Today, Alan Bernstein looks at three excellent pieces of nonfiction writing by historian David McCullough.
In recent years, the popular historian David McCullough has garnered both praise and popularity for his biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams and for his study of the first year of the American Revolution, 1776. However, he first obtained critical acclaim and readership for a trio of very different books, each of which in different ways dealt with water, engineering, and the human element and the drama inherent when all these disparate threads combined and interacted.
Always interested in people and the challenges and adversities they face and overcome, these books are as much about the human spirit as they are about the events they chronicle. Today’s post looks at The Johnstown Flood, published in 1968; The Great Bridge, published in 1972; and The Path Between the Seas, published in 1977.
The first book, most modest in scale and intent, only because it recounts one discrete event, is The Johnstown Flood. Here, McCullough gives an account of the dam burst on May 31, 1889 that sent a wall of water thundering down a mountain and smashing through the town of Johnstown, PA, killing more than 2,000 of its inhabitants. Thoroughly researched (as are all his works), the book vividly recounts the chain of events leading up to the tragedy, and then unfolds the story of the flood itself and its aftermath.
The next book was McCullough’s first major one in scope and scale. The Great Bridge is a history of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge between 1869 and 1883. The bridge is still considered an epic engineering accomplishment as well as one of the most beautiful bridges in the world. McCullough’s book is as much a tribute to the 3 family members who were responsible for the success of the project, as it is a history of the construction process. John Roebling designed the bridge, his son Washington translated his father’s plans into iron and steel, and Washington’s wife, Emily, nursed her disabled husband when he succumbed to the bends and saw that his orders were faithfully executed.
The last of the trio is The Path Between the Seas, a history of the nearly 45- year attempt to construct a canal that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and revolutionize commercial oceanic transport. From initial French failure to eventual successful American completion, the project was one of the largest peaceful human undertakings of all times, involving tens of thousands of people who battled all sorts of human and natural obstacles.
McCullough is a good storyteller in the best sense of the word, for each book is a story about grand and interesting events, and the people who shaped and were shaped and affected by these events. There are technical details in each book, especially in the last two, that deal with construction issues, but they do not impede the narrative flow. These are “life and time” books that place the reader in the midst of the events and in close proximity to the people involved in them.