Don't buy your dad the new David McCullough book for Father's DayRoundup
tags: books, David McCullough, Fathers Day
Neil J. Young is a historian and the author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. He writes frequently on American politics, culture, and religion for publications including The New York Times, The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, HuffPost, Vox, and Politico. He co-hosts the history podcast Past Present.
All across the country next weekend, thousands of men will open their Father's Day gifts to find David McCullough's new book, The Pioneers. McCullough, the author of more than a dozen books and the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, may be America's most famous popular historian. Like most of his books, The Pioneers has staked its claim near the top of bestseller lists since its publication in early May.
The Pioneers tells the story of the nation's westward expansion in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, focusing on the settlement of Marietta, Ohio and the larger Northwest Territory. The book's subtitle, "The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West," gives you a sense of the book's thesis. And also its appeal.
McCullough appears to have written the perfect dad book. A sweeping narrative of decent, hardworking men who built this nation that also reminds us of our better selves — and the moral bearings to which the United States must rededicate itself. Given the state of the nation — and, especially, the health (or not) of the American ideal in 2019 — The Pioneers might seem the needed balm for our ravaged age. If ever there were a time for heroes, surely it is now.
But that romantic view is the book's very danger.
The problem of McCullough's story owes to how closely it reflects, even if unintentionally, the white nationalist myth that undergirds Trumpism. The Pioneers highlights the story of a handful of white settlers, men who McCullough describes in the book's acknowledgments as "entirely unknown to most Americans." His publisher, Simon and Schuster, has similarly hyped the book, and some reviews have joined in. NPR's book critic, for example, hailed the book as a "fascinating look at a chapter in American history that's been somewhat neglected in the country's popular imagination."