David McCullough, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian whose biographies gave character and compelling narratives to figures and moments that make up the fabric of the American experience, has died. He was 89.
His publisher, Simon & Schuster, said that McCullough died on Sunday at his home in Hinghman, MA, surrounded by his five children.
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Two of McCullough’s most famous works, presidential biographies of Harry Truman in 1992 and John Adams in 2001, not only won Pulitzer Prizes but were turned into TV miniseries. His gift for storytelling translated into that of a narrator of documentaries like Ken Burns’ Civil War.
McCullough received the National Book Award for The Path Between the Seas, about the building of the Panama Canal, and Mornings on Horseback, a biography of Theodore Roosevelt. Other best sellers included The Johnstown Flood, The Great Bridge, Brave Companions, 1776, The Greater Journey, The Wright Brothers, and The American Spirit. He also was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2006.
At the ceremony, Bush said, “For those who question the importance of history, David likes to quote Harry Truman, who said, ‘The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.’ David McCullough reminds us that ‘The laws we live by, the freedoms we enjoy, the institutions that we take for granted … are all the work of other people who went before us.'”
“A generous man who chose to believe the best about America, and about Americans. May light perpetual shine upon him,” author Jon Meacham wrote on Twitter after news of McCullough’s passing.
Jonathan Karp, the CEO of Simon & Schuster, said in a statement, “David McCullough was a national treasure. His books brought history to life for millions of readers. Through his biographies, he dramatically illustrated the most ennobling parts of the American character.” The publisher said that none of his books have been out of print, and have sold 14 million copies across all formats.
In 1989, McCullough was one of the few private citizens to address a joint session of Congress, as it celebrated its 200th anniversary.
Although he already had been one of the country’s preeminent historians, the publication of Truman and John Adams over the next decade or so made him a household name. His biography of Harry S Truman helped elevate the late president’s historical standing, and proved to be such a cultural sensation that candidates cited the work as an example of presidential character. Truman later became an HBO miniseries starring Gary Sinise.
Similarly, John Adams brought to life a figure who had often been dismissed in high school civics classes. While McCullough’s book highlighted Adams’ role as one of the most important of the founding fathers, it also vividly detailed his stubbornness and the night that he shared a hotel room bed with Benjamin Franklin and they argued over whether to keep a window open. That book, too, was adapted into an HBO miniseries featuring Paul Giamatti in the title role.
Tom Hanks, executive producer of John Adams, wrote on his Instagram page on Monday, “I will miss David McCullough every time I search for the next great read. He gave us gifts…”
McCullough’s books often reflected the positive aspects of the American experiment. The Great Bridge, about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, was one of his first works, published in 1972, and ranked among the Modern Library’s best non fiction books of last century. One of his final works, The Pioneers, drew some criticism for not more fully examining the treatment of Native Americans by white settlers in the 19th century.
McCullough narrated a number of other documentary projects, as well as the feature film Seabiscuit, and hosted public television shows like Smithsonian World and American Experience.
Although McCullough generally stayed out of the political fray, he did speak out about Donald Trump. He joined with Burns in 2016 in leading historians in speaking out against the then-GOP nominee. “President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who so admirably served his country his entire career, said there were four key qualities by which we should measure a leader: character, ability, responsibility and experience,” McCullough said, according to WGBH-TV. “Donald Trump fails to qualify on all four counts.”
In the early 1990s, McCullough was among a group of scholars who protested The Walt Disney Co.’s plans to build a history-based theme park, Disney’s America, in Manassas, VA, near Civil War battlefields. Those plans were eventually scrapped.
McCullough was born on July 7, 1933, in Pittsburgh, to parents who shared their interest in history. He attended Yale University, majoring in English, and recalled to The Wall Street Journal that Thornton Wilder, a resident scholar, encouraged him to write.
After graduation he worked at Sports Illustrated and later the United States Information Agency. A job at American Heritage helped lead him to write historical nonfiction, publishing his first work, The Johnstown Flood, in 1968.
McCullough’s wife, Rosalee, whom he married in 1954, died in June. They had five children.
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