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David McCullough, award-winning writer and ‘voice of American history,’ dies at 89

Mr. McCullough in his study, where he typed on his 75-year-old manual typewriter in Boston in 2015.Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff/file

David McCullough, a two-time winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, whose best-selling biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams made him one of America’s most popular and acclaimed historians, died on Sunday at his home in Hingham. He was 89.

“So many people have been led to believe — often, unfortunately, by the experience of dreary teaching — that ‘history’ and ‘boring’ are synonymous,” Mr. McCullough said in a 2005 Globe interview. “To me, it’s the reverse. The wonderful thing about almost any subject in history is, if you scratch the surface, you find life. It’s all around us.”

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Such enthusiasm helped make Mr. McCullough’s books enormously popular. None of his 13 books has ever gone out of print, and they have sold more than 9 million copies.

“I think of history as an enlargement of the experience of being alive — just the way art and music are, or literature,” Mr. McCullough said in 2005. “And history can be literature, should be literature, traditionally always was literature.”

Mr. McCullough won his Pulitzers for “Truman” (1992) and “John Adams” (2001), and his National Book Awards for “The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914″ (1977) and “Mornings on Horseback” (1981), about Theodore Roosevelt’s early years.

Mr. McCullough was also awarded two Francis Parkman Prizes, for “Path” and “Truman.” The prize is bestowed by the Society of American Historians. Mr. McCullough served as the organization’s president from 1991 to 1998.

Mr. McCullough, with an early painting of John Adams at the Massachusetts Historical Society, in 1995.WILSON, MARK GLOBE STAFF PHOTO/The Boston Globe

Mr. McCullough did not limit himself to print. Among his honors was an Emmy Award, for his work as host of the PBS series “Smithsonian World.” His television duties greatly added to his prominence. For many years, Mr. McCullough hosted another PBS series, “American Experience,” and narrated numerous historical documentaries, most notably Ken Burns’s series “The Civil War.”

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“He is among our greatest historians, writing with an almost magical command of language and story,” Burns said in a tweet Monday. “He was also a gifted teacher who taught me about history and writing, and allowed me to escape my many limitations in those areas.”

Writing in The New Republic in 2001, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz called Mr. McCullough “the handsome, authoritative face of American history — and, with his pleasantly weathered baritone, also the voice of American history.”

Wilentz went on to argue that the very things that made Mr. McCullough’s books so accessible — a reliance on narrative at the expense of analysis, an implicit triumphalism, and a tendency to hero worship — worked to limit their intellectual value. A “teller of tales,” Mr. McCullough offered a “picturesque characterological approach to the past” that tended to make his books “an exercise in character recognition, a reliable source of edification and pleasant uplift.”

Yet the longtime Librarian of Congress James H. Billington hailed Mr. McCullough as “the citizen chronicler.” He had no special field or academic affiliation (though at various times Mr. McCullough was a visiting professor or scholar in residence at Cornell and Wesleyan universities, the University of New Mexico, and Bennington College). “I don’t consider I have a special beat, or niche, as a historian,” Mr. McCullough said in 2005. “I go where my curiosity goes or one story leads to another.”

Mr. McCullough saw himself belonging to the tradition exemplified by such popular nonacademic historians as Barbara Tuchman and Bruce Catton. He wrote for the interested layperson, not graduate students.

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“I want my books to be read by people of all kinds,” Mr. McCullough said in that 2005 interview. “I want to write for the fellow who lives next door over here, and I want to write for the president of MIT. But most of all, I want to write the kind of book I’d want to read.”

David Gaub McCullough was born in Pittsburgh on July 7, 1933. His parents were Christian Hax McCullough, a businessman, and Ruth (Rankin) McCullough.

Mr. McCullough, who remained an amateur painter all his life, had originally intended to become an artist. Yet he majored in English at Yale; and a meeting there with the playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder encouraged him to become a writer.

In 1954, when Mr. McCullough was a senior at Yale, he married Rosalee Barnes, a Vassar College student who was a daughter of former Massachusetts attorney general Clarence Barnes. Together they raised five children.

“He was as admirable a person as a father and husband as he was in the rest of his life,” said his youngest daughter, Dorie Lawson, of Sheridan, Wyo. “And he was a lot of fun.”

After graduating from Yale, Mr. McCullough worked for several Time-Life publications: Sports Illustrated, Architectural Forum, Life, and Time. He went to work for the United States Information Agency in 1961. Assigned to write an article about the Battle of Gettysburg, he discovered how much he enjoyed both researching history and writing about it. That discovery led him to American Heritage Press, where he worked as an editor from 1964 to 1970.

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While researching an article at the Library of Congress, Mr. McCullough came across some photographs of the famous 1889 flood in Johnstown, Pa. He was so struck by the images that he decided to write his first book, “The Johnstown Flood” (1968).

Mr. McCullough’s second book, “The Great Bridge” (1972), was an account of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Turning to another engineering feat, Mr. McCullough published “The Path Between the Seas.” The book couldn’t have been better timed, appearing at the height of the political debate over the future of the Panama Canal. President Jimmy Carter invited Mr. McCullough to join the official delegation that went to Panama for the signing of the canal treaty in 1978.

“The Path Between the Seas” was much cited during Senate debate over the treaty. “I’m pleased to say it was quoted by both sides,” Mr. McCullough noted at the time. That bipartisan tradition continued with the publication of “Truman” and “John Adams.” Both Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush read “Truman” during the 1992 presidential campaign and mentioned it in speeches. In 2001, Thomas M. Finneran, then speaker of the Massachusetts House, had Mr. McCullough address the Legislature about Adams and presented every member with a copy of the biography.

After a four-decade hiatus, Mr. McCullough returned to engineering for “The Wright Brothers” (2015).

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Mr. McCullough bought a renovated 18th-century farmhouse on Martha’s Vineyard, in West Tisbury, in 1965. He and his family took up year-round residence in the early 1970s. “If you look around here,” he said, sitting on his back porch, in 2005, “you see no sign of the 21st century — or the 20th century. This could be a view, could it not, from the 18th century?”

David McCullough, with his dog Bandit at his home in West Tisbury. He and his family lived there for about a half century.Tom Herde/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe


He and his wife, Rosalee, moved to the Boston area in 2011. She was 89 when she died June 9 in the family’s home on Music Street in West Tisbury, which they had kept.

In a 2015 Globe interview, Mr. McCullough discussed the essential role that Rosalee filled as she read his works-in-progress to him.

“I try to write for the ear as well as the eye,” he said. “I think it improves your writing to have somebody read it to you because you hear things that you don’t see — overuse of a word, sentence structure. You can hear boring. She reads everything I write aloud to me, often many times. Just by talking about what I’m working on, it helps me to figure it out better.”

In addition to his daughter Dorie, Mr. McCullough leaves another daughter, Melissa McDonald, of Vineyard Haven; three sons, David Jr., of Sudbury, and William and Geoffrey, both of Hingham; a brother, George, of Ligonier, Pa.; 19 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Plans for a memorial service were not complete.

A constant presence in Mr. McCullough’s writing life was a Royal standard typewriter he purchased in his early 30s to match the one he had used at Time-Life. “I have written everything that I have written in the 50 years that I’ve been writing on this typewriter,” he said in 2015. “One of my kids said I better not change it, because maybe it’s writing the books.”

Other books by Mr. McCullough include “Brave Companions: Portraits in History” (1992), a series of biographical sketches; “1776″ (2005), about the beginnings of the Continental Army; “In the Dark Streets Shineth: A 1941 Christmas Eve Story” (2010); “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris” (2011); “The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For” (2017), a collection of speeches; and “The Pioneers” (2019), about the settling of the Northwest Territory, present-day Ohio.

In 2006, Mr. McCullough was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“I don’t think you need to trick history up, with little bells and whistles,” Mr. McCullough said in 2005. “I think it’s part of our human nature to want to know about the olden times. ‘Once upon a time, long, long ago’ — it’s there, in those words. We want to go back in time. We like the time-machine feeling.”



Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com. Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.