On August 28 I finished reading The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough. It was a milestone read in that it was the last remaining McCullough book I had to read. Having read it, I have read the complete David McCullough–at least his books. Since he recently passed away, unless he has a book in press, there won’t be another. Sadder words are hard come by for a reader such as me.
For those curious, I read the books over a long period of years and in the following order:
|Title||Date first read|
|Brave Companions: Portraits in History||5/8/2018|
|The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris||3/18/2019|
|The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For||5/11/2019|
|The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge||9/21/2020|
|The Wright Brothers||9/26/2020|
|The Johnstown Flood||8/12/2022|
|Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life, and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt||8/18/2022|
|The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914||8/28/2022|
My favorite of all McCullough’s books is also my first, John Adams, which I have read 3 times and from which I feel I profit more from each reading. Truman is another that I have read more than once, fascinated by the depth and detail. Both these books made me feel as if I was living in the times in which they take place. Both The Great Bridge and The Path Between the Seas are biographies of engineering marvels, each filled with fascinating details. Despite these books being history, in both cases I was, at times, on the edge of my seat wondering if these great works would ever be completed.
That is the power–the gift–of the writer. And McCullough was a gifted writer, biographer and historian. Certainly he was one of my favorites. But why was he so good? I’ve been giving that some thought lately and I think it comes down to four factors:
- Quality of research. McCullough immersed himself in research, focusing on primary sources, including diaries and letters from people where were there. He often identified multiple sources or witness accounts of the same event and used them to suss out the truth so far as it could be determined–something he was always careful to mention when certain facts were in question or uncorroborated. He was patient, and didn’t rush the research. He worked part time on his first book, The Johnstown Flood. When he came to write the biography of Truman, he spent ten years on the research.
- Remarkable storytelling ability. McCullough had a remarkable ability to synthesize all of that research and find within it a compelling storyline. All of that painstaking research, all of those gathered facts and corroborations combined with an unusually gifted talent for writing and storytelling to put the reader in the middle of everything. Reading John Adams, I felt I was standing in the room while the debate of independence was carried out. When describing the digging of the canal, I felt I was out there among the man and mosquitos.
- Courage to explore. McCullough took the time and space he needed to explore all aspects of a subject. As asthma played a significant role in the life of Theodore Roosevelt, he took time in his biography of the young Roosevelt, Mornings on Horseback, to do a deep dive into the history of asthma from ancient times to the present. Similarly, one can’t discuss the digging of the Panama Canal without discussing disease, and one can’t discuss malaria without at least mentioning the mosquito. McCullough took a fascinating deep dive here as well.
- A knack for choosing interesting subjects. McCullough picked subjects that were both interesting and lesser-know. Even now the only other biography of note I can thing of with respect to John Adams’ is Page Smith’s, which was published some 40 years before McCullough’s biography came out. The Johnstown flood had been virtually forgotten.
Combined, it is no wonder that McCullough was as successful a writer as he turned out to be. It was inevitable. And yet, I wish he could have written more. Once, I saw an interview where he mentioned having dozens of projects listed out that he wanted to tackle. It turns out there just wasn’t enough time. In idle moments, I wonder what those subjects might be, and what wonderful books might have emerged from them.
Written on August 31, 2022.
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