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  • NYS Writers Institute

David McCullough 1933-2022

“Nothing ever invented provides such sustenance, such infinite reward for time spent, as a good book.”

-- David McCullough

David McCullough, historian and author. (Photo credit: William B. McCullough)

We mourn the passing of historian David McCullough, author of 11 books, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. McCullough died on Sunday at his home in Hingham, Mass. He was 89.

McCullough received the Pulitzer Prize for Truman (1992) and John Adams (2001) and twice received the National Book Award, for The Path Between the Seas (1977) and Mornings on Horseback (1981). His other acclaimed books include The Johnstown Flood, The Great Bridge, Brave Companions, 1776, The Greater Journey, The Wright Brothers, and The American Spirit.

He was a featured guest at the NYS Writers Institute's Telling the Truth symposium in April 1991. He returned to Albany in 1999 to receive an honorary degree and speak at the University at Albany graduate commencement ceremony, and in 2015 to accept the Empire State Archives and History Award Laureate from NYS Archives Partnership Trust.

In a 2015 interview with Paul Grondahl published in the Times Union, McCullough discussed how he chooses his subjects. "I'm drawn to characters who are underestimated and ridiculed, grew up with very few advantages, endured unlucky breaks and were hit by problems that weren't of their own doing," he said. "I found great similarities between Harry Truman (about whom he wrote an acclaimed biography) and the Wright brothers. They had Midwestern grit and refused to quit."

He also discussed his work habits: "He has typed every book on a 1940 Royal typewriter he bought in 1965," Grondahl wrote. 'It's 75 years old and I've never needed to repair it,' he said. 'It's an example of incredibly good American manufacturing. People say I could go so much faster with a computer. I don't want to go faster. If anything, I want to go slower.' Read more.

In today's New York Times, Daniel Lewis wrote: "[McCullough's] research — on Adams, Truman and so much more — was deep, his writing was lively, and his narrator’s voice in documentary films was familiar to millions."

Critics saluted him as a literary master, adept at imbuing the familiar with narrative drama and bringing momentous events to life through small details and the accounts of individual witnesses. A prime example was his rendering of the Second Continental Congress in 1776, central to the Adams book, in which he captured not only the frustrating day-to-day wrangling over declaring independence as the British fleet approached, but also the sights and smells of a mucky Philadelphia summer, the quality of local architecture and local beers, and the contrasting personalities of two brilliant allies and future enemies.

“Jefferson was devoted to the ideal of improving mankind but had comparatively little interest in people in particular,” Mr. McCullough wrote. “Adams was not inclined to believe mankind improvable, but was certain it was important that human nature be understood.” Read more.

David McCullough with Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer at a 2015 NYS Archives Partnership Trust event in Albany. (Photo credit: NYS Archives Partnership Trust)


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