David McCullough is one of the true literary icons of our time. He's written the definitive biographies on Harry S. Truman and John Adams for which both he won the Pulitzer Prize.
His voice, which has been used to narrate Ken Burns's Civil War series, is nearly as recognized as his writing.
So when the opportunity to talk to the 77-year-old McCullough arose I pursued it.
McCullough has a new book out: The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. The story covers Americans in Paris from 1830 to 1900 and the many influences the city and country had on a score of influential people.
Because it's an off day between Games 4 and 5 of the NBA Finals, do yourself a favor and head to Dallas to see McCullough on Wednesday. The specifics are below.
Here is my Q&A with McCullough from today.
David McCullough: I must say, this is a first for me - I'm sitting here in a car, doing an interview on a cell phone. I've never done this before.
Mac Engel: What was the genesis for this book?
David McCullough: This has been gestating for a long time. I think it started when my older brother came back from Paris when I was 14 and listening to him talk about all that he had seen and done. What really kicked it into gear was one morning in Washington D.C and I was driving stuck in morning rush hour around Sheridan Circle. I looked up and saw the statue of (US general Phillip) Sheridan sitting there on his horse; at the same time I was listening to Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue on the radio. I adore his music and it has lifted me, as I am sure it has for many, out of the frustration out of a traffic jam.
I wondered, 'How many people know how Sheridan was'.
And I asked myself, 'Who is the more important American - Sheridan or Gershwin. Who is more alive today as part of our society'? The answer is both are very important but the point to me resonated is that this isn't about politicians or soldiers it's about composers or artists or scientists. People with ideas. I wanted to get away from politics and the military and write about something of a different nature.
Mac Engel: How did Parisians, or Euros, regard Americans at that time?
David McCullough: They were fascinated by them. There was no anti-American feeling in Paris during that period, certainly until the time of the Civil War. They were treated very well, and they are today if you make it clear you are trying to learn French and are interested in their culture and their way of life. France is playing a much bigger part in our history than people realize.
Washington D.C. was designed by a Frenchman. The Louisiana Purchase was instrumental in the growth of the country. Look at the rivers and towns with French names.
Mac Engel: How do you think technology will affect the way historians write history; will we see books such as these about current times in 50 years?
David McCullough: No, I don't think so. We don't write letters in this period. No one keeps journals. Most of my book is drawn from diaries. No one in public life would dare keep one today. I really wonder how people will do it. It's a concern. I was talking to people at the Library of Congress the other day about this. It's a concern. We're not sure they will last.
The most lasting way to preserve the records of any time still remains rag paper. Something written on rag paper. Paper that doesn't have chemical properties to disintegrate it. Or to carve it in stone. So I'm not even sure with all that is on computers and such how much of that will actually last.
Mac Engel: With instant-polling and immediate reactions, do you see great leadership existing any more the way it once did or do we have to re-define what political leadership is?
David McCullough: I am concerned we are not attracting the best of what is in us to public life. Politics has become such a media show business that the depth of the commitment and the depth of knowledge of history of our country that ought to be requisite is no longer.
This doesn't mean it won't surface. I tend to be a long-range optimist if a short-range pessimist. We have a lot of re-adjustments we need to do. We have to do a better job of educating our children and grand-children.
True patriotism is not just pounding, flag waving. I know we have the capacity to accomplish extraordinary things. We can still do it. We have to have larger missions, too. Not just solve issues all the time. I'd like to see us become cathedral builders, not in the literal sense, but to have some larger objective that's a noble symbol of affirmation.
Mac Engel: What/who inspired you to pursue this line of work?
David McCullough: I think teachers along the way. They are the most important people in our society. They are underpaid. They are under-appreciated and underrated. It's a very serious sign when the best and top students no longer want to go into teaching. We've all had those teachers who inspired, be it grade school, high school or college. It can happen at any point.
Mac Engel: How did you become a narrator?
David McCullough: KDKA, the NBC radio station in Pittsburgh asked me to do radio work some time ago. I had a voice that people liked even from the point when my voice changed. Ken Burns got me to do some of his films and one thing led to another.
Mac Engel: Do you see a day of the end of printed words and books as we know them and everything will be on a screen or monitor?
David McCullough: No I do not. The book is here to stay, maybe not for everybody. There are enough people who enjoy books, holding the books, taking them on or off the shelf and paging through them and marking them down that it is an innate part of being a human being. I don't think it will disappear.
Mac Engel: What is your favorite book?
David McCullough: I can't possibly answer that. It changes all the time.
Mac Engel: I have a feeling I know the answer but any idea of what your next project will be?
David McCullough: I was thinking about several ideas but nothing I am ready to share yet.
McCullough Appearance Info.
Wednesday, June 8
World Affairs Council and Dallas Museum of Art
1717 Akard Street
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