He Was the 'Voice of American History'

Pulitzer winner David McCullough is dead at 89
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 8, 2022 12:26 PM CDT
David McCullough Is Dead at 89
Historian and author David McCullough poses with art by George Catlin, one of the artists featured in his book "The Greater Journey" at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington on May 13, 2011.   (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

(Newser) – David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose lovingly crafted narratives on subjects ranging from the Brooklyn Bridge to Presidents John Adams and Harry Truman made him among the most popular and influential historians of his time, has died at 89. McCullough died Sunday in Hingham, Massachusetts, according to his publisher, Simon & Schuster. “David McCullough was a national treasure," Simon & Schuster CEO Jonathan Karp said in a statement, per the AP. "His books brought history to life for millions of readers. Through his biographies, he dramatically illustrated the most ennobling parts of the American character."

Beyond his books, McCullough may have had the most recognizable presence of any historian, his fatherly baritone known to fans of PBS’s The American Experience and Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary. Hamilton author Ron Chernow once called McCullough “both the name and the voice of American history.” McCullough received the National Book Award for The Path Between the Seas, about the Panama Canal; and for Mornings on Horseback, a biography of Theodore Roosevelt; and Pulitzers for Truman in 1992 and John Adams in 2002. The Great Bridge, about the Brooklyn Bridge’s construction, was ranked No. 48 on the Modern Library’s list of the best 100 nonfiction works of the 20th century and is still widely regarded as the definitive text of the great 19th-century project.

A non-academic, McCullough was not loved by all reviewers, who accused him of avoiding the harder truths about his subjects and of placing storytelling above analysis. “McCullough’s main weakness is one he shares with Truman: he occasionally fails to wrestle with the moral complexities of policy,” Walter Isaacson once wrote in Time magazine. Interviewed in 2001 by the Associated Press, McCullough responded to criticism that he was too soft on Truman and others by saying that “some people not only want their leaders to have feet of clay, but to be all clay.”

But even peers who found flaws in his work praised his kindness and generosity. And millions of readers, and the smaller circle of award givers, welcomed him above all others. For years, from a wireless cottage on the grounds of his house on Martha’s Vineyard, McCullough completed works on a Royal Standard typewriter that changed minds and shaped the marketplace. He helped raise the reputations of Truman and Adams, and he started a wave of best-sellers about the American Revolution, including McCullough’s own 1776.

(Read more David McCullough stories.)

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