David McCullough: Pittsburgh to Pulitzer
David McCullough is called the "citizen chronicler" by Librarian of Congress James Billington. His books have led a renaissance of interest in American history--from learning about a flood in Pennsylvania that without warning devastated an entire community to discovering the private achievements and frailties of an uncelebrated president. His biography of Harry Truman won him a Pulitzer, as did his most recent biography of another president, John Adams.
Meeting Thornton Wilder at Yale as an undergraduate inspired McCullough to become a writer--his first love, in fact, had been art. While at college he also met his wife, Rosalee. He learned his craft working at Sports Illustrated, at the United States Information Agency, and at American Heritage. McCullough researched and wrote his first book in the precious hours away from his job with American Heritage; The Johnstown Flood came out in 1968. It was a story and region familiar to McCullough, who was born and raised in nearby Pittsburgh. The book was a success and he became a full-time author.
Since then, McCullough has given us six more books--The Great Bridge, The Path between the Seas, Mornings on Horseback, Brave Companions, Truman, and John Adams--earning him two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, and two Francis Parkman Prizes from the American Society of Historians. His other honors include a Charles Frankel Prize, a National Book Foundation Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award, and a New York Public Library’s Literary Lion Award.
Question: Who are you?
David McCullough: I am David McCullough and I am an author. I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania the city with great view to see and to learn from, lot of history. My family had settled there before the revolutionary war which is tried for most many people who imagine. It must have been and was virtually the frontier then and I have always loved books and I have always loved hearing people tell stories, like to tell them myself and I think that the opportunities of Pittsburgh in that day in public school particularly to explore the arts and to take advantage of the wonderful Art Gallery and Natural History Museum and Public Library that were combined into the Carnegie library complex, had a great effect on my interest in lot of things. I was fortunate that I went to good schools, fortunate that I went to a very great university, Yale University, where I was an English major and I came out of Yale knowing that I had to face the decisions of what to do with my life, tough problem for every body at that stage and I had about seven things I wanted to do and I couldn’t make up my mind, so I thought I will just go to New York and some thing will happen and I was very eager to get to New York and some thing did happen. I warmed up getting a job as a very junior, very low employee in the training program, in the new magazine called Sports Illustrated and it was working there at time and life publications for the next six years. Because I learned about being edited and learned not only to take editing and take the advice of good editors. But learned how to edit my self and that is the hardest thing for any writer to learn, how to edit yourself and I then went on to answer the call of President Kennedy, what one can do for one’s country rather than what one’s country can do for you. I took it very much to heart and quit my job and went to Washington and wound up working for the US Information Agency, had a very exciting time, because the agency was being run by the great Edward. R. Murrow and that in many ways was the turning point in my life, because it was then in Washington. Quite by chance that I discovered some material about the terrible Jonstown Flood of 1889 when the dam broken mountains of western Pennsylvania and destroyed an entire city. Taking the lives of some 2500 people that I decided to try and write a book about it. I did not have any experience in writing a book. I had never done historical research but I found that I not only could do it but I loved doing it. I found what I wanted to do with my life and I have tried to, I tried then to write the kind of book about the subject that I wanted to read that I would like to read and in a way that has been what I have been doing ever since.
Recorded on: 3/3/08
New York made things happen.