by: Jon Meacham
I N THE COLD FIRST WEEKS OF THE YEAR, THE COMMANDER IN CHIEF of the Continental Army was close to despair. George Washington is usually depicted as the most unflappable of the founders-tall, cool, courageous. In our national mythology he seems to have been born for immortality and destined for veneration, but late on these winter nights, headquartered in an old house by the Charles River in Massachusetts, Washington was suffused with great gloom. As David McCullough tells it in his new book, “1776,” there were too few
soldiers and too few guns; the American experiment might be over before it really even began.
“The reflection upon my situation and that of this army produces many an uneasy hour when all around me are wrapped in sleep,” Washington wrote. “Few know the predicament we are in.
And few Americans in the first years of the 21st century have fully appreciated the complex character of the man who made us possible. For generations he has been the most distant of the Founders, but we are now in the midst of rediscovering the real Washington. Last year brought Joseph Ellis’s best-selling “His Excellency,” and next week (June, 2005) McCullough, America’s best-loved historian, is publis-hing his vivid account of Washington and the Continental Army that NEWSWEEK excerpts in the following pages.
“1776” is vintage McCullough: colorful, eloquent and illuminating. In reconstruct-
ing that epic year in the life of the American Revolution, he has given us a fresh portrait of Washington himself. Prone to self-doubt and flashes of self-pity, Wash-ington was insecure, hated New Englanders, obsessed over the smallest details of decoration at Mt. Vernon and was hungry for fame. A very human hero, he was, mysteriously, a man other men would follow. And by placing readers in the fright-ened, disease-ridden, hungry ranks of the rebels, McCullough recovers the role of hope, perseverance and courage in the struggle.
Arriving at a moment of uncertainty about America’s security and standing in the world, McCullough’s book is a reminder that we have faced much, and overcome much, before. “The fortunes of the United States of America never looked so bleak as they did in 1776—never,” says McCullough. “Everything was down to 3,000 men. At key moments, if the wind had blown differently in New York in August or on the Delaware River in December, it would have all been over. I truly do believe that.”
Inevitably, “1776” will be read by some as a cautionary tale about imperial overreach, while others will find it an exemplary saga of how freedom-loving people can topple tyranny and, in Thomas Paine’s words, “begin the world over again.” McCullough, however, is in the business of history and storytelling, not contemporary politics. In the book (and in conversation), he steers clear of drawing parallels between the 18th century and our own. “1 want my books to unfold as narratives,” he says. “I think there is an intellectual honesty to that—the story unfolds as it happened for the people who were living through it.”
The only sound in the room where McCullough works—a tiny book-lined shingled building, just 8 feet by 12—comes from the clack-clack-clack of a 1940 Royal manual typewriter, bought secondhand in White Plains, New York, in 1965. The setting is snug, almost claustrophobic, but it is here, in his back-yard office on Martha’s Vineyard, that Mc-Cullough’s imagination roams through the American past, summoning the spirits of dead presidents and generals, resurrecting long- forgotten foot soldiers and re-creating the chaos and cannon fire of distant battles.
When McCullough looks up from his Royal, he can see the restored farmhouse where he has lived for 30 years with his wife, Rosalee. The house, McCullough says on a recent sun-splashed morning, “is part 18th century, part 19th and part 2Oth”—a good way to describe the canon of work he has created in this small studio office: award-winning books on subjects ranging from the Panama Canal and the Brooklyn Bridge to Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Thiman and John Adams.
The pages that he pulls through the carriage of the typewriter—about four a day during prime writing season—have become the most widely read nonfiction of the age and made McCullough the central figure in a renaissance of popular history. From Ken Burns’s epochal series “The Civil War” to “The American Experience,” his baritone is the voice of the past for two generations of PBS viewers. And he is probably the only man in America who could inspire HBO to make a mini-series about John Adams.
Some professional historians find McCullough’s work too safe and too smooth. A careful reading of his books, however, does not really support that academic critique. McCullough is the least cynical of writers, but he is also among the most clear-eyed. “History is not the story of heroes entirely,” he says It is often the story of cruelty and injustice and shortsightedness. There are monsters there is evil, there is betrayal. That’s why people should read Shakespeare and Dickens as well as history—they will find the best, the worst, the height of noble attainment and the depths of depravity.” In “1776,” for instance, Washington is a great man—hut his way of life, McCullough makes clear, is made possible by slavery.
There is an irony about McCullough: he is a wildly popular anachronism. In a nation of 24-hour cable and blogging, he speaks in warm, unaffected tones about the classic “Ben and Me,” or about “Two Years Before the Mast,” the first book he ever bought with his own money, or about how history teachers should use Gershwin in the classroom. “Reading history is good for all of us,” he says, not surpris-ingly, perhaps, but his rationale is a fresh, somewhat bracing thought : “If you know history, you know that there is no such thing as a self-made man or self-made woman. We are shaped by people we have never met. Yes, reading history will make you a better citizen and more appreciative of the law, and of freedom, and of how the economy works or doesn’t work, but it is also an immense pleasure—the way art is, or music is, or poetry is. And it’s never stale.”
Certainly not in McCullough’s hands. Born in 1933, the son of the owner of an electrical-supply company in Pittsburgh, McCullough, the third of four boys, grew up in a largely vanished world, attending a private day school and graduating from Yale in 1955. He worked as a writer and editor at Time Inc., then went to Washington to he part of the New Frontier. He landed a post at Edward R. Murrow’s United States Information Agency. Standing with Rosalee out side his writing studio, recounting the story of his job interview, he recalls being asked what he knew about Arabs. “Sir I don’t know anything at all about Arabs’ McCtillough replied, only to he told: “Well, you’ll learn? He found himself producing a magazine—which he had never done before—directed at the Middle East. Thinking back on the time, McCullough glances at Rosalee and says, “I had to learn a lot fast, didn’t I, pal?” She smiles at the memory. A small but telling moment: McCullough asks the question with a sweet, vulnerable look, the look of a man who has long depended on the woman he married in 1954, for without Rosalee, McCullough would probably not have become such a towering cultural figure. In the late 1960s, he was trying to work at American Heritage in New York and write his first hook, “The Johnstown Flood’ at night. It was incredibly difficult, and he and Rosalee debated whether he could risk quitting his day job. With four children and another to come, it was not an easy decision. “Rosalee’s courage at that time was crucial7 he says . “If she had been reluctant, I can’t imagine I would have done it.” There were hints of his future success: Reader’s Digest took “The Johnstown Flood” as a condensed book, and the initial payment of $15,000, McCullough says, “really changed my life:’ They settled on the Vineyard full time in 1972 after paying $4,000 down on the farmhouse, put in a furnace, built the writing studio and went to work. “You could live on the Vineyard for almost nothing then,” he says, which was good, because that’s what I was making.” Still, things were chancy. When McCullough would be invited to speak at colleges in those early years, his businessman father would say, “Great, maybe they’ll offer you a job.”
Dad needn’t have worried. The boy who was transfixed by the N. C. Wyeth-illustrated editions of books like “Treasure Island” had the gift of story in his bones, and translated that passion to sweeping and honored histories and biographies. In 1992, with the monumental “Truman,” McCullough won the first of his two Pulitzer Prizes (the other came in 2001 for “John Adams”), and with that book at last came real financial security.
The next project? Unclear right now, but he will find the answer soon enough. He always does. “In the last analysis, I never know why I choose what I choose to write ahout’ he says. “There is just a click.” And when the click comes, he will move out through the screen door, down the porch steps, through the backyard, and the clacking of the Royal will begin again. “History, like America7 McCullough says, “is always a work in progress, an experiment, an adventure, a journey.”
For the country, the path ahead is never entirely smooth, hut, as Washington’s story shows, faith and patience can see us through the longest of nights. In those bleak months in 1776, Washington held on to the hope that, as he said, “perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages”—a reassuring thought from a remote but relevant time.
MAY 23, 2005. (Pgs. 38-41)
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