By David McCullough
Simon & Schuster, 386 pp., illustrated, $32
By David Hackett Fischer
The Boston Globe
May 22, 2005
Of all the many thousands of teachers, writers, and interpreters who make a living as historians in America today, nobody reaches a larger public with more success than David McCullough. Few do it with work of such high quality, and in so many media. He is most widely known as the avuncular figure that Americans have seen on television, but he is most respected for big and very serious books that have an astonishing appeal. In a nation that is not remarkable for serious reading, McCullough’s biography of John Adams has sold more than a million copies in hardcover. His other books have done as well, or better.
How does he do it? What is the basis of his broad appeal? Some of my academic colleagues are not entirely happy with his work, and one might also ask why that is so. More important, we might ask what all of us who read and write history can learn from McCullough’s extraordinary touch with his material.
A place to begin is his new book, “1776.” It is very fluent and engaging. Not much of it is new. The main lines are familiar, and most of the anecdotes have been told before, but they have rarely been told so well. The book is mostly a short military history of George Washington’s American Army from the summer of 1775 to the winter of 1776-77.
The McCullough touch is evident from the start. He begins with a vivid scene in London on Oct. 26, 1775, a bright autumn day when George III rode to Westminster and opened Parliament. We see the king’s state coach (still surviving in the Royal Mews) in all its exquisite detail. We feel the street tremble beneath its enormous weight, “as though the very grandeur, wealth, and weight of the British Empire were rolling past.” We meet the king as a very appealing figure, and are surprised to hear him speak in deep anger of his intent to destroy the American rebellion. We listen to the parliamentary debates that follow, and are amazed that even friends of America such as Edmund Burke speak of ” ‘our’ colonies,” as if each freeborn British subject owned them all.
Then the scene shifts abruptly to America. What follows is a drama in three acts, each about 100 pages: first, the long Siege of Boston from the summer of 1775 to March 1776; then the campaign for control of New York (an epic American disaster); and in Act 3 the army’s long and painful retreat across New Jersey to Pennsylvania. The book comes to its climax in 18 pages on the battles of Trenton and Princeton. It ends quickly in a conclusion of four pages that summarize the central theme. The author wants us to remember the Revolution as a desperate struggle against great odds. He tells us that it was a very close-run thing, in which “often circumstance, storms, contrary winds, the oddities or strengths of individual character had made the difference.”
The book has a different texture from the work of academic scholars who are trained in history graduate programs. McCullough was an English major at Yale, in company with John O’Hara, John Hersey, and Brendan Gill. He studied with Robert Penn Warren, lunched with Thornton Wilder, and tells us that these men (Wilder especially) inspired him to make writing his career.
There were other inspirations. McCullough is a painter, and almost made painting his profession. He tends to visualize his history, and greatly admires our most visual novelists. “I love Dickens,” McCullough told Bruce Cole at the National Endowment for the Humanities. “I love the way he sets a scene. He said, in his great admonition to writers, ‘Make me see.’ I try to make you see what’s happening and smell it and hear it. I want to know what they had for dinner. I want to know how long it took to walk from where to where.”
McCullough uses the same visual and very tactile writing to construct his characters, and they are another defining quality of his work. His new book centers on three figures: Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox, and Washington. All were surprisingly radical in their devotion to liberty and independence (and at an early date), and yet they were moderate and even conservative in their idea of the republic. They share something with the heroes of McCullough’s other books: Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John Adams. All were men of the center: a liberal Republican, a conservative Democrat, the middling founder who was devoted to his idea of the “balance,” and the moderate republicans of the Continental Army. The centrist thrust of McCullough’s writing is part of its broad appeal.
These men are characters in more senses than one. Each was highly individuated, and idiosyncratic. All served ideals that were larger than themselves. McCullough develops them with a painter’s eye, and celebrates their character and conduct with a novelist’s tactile touch.
Then he constructs his narrative line, in the same way that he sets the scene and builds the characters. His book becomes a story of stories. The section on the Siege of Boston is a sequence of dramatic scenes: all highly kinetic, visual, and brightly colored. We get a striking image of Washington pacing impatiently on the bank of the Charles River, and we empathize with his frustration in a period of inaction. We see Greene struggling to hold the army together. We marvel at the story of Knox’s movement of the guns from Ticonderoga to Boston, a model of historical description. This is followed by an even more dramatic story of the emplacement of the guns on Dorchester Heights. And then the British evacuation is described more in a mood of pathos than of triumph or celebration.
These dramatic and highly visual stories work well because they are grounded in primary research — a vital part of the McCullough method. This is not the research that academic scholars do, to solve a conceptual problem. It is a hunt for visual materials and dramatic possibilities. It gives a freshness to the work. Each small story is reported with an air of discovery that draws us to them. McCullough tells his stories with simplicity and strict discipline, stripping away all but essential elements. He observes that historians should not empty their note boxes into their text.
McCullough’s vivid but carefully controlled descriptions of scenes, characters, and events become a way of explaining what happened. This sets him apart from scholars who use different forms of explanation. Some historians explain things by a theoretical method — a proposition in the form of “if X . . . then Y.” Robert Fogel and Douglass North, the only historians who have won Nobel prizes in the past half-century, are econometric historians who explain events by reference to neoclassical theory.
Social and cultural historians go another way. Fernand Braudel and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie explain things by a paradigm method, fitting them into a context of patterned relationships, structures, and processes. Intellectual historians explain things by an idealist method of reenacting past thought in an elaborately reasoned way. Robin Collingwood elevated this method into an epistemology, and the American historian Perry Miller was one of its greatest practitioners in “The New England Mind.”
Many historians explain things by a narrative method. They answer questions by telling stories. That ancient approach is back in fashion, after a long eclipse. Yet another important form of historical explanation is what the German historian Johann Gustav Droysen called the method of “verstehen” (literally, understanding). It seeks understanding through an empathy of shared feelings or experiences. It explains things by helping readers to know “what it was like.”
The best historians combine more than one of these methods. Academic scholars are trained to use theoretical, paradigmatic, and idealist explanations in various combinations. McCullough combines the narrative approach with the empathetic method of verstehen. He brings them both to a high level of refinement, in a manner that is uniquely his own.
In “1776” we see his method at work in his account of the Siege of Boston, the battles around New York, and the retreat across New Jersey. We experience those events through the descriptive writing, and we form an empathy with major and minor characters by sharing their experiences. We feel that we were there, and in that feeling we think that we understand why these events happened. No analytical discussions are necessary. No conclusions need to be added. The feeling of closure is complete in the account itself.
This is a powerful method for building a rapport with readers, and for engaging their imagination. No other approach achieves those goals as well as McCullough’s combination of storytelling with verstehen.
But the strength of this method becomes a weakness in other ways. This is why some academic historians are critical of the work. Those who are trained to give theoretical, paradigmatic, and idealist explanations believe that events as complex as the American Revolution cannot be understood accurately without serious attention to structure, process, context, and the complexity of large events.
For example, on the Siege of Boston, several monographs are missing from the sources and bibliography of “1776.” They tell us that this event was different in important ways from the account that we get here. One of them is Chester Hearn’s remarkable book, “George Washington’s Schooners: The First American Navy” (Naval Institute, 1995). It tells us that in a period that appears as a time of inactivity with General Washington pacing the water’s edge, many things were happening. Washington and New England leaders created a flotilla of fast-sailing schooners, manned them with soldiers from the army, captured 55 British vessels, gained control of much of the coast, and completed the isolation of the British garrison in Boston. This gives us a larger sense of the campaign for Boston, a different idea of Washington’s leadership, and a more complex understanding of New England’s involvement in this war.
Another missing monograph is Robert Gross’s “The Minutemen and Their World” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976), a social history of the first year of the Revolution. In “1776” we empathize with Washington, Greene, and Knox in their struggle to hold their army together, and we are invited to feel their frustration and share their harsh judgments on New Englanders who went home. Social historians such as Gross find something different: In the town he studied, the great majority of able-bodied men took up arms at critical moments, came home for a time, and returned to the army in time of need. The entire structure of that society, and the values of its culture, were mobilized for this war, at heavy cost. Without that effort the work of Washington and Greene and Knox would have been for naught. This is a story that is more complex and more accurate than “the oddities or strengths of individual character.”
Yet another problem arises when we empathize so deeply with those central characters that others remain at a distance. British and Hessian leaders are not such empathetic figures. We observe them at a distance, and they look very small, as if through the wrong end of a tightly focused telescope. This was also a problem in McCullough’s “John Adams,” where we had a wonderful empathy with John and Abigail, but descriptions of Jefferson and Franklin were distant and hostile. Verstehen takes us toward the light in one way, but away from it in another.
Historical idealists criticize McCullough’s method in another way. They complain that his major figures lack depth of character and complexity of thought. Sometimes even his protagonists appear as painted images, attractive and memorable, but without the strength of thought and judgment that can explain why we remember them.
A question is whether one might combine the positive qualities of McCullough’s touch with the strengths of more academic methods, in braided narratives that would lose none of the drama and color, and gain a deeper sense of structure and process. The answer to that question is yes, absolutely. To that end, McCullough’s brilliant work is a model for us all. In his unrivaled mastery of one part of the historian’s task, we are all his students.
© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.