David McCullough, Pulitzer-winning historian who told stories of American life, dies at 89

NEW YORK (AP) — David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose lovingly crafted accounts on subjects ranging from the Brooklyn Bridge to Presidents John Adams and Harry Truman have made him one of the most popular historians and most influential of his time, died. He was 89 years old.

McCullough died Sunday in Hingham, Massachusetts, according to his publisher, Simon & Schuster.

“David McCullough was a national treasure. His books have brought history to life for millions of readers. Through his biographies, he dramatically illustrated the most ennobling parts of the American character,” Simon & Schuster CEO Jonathan Karp said in a statement.

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A cheerful and tireless student of the past, McCullough has dedicated himself to sharing his own passion for history with the general public. He saw himself as an ordinary man with a lifelong curiosity and the ability to talk about the topics that mattered most to him. His fascination with architecture and construction inspired his early work on the Panama Canal and the Brooklyn Bridge, while his admiration for leaders he believed to be good men drew him to Adams and Truman. 70-80 years old, he indulges his affection for Paris with the release in 2011 “The Greater Journey” and for aviation with a bestseller on the Wright brothers released in 2015.

Beyond his books, the handsome, white-haired McCullough has had perhaps the most recognizable presence of any historian, his fatherly baritone known to fans of PBS’s “The American Experience” and the epic documentary “Civil War.” by Ken Burns. “Hamilton” author Ron Chernow once called McCullough “both the name and the voice of American history.”

A non-academic, McCullough was disliked by all critics, who accused him of avoiding the harshest truths about his subjects and placing storytelling above analysis. “McCullough’s chief weakness is one he shares with Truman: he sometimes fails to grapple with the moral complexities of politics,” Walter Isaacson wrote in Time magazine. Interviewed in 2001 by The Associated Press, McCullough responded to criticism that he was too soft on Truman and others by saying that “some people not only want their leaders to have feet of clay, but to be all clay.”

But even peers who found flaws in her work praised her kindness and generosity. And millions of readers, and the smaller circle of laureates, welcomed it above all else. For years, from a wireless cottage on the grounds of his home on Martha’s Vineyard, McCullough carried out work on a Royal Standard typewriter that changed minds and shaped the market. It helped boost the reputations of Truman and Adams, and it launched a wave of American Revolution bestsellers, including McCullough’s “1776.”

McCullough received the National Book Award for “The Path Between the Seas,” about the construction of the Panama Canal; and for “Mornings on Horseback,” a biography of Theodore Roosevelt; and Pulitzers for “Truman”, in 1992, and for “John Adams” in 2002. “The Great Bridge”, a long exploration of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, was ranked No. 48 on the list of the 100 best works not novels from the Modern Library. of the 20th century and is still widely regarded as the definitive text of the grand scheme of the 19th century. On his 80th birthday, his hometown of Pittsburgh renamed the 16th Street Bridge the “David McCullough Bridge”.

McCullough was also a favorite in Washington, D.C. He addressed a joint session of Congress in 1989 and in 2006 received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Politicians have frequently claimed to have read his books, especially his biographies of Truman and Adams. Jimmy Carter cited “A Path Between the Seas” as a factor in pushing for the 1977 treaties that returned control of the Panama Canal to Panama. Barack Obama included McCullough among a gathering of scholars who gathered at the White House shortly after Obama’s election.

The historian has been non-partisan for much of his life, but spoke out against Donald Trump in 2016, leading a group of historians that included Burns and Chernow to denounce the Republican presidential candidate as a “monstrous clown with a monstrous ego”. McCullough also had an emphatic cause: education. He worried that Americans knew too little about history and did not appreciate the sacrifices of the Revolutionary era. He spoke often on campuses and in front of Congress, once telling a Senate committee that because of the No Child Left Behind Act, “history is shelved or taken out of the fire completely in many schools. or in most schools, in favor of math and reading. .”

McCullough was active in preserving historic areas. He opposed the construction of a residential tower near the Brooklyn Bridge and was among 1990s historians and authors who criticized the Walt Disney Company’s planned Civil War theme park in a northern area of Virginia of special historical significance.

“We have so few authentic and real ones left,” McCullough said at the time. “Replacing what we have with plastic and artificial history, mechanical history is almost sacrilege.”