Friday, June 3, 2011

The Greater Journey

Last night I was back at the Sixth and I Synagogue (and here, here, and here) for David McCullough, probably the most eminent historian in America. He is the winner of not one, but two Pulitzer Prizes, for his biographies Truman and John Adams. So, yes, you have him to thank for 7 hours of Paul Giamatti in sausage-curl wigs. McCullough has written 10 books, all of which are epically proportioned. His latest is The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, chronicaling the influence of Paris and Parisian intellectual life on nineteenth-century American writers, painters, scientists, and politicians, everyone from Samuel Morse to Harriet Beecher Stowe.

When I was contemplating moving to DC and transitioning back into grad school, I came across a documentary called David McCullough: Painting with Words (which one could easily find online). The film, produced by Tom Hanks, is an intimate and charming portrait of McCullough, his life, his relationship with his wife and children, and his antique typewriter, which he still uses to write every single word. In the film, McCollough talks about the beauty of language and how his goal is always to write great literature that happens to be about history. I took this as a sort of personal model, a desire to write literature that happens to be about literature, and I decided that if I moved to DC, I'd somehow get into one of his lectures.

Not surprisingly, David McCullough is just as charming in person as he is in the film, though, perhaps a bit rambling, as the extremely knowledgeable tend to be. He clearly loves his job. He loves history and archive work and reading and writing, and perhaps most of all, he clearly loves standing in front of an audience and educating. He has a lot to say about education, as well. He spoke passionately about the need for teachers who love their subject matter and the imperative necessity of a cultural shift towards valuing educators in our society. His strongest criticisms were rightly placed on No Child Left Behind, which is little more than an industrial model of education in an increasingly post-industrial society. (For more on this, you can see Sir Ken Robinson's TED Talk.) At the end of the evening, I left with the same feeling that I had from watching the documentary on his life, wanting to be a better writer, a better researcher, and a better educator.

If you're in the DC area (or will be in September), McCullough will be at this year's National Book Festival.


  1. Wow! Fantastic narrative on the man! Loved all your comments re. McCullough, all of which are richly deserved. A man of many talents. Just finished reviewing again Ken Burns videos on the Civil War, narrated by McCollough. Wonder how it feels to be so bright?! And he does act as a motivating force, doesn't he?

  2. A very nice (and can I say, "loving?") review of McCullough and his effect on you. I loved his John Adams and have been dropping hints that his new book would be good for Fathers Day. The Boston Globe had a lengthy feature about him last week. One of the things I liked was the author following him on a walk across the Boston Commons and observing him having lengthy conversations with normal folks who came up to him. It made me want to lurk around the Commons to see if I could "accidentally" stumble across him.