resides in my basket of inspirational favorite books. When my writing days grow long, and my enthusiasm for my dream wanes, I crack open The Wright Brothers and recalibrate. Thank you, Mr. McCullough.
Beyond writing, Mr. McCullough is a first-rate narrator and orator. He has spoken to congress, narrated Ken Burns films, and spoken out for the preservation of Gettysburg. He can regularly be found on C-Span. His voice has a warm clarity, like melted butter, as if it was made for the history he so loves. When I get a hankering for it, I just hunker down and watch the movie of Seabiscuit. Within seconds my craving is satisfied.
Readers and fans of his call him a National Treasure. As one among them I agree. Mr. McCullough retired just before the pandemic. He wanted time to enjoy his friends and family. We won't see any new works from him. Nor have the luxury of that velvet voice carrying us off to distant lands and experiences. He is a hard act to follow. But he set the bar high enough and encouraged many writers and documentarians to push forward on their work. I am sure we will meet them someday and recognize a hint of his style in their works.
On this his 88th birthday, I wish Mr. David McCullough a very happy birthday.