It seems as if David McCullough has done it all. He’s a best-selling historian and biographer; a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize; a narrator for numerous documentaries, including Ken Burns’ “The Civil War”; and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.
“This is the sort of thing I wanted to do since I was a young boy,” said McCullough in a recent phone interview from New York City. His latest book and 10th overall, “The Wright Brothers” (269 pages, $30, Simon & Schuster), has just been released and is already the No. 1 book in America.
“From a young age, I wanted to be a writer. I wrote for what passed as a little newspaper in grade school,” he said, “and I was the editor of the high school yearbook, the editor for our school literary magazine, and I wrote for the school newspaper.”
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His problem was that he also loved to paint and draw and he loved theater and wanted to be an actor. “I couldn’t make up my mind what I wanted to do, so when I graduated from Yale it suddenly occurred to me to go to New York City and see what would happen.”
McCullough ended up getting a job with Time Life Co., which gave him the opportunity to research and write and learn how to be a full-time writer.
“For me, writing is a calling,” McCullough said. “I want to give back to my country, and I don’t talk about that. I’m not sure if I’ve ever told anybody this before. I feel so fortunate that I’ve been able to make a sufficient living to support my family writing books about the country I love and the people who have made this country so great.”
He got the idea for this latest book while doing the research on his previous one, “The Greatest Journey.” That book described some of the influential Americans who had journeyed to Paris in the late 1700s and through much of the 1800s to study and learn from Europe’s greatest thinkers and artists.
“In my research I was stunned to come upon the Wright Brothers,” he said. “What were they doing here? Like most people, I always thought of them as a couple of bike mechanics who somehow invented the airplane.”
He read many of the letters that Wilbur Wright wrote home to his brother Orville and his sister Katherine.
“Wilbur was in Paris demonstrating his plane, but he went to the Louvre every chance he could to observe the paintings and he wrote marvelous letters about the city’s architecture. I was very impressed with how well he thought and wrote.”
As McCullough began to research the Wright Brothers, he began to realize how similar they were to Harry Truman, the subject of the book that won him his first Pulitzer Prize.
“All three of them came from the same part of the country, the Midwest,” he said. “They lived during the same time period. They would never give up, and they never got too big for their britches. All three of them were authentic. They had purpose. They were modest and devoted to their families.”
His hope is that young people will pick up this book and see the importance of learning how to use the English language.
“These were two brothers who never graduated from high school, but they were avid readers and they were incapable of writing a dull letter. They grew up in a house with no running water, no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no telephone, but it was full of books.”
McCullough loves discovering things in his research and also finding secondary characters that might otherwise be forgotten or not given much credit.
“I feel this book finally shows the importance of their sister Katherine, who was able to take care of them and allow them the chance to work on their dream,” he said. “Charlie Taylor, the manager of their bike shop in Dayton, is another unsung hero who was a sort of mechanical genius and solved many of the problems they had with their early engines.”
The research is fun, but McCullough said the writing is more fun. “Writing allows me the chance to think. That’s when I’m really alive. When I’m in the middle of a book I can’t wait to get up out of bed and get back to it. Writing gives me the time to discover what I’ve researched, and that’s a real joy.”
He said the secret to being a good historian is to remember that history is about people. “History is human. It isn’t about dates and memorizing obscure historical facts. It should never be boring, and it should never be made boring by dull textbooks and dull teachers. History is about a life.”
Research and writing continue to teach him things. “One thing I hope will come across in this book is the importance of knowing how to handle defeat,” McCullough said. “The Wright brothers encountered many problems and they didn’t start whining or blaming other people. They got right back up and kept going. It was also very dangerous, and they knew every time they went up in their plane they might die. That explains why they never flew together.”
He also thinks of this book as part of a trilogy. “Building the airplane was another great human endeavor like my book about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge and my other book about the Panama Canal. Some of the material was a bit technical, but I tried to make it accessible and understandable to me, figuring if I could understand how these things were made then the reader would as well.”
A common theme that links the Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal and the Wright Brothers Flyer goes all the way back to his favorite picture book when he was a child.
“I loved the book ‘The Little Engine That Could,’ and I guess in some way I’ve always been impressed with that ability to never give up and to believe in yourself,” McCullough said. “We all need a little bit of that little engine saying ‘I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.’ ”