McCullough talks history writing

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Photo by Alex Schmeling.

Despite his renown as a writer, narrator and historian, David McCullough ’55 said he has no intention of ever being an expert.

“Experts have all the answers,” McCullough said at a Silliman College Master’s Tea on Monday. “I have a lot of questions.”

Speaking before a crowd of about 50 students and family members, McCullough described his days as a Yale undergraduate and his interest in history, which he characterized as a study of human events. McCullough emphasized that in order to understand an era, it is necessary to examine the people who lived during that time period and to view them as human beings.

“[McCullough] digs into the people that make the stories,” Silliman College Master Judith Krauss told the audience. “When you’re reading him, you’ll forget you’re reading history and you’ll think you’re reading a novel.”

McCullough said he was particularly inspired by four people during his time at Yale, who he called the greatest influences on his life. He first spoke of his wife — his “editor in chief” — who still reads everything McCullough writes aloud to make sure every line is pleasing to the ear as well as to the eye.

McCullough also described how two professors and one graduate student helped pique his interest in subjects that he did not initially find enticing. Inspired by these mentors, McCullough said he learned to use these subjects to view the world through a fresh lens.

“He opened our eyes to see what’s in front of us,” McCullough said of Vincent Scully, Jr., who was his history of art and architecture professor at Yale in the 1950s. “Art is the expression of the human desire for identity. You can’t go into a cathedral from the Middle Ages and not be moved.”

Reflecting on his own college experience, McCullough encouraged audience members to thank the professors that mean the most to them. Decades after his graduation, McCullough said he encountered his former geology professor who had opened his eyes to the sciences. McCullough said he was glad he introduced himself and thanked the professor for all he had taught him because, two weeks later, he read of the professor’s death.

Throughout the talk, McCullough returned to the idea of history as being centered around people and their stories. He said he only recently realized that he had written all of his biographies about people with a steadfast determination to never give up despite improbable odds, like George Washington and the Wright brothers.

McCullough said he does not always know much about his subjects before beginning the writing process. Still, he said having a foundational interest is key.

“We have this wonderful quality called curiosity,” McCullough said. “It’s what separates us from the cabbages.”

McCullough compared writing about a historical figure to picking a roommate, because he has to spend large amounts of time with his subject every day. McCullough said he always aims to write the book he wishes he could read. He added that thinking, rather than researching or writing, is the most important part of the book-writing process.

McCullough challenged students in the audience to dedicate their time to something they love, and stressed the importance of not pursuing a career for the money alone.  He credited his years at Yale as some of the most enlightening of his life.

McCullough said his own relationship with writing history is what fuels him for each new day.

“It’s my way of life,” McCullough said of his writing. “I’m dancing. And I still have the same girl.”

Students interviewed who attended the talk said they enjoyed hearing about McCullough’s perspective on his work.

Eva Landsberg ’17, a copy staffer for the News, said she was most inspired by McCullough’s view of history as a human story, adding that she would attempt to incorporate that perspective into her own writing.

Emma Poole ’17 said she appreciates McCullough’s choosing a career path based on something he loved. McCullough opened himself up to people and came to know and love them better, she said.

McCullough received two Pulitzer Prizes for his books on Presidents Harry Truman and John Adams in 1993 and 2002, respectively.

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