Last week, the Pittsburgh Speaker Series, in association with Robert Morris University and Trib Total Media, presented well-known historical writer, David McCullough. The event took place at Heinz Hall.
McCullough is the author of several books, including “The Johnstown Flood,” “Truman,” “John Adams,” and “1776,” among others. He is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest award presented to a civilian. In 2014, McCullough was awarded the French Legion of Honor following his most recent book, “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.” He has received 52 honorary degrees in his career.
In addition to writing, McCullough has been an editor, teacher, and public television personality. He hosts “Smithsonian World,” and “The American Experience,” and has narrated a variety of documentaries including Ken Burns’ “The Civil War.” He was also the voice of the narrator in the movie “Seabiscuit.” His book “John Adams” was turned into a seven-part miniseries on HBO, which starred Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney and was produced by Tom Hanks.
McCullough was born in Pittsburgh in 1933 and attended school at Shadyside Academy until graduating and going to college at Yale. There he graduated with honors in English literature. He and his wife of 60 years, Rosalee Barnes McCullough, have five children and 19 grandchildren and now live in Boston.
During his speech, McCullough spoke on a number of different topics, all of which he is very passionate about. He spoke about his fascination with failure, saying, “It’s really a repeating theme,” throughout history.
Another of his major speaking points was on the topic of history. He spoke about modern perspectives of history and the myth of “a simpler time.” His point was that everything that is happening now has happened before, often to a higher degree. He shared a quote from Winston Churchill, who said, “We haven’t journeyed this far because we are made of sugar candy.”
He also spoke at length about historical education and what it has become in the United States. He asserted that the majority of the current generation of young people is “historically illiterate” because history has been made something boring in schools.
“There is no trick to getting people interested in history,” he said. “Show them what you love…[and] know what you’re teaching before you start teaching.”
McCullough spoke about teaching, saying, “The most important people in our society are the great teachers.”
McCullough also spoke to his writing process, which is certainly different than most writers today. He says that he writes every book on his Royal typewriter, which he bought used many years ago. He also said that he never works on more that one book at a time, that he has, “never undertaken a book I knew much about…” and that he does immense amounts of research in order to write his books.
McCullough finished his talk by speaking about his latest book, which is about the Wright Brothers. The Wright Brothers, Wilbur and Orville Wright, worked in bicycle manufacturing and are responsible for building the first airplane. He talked about their perseverance and resilience, saying, “They wouldn’t quit, and that’s a wonderful characteristic.” His book will be released in May of this year.
McCullough encourages everyone to write, saying that keeping a diary is one form of immortality. He also believes that everyone should be learning history. “Knowing history increases one’s capacity for optimism.”