David McCullough on the art of biography
Published: September 12, 2001
|Research and writing advice from the celebrated Pulitzer Prize-winning author|
For 30 years, some of the biggest and best works of popular history in America have emerged from a little shed in David McCullough's back yard on Martha's Vineyard, Mass. There, working on a manual typewriter and surrounded by up to 1,000 books, McCullough has established himself, in the words of recent reviewers, as America's "most celebrated popular historian" and "most beloved biographer."
Working loyally in the nonacademic tradition of Bruce Catton and Barbara Tuchman, McCullough has masterfully brought grand historical subjects to life for the general reader, devoting many years of research and writing to understanding and elucidating the context and human drama of great events. He is a historian of deep feeling with a journalist's eye for telling detail. "There's no great mystery about how to make history interesting," he once told an interviewer; "that is simply to tell stories." The smooth, clean prose style he has used to tell those stories is a model for nonfiction writers.
His narrative histories have won a host of prestigious prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize for his 1,117-page biography Truman; a National Book Award for The Path Between the Seas, his epic study of the creation of the Panama Canal; and a second National Book Award for Mornings on Horseback, his absorbing look at Teddy Roosevelt's formative years. An emblem of quality is the fact that all of his books, which also include The Great Bridge, a superb narrative of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, and The Johnstown Flood, his 1968 debut, remain in print.
McCullough, 68, has also become a familiar voice as the narrator of Ken Burns' hit PBS documentary on the Civil War and the host of the PBS series "The American Experience" and "Smithsonian World." His voice, like his writing, is crisp and clear.
A few naysayers, including Princeton historian Sean Wilentz in a major piece on McCullough in The New Republic last summer, have faulted him for being too easy on his subjects, or for sacrificing critical analysis for narrative flow and uplifting storytelling. But with his new biography, John Adams (Simon and Schuster, 2001), McCullough is enjoying another chorus of praise in most reviews. Gordon S. Woods, a leading academic historian of the American revolutionary era, wrote in The New York Review of Books, "This big but extremely readable book is by far the best biography of Adams ever written." Woods said McCullough has the respect of academic historians, and that "his special gift as an artist is his ability to recreate past human beings in all their fullness and all their humanity."
Long overshadowed by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, John Adams gets his due in McCullough's biography -- and indeed, clearly gets the better of Jefferson, at least in the character and courage department. Adams' service as the nation's first vice president and second president is comparatively well known; what's overlooked is his brilliant role as one of the great movers of independence, and his perilous journeys and persistence in obtaining crucial foreign money for the American rebels.
McCullough also mines two compelling subplots in the story: the marriage of Adams and his exceptional wife, Abigail, which he calls "one of the great love stories in American history," and the troubled friendship of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson -- two remarkably different men who also had much in common and who "helped make the country happen."
In fact, McCullough originally considered doing his book strictly on the intertwining lives of the two men. "Adams and Jefferson are friends and fellow patriots and then even closer friends when they go to Europe," he says, tracing the checkered history of their relationship. "And then they come back and get back in the political swing at a time when the party system is on the rise, find themselves on opposite sides and become rivals, then, really, enemies. There's a long spell, almost 11 years, when they don't speak to each other. And then they become friends again. There's a reconciliation. And they carry on one what is one of the greatest exchanges of letters in American history -- one of the greatest exchanges of letters in the English language. And then they die on the same day [amazingly, on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of independence]. I mean, it's unbelievable. If you suggested that as the plot of a novel, your editor would say, well, that doesn't happen in real life."
As McCullough got farther into his material, something clicked. "I realized that something inside me was saying: Adams is your subject -- I had to do a book about John Adams. And I've been on it for more than six years. And I've never -- never -- had such material to work with."
In an interview with The Writer in Chicago during his book tour for John Adams, McCullough talked about the challenges he faced in writing the book, and had much to say about developing as a writer, his work habits and the joy of research.
By and large, you've written about pretty admirable people. Is there a danger in that while immersing yourself in the research, you grow to admire them in many ways? Is there a danger of becoming a booster or a cheerleader, versus writing about a scoundrel -- a Stalin, a Hitler, a Pol Pot?
Oh, people ask me that. Sure, there's a danger, but not if you're professional about it. You can also say, is there danger in never doing anyone admirable that you get a very jaundiced view of life? People are admirable. People can be admirable. There's a Seamus Heaney poem that was just in The [New York] Times yesterday: "There comes a time when each of us needs to celebrate miracles when we see them." And I think that's true.
What draws me to the subject is not whether the characters are admirable or not. Though I'm sure I would not want to do a Hitler. You've got to keep company with these people every day, for six or seven years or more.
People like monsters. Little kids like monsters. It's in us. We're fascinated by monsters. And some people like to write about monsters. I don't. I like to tell a good story. And while it may be true that the people I write about may be seen, in the last analysis, as admirable people, I don't think there's been anything derogatory said about them or anything that's known to be a failing in them that's not in the story I tell. In fact, you need the unpleasant; you can't see the light if you don't have the shadow.
I think one of the themes of my [Adams] book is that [the founding fathers] all had their failings and frailties, which is part of the point, that they weren't gods, they weren't perfect, they weren't superhuman. If they had been, then we really needn't give them credit for what they did because gods can do anything. The fact is that they, as failed, flawed, inconsistent, contradictory, sometimes unpleasant, sometimes devious human beings, accomplished what they did. That's what makes it such an emblem to take heart from.
You said that with Adams, you've never had such good material to work with. This despite the fact that you obviously didn't have interviews to supplement your research?
That's right. That's a very good point -- I didn't have interviews, I didn't have photographs, I didn't have film, I didn't have television tape. Because other things make up for those deficiencies: the diaries, the letters, the quality of the thinking -- and it's not just the quantity of what John and Abigail and others have left us, but the quality of it. To have over a thousand letters between John Adams and his wife, Abigail, is like opening up a cave and there are the treasures.
And you went through all of them?
Oh yes, of course. And I don't think Abigail was capable of writing a dull letter, and neither was capable of writing a short letter [laughs]. And the candid quality of them, the trust they have in one another -- they're just pouring it out: everything they feel, everything wonderful that's happening in their life. And his diaries are no less revealing and in many ways the most revealing of all, particularly his early diaries.
Did you have to decipher all that tiny handwriting?
No, because of the published Adams papers, which have been coming out steadily for 50 years. Now I didn't go through all the family papers -- that's 608 reels of microfilm. But I read all the books.
For important letters, I always went and read the real letter. You can tell a lot from a letter, the actual letter, that doesn't come through when it's reproduced. With Adams you can often tell what kind of mood he's in, unlike Jefferson, whose writing is always the same no matter what. Adams is very expressive in his writing. If he's angry, you can sort of tell its angry feeling. If he's up, it runs uphill; if he's down, it runs downhill. If he's trying to save paper, it's minute.
Those diaries that he kept when he was a schoolteacher in Worcester [Mass.], I actually had to use a magnifying glass to read. And yet he's writing by candlelight with a quill pen. And they're tiny -- they're only about the size of your hand.
And there's some sort of physical contact, kind of a tactile connection with those people [the Adamses], when you hold those same pieces of paper in your hand, and you see when she [Abigail] had to stick her quill in to get more ink because it was running out.
All of your books have been, to varying degrees, pretty massive research projects. What would you say to writers who are interested in doing historical articles, maybe a book, but feel intimidated by a daunting research task?
Lucky you. Because you have to have 10 times what you're going to use or more. Maybe it's because I grew up in Pittsburgh that I sometimes think of it as processing ore. You have to have carloads of that ore to make the steel you want to produce. So the more you have to choose from, the more fortunate you are, the less you have to resort to conjecture.
And don't pick a subject for which there's not much to work with. Far better to take a subject that may be relatively unknown which provides a great abundance of material to work with.
Let's take an example. Let's suppose you decide Martha Washington would make a wonderful book (and I don't know that this is true). You find out that Martha Washington left relatively little to work with. Far better to pick the wife of an army surgeon in a remote army post in the West in the 1870s if that woman kept a wonderful diary and wrote marvelous letters, and was involved in a court trial for which there are transcriptions of all that was said, and there are pictures and maybe she was also a painter who did little drawings and sketches. She'd make a terrific subject, whereas I'd stay away from Martha Washington.
But isn't it human nature for writers reading about the kinds of projects you take on to sort of hold their head in despair -- like, oh my God, how do you get through all that?
Well, you do get through it because you're motivated by the material. You get your energy from the material. The better the material, the more energy you have. Your excitement builds. It's human nature that the more you know, the more you want to know. It's accelerative.
There are several mistakes people make in undertaking the kind of book I do. One is that they think that the way you do it is that you do all the research and then you write the book. That's not the way it happens. That's the way I thought it worked, and when I did my first book that's what I did.
I was an English major in college; I didn't know how to do historic research. But I had worked as a writer and a journalist, and I knew something about how you find things out. And I knew you kept asking not where and when and what, but why do things happen?
The first mistake I made was that I should conceal what I was up to because somebody might steal my wonderful idea. In fact, the reverse is true: Tell everyone you can possibly tell what you're working on, because you never know from whence is going to come a good lead, a wonderful entree to a whole collection of material you didn't know about, or an interview with someone you didn't realize was still alive.
The second mistake is, don't try to do all the research and then start writing. Start writing when you feel you have a good grasp of the overall content of the subject, of the story, if you will, and enough primary-source research and reading, in the early part of the book, to at least get you going.
And then start writing, because it's when you start writing that you find out what you don't know. You find out what you need to know. You see what you're missing and what you need to concentrate on. The tendency, if you do all the research, is you often spend an immense amount of time on individual characters or issues that really aren't as important as you think they are, until you get into it.
You're on a journey, and a journey includes both the reading and research, and the writing. And they should go forward together. I'm still researching right up until the last page, and I'm still researching things that I've already written about. You can always go back and change it.
Does this mean you're writing a rough draft as you go?
No. Never. I'm writing and rewriting all the time as I proceed. Now if I find something that either changes my point of view about something I've already written, or which ought to be included in what I've written earlier, I go back and change it.
I try to write four double-spaced, typewritten pages a day that I'm happy with that day, until I've gotten the whole first draft. Then I rewrite the whole chapter. And people say, "If you had a computer, you wouldn't have to retype that way." Well, that's perfectly true; I understand that. Look, I'm not just retyping it; I'm going through hearing it again. And the most important writing I do is often when I'm retyping that first draft.
I then turn it over to an assistant, who does it up on a computer. And that then becomes the manuscript. And we can change the manuscript at any point along the way, up to and including the last final days of working on it, by various miracles of the computer.
I would also say to every writer: Don't try to do it all yourself. Get help. Talk to people. Get people to look at what you've written; get people to give you an opinion on what you've written. But I think the most important thing to do is, once you've gotten to the point where you think, "This is very good," put it aside. Don't look at it for a month, two months. Then come back to look at it. You'll be amazed at what flaws and needs for further work are then seen. You've been too close to it.
Each of your rewritings is a rethinking, the way you explain it.
Writing is thinking. That's what it is. And that's why it's so damn hard [laughs].
Writing forces you to think, to bear down on the subject, makes you think as nothing else does. It's why writing ought to be stressed far more in schools. It's a way of working out problems, working out your thoughts, and arriving at insights, conclusions, revelations, that you never could have obtained otherwise. That's really the reward of it. And you can do so much more on a printed page than any other medium. You know, these other mediums -- television, movies -- they're very limited. It's almost impossible to deal with an abstract thought on television.
Trust your feelings. Trust your instinct in choosing a subject, in choosing where you begin. I think where you begin is one of the most crucial decisions in the whole process. Page 1. Chapter 1. How do you begin?
You have a beautiful, scene-setting opening in Adams, where the two horsemen are on the road in the winter of 1776. [Adams and a servant are headed toward a meeting in Cambridge, Mass., with George Washington, commander of the American revolutionary forces, and then on to Philadelphia.] It's almost a cinematic opening. Now did that come to you real easily?
Yes. I had a picture in my mind. And I've had that with most of my books. It's sort of the way I think. I had a picture of these two men on those horses coming through that snow. That bleak, anonymous landscape. They're anonymous -- you can't tell who they are. There's nothing to tip you off. Just two men on horses riding through the snow. Who are they and where are they going? And when you realize they're setting off to ride by horseback nearly 400 miles to go to Congress, you have to care to do that. And how much they care is so important.
In the whole area of academic versus so-called popular history, is there a necessary conflict between doing technically precise, complete work and writing a book that's "a good read"?
No, there is not a necessary conflict there at all.
Academic writers who do pioneering work in the field are sometimes spectacular writers, wonderful writers. Just as so-called popular historians can do pioneering historical work of the first rank. No, there's no conflict. The conflict is between facts and truth. Facts aren't necessarily the truth.
One of my favorite writers of all is [historian] Francis Parkman. As Parkman points out, you can have all of the facts right, and get what happened wrong. That's why you have to understand the atmosphere in which things happened, the context in which they happened -- how tired was that man that next morning when he had to make those decisions, what else was on his mind, how healthy was he, what was the chemistry of these two different personalities that when they came together was going to inevitably lead to an explosion? That has nothing to do with facts.
Didn't you say once that the problem with most academic historians is that they don't care enough about people?
Well, if I said that, it's probably an oversimplification. What has to be understood is that academic historians are of necessity writing principally for other academic historians. They're not writing for you and me. I don't put them down, because that's the nature of their profession. That's not what I do.
The simplest thing I can tell you is that I try to write the kind of book I like to read. I'm writing for me. Just as if I was writing a novel, I'd try as hard as I could to write the kind of novel I would like to read.
I think of myself as a writer, not a historian. I'm a writer who's chosen history and biography as my field, but to me, the writing problems, the writing opportunities, the writing adventure, are what runs the engine, not being a historian or biographer.
In his review of your book, Gordon Woods used the word "sensuous" in reference to Adams. I think most people before they read this book would say, "John Adams, sensuous?" And yet how can you read the chandelier passage and not see that?
Passionate. He's the antithesis in many ways of the stereotypical New Englander, the cliche Yankee. He's not taciturn at all. He's not cool about his emotions. He's not calculating. He has extraordinary common sense. He often has an amazingly clear-eyed vision of what it's all leading to.
And that's true of writing a book. If you know where it begins and you know where it ends, you have accomplished an enormous amount.
People ask me when I start one of these projects, what is your theme? I haven't the faintest idea. That's why you're writing the book, it seems to me, to find out. To me, it's a journey. It's an adventure. It's traveling in a country you've never been in and everything is going to be new, and because of that, vivid. And don't make up your mind too soon. Let it be an experience.
What would you say to writers about achieving the kind of crisp, clean prose style that you have, which services the material beautifully and yet stays a little out of the way?
Well, the old writer's adage, which I believe absolutely: Don't tell me, show me. Don't tell me he was a miser; show him being a miser.
Be careful what you read. Willa Cather used to read from the Bible every morning before she started writing. There's some possibility, of course, that it was an act of piety, but it was also, I'm sure, a way of getting those rhythms, that music, that poetry.
And disdain -- with all your might! -- the cheap, easy jargon of today, the cliche words, the "viable alternatives" and "a very special moment," "a personal friend" -- is that to be distinguished from an impersonal friend?
I'm hearing a little E.B. White coming out here.
Well, absolutely. Here's what I believe. Don't strive for literary effect. Don't write what you think of as writing. Say it so it's clear. Say it so it's to the point. Don't give away everything up-front. Be very careful about those lines you think are such ringing moments of high artistic achievement on your part [chuckles]. You know Faulkner's old line: "Kill all your darlings."
Remember, your reader is as intelligent as you are, and is probably a step or two ahead of you. They're getting it.
Go back when you're finished and cut out all the lumber; cut out all the extraneous things. Obviously, look carefully at all those adverbs and see if you really need them. I cut and cut and condense again and again. The hardest thing about writing this book was what I had to leave out -- by far. It would have been far easier for me had I written this in two volumes.
I think also, it's very important to read what you've written aloud, or have it read to you aloud. In the process, you hear these little verbal tics we all fall into, whereas you might not see them.
You're quite well known for going to the scene of things -- for literally trying to walk in the footsteps of your subjects, when possible.
Always. I really try to go to every setting where anything of importance took place. I may be overly concerned. I think we're shaped by the buildings we live in and work in. The rooms in which things happen shape what happens in those rooms -- the size of the room, the way the light falls through the windows, the prospect outside the windows. All of that bears on how people feel and how they act.
So I wanted to go to every house that John and Abigail ever lived in. And there are a lot of them still standing in Europe. And particularly the house in Amsterdam where he nearly died, and where he was about as down, as blue, as he ever was in his whole life. I knew he walked all around Amsterdam for exercise or to clear his head. So I wanted to walk around those streets, in the night, the day.
With my wife I went on the same tour of the English gardens that he and Jefferson made. I wanted to go the same time of year. What did it look like? What was in bloom?
Your works have now ranged pretty much over three centuries of American history. You've written about great people, great events, great engineering feats. How do you master so much different material?
Because I want to. I want to. I don't consider myself an intellectual. But I am very curious. I really love to find things out. And I'm interested in people and I'm interested in why people do what they do. How did that come to be? Why did it turn out like this?
And maybe the most important single conception I hope to convey is that nothing ever had to turn out the way it did. You know, we're taught history like "This fellow, that fellow, you'd better remember that, you'd better get it straight, because it's going to be on the test next Thursday." But none of it had to happen the way it happened. It could have gone off in any number of directions.
What would you say to young writers thinking about doing historical articles or books?
Well, it's very common to say to young, aspiring writers: Write what you know. I would turn that around: Know what you write.
Really study something. Learn something. Know about it. And if it moves you, if it interests you, if you think it's interesting and if you take pleasure from it, others will, too, if you convey that to them. I can tell you absolutely that there are hundreds of subjects that either haven't been done or haven't been done for a very long time or, if they were done, were done inadequately. There are probably 35 subjects that I would just really like to do.
Never, never, ever be afraid or timid about revealing to other people what you don't know in the process of the work. Never try to convey to a librarian, for example, that you know all the ways in which to find something out [chuckles]. Throw yourself at their mercy. Tell them how limited is your knowledge, how much you don't know, and tell them what you're trying to find out. Enlist the support of others to help you achieve this objective.
Read good writers! [See sidebar, page 36.] You know, the old idea "we are what we eat." You are what you read. So read the best. Read really good writers. And don't just read in your own time. Go back and read the 18th-century writers, go back and read the Greeks, and of course, read Shakespeare, of course, read the Bible, read some of the great works in other languages -- Goethe and La Fontaine, Voltaire, the French and Italian novelists, and see what a lot you have to learn, and how much higher others have climbed than you have. Take inspiration from it, and study what they do.
I think there's a further point to be made for young writers who might be drawn to the kind of work I do. Many writers lament how lonely the life is. In this kind of work, it is not lonely, because you have to, of necessity, be in contact with all kinds of people: librarians, archivists, specialists in your subject. If you're doing someone who can be reached through living people, the interviews are of the utmost importance. You just can't hole up in your secluded writing room with this work; you've got to get out there and look around. You've got to contact hundreds of people if it's a large project. And you make some of the best friends you've ever made in your life. That's as appealing as any aspect of the work.
When you're trying to break in, to get that first book done, chances are pretty good you're going to have a full-time job while trying to moonlight. Do you have any advice along these lines -- trying to get that first book out?
I can only tell you from my own experience that I wrote my first book at night and on weekends. I was at a very demanding, full-time job. I did the research during my lunch hour at the 42nd Street Library in New York. I had a wife and four children. I don't mean to ever suggest that it was an ordeal; it never was.
I would come home, we'd have dinner, we'd put the children to bed, and I'd go to work at 9 o'clock. And I'd try to write two pages that I was satisfied with each night, at least for five nights a week. And I would be less tired at 11 o'clock than I was at 9 o'clock. And my wife would have to come in and turn off the light and tell me, you've gotta stop and come to bed.
You have to set yourself a production schedule. I'm easily distracted; there's a lot of things I love to do that can put off doing what I have to do. It's habit. A lot of life is habit. Have a habit of work. And enjoy it -- enjoy it. If you're enjoying it, chances are the reader will. If you're not, chances are the reader won't.
I'm doing four pages a day when I'm writing. Two pages in the morning; lunch; two in the afternoon. People say, "Well, what's your writing schedule?" I work every day. They say, "Well, not all day." Yes, all day. Every day. Now, I'm not always writing; sometimes I'm doing what they call thinking. Or I'm reading my notes or I'm looking over what I wrote the day before. But I'm out there every day, and I find that if you do it every day it's easier.
Ronald Kovach is senior editor of The Writer.