Historian David McCullough personified curiosity, something we REALLY could use a lot more of right now
by Aimee Edmondson, President
Eulogies for two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author David McCullough laud his storytelling skills, his sonorous narration of Ken Burn’s “The Civil War,” and note his shock of white hair.
As America says goodbye to McCullough (1933-2022, funeral service scheduled for August 16 in West Tisbury, Mass.), we might contemplate another, perhaps unheralded, McCullough attribute: curiosity.
In this hyper-partisan era, where toxic divisions threaten the very survival of our democracy, I suggest that curiosity might help us figure out how to overcome the mentality of the raging online mob. Let me explain, but before I do, I’ll acknowledge that to some critics, McCullough might personify our tendency to overwrite about “great men.” Indeed, McCullough wrote about the Wright Brothers, Harry Truman and John Adams, all stories well told. But he also wrote about the Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal, the Johnstown flood and more. Typically he started out knowing little about his subject. He was just curious about this person or that, this thing or that. And most importantly, perhaps, he brought his love of history to the masses. He helped millions understand the importance of history.
His curiosity attracted him to stories that might seem widely noted, yet were under told in some way and often relating to people who overcame long odds.
Asking questions, including tough questions, is a high calling. The life and achievements of McCullough show us that curiosity leads to actual discovery, coexists with courtesy, and it must be life-long, not just for children.
Consider the genesis of McCullough’s late-in-life book “The Pioneers,” published in 2019.
As McCullough prepared his 2004 commencement speech at Ohio University on its 200th anniversary, he was intrigued by the name on the oldest building on campus here in Athens, Ohio: Cutler Hall, opened in 1819. It is also the oldest building in what was then called by white settlers the Northwest Territory of the United States. With its red brick federal architecture, Cutler Hall now houses our university president’s office and other administrative offices. It is a museum in its own right.
That curiosity — who was Cutler? — prompted McCullough to write “The Pioneers.”
Manasseh Cutler, a Massachusetts minister, established Ohio University in 1804. Adhering to terms of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Cutler and other investors in the Ohio Company of Associates set aside land for a public university in the Appalachian foothills. Note that six native American tribes perhaps most noted in Ohio’s history were in this territory: the Shawnee, Delaware, Ottawa, Miami, Seneca-Cayuga and Wyandot, the last being forcibly removed to Oklahoma in 1843.
The early white pioneers chronicled in McCullough’s book traveled on foot from New England to Pittsburgh (where McCullough was born), and then in the Spring of 1788 built boats to navigate the Ohio River to start a riverfront settlement they called Marietta – about 50 miles upriver from where I live today in Athens.
Marietta College Special Collections Manager Linda Showalter helped McCullough with his research at the library there: "He is curious about everything. When David discovered a great story, his excitement was contagious. He was always cheerful and enthusiastic during his research, and at one time was inspired by a piece of sheet music to sing a little song for us."
McCullough was an octogenarian at that point.
In his research, McCullough learned that Manasseh Cutler was a Yale grad and schoolteacher who became a chaplain during the Revolutionary War. He later served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and took the lead in writing the Ordinance of the Northwest Territory, particularly noted for drafting prohibitions regarding slavery in the new territories that would become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Curiosity is a strength, McCullough reminds us. Besides that life lesson, his curiosity about early “pioneers” yielded broader points about support for education and freedom of religion and opposition to slavery.
It was announced on August 8 that McCullough died at the age of 89. It’s also notable that President Richard Nixon announced his resignation on Aug. 8, 1974. And on Aug. 8, 2022, FBI agents raided former President Donald Trump’s Florida home in search of classified documents amid possible violations of the Espionage Act.
In an editorial last week in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, columnist John Rash noted the date. “However coincidental, the auspicious Aug. 8 timing is the type of symmetry America's eminent historian might wisely tie together in weighing the ways the presidency reflected — or led — the polarization that's only deepened over those 48 years.”
Unfortunately, Rash notes, the partisan raging on the internet did nothing to illuminate the history and the context of the unprecedented raid at Mar-a-Lago. But McCullough wouldn’t have partaken in the real-time discussion anyway. He took years with his meticulous research to bring his characters vividly back to life.
Rice University professor Douglas Brinkley pointed out that McCullough was “loved at the George W. Bush [Presidential] Library and was friends with Barack Obama. McCullough transcended party affiliation. And that was a conscious effort on his part, to unify our country by our shared history.”
Brinkley also lamented the loss of “referees in American life” such as Walter Cronkite. “There is not one trusted source anymore due to the balkanization of media.” Of course, members of the AJHA know this story all too well.
Cronkite, Brinkley said, advocated the teaching of media literacy. But “we're not teaching [that] in schools, so misinformation is running supreme.” And “until you can attack that cancer on the national soul and be able to have fact-based and trusted referees out there it’s a Wild-West environment out there and it doesn't do our democracy any good.”
Late in life, though, McCullough continued to connect history and vivid storytelling to the challenges of these modern times, quoting Cutler’s son, Ephraim: “If ignorance could be banished from our land, a real millennium would commence.”Blessed are the curious.