David McCullough: 2019 National Book Festival

>>Marie Arana: Welcome,
ladies and gentlemen to the David McCullough hour. I am so proud that this
Library of Congress puts on this fabulous festival for
you, free open to the public. [ Applause ] What a gift, what a gift,
and an even better gift is to have spectacular
authors like historian, David McCullough sitting on this
stage right here with all of us.>>David McCullough: Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Marie Arana: He is,
I don’t have to say this because you said it
with your applause, the most celebrated living
historian in the United States of America, of the
American experience, which is even greater. [ Applause ] He’s been called the
dean of Americana and there’s a reason why. He has taken us through the
Jonestown flood, the building of the Panama Canal, the
building of the Brooklyn Bridge, Harry Truman, John Adams,
the Americans in Paris, the Wright brothers and sister,
and this fabulous new book that we’re going to talk
about a little bit later, ‘The Pioneers’. So he’s won the Pulitzer
Prize twice, the National Book Award twice, and he has been given the
presidential medal of freedom, excuse me, freedom,
even better than honor, and you’ve been writing
David about America? I mean, the trajectory
has been 150 years since let’s say the revolution
to Charles Lindbergh and beyond. Is there a theme here?>>David McCullough: Yes. I now see it as I have not. So, I’m thinking if you
gain from time going by, I’d see now that almost all of
my books are about Americans who set out to accomplish
something worthy that they knew would be
difficult and was going to be more difficult
even than they expected and who did not give up and
who learned from their mistakes and will eventually achieve
what their purpose had been in the first place. Always the characters that
I’ve chosen to focus on, always to our benefit. I think that one of the reasons
that we ought to read history and know history is to increase
our capacity for gratitude for those who went before
us, of what they did for us, what they achieved for
us, and for us to take it for granted is rude in the
extreme, and I think that two of the qualities that history
provides and in what we read and what we teach our gratitude
and empathy to put ourselves in the place of those who
went before us, what they put up with, in working for the
last several years in trying to understand what these
pioneers who settled, in Ohio had to contend with
and what they accomplished against such adversities. I can’t help it feel that
we’re a bunch of softies, and how much we learn from them
and how much we come to know about them that we can’t
even know with people that we already close to in real
life, because for one thing, in real life, you don’t get
to read other people’s diaries in mail, and when you sit
down, and you’re working say with the papers of John Adams
or Abigail Adams, you really get to know them because
they’re pouring out all of their inner most
ambitions and worries and fears and suffering. That word suffering isn’t
just that they got hurt or that they worried
excessively about their museum, the safety of their children. They were suffering and there’s
so much that they didn’t have that we have now that
we take for granted. They had no sedatives. They had no band aids. They had no chainsaws. They had no, well a lot, and
we should never just say, oh yeah, that’s the way it is. We’re lucky people and I’ve come to feel very strongly,
we’re a good people. We’re a good nation, and yes,
we make mistakes and yes, there’s evil, and yes, there
are people who cheat and lie and people who have had
nothing but selfish ambition, but they are the minority. They are the extreme, the
exception, not the rule and it has been that
way right along.>>Marie Arana: Well, I
don’t think there’s anybody who has taught us more, and I
mean in a really engaged way. David, you have had a career in which you have made
history exciting, engaging. You have made it popular. You have brought it
to a different level. I know academic historians,
I’m thinking of my friend Gordon Wood, who
has great admiration for you, because you have made
his subject a subject of great interest, and
in what you’ve just said about your theme being this
tremendous force of history that brought us to where we
are, that made us who we are, and the sacrifices and
the suffering as you say, but no one has really engaged a
public in the way that you have, and here is a person who has
been in the last 50 years of book writing, not one book. These are books that
have sold millions and been translated
in many languages. Not one book has gone out of
print in the course of 50 years. That’s pretty amazing. [ Applause ]>>David McCullough: I’d
like to make another point, and this is all somewhat
confessional at the stage in life I’ve reached, but I’ve
never undertaken the subject that I knew anything much about,
honestly, and if I knew all about it, I wouldn’t
want to write the book. To me, the book, the writing
of the book is an adventure and often an adventure
with consequences that I never expected and
I’ve got is if I’m going to a continent that I
had never set foot on. When I started off to
write the Brooklyn Bridge, let me just say, I would have
that happen, and by the way, let me say, first of all,
my ambition to write began in the Library of Congress. I was up there– [ Applause ] — I had quit my job in New York
where I worked at time in life because President
Kennedy called on us. I was still in my 20s to do
something for our country, and I came down to Washington. I knew nobody in the
Kennedy crowd, I knew nobody in the government, but I
thought somewhere there’s some organization that can use
what I’ve had in my education and my working experience, and
I wound up being the editor of a magazine published by
the US Information Agency, and it was a picture magazine, very much like the
Old Life magazine, and I had to spend a lot of
time doing picture research in the Library of Congress. One day I went in the prints and
photographs section and there of spread out in a big
table with photographs taken by a photographer who has
somehow managed to get himself over the mountains and
down into Johnstown right after the catastrophic
Johnstown flood, and I looked at those pictures. I’m “Oh, my God, what happened?” The destruction, the utter
terrible destruction. Now I grew up in Pittsburgh
where, which isn’t very far from Johnstown and as boys,
my brothers and I used to make a lake of gravy
in the mashed potatoes and then we’d take our forks and
break that through the potatoes as the gravy flowed
down among the peas, we’d say the Johnstown flood, having no idea whatsoever
what that was. So, I saw those photographs and
I thought I’ve got to read more about what the hell happened. I just got curiosity. That’s the great thing is
stimulate into learning and teaching, but in any event,
I worked for three years, book was published and right
away two other publishers from my own publisher came
to me and one man wanted me to do the Chicago fire
and the other wanted me to do the San Francisco
earthquake. So, I was still in my 30s
and I was being typecast as bad news McCullough, [ Laughter ] and I didn’t like that and
I just determined I’m going to do something where human
beings did something right, something noble,
something admirable, something we are
still quite aware of, and one day I was having
lunch with some friends down the lower east
side in New York. One was a science writer,
the other was an engineer, had been professor of
engineering and they got going about all that the people who built the Brooklyn Bridge
didn’t know that they were in for when they started on the
project, and my wife Rosalee and I had lived in Brooklyn
when we were first married. The rumblings who were
involved with it got their start in my hometown in Pittsburgh. I felt connected and I also that there is a hugely
admirable accomplishment that we Americans all
know and will always know, it’s emblematic of what we
stand for and so many ways, and they went out of that lunch
knowing that’s my next subject. I knew nothing about physics. I was terrible at
physics in school. I wasn’t a very good
mathematician, but I thought if I can find somebody
who can explain this to me in the English language will
be fine, and then we heard that there was a wonderful
collection of letters and diaries and all the rest
of the roving family up at RPI, Rensselaer Polytechnic
in Troy, New York. So one cool, beautiful fall day,
Rosalee and I drove up to Troy to go see this collection. In the library then was
in an old church building, old gothic church and not a
very good building for library, because there was an away
football game by the Troy team, the polytechnic team, the
place, the campus was empty. So we went in, there was
one woman behind the desk and she said, yes, the
Robyn collection is upstairs on the fourth floor, I
can’t take you up there because I’m the only one
on duty, here’s the key. [ Laughter ] We climbed the stairs and
they were creaky stairs and the light bulbs got
dimmer as we got higher. I think they’re probably
40 watts at most by the time we got
the top floor, and she says the
first door on the left and I expected some room, a
library room with some table, maybe a work table and
chairs, and we opened the door and it was nothing but a closet
and with shelves on three sides from floor to ceiling, big
closet packed with papers, diaries tied up with
old shoestrings and clearly had not been untied
in 50 years or more and statues and I look at it and
I said, “Oh my God”, and Rosalee was behind
me said, “Oh my God, there goes three more
years, you know”, — [ Laughter ] — but oh, what an
adventure, what a story. I would like it points
something out about that. It was 150 years ago this
year, that work began on building the Brooklyn Bridge. That accomplishment
would not have happened if it hadn’t been
for immigrants, [ Applause ] including the genius
who designed it. Johnny Roebling was an
immigrant from Germany, and the man that winds
down into the case on his worst imaginable, work
imaginable were all immigrants, and so were the people who
would build the transcontinental railroad around 150 years ago
this year, 20,000 Chinese worked to make that successful and
they did the toughest part of the old job which
was out west. Kennedy said, we will go to the
moon and we did 50 years ago and let us not forget that
word for Wernher Von Braun and about seven other highly
skilled, brilliant technicians who also were immigrants. It wouldn’t have happened. We are all in need of immigrants and we are immigrants,
most all of us. [ Applause ]>>Marie Arana: Wow. Wow. David, thank you for that. I was going to ask you, my next
question was what is your secret source, but I think
you just gave it away.>>David McCullough: I’d like
to add one more quick story. [ Laughter ]>>When I wrote my first
book, the Johnstown Flood, my editor was a wonderful
guy named Peter Schrader and he was famous for titles. He did the longest day for
the book about the invasion of the D day, Blackboard jungle, and he was very proud
of it, rightly so. So when I finished the
book, I hadn’t talked to him since we agreed the contract and
I couldn’t come up with a title for the Johnstown Flood. I searched through the Bible,
I search through Shakespeare, couldn’t find anything,
but I thought, I can’t delay this any longer. So I called him up and
said, “Mr. Schrader”, wondering if he would
remember who I was. I said, “This is
David McCullough”. He said, “Oh yeah. How are you? Yeah, David, I have
learnt your way of talking. I said, “I’m fine and
I finished my book, but I know how brilliant
you are in titles and how important titles
are to you, but I can’t come up with a title for this book”. He said, “No secret to
a title for that book. Call it the Johnstown Flood”. [ Applause ] He said, “What were you thinking of calling it, one
wet Wednesday?” [ Applause ] So then I finally finished
the Brooklyn Bridge Book and I called him up and said,
“Mr. Schrader, I’m finished. The Brooklyn Bridge book is
done and I’m very happy about it and I’ve sent it on to you. Did you receive it?” and he said, “Yes”, and then he
said, “How do you spell Niagara? I said, “N-I-A-R-G-A”. “Wrong, it’s N-I-A-G-A-R-A,
and now I’ve got to have Alice go all the
way through the manuscript with the whiteouts
and change all that”. I said, “What’d you
think of the book? You saw it’s terrific”. [ Applause ] We can never underestimate and I
really want to make this point. The importance of so many
people who make a book possible and particular the kinds of
books that I write and others, editors particularly of course,
but librarians and archivists and I just thank goodness
for the wonderful people that I’ve had the good fortune
to work with at the Library of Congress and innumerable
other libraries both here and in Europe and the
wonderful editors I’ve had who it’s a joint effort and almost nothing is
ever accomplished alone. There’s no such thing as
a self-made man or woman. That’s nonsense. We’re all a result of so
many people who have helped and taught us and
sometimes been rivals and thank goodness for it. I think one of the
most important lessons of history is learning
from your mistakes. Don’t be the kind of person
that when you’re knocked down, don’t lie there and
whimper and mourn and feel sorry for yourself. Get up, figure out
what you did wrong, why it didn’t work
and get back to work.>>Marie Arana: Is that
the American character?>>David McCullough: I think
so, and I think it needs to be cultivated and
encouraged in our young people.>>Marie Arana: Well,
you have a passion for the American character
and you have a passion for, and I’ve heard you say this
because we’ve been friends for a while, long while, and
I’ve heard you so excited about seeing material that you
haven’t seen before and saying, “Oh my God, this is
extraordinary, and the process of getting the details and all of that is a very
passionate process for you, but also you’ve written
a lot about people who have been written about a
lot like John Adams and Truman, but you do it a different way. What is that different
way do you think?>>David McCullough: Well,
Truman and Adams have in common. They were both upstaged by the
president who proceeded them and the president who followed
them, men who were taller, better looking, more famous, so
forth, and I felt in both cases, both Adams and Truman
deserve far more attention than they’d been given. I remember the night of the ’48
election, I was in high school and my father– very
Republican family and my father was listening
all night, [inaudible]. I tried to stay awake, I
couldn’t, I went to bed. The next morning, dad was
in shaving and I went in and said, “Dad, Dad, who won?” He said, “Truman”, like it
was the end of the world, and I don’t know, 30 years
later I was back home. We sat down to have a chat after
dinner and he started telling me about how the world was going to
hell and the country was going to hell, and then he
paused and he said, “Too bad old Harry isn’t
still in the White House”. [ Laughter ] And that’s what happens. The dust settles and you
see them differently. You judge them differently. He himself said that, you
have to wait 50 years, but with this book I was writing
about people you never heard of and nobody’s ever heard
of, including historians, and I had dreamed of
doing that someday. Why do I need to have a
celebrity from the past to help me get everybody
into the tent. Let’s do it just on the story
that’s there to be told. I was hugely influenced by
Thornton Wilder when I was in college, and I
loved our town–>>This is at Yale?>>Yeah, Yale, and our town is
a classics American masterpiece. Could I ever find a situation, a story where there
was sufficient material to tell the story in their
language from their point of view of a group of people
you’ve never heard of? Well, it was one of the most
thrilling strokes of luck in my working writing life that I found this
incredible collection in of all places a small
college library in Ohio, Marietta College in Marietta
Ohio, and it was all the papers, all the letters and diaries of
these first pioneers numbering in the thousands, the letters
and diaries done primarily like five different
characters, and they pour out what they’re worried
about, what they’re striving to achieve, what they stand
for, as do their wives and some of their children, and
there it was and it wasn’t in somebody’s attic
or some grim place. It was all superbly collected
and a marvelous librarian, but the best people I’ve ever
worked with Linda ShoWalter who knows the collection
up and down and realizes how
vastly important it is. These people who went out
to Ohio in the last part of the 18th Century had
passed what was known as the Northwest
Ordinance, meaning north and west of the Ohio River.>>You say that is as
important as the declaration of independence or [inaudible].>>It was because
they said in this– one of the most important
bills ever passed by Congress. They said, it’s not enough to
say all men are created equal and then have all your
slaves out in the lawn fixing up how everything look. They said, if all
men are created, we will not have slavery. So they have said there will be
no slavery in this territory, which was to make up five
new states, which area, geographic area was as large as
all the original 13 colonies. So, they double the size of the
country and said in this half in the country there’ll be no
slavery, and that was the work of principally one man, who
had never lobbied a legislature in his life. They didn’t have the
word lobbied yet. He was a classic 18th
century polymath. He was a lawyer and a
doctor and a divinity, doctor of divinity
all in one person. He was also the leading
naturalist botanist of his time in American botanists. He was interested in
everything and he said, we will treat the native
Americans with respect and fairness, and he said,
we will be complete freedom of religion and there
will be public education, education for everybody and
there was no public education in Massachusetts or Connecticut
or anywhere at that point. So, those three hugely
important advances were promoted and got passed by
Congress by one man, and we don’t even
know him or didn’t until we’d started
to write about it. Then after Jefferson was
elected in the political party with Jefferson decided they
were going to let the Mass in the Ohio legislature. They were going to
change the rule on slavery and admits slaves. This was an 1804. Meantime, Manasseh Cutler’s
son, Ephraim Cutler had gone out as one of the pioneers
and he was still a young man and he was elected to the
legislature and he was working with one of Washington’s
generals who was one of the original pioneers to
go out, named Rufus Putnam, and they were battling to stop
this move, to disband the rule and allow slavery, and
the day of the vote, Ephraim Cutler was
deathly ill in bed in a boarding house near
the legislature building and Putnam came to him,
Putnam was old enough to have been his father,
came up to his room and said, “You’ve got to get up out
of bed because we were going to cast the vote today”, and
he went to said, “I can’t”. He said, “You’ve got to”. So he did. Some people say he was
carried in on a stretcher. I found no proof of that. In any event, he got
to the legislature, he gave a powerful speech
and he voted and the measure to introduce slavery into Ohio and thus the whole northwest
territory was defeated by one vote. [ Applause ] And yet nobody has ever heard of
his name and people said to me, if you’d put this in a novel,
your editor would say no, but this never, never
happened in real life. It did happen in real life
and we should know about that and know about him, and
he’s the one who did more than anybody else to
get education passed by the legislature later
on, providing school, public schooling, public
learning all the way through the University of
Ohio and he was doing it as was ruthless Putnam
because neither of them had had a
proper education. They knew what it was
to not be educated. Last night we heard, it’s
a report that today 30% of our population is illiterate. We’ve still got a long,
long way to go and we’ve got to get busy and fix that. [ Applause ]>>Marie Arana: Absolutely. [ Applause ] and you’re doing a
good piece of it. You have always been at– you know, you are in many ways
the great American teacher of history and you have
brought history to the masses. I want to know what is
the state of history in school rooms today? Do you have an idea?>>David McCullough:
It’s not good at all, and I think it’s largely
because of, and I’m not trying to be unfair about with
to do with the teachers and the required courses
that is the system. Teachers should not be
allowed to major in education. They should major in a subject. [ Applause ] The American teacher who
reached more children to anybody who ever lived is Mr. Rogers. He was taught by a woman
who taught at the University of Pittsburgh named
Margaret McFarlane, and her great admonition to teachers is show
them what you love and they will love it too. Now, you can’t love something
you don’t know any more than you love someone
you don’t know. So if you graduate with
a degree in education and you don’t know
anything about English or history particularly, or math
or what, and you’re assigned to teach that course, you’re not
going to be very good teacher. So, and I would also bring
back required courses. 80% of our colleges now today
will no longer be required taking any history in the four
years of college, that’s wrong. I think it’s also
important that students get to understand fairly
early in life that some things in
life are required. [ Laughter ] [ Applause ] I’d like very much to read you
a couple of things if I may.>>Marie Arana: Please do. Please do.>>David McCullough: This is
an account by the granddaughter of one of my five characters
remembering how life was growing up in the family, and with
particularly her grandmother. Barker, the Barker
children were raised as one daughter Katherine
would remember, “To be useful, to be pleasant with
your playmates, respectful to superiors,
just to all, black or white, good to the poor, not
showing pride or selfishness, but kindness and goodwill
and to see to it that we look to our own more than to
the faults of others”, and she’s had, there
was an expression that her mother most frequently
repeated, “Count the day lost at which the setting sun sees that is closed no
worthy action done”. These people imagine this,
believed in telling the truth. [ Laughter ] They did not believe in lying
or cheating or being unkind to people because they
had some peculiarity. Who believed strongly that all
men should be not only created equal but treated equally
and who worked hard to be useful all their
lives, and many of us in this room I know were
brought up that way. What’d you do today to
make things a little better for somebody? Now, I’d also like to read to
you one of the passage from one of the letters that Ephraim
Cutler wrote to his wife Sally, their correspondences, marvelous
touching in the extreme. He’s up at the legislature in
Massachusetts, is late December. Christmas is about to happen. He wants to be home
and he’s still trying to get this legislation
through about education. He wrote to her, Sally
a long letter over the– “Thick headed mortals
and knaves and politics. I’ve just returned from
attending a meeting of our committee and all
is hushed and slumber in the adjoining rooms,
the boarding house. The difficulty in making
thickheaded mortals understand plain questions is
sometimes vaccine, but this evening our
committee has had to contend with art and avarice combined. There is nowhere to be
found knaves more designing than at the legislature. We’re designing scoundrels
lurk and with species, words and demure looks. They calculate to
entrap the unwary and like bloodsuckers’
leech and suck the public”. You see how things have changed. [ Laughter ] He was fed up, truly
tired of it he wrote. “My head, hands, and
even heart are the age and the labors before me, but by no means did
he consider giving up. With his New England background
and his devotion to the cause of learning was no less than
ever, and he succeeded”.>>Marie Arana: Pretty great.>>David McCullough:
It is, thank you. [ Applause ]>>Marie Arana: Now,
this particular story, which is an extraordinary
story and we don’t know it and we don’t know
it well enough. There are several questions
that I want to ask you about it, but first of all, the
mix of people who were in this rush west were, I mean,
you have young Yale graduates, young Harvard graduates. You have also the warriors who have just finished
the revolutionary war and who are being
paid in whiskey.>>David McCullough: Right.>>Marie Arana: You have
a kind of rough and tumble and you have these
ideals at the same time, which seems to me a kind of
representation of American sort of the way we do things. It’s a frontier. There are those who have
come from the battlefield and will be useful to you. There are those who
come from the halls of education will
be useful to you.>>I think one thing
that we have to remember, and this is a serious
reality that we ought to understand is how hard
people had to work then. It wasn’t just that they
believed in work as the part of the way of a contributing
life, but work for survival and children worked,
women worked. Women in many ways worked harder
even than men, not from dawn to dusk and more, and
this particular group, and this is very, very important
were fundamentally descendants from the Puritans. Now, every time I
undertake a book, because I didn’t know
anything about it when I began, I learned an immense amount. One of the things that
I’d come to understand as I never did before as
well as I should have, is about the Puritans. My impression was
they all wore black and they wanted nobody
to ever have any fun. [ Laughter ] They didn’t wear black. Their ministers did,
but they didn’t. They wore colorful clothes
and they like to sing, they like the dance, they
like to have a little wine, they were human beings, but they
did believe in was education, learning because it
was their conviction. In order to understand the
realm of God, religion, the better life, the
better understanding, the better humanity, you
had to be able to read, and particularly you had to
be able to read the Bible. There was no question
about the necessity of education hence all
those great earliest schools and colleges like Harvard and
Yale, others were all started because they believed
in education and that thank goodness became a
part of the creed of our country in large part because
of this success in the new realm called
the northwest territory. Imagine if slavery
had been introduced into Ohio and Illinois. The difference in our history. History turned on
that one thing. Imagine they’d been no Abraham
Lincoln or Ulysses Grant, and think what has
come out of Ohio now, to what to get degree
we can attribute this and maybe something in
the water, I don’t know, but the man who first
circled the earth and the man who first put his feet
on the moon not only came from the same place or
the same state, Ohio, they came to the
same part of Ohio. Now is that coincidental? I’m not sure. Edison, we can go on and on
all came out of this place where they first
introduced public education. I love, and of course
the Wright brothers. I loved it when Wilbur Wright
was asked, what’s the secret of success as you understand it? He said, “Pick out a good mother
and father and grow up in Ohio”. [ Laughter ] But I hope this doesn’t
sound pretentious, but I’ve never said it in
front of an audience before, but I feel with every
project I undertake, I’m trying to do
something for my country.>>Marie Arana: Indeed
you have, indeed you have. I think you have– [ Applause ] You’ve taught us about– you’ve taught us about
American ingenuity. You’ve taught us perhaps that even though the world
was smaller back then and much more controllable
and in a sense, you see, when you see Ohio– In this
book, you see Ohio grow from Cutler, who comes
in the first, you know, people to actually go west
and establish Marietta, Ohio. By the end of the story, by
his death, there are millions of people in Ohio and that
enormous energy of building–>>David McCullough: He
got off on the right foot.>>Marie Arana: He did
get off on the right foot.>>David McCullough: The state and as the [inaudible]
territory.>>Marie Arana: Yes.>>David McCullough: Now, I don’t know how far many more
minutes we have, but I just want to tell this audience something.>>Marie Arana: Please.>>David McCullough:
I’m reading a book. It’s phenomenal. It’s called ‘Silver–>>Marie Arana: Nice stuff.>>David McCullough: -Sword–>>Marie Arana: Oh, stop.>>David McCullough: -and Stone, and it’s by somebody
named Marie Arana. [ Laughter ]>>Marie Arana: And he’s
also a very generous man.>>David McCullough: No, and honestly I thought I
knew a lot about history. I know nothing about history
compared to what’s in that book. This whole history of
Latin America and all that went long before any of
the colonial people showed up or even Columbus showed up. This brilliant American
is an immigrant and this brilliant American
has done a hell of a lot in her short time that does
deserves more attention and praise and gratitude
than you’ll ever get.>>Marie Arana: David. Thank you. Oh my goodness. [ Applause ] I think I could just
die and go to heaven. Thank you very much.>>David McCullough: Thank you.>>Marie Arana: Well, David,
let’s talk about the way that the world was so much
smaller than, because I wanted to ask you, how can we get
back to that sort of ingenuity, hard work, respect for freedom
of religion, which sometimes in some places we seem to
have lost, how we get back to the value of education
so that when people leave, as we heard yesterday,
from David Rubenstein, when people leave because there
are some people who graduate from college and never
read a book again.>>David McCullough:
Never read another book.>>Marie Arana: Never
read another book. How can we get back to
some of those values or do you think that’s
gone with– ?>>David McCullough: Well, I
truly believe that the people who are doing the most
important work in our country, clearly the most important
work are our teachers. [ Applause ] They are shaping our future. They are the ones
that mold all of us, and I doubt that there’s
anybody here today who can’t right away remember
Ms. So-and-So, or Mr. So-and-so who changed your life because of
the way they taught some subject or something that
they once said to you that you’ve never forgotten. I’ve had teachers all the
way through grade school, high school and college
that I know changed my life because one thing, their
attitude, their enthusiasm for their subject, they’re
understanding that you have to work to achieve learning and
that information isn’t learning. Information isn’t learning. If information were learning, if you memorize the word
Almanac, you’d be educated. If you memorize the
word Almanac, you wouldn’t be educated,
you’d be weird. [ Laughter ] And the difference
between information or facts and a story. E M Forrester, the great English
novelist said, if I tell you that king died and
then the queen died as a sequence of events. If I tell you the king
died and the queen died of grief, that’s a story. It’s that difference of the
story, and one of the writers who influenced me enormously was
Barbara Tuchman and she said, there’s no trick to teaching
history or writing history. Tell stories. That’s what we all are. Each of us has a story. Each city, each town, each
road either it goes West or South or North is a story. Every river is a story. Mark Twain understood
that right away. River towns are story towns because there’s always
something passing through, always something new
and we always want to know how’s it come out,
once they come out too. I think too, if we can encourage
our children to get up off out of the chair and do something
besides watch television. If we can get people
working on good projects. It can be building model
airplanes if you’d want or it can be working with
the Library of Congress, and we can do that and we can
encourage them to do that. When I grew up, my first
library card, that for me was as exciting as when I got
my first driver’s license. It changes your life. I grew up in Pittsburgh,
in the Pittsburgh– the library and the
Carnegie Museum and the Carnegie Concert Hall
are all under the same roof and I think that had
a big influence on me and all the others
that growing up there because we never thought
of them as separate. The books, the music, the art,
the science, the dinosaurs, the paintings, all part
of a rainy day Saturday, and a terrific part
and part of education. Part of the story. I was just recalling
this morning with a friend I went with– a high school classmate
with his mother and father on a history tour,
a spring vacation. We drove from Pittsburgh
down to Charlottesville, went to Monticello, saw the old
campus University of Virginia, then went on to Washington
then came back and stopped you at Gettysburg. It just opened my eyes in a way to American history
is nothing ever had. I was just– I was dizzy, and I
also thought that the University of Virginia looked very
appealing, very attractive. My older brothers
had gone to Yale and I started thinking
I would go to Yale and my English teacher
had gone to Yale and he was a wonderful character from Maine named [inaudible]
Inez, and I went in to see him after I got back from the
trip and I said, “Mr. Inez, I’ve just had a wonderful
trip with Steve and his mother and father and when we went
to University of Virginia, saw the beautiful campus there and I was thinking
maybe I might apply to University of Virginia”. He was standing right
close to me and he was considerably shorter
than I, and he jammed his finger into my chest and he said,
“You’re going to Yale McCullough and I don’t want to
hear any more about it”. [ Laughter ] You know, he didn’t say,
“Well, let’s sit down and talk about your inner most feelings”. [ Laughter ] It was a different approach
and I never thought about going to University of Virginia again. [ Laughter ] Great teachers change the world. I’ve been doing a collection
of prominent people who figured in our story, in all fields,
music, art, literature, politics, all of it,
and who was the teacher that they gave credit
for being what they were. Every single one of them
had such a teacher and one of the most lovely of all
is [inaudible] when she had to say about her teachers. Then of course she wound up being a teacher
for quite a while. I don’t know how many
of your teachers here, but you’re doing what needs
to be done and here’s to you. [ Applause ]>>Marie Arana: Speaking
of teachers, I want to know what you think
about, I mean, you’re a person who has really two ways of
communicating your hearing. One way of communicating his
astonishingly powerful voice as a narrator. We have heard his voice
on the John Adams series and on the Ken Burns
and whatnot. We have heard David’s voice
telling these stories, but telling the story on a
page requires a certain mastery of language, a certain
sensitivity, sensibility toward the
rhythm of a sentence. Tell us about your
approach to language itself.>>Well, I’ve always felt that to be a writer you
have to be a rewriter. So, I write everything
I write many times over. I also believe in writing
for the ear as well as eye because if somebody
reads it back to you, or even in some cases,
you read it yourself, you hear when you’re
repeating some words too often or when you’re sentence
structures repetitive or when you’re boring,
and Rosalee, my wife, Rosalee reads everything
that I write aloud to me, and we were working on the
last chapters of my book about ‘Theater of Roosevelt’,
this I will never forget, and she came to a sentence
and she read it and she said, “There’s something wrong with
that sentence”, and I said, “Well, read it again”. So she read it again. I said, “No, there’s nothing
wrong with that sentence”. She said, “Oh, yes there is”. I said, “Give it to me”. I was not being at my
best, and I read it to her. I said, “See nothing wrong”. She said, “Oh, yes there is”. I said, “Well, let’s
just go on”. So we went on and the
book eventually went onto the publisher
and it was published and it got wonderful reviews
except in the New York review of books in the review
by Garby Doll. He stopped at one point and
said sometimes, however, Mr. McCollough doesn’t
write very well. Consider this sentence. [ Laughter ] I have to tell you something
else about that the voice. There was a big snow storm in
Boston when we were living there and everything is stopped
and you couldn’t get food. So, I went over to the Star
Market in Back Bay to load up on provisions and we
worked out a list and I went and there got had found
everything we wanted except cashews, and as you all know, you can’t survive
without cashews. So there was this fellow walking by with a Star Market
label on his shirt. I said, “Excuse me sir,
but can you tell me where I’d find the cashews?” He said, “Yes, I’ll show you. Follow me”. So we followed him. He pointed it out. I thanked him very much. He went on his way. Well, then the administrator
or so, I was checking out the cash register and he
came up to me and he said, “Excuse me, were
you the narrator of the Ken Burns series
in the civil war?” I said, “Yes, I was”. He said, “I have to thank you
from the bottom of my heart because when that series
first came on the air, I was suffering terribly
from insomnia”. [ Laughter ] He said, “I’d hear that
voice and go right out”. [ Laughter ]>>Marie Arana: I don’t
believe that, but anyway.>>David McCullough:
Absolutely true. No, I think that
writing is all important. I think the first page of a
book is crucial, critical. I think that how book
ends is critical. One of my favorite endings
of one of my books is when the Wright brothers
put on their first exhibit of what they could do at
home out of the cow pasture where they had been
experimenting all those years and Orville wanted to take his
father up and his father was in his 80s and up they went, Oh,
Bishop Wright, wonderful man, and all the time
they were up there, Bishop Wright kept saying
higher Orville higher. That’s the spirit.>>Marie Arana: That’s
the spirit.>>David McCullough:
Also the quote that I began that book with. Wilbur said, “No bird
ever soared in a calm. You got to have adversity. You’ve got to have the
wind against you in order to lift off”, and that’s
so true, so very true. If everything were easy and
we did nothing but sit around, we would not only not
accomplish much of anything, I don’t think we’d
be very happy, and there’s always
something that needs fixed. Always people who need help, always advances that
are exciting. What’s happening in
medicine right now under our very noses is going
to be written about for years and years as maybe the most
important events of our time. It’s exciting and it’s all human
ingenuity, human perseverance and admirable use of the mind
and working together, all of it. I wish I could live
another 80 years. It’s going to be exciting.>>Marie Arana: Yeah, we do too. We do too. [ Applause ]>>David McCullough:
Now, I also must insist on revealing the secret of
my whole career success, accomplishments, everything. Her name is Rosalee
Barnes McCullough and Rosalee is our
secretary of the treasury. She is chair of the
ethics committee– [ Laughter ] — and she’s the most wonderful
editor partner in this work that no one could imagine. Sweetheart, would
you please stand up? [ Applause ]>>Marie Arana: That is a
great, great segue into, thank you for that
because that was going to be my next question,
and thinking of Rosalee how helpful she’s
been, especially trying to save you from that sentence,
whatever it was, but as a member of my gender, I want to say, because when you treat John
Adams, Abigail is there. When you treat the
Wright brothers–>>David McCullough:
The sister is there.>>Marie Arana: -the
sister is there.>>David McCullough: When I
treat Washington Roebling, Emily Roebling takes over.>>Marie Arana: Takes
over, absolutely–>>David McCullough: I
think in the last stages.>>Marie Arana: -and in
this book, Oh, my goodness, the women are added,
building this country.>>David McCullough:
Indispensable.>>Marie Arana: Yeah, so–>>David McCullough: They’ve
never been given sufficient credit, but that is
changing, thank goodness. [ Applause ] Years ago, years ago, I
read a marvelous book. I’ve never forgotten it and
I’d still tell people about it, and with the distinguished
name of Ashley Montagu, it’s called the ‘Natural
Superiority of Women’, and he has studied
this seriously as an anthropologist
and scholar. Women live longer. Women are less susceptible
to disease. Women mature in their minds,
their bodies faster than men. They are stronger on a per
weight basis, and it’s very easy to understand why, because
women are necessities in order for the race to survive. Men are no good except– 90%
of our time has been lived as caveman or prehistoric
people. All the men they had to be able
to do is plant the seed and go out and face the saber
tooth tiger, but women had to raise these young
minds, these brains, because we’re the only animal
isn’t born ready to go, and therefore they have
to be around the mothers, the women for at least
eight to 15 years. Now they know it’s
probably about 25 years. No, truly, the mind doesn’t
fully develop until about 22 or 23 years old, but
isn’t it wonderful? That’s progress. That’s real progress.>>Marie Arana: David, I want
to thank you from the bottom of my heart and from the bottom
of everybody’s heart here, and I want to read what
the Presidential Medal from Freedom citation,
which I think in capsulates the great gifts
that you’ve given this nation that you’ve given
us in making all of that history come
on, come alive. One of our nation’s
most distinguished and honored historians, David McCollough has taken his
own place in American history. United States honors
David McCullough for his lifelong efforts to
document the people, places, and events that have
shaped America, and so we honor you,
David McCullough.>>David McCullough:
Thank you, dear. [ Applause ]

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