Critics have called David McCullough America's premier narrative historian, and rightly so: McCullough is both a scholar and a storyteller, a meticulous researcher and a highly engaging writer. Given his ability to turn a 750-page biography of an often-overlooked, one-term president into a national bestseller, it might even be said that McCullough is a magician. Gordon Wood, author of The Radicalism of the American Revolution and a professor of history at Brown University, has said McCullough "is without doubt the most celebrated of what you could call our 'popular historians,' and he's also respected by academic historians."
McCullough, who majored in English literature at Yale, began his career as a magazine writer, but turned to history after reading some uninspired accounts of the disastrous 1899 flood of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He wrote his own history of the flood and its aftermath, and went on to chronicle two great feats of engineering: the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the creation of the Panama Canal.
Both The Great Bridge and The Path Between the Seas were bestsellers, and the latter won a National Book Award. Critics praised McCullough for his vivid descriptions and lively excerpts of firsthand accounts. The Great Bridge, wrote Robert Kirsch in The Los Angeles Times, is "a book so compelling and complete as to be a literary monument, one of the best books I have read in years." McCullough then progressed from the Panama Canal to its great proponent Theodore Roosevelt, the subject of his first biography. Mornings on Horseback, about the young Teddy Roosevelt, was hailed as a "masterpiece" by Newsday 's John A. Gable and praised as "a beautifully told story, filled with fresh detail" by The New York Times Book Review.
McCullough spent the next ten years researching and writing about Harry Truman, and the resulting book was a complex, compelling and affectionate portrait of America's 33d president. Truman won the Pulitzer Prize for biography and sold well over 1 million copies. Another Pulitzer Prize was awarded to McCullough's next book, John Adams, also a bestseller.
"McCullough's appreciation for Adams, like his appreciation for Truman, depends on an adherence to certain old-fashioned moral guidelines, which is to say on strength of character," wrote New York Times reviewer Pauline Maier. McCullough is eloquent about his subjects' honesty, unpretentiousness and deep sense of civic duty, though critics have sometimes charged that he is too quick to excuse or pass over their failings. But McCullough has his own reservations about "a certain school of historians who don't just want to prove somebody from the past had feet of clay, they want to show he's nothing but clay."
McCullough can admire his subjects in spite of their faults; as he once said, "The more we see the founders as humans the more we can understand them." Through his books, millions of readers have found American heroes whose human characters are as well worth studying as their historic accomplishments.
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In researching John Adams, McCullough went to every place in Europe that Adams had lived, in England, France and Holland. He also traveled with his wife along the same route Adams and Jefferson took when they toured the gardens of England. "If I had been able to sail across the Atlantic in a 24-gun frigate, as John Adams did, I would have done that, too," he said.
In addition to his work as a writer, McCullough has hosted the public television shows Smithsonian World and The American Experience, and narrated Ken Burns's documentary The Civil War.
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