Readers familiar with McCullough’s popular, true tales of historical adventure will find his wares well-displayed in this collection. In these articles he celebrates not so much the achievement as the quest, elevating curiosity and purpose to the rank of high virtue. He refuses to disparage, after the modern fashion, the achievements of these bold and curious adventurers. With all their bravado, ambition, and self-reference, they still left something for humanity. It matters little if these “brave companions” were immediately or even ultimately successful in the eyes of the world, for to McCullough, “the key is attitude.”
McCullough’s craft as a popular historian bears fruit in bringing together in one volume the achievements of disparate individuals. It is remarkable that he should at various times have produced well-informed and thought-provoking articles on such a variety of individuals as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louis Agassiz, James Caudill, Conrad Richter, and Miriam Rothschild. This pleasing selection of essays is enhanced by its interest in human resource, rather than historical curiosity. The historian’s focus, intended to bring the past to life, frequently neglects the possibilities of connecting past life to present values through the sharing of common elements of the human experience. McCullough, however, avoids this pitfall, and is thus able to show readers affinities across time, between David Plowden, for instance, who never wanted to be shipped “off to some awful place” where he was supposed to “photograph a moose,” and Theodore Roosevelt, who went West to shoot a bison before they all disappeared. They were, nevertheless, both brave, stubborn, romantic, and intensely patriotic.
The spirit of David McCullough’s work is embodied in his 1986 address to the graduates of Middlebury College—“go with confidence. Prize tolerance and horse sense. And some time, somewhere along the way, do something for your country.”