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David McCullough has died. He was a bravura historian and public intellectual whose biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams won Pulitzer Prizes, and whose best-selling stories of American accomplishment were complemented by his work as a public television host and narrator for popular movies and documentaries, including Ken Burns’ The Civil War.
McCullough died Sunday at his home in Hingham, Mass., according to his publishers Simon and Schuster. He was 89 years old.
The subjects McCullough tackled were massive. The building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal. The shaping of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He wrote about epic figures, from Theodore Roosevelt to the Wright Brothers. McCullough seemed undaunted by his topics; they were fun for him and he made the subjects enchanting for readers. Perhaps only a McCullough treatment of Truman could’ve topped the New York Times best-seller list for nearly a year; the biography was a publishing sensation in 1992.
It is impossible to conceive that David McCullough is no longer with us. He is among our greatest historians, writing with an almost magical command of language and story. 1/2 pic.twitter.com/wQo1GQnBqT
— Ken Burns (@KenBurns) August 8, 2022
“To many people, the figures, the main characters or protagonists of the drama of our founding years are perceived as almost like characters in a costume pageant with their powdered hair and their ruffled shirts and satin britches and the rest,” McCullough told NPR’s Talk of the Nation in a 2006 discussion of the Revolutionary War. “But they were nothing like that. And they weren’t gods, they weren’t superhuman. They were very human beings. And each of them had his flaws, his failings, and his mistakes.”
David McCullough was brought up in Pittsburgh, Pa., and studied English literature at Yale University, where he developed a friendship with a professor, playwright Thorton Wilder, who wrote the Americana classic Our Town. Although he thought he might become a playwright too, McCullough developed a taste for research while working in magazines in the 1950s.
As well as writing numerous acclaimed books of history, McCullough narrated the 2003 film Seabiscuit. He won the National Book Award twice and, in 2006, became a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian award.
His alma mater gave him an honorary degree in 1998. “As an historian, he paints with words,” the citation read. “Giving us pictures of the American people that live, breathe, and above all, confront the fundamental issues of courage, achievement, and moral character.”