Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 692
David Gaub McCullough (muh-KUHL-uh) is an important American historian who has popularized history through his award-winning books and appearances on PBS television. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he is the son of Christian Hax and Ruth Rankin McCullough, who worked in a family-owned electrical supply business. An avid reader in a house full of books, McCullough received a B.A. degree in English from Yale University and planned to pursue a career in writing.
In 1954, McCullough married Rosalee Ingram Barnes and eventually settled in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. After graduating from college in 1955, he worked in New York for Time, Incorporated, writing circulation promotion for Sports Illustrated for six years. In 1961, he went to work in Washington, D.C., as a staff writer at the U.S. Information Company but returned to New York in 1964 to accept a position as writer and editor with American Heritage Publishing Company. While there, he edited The American Heritage Picture History of World War II and began writing his first book at night and on weekends. The Johnstown Flood, his account of a nineteenth century disaster in his native Pennsylvania, became successful enough for him to devote his full time to his writing.
McCullough’s next writing project, The Great Bridge, the story of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, came about through his interest in topics involving human beings who cooperate in a concerted effort to accomplish something of great significance. In 1972, McCullough shifted his interest from Brooklyn to Panama, for The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914. His chronology of the ten-year-long engineering feat won the National Book Award and several other awards.
McCullough’s next literary effort, for which he received a second National Book Award, was Mornings on Horseback, an account of the early years of Theodore Roosevelt that includes much description of the entire Roosevelt family and American society following the Civil War. McCullough began a biography of Spanish-born painter Pablo Picasso but abandoned the project.
When an editor suggested that McCullough write a biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he declined, preferring instead to write about Harry Truman. Truman, on which McCullough worked ten full years, earned a Pulitzer Prize. Composed and published during a period that was much changed from the Cold War era when Truman was president, McCullough’s biography shows great admiration for the direct, plain-speaking, and somewhat ordinary man who found himself faced with extraordinary problems. McCullough’s extensive research into the letters, private papers at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, and family members and friends enabled him to construct a narrative with vivid, insightful details.
During McCullough’s research on the Truman biography, he accepted the Smithsonian Institution’s invitation to host the proposed television series Smithsonian World. One episode included an interview with Anne Morrow Lindbergh, widow of aviator Charles Lindbergh, concerning the flights she and her husband made together to map out routes for early transoceanic travel. In 1984, McCullough received an Emmy Award for the interview. He agreed to host the PBS series The American Experience and also narrated Ken Burns’s Emmy Award-winning documentary The Civil War that was broadcast on PBS in 1990.
During the decade devoted to the writing of Truman, McCullough wrote and hosted “A Man, A Plan, A Canal—Panama,” a television episode for Nova, broadcast on PBS. He collaborated with others on Remington: The Masterworks and penned Brave Companions: Portraits in History, a collection of seventeen essays profiling men and women of diverse interests and achievements.
In 2001, after six years in the making, McCullough completed John Adams, a biography of the nation’s first vice president and second president. McCullough portrays Adams as a courageous and good, if flawed, president, and focuses on Adams’s role in American independence, his marriage to Abigail Adams, and his troubled relationship with Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States. John Adams, as well as McCullough’s other works, benefit from the author’s exceptional storytelling and use of precise details to enliven events, backgrounds, and motivations. McCullough is able to place his readers imaginatively at the historical scene and infuse them with his passion for history.