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My meeting and discussion with historian David McCullough in 1992 when “Truman” reached No. 1

RIP David McCullough, 1933-2022

… created a form of “narrative non-fiction”

At the age of 27, Pittsburgh native David McCullough was a young husband and father who was trying to find himself, like many 20-somethings have over the years. He was working in a nondescript position as a researcher with the U.S. Information Agency when he saw something in an exhibit that changed the course of his life.

The photos motivated him to work nights and weekends for three years as he trudges along in his day job to pay the bills so that he could relate the narrative of the disastrous Johnstown Flood of 1889. It is the definitive work of that tragic event, but over the next 62 years, the man who said that he was not an historian related some fascinating tales of great men and events in American history.

Ties to McCullough

I first read “The Johnstown Flood” during the 1960s when I was a college student, but did not fully appreciate the work until I had met him and read his voluminous, definitive of President Harry S. Truman in 1992.

In a chance occurrence, I met and listened to him in person for the first time in 1992 in Ligonier. I then realized the quality of his work and went back and re-read “The Johnstown Flood” a few years later with a new insight about the quality of the work.

This occurred at the Ligonier Valley Writers’ Conference.

A group of potential writers and lovers of literature founded a group in 1986 that was called the Friends of Ligonier. It evolved into the Ligonier Valley Writers, and they put together a superb writers conference in the early years.

Part of the conference included a keynote address, and one of the committee pursued David McCullough to give the keynote address. Little did they know that by the date of the presentation in July after its June release, “Truman” would be elevated to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list.

However, what I will never forget are two things about that night. First, McCullough was spell-binding in his presentation about writing the work over ten years. What was fascinating, though, is that he gave the detailed talk without one note in front of him. He rattled off dates and times and places because he was such a thorough scholar and knew his topic so well.

In reality, he was a masterful story-teller, both as a scribe and as an elucutioner. He possessed a deep, resonant voice that was heard over the years on documentaries like Ken Burns’ masterful series on “The Civil War.”

I chuckled that night that the talk, which started at 8 the Ligonier Town Hall, lasted exactly an hour. The chimes announced 9 p.m., and he masterfully ended the fascinating talk.

The second part of this that is etched into my psyche is meeting him in person and talking with him. I purchased a copy of “Truman,” and then lined up with others to have him sign the book. His publishing people asked that we write out what we would like to have him write, and I did that.

He was so personable and friendly, even during a stressful event like a book-signing. He asked who I was, what I did in life, and a few little tidbits about me. We talked for a short time and in that, I mentioned that his description of the rationale that Truman had to go through before dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was exactly what my American history professor had explained in my class 21 years earlier. He was interested in who the professor was and talked briefly about it.

One of those events that you do not forget.

I just picked up the book on Friday and looked at it again: One that I truly treasure.

“The Johnstown Flood”

The situation in which McCullough found himself as a young man with at least three young children and a loving wife at the age of 27 was described in his tribute today in the Washington Post after passing away yesterday at the age of 89,

David McCullough was a young researcher at the U.S. Information Agency when he walked into the Library of Congress in 1961 and chanced upon a photography exhibit depicting the 1889 flood in Johnstown, Pa., the deadliest in American history.

“I was overwhelmed by the violence revealed in them, the destruction,” Mr. McCullough, who was from the same area of western Pennsylvania, later told the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat. More than 2,200 people died, and a thriving coal-and-steel town was submerged in muddy debris because wealthy industrialists had neglected a dam.

The passage of time had reduced the tragedy to a historical footnote, Mr. McCullough discovered, with little if any serious scholarly study devoted to it. Undaunted by his own inexperience — “I imagined myself being a writer, but never a writer of history,” he said — he set out to write a book about the Johnstown flood.

For years, he dedicated his spare time to his research, interviewing the few remaining survivors to capture their memories of sudden terror, desperate acts of self-preservation and the awful duty, in the aftermath, of identifying the dead.

“The Johnstown Flood,” published in 1968, became a bestseller, rekindled national interest in the disaster and instantly established its author as a historian with an exceptional gift for animating history.

Glenn Rifkin, “David McCullough, master chronicler of American

history, dies at 89,” Washington Post, August 8, 2022

“Narrative non-fiction”

Scholars today regard McCullough’s style as unique in that he takes boring details and presents them the way that novelists often do. His approach can often be called Dickensonian as he crafts stories about what Harry Truman or John Adams did in the two treatises of his that won the Pulitzer Prize the way that Dickens wrote about the English society centuries earlier.

Presidential historian Alan Brinkley wrote this about the non-historian’s historical gem,

Scholars will find in this book a sound, thorough narrative of the major events of the Truman Presidency and intelligent, straightforward accounts of its most controversial moments. They will not, however, find much engagement in the debates over such highly charged questions as the decision to use atomic bombs on Japan, the origins of the cold war, the motives for the North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950 and Truman's policy in Vietnam. These and other contested issues Mr. McCullough confronts largely by giving Truman's own view of events, his own rationale for the decisions he made.

There is, in short, no important reinterpretation of the Truman Presidency here. But that is not Mr. McCullough's intent. His real interest is less policy and politics than Harry Truman himself. And the principal achievement of this biography -- the most thorough account of Truman's life yet to appear -- is its honest and revealing portrait of the "ordinary" man who became an extraordinary historical figure.

Alan Brinkley, “Work hard, trust in God, have no fear,” New York Times, June 21, 1992

50th Anniversary

In 2018, on the 50th anniversary of the release of “The Johnstown Flood,” Tribune-Democrat reporter Dave Sutor interviewed McCullough about his writing of his first acclaimed work. He explained how he saw the photos in an exhibit in Washington, D.C.,

“I was overwhelmed by the violence revealed in them, the destruction,” McCullough said during a telephone interview with The Tribune-Democrat.

His curiosity piqued, McCullough, a Pittsburgh native who had previously visited Johnstown, started researching the historic event.

“I was just amazed, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to find out what happened,’ ” McCullough said. He read two books about the subject – one with geographic errors and the other a standard “pot-boiler” – essentially pulp fiction – as he described it.

“I thought to myself – after mulling over this subject for several months or more – ‘Why don’t you try to write the book about the Johnstown Flood that you’d like to be able to read,’ ” McCullough said. “I’d never written a book before. I had taken very little history in college. And I was an English major. I imagined myself being a writer, but never a writer of history.

“I gave it a try. As soon as I got into the research part of it, I knew that that was the kind of work I wanted to do from then on. I loved it.”

Dave Sutor, “ ‘The Johnstown Flood’: McCullough’s ‘lucky break’ launched career of telling stories of the nation’s history,” The Tribune-Democrat, Aug. 8, 2022

In short, David McCullough was a gift to America.

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