The luckiest man in America, historian David McCullough. God shed His grace on thee.

by Dr. Jeffrey Lant

Author’s program note. To get the most from this article, go to any search engine and find the words and music to “America the Beautiful”. It is not the official song of the United States; that honor goes to Francis Scott Keyes’ “The Star-Spangled Banner” (written in 1814) . But it is America’s hymn, a paean to the land and its people, written by Katharine Lee Bates in 1895; the music composed in 1910 by church organist and choirmaster Samuel A. Ward. Play it now as this story, an American story, unfolds.

This morning on Boston’s Beacon Hill, the most historic district of America’s most historic city, David McCullough will awake betimes. He will not linger in bed. What he has to do is too important, too exciting, and his job not really work at all, but a great privilege… Thus he is ready at first light to pick up the story which he with great reluctance and regret left just a few hours before.

This is David McCullough… the luckiest man in America… for he has the high and the glorious task to reveal America and the stories of Americans to ourselves and posterity.

He has the always happy task of digging deep into the rich soil of our collective journey… and, with a deft touch, and the often lyric beauty of his words, make clear to the nation the nation’s awe and majesty.

For no one knows better than David McCullough, the awe and majesty of this land, this people, and our journey of destiny. It is a tale of the greatest importance… ready to come alive in the words and vision of a master.

And, whilst most of the nation he celebrates is still at rest, David McCullough sits down at an old, much loved, much worn Royal manual typewriter (no computer for him). He is ready… and we who know the importance of his work are impatient for him to be about it….

Born July 7, 1933.

David McCullough was born in Pittsburgh of Scotch-Irish descent. He had the good sense to select just the right parents; Christian Hax and Ruth McCullough. They provided the wherewithal for what McCullough calls his “marvelous” childhood. He was a bright, active boy, with a wide range of interests, including a love affair with books and education that still engages, in the man, what so captivated the boy so many years ago.

Iin 1951, McCullough began taking classes at Yale University. One major reason for this choice what that the faculty contained such literary luminaries as John O’Hara, John Hersey, Robert Penn Warren, Brendan Gill, and best of all novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder. An aspiring writer, which McCullough now was, could hardly have imagined a better place to be.

McCullough loved Yale… and Yale loved him. He lunched from time to time with Pulitzer-prize winning Wilder, was elected to Skull and Bones, America’s second most famous club (Harvard’s Porcellian was first)… and began to understand the methods and critical importance of painstaking research. He graduated with honors in English literature (1955).

His first job out of Yale was at “Sports Illustrated”; he was a trainee; later he was hired by the United States Information Agency, to be an editor and writer in Washington, D.C. This was followed by a stint at “American Heritage” magazine. But to become the writer he wished to be, he first needed what every writer must have: independence, a clean break from the standard world of work. He needed a room of his own and the freedom to be himself. Here he was lucky again.

He was by now married to the woman he loved, Rosalee. She encouraged him to make the break to independence, although it would mean, with the sporadic and uncertain remuneration of writers, there would be days both meager and precarious. Nonetheless, she encouraged him.

And so he became David McCullough, writer, independent man.

Then more luck…. a subject worthy of the (unexpected) historian he was in process of becoming. It was a great subject… a tragic subject… a subject of titanic mayhem and everyday heroes. It was the Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood of 1889. And in due course (1968), it became the first of his many books. Best of all, this cataclysm and its aftermath showed McCullough where his genius lay… in the great stories of America, its peoples, its hardships and exaltations… in its pulsating energies and unimaginable strengths… In telling these stories he had found himself… and he had found us, the seething core of a restless nation. He had come home. And though he may not have known it just yet he had found, lucky again, his life’s work.

“The Great Bridge”, his tale of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, followed in 1972. It was what every historian wants to hear, “definitive”. Then, five years later, “The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal”, winner of the National Book Award for history. It was all good, it was all well written and well regarded, but he had not quite found his footing, his true voice. This only came when he had his epiphany: that “history is the story of people”. Now he had everything he needed to begin his important work, telling Americans, not merely about history, but about ourselves.

“Mornings on Horseback”, his important book on 17 years in the life of Theodore Roosevelt, followed in 1981, to a shower of accolades and prizes. Then, with the publication of his biography of America’s 33rd president Harry Truman (1993) he transcended his already substantial role, to become the historian who not only wrote history, but influenced, even made it. President Bill Clinton carried this book with him and extolled, in his voluble fashion, its virtues. They were considerable, not least revealing to a surprised America the grit and sinew of a one-time haberdasher from Independence, Missouri who became the unlikely savior of Europe, drawing an ineradicable line in the sand against the spread of Communism.

McCullough then did the same to America’s much misunderstood and reviled second president John Adams, in his effusively praised 2001 biography. It was no wonder McCullough broke down and sobbed when he finished this book. Such men as Adams are few and far between and McCullough had come to love Adams not merely as subject of a book, but as a true friend. There was another shower of glittering rewards, as McCullough became the most read, the most admired, and the most rewarded historian ever, now the highest master in the ancient mysteries of his craft. He was persona gratissima to every president. No wonder. Each knew he would, in due course, need a McCullough of his own to cement his place in history and secure his own legacy. But would any such master even then exist? On such topics presidents fret and dwell in dead of night…

Now David McCullough has released a new book, “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” (May, 2011).

It is the story of Americans in exile in Paris, becoming in short order people who had two loves. As the flamboyant black American Josephine Baker (1906-1975) said “J’ai deux amours. Mon pais et Paris.” She’s just the kind of subject David McCullough likes… gritty, determined, shrewd, clever, vehement to be allowed to live larger than life, an unabashed, discriminated against still loving America American. Finding such, telling such, disseminating such is what makes McCullough tick. “Oh Beautiful for glory-tale,” thy tale teller is David McCullough… long may it be so.

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About The Author

Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is , where small and home-based businesses learn how to profit online. Dr. Lant is also a syndicated writer and author of 18 best-selling business books. Details at


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