Monday, September 5, 2011

David McCullough's 'Greater Journey' to Paris and back

Monday, September 5, 2011

NEW YORK ? The nation's most celebrated and best-selling historian goes unrecognized amid the pigeons and tourists at Grand Army Plaza, at the south entrance of Manhattan's Central Park.

  • Capturing history: David McCullough, at the statue of Sherman in New York, has a new book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.

    By Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY

    Capturing history: David McCullough, at the statue of Sherman in New York, has a new book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.

By Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY

Capturing history: David McCullough, at the statue of Sherman in New York, has a new book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.

David McCullough, who says he's merely a "storyteller," not a trained historian, is here to pose before and admire a gilded 13-foot-high statue of Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman on horseback.

If anyone can bring that statue, its sculptor and subject to life (at least in the literary sense), it's McCullough, author of the best sellers Truman, John Adams and 1776. And that is exactly what he does as part of his latest book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris (Simon & Schuster, $37.50, in stores this week).

The book weaves together inspiring stories about young Americans — aspiring artists, doctors and writers — who went to study and work in Paris between 1830 and 1900, then returned home to make their marks.

As he writes, "Not all pioneers went west."

Among them was a driven and at times depressed perfectionist who designed and built the statue of Sherman: Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a shoemaker's son from New York who went to work at 13, and at 19, with little money, left for Paris. He was "bound," as he said, "to be a sculptor."

At the statue, which is mounted on an 11-foot-high pedestal, McCullough, 77, exclaims, "Isn't it great!" (As a writer, he rarely resorts to exclamation points. As an interview subject, he invites them.)

David McCullough by the numbers

There are more than 9 million copies of David McCullough's nine books in print. Among the most notable:
John Adams

-Spent 86 weeks in the Top 150 of USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list.

-Peaked at No. 2 in hardcover on June 7, 2001.

-Returned to the list in 2008, peaking at No. 19 on March 27 as HBO's miniseries adaptation


-3,138,000 copies in print.

-Entered the list at No. 1 on June 2, 2005, and spent 36 weeks in the Top 150.

-3,079,000 copies in print.

-Published in 1992, before USA TODAY's best seller list existed.

-1,408,000 copies in print.
The Greater Journey (May 2011)

-First printing: 550,000 copies.

"Look at that face! It's the face of a madman! Grim and pockmarked … the very image of the horrors of war!"

Sherman, celebrated and reviled for his brutal 1864 march from Atlanta to the sea, is famous for saying "War is hell." McCullough likes to recite the lesser known part of Sherman's speech: "I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine." McCullough lingers on the word moonshine.

"And look, there's the (horse's upraised) foot that gave Saint-Gaudens so much trouble."

But what McCullough likes best about the statue is the figure in front of Sherman, a barefooted, winged goddess of Victory. She clutches a palm branch in her left hand and reaches out with her right hand, as if leading the way for Sherman.

"She makes it great," McCullough says, noting the contrast between war-weary Sherman and Victory's youth and beauty. But, as he writes in The Greater Journey, "There is no joy, no gleam of triumph or glory in her expression. Her eyes are wide, her mouth open, as if she was under a spell."

Still admiring the statue, which was unveiled in 1903, McCullough adds, "She was African American (a 24-year-old model from South Carolina named Hettie Anderson). No one knows that!"

Working through history

After two best sellers set in the 18th century, John Adams (2001) and 1776 (2005), McCullough moved into the 19th century to write "not about politics and soldiers," but about "art and music and ideas and poetry, science and technology."

He found much already written about Americans in Paris during and after the American Revolution and even more about "the whole Fitzgerald-Hemingway-Gertrude Stein era," the Lost Generation of the 1920s.

But he says there's little about the period in between, before America had schools of architecture and art, or even let medical students work on cadavers.

"In America then, most women would have preferred to die than let a man — even a doctor — examine their bodies," he says. "The French weren't so squeamish, so American medical students in Paris could learn far more."

And as he has done in each of his nine books, starting with The Johnstown Flood (1968), "I learned as I went along. I write books that I wish existed, so I can read them."

He has won two Pulitzers — for Truman (1992) and John Adams— along with two National Book Awards, for The Path Between the Seas, about the Panama Canal (1977), and Mornings On Horseback, about the young Theodore Roosevelt (1981). And he's the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award.

Michael Korda, who has edited his previous four books, says McCullough is "driven by stories and by people, not just facts."

Korda, an author himself, says a lot of history written by professors and scholars is "dull — worthy but dull. It's what puts people off about history in school. David is scrupulous about his facts, but he's never dull."

McCullough says he reminds himself that those he's writing about "never knew what was going to happen. In a sense, there's no such thing as the past. Nobody lived in the past. They lived in their present. It's not our present. But they didn't know how things were going to turn out."

His new book assembles a remarkable cast of American talents who came to know each other in Paris.

Some would become famous: painters John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt, architect Stanford White and writer James Fenimore Cooper.

Others deserve to be better known, says McCullough: William Wells Brown, a fugitive slave who became the first African-American novelist; Elizabeth Blackwell, America's first female doctor; and George P.A. Healy, who rose out of poverty to become the best portrait painter of his day.

Although he "walked the same streets in Paris they walked," McCullough did most of his research at American libraries that house "all their wonderful letters and diaries. And what wonderful writers they all were!" (In one footnote, he observes, "It was a day and age when young people were expected to write letters to their families and to use the English language properly.")

He likes to quote Saint-Gaudens: "Coming here has been a wonderful experience, surprising in many respects, one of them being to find how much of an American I am."

Writing by typewriter

His title comes from a phrase at the end of his opening chapter that describes all the dangers of crossing the Atlantic in the 18th century:

"Great as their journey had been by sea, a greater journey had begun, as they already sensed, and from it they were to learn more, and bring back more, of infinite value to themselves and to their country than they yet knew."

McCullough's career began as a researcher, editor and writer for American Heritage magazine and the United States Information Agency under the legendary Edward R. Murrow. He says he still writes as he has for more than 40 years — on a second-hand Royal typewriter "that was built in 1940, and there's nothing wrong with it."

To anyone who asks, "But don't you know you could write faster on a computer?" he replies, "Yes, I do. But I don't want to write faster. I want to go slow. The quality will improve. At least, I hope so."

He writes with the ears and eyes of readers in mind. "My wife and I go back and forth reading the drafts to see how the sentences sound." He loves Dickens' admonition to writers: "Make me see."

"I try to make readers see what is happening — to smell it and to hear it, what people had for dinner, how long it took them to walk from here to there and what they saw along the way."

McCullough has five children, 18 grandchildren, and homes in Boston and Martha's Vineyard, Mass. He says he had no plans to retire.

He may write a book about reading and writing. (He worries that history and English aren't being taught well, though notes that one of his sons is a high school English teacher, "and we are so proud of him.")

He hasn't settled on the topic of his next history book. "It has to click," he says. "It's hard to explain."

After 52 years of marriage to Rosalee Barnes McCullough — "the first of my first readers and the best" — he says that deciding on a new subject for a new book is "like falling in love. You know it when it happens."

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