David McCullough: Just Squint, and It's 1776

Historians in the News

AT the crest of a hill in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn one day in early December, a gust of wind makes the just-below-freezing temperatures seem just above tolerable. A voice - three parts honey, two parts gravitas with a grain or two of gravel thrown in - rises to be heard above the wind. It is the voice of God, only friendlier.

"It was like the parting of the seas," said David McCullough, the historian and familiar narrator of television epics, as we looked out on Brooklyn below and Manhattan in the distance.

He was recalling the retreat of Washington's army across the East River on Aug. 29, 1776, a daring escape from advancing British forces. The harbor was filled with a huge force of British ships, but a strong wind kept them anchored, unable to sail upstream to engage the Americans. The Americans gathered small boats for the river crossing, and a fog allowed this makeshift armada to leave Long Island safely. "It was a miracle," Mr. McCullough said. "If the wind had been blowing in a different direction that day, we'd all be sipping tea and singing 'God Save the Queen.' "

The characteristic twist at the end, rendered with an unforced twinkle, is part of what makes Mr. McCullough, 72, the people's historian - an irresistible combination of rigorous researcher, patriot and storyteller. His current bestseller, "1776," a history of what he calls "the most important year in the most important war in American history," takes as one of its chief preoccupations the City of New York and the critical battles - mostly lost, but all part of the path to ultimate victory - in places where New Yorkers now hail cabs and place Lotto bets.

New York is a relatively ancient place in the context of the New World, as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority found out recently when it ran smack dab into a wall dating from 1760 or earlier while digging a subway tunnel under Battery Park. But as a culture, New York is far more concerned with making history than preserving it. Most of its legacy as a nexus of critical events has been paved over. But Mr. McCullough, the abettor of American history, with two Pulitzers and two National Book Awards, has no trouble seeing it on this hill in Brooklyn, woodlands in 1776 and a cemetery since 1838. "It is all still happening for me," he said, gesturing out toward the Manhattan skyline. "A lot of what is here vanishes in my eye and I can put myself in that place and that time."

Many readers have seen great swaths of American history through those eyes, eyes that have been drawn to New York time and again. The Brooklyn Bridge, which lay below us, was the subject of the book that brought David McCullough into the public consciousness to stay. He has rendered John Adams and Theodore Roosevelt, men with large footprints in New York, into well-received biographies. Now as he annotated the city landscape for my benefit, storytelling his way through New York's critical role in the American Revolution, I was in his, and its, thrall. I started to see it, too.

When he is not pushing history through his Underwood typewriter in the office behind his house on Martha's Vineyard, Mr. McCullough has often given voice to the past as a narrator of Ken Burns's documentaries and host of "The American Experience" on PBS. He has a well-earned reputation as a nice man, and there is no bottom to his enthusiasm and curiosity.

At the cemetery, he led me to the statue of Minerva commemorating the Battle of Brooklyn, a horrific and demoralizing loss for the Americans, who had followed the British down to New York after brilliantly maneuvering them out of Boston. "Here and along the slopes of Greenwoods hills," the inscription below Minerva reads, "our patriots for the first time faced their foe in open field; and we stood the test."

Mr. McCullough is driven from book to book, he explained, closing his collar against the chill, by basic questions: "Who the hell are we? Where did we come from and how did we get to where we are today?"...

In some ways, David McCullough is an odd celebrity author. He admits to actually enjoying book tours, appears on television programs but declines to watch much television, and seems more excited to talk about his career as a Sunday painter of landscapes than his next book project. "I'm taking a bit of breather right now," he said. After nearly 40 years and eight books, none of which have ever gone out of print, he has laurels worth resting on. ...

Read entire article at David Carr in the NYT

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