[HERTZEL NOTE: This guest blog post is from reporter Kevin Duchschere, who conducted a phone interview with writer David McCullough recently. Because print space is limited--and Web space is not!--we give you some of the interesting stuff that didn't make it into the original story.]
David McCullough was looking forward to starting his 11-city, cross-country book tour when I spoke to him on May 25, only hours before his first stop in Framingham, Mass. He seemed in fine spirits.
“We have a first day of spring finally here in Boston, and it does wonders for one’s outlook on life,” he said.
McCullough, 77, is promoting his ninth book, “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” about 19th-century Americans seeking personal and professional inspiration in the City of Light. He will speak June 14 at Wayzata Community Church for an event sponsored by the Bookcase bookstore in Wayzata.
McCullough said he’s coming here because of his friendship with Bill Walter of Minneapolis, a businessman and vice chairman for the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association. It was Walter, he said, who once took him to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to see a Parisian painting by John Singer Sargent that dazzled him. There’s another like it in Philadelphia, he said, but the Minneapolis version is better.
“Bill introduced me to that Sargent masterpiece and I’ll never forget it,” said McCullough, who is a painter himself.
I’ve read a number of McCullough’s books — his volumes on Harry Truman and John Adams surely rank among the best American biographies — and I recalled for him one lazy summer when I spent a lot of time on the patio absorbed in his fascinating book on the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. He said that book and the new one on Paris are closely related on an artistic level.
“I think they’re both about lives of affirmation, and they’re about great creative efforts,” he said. “The bridge is not just a work of engineering, it’s a work of art. And it’s enduring work, as is the work of so many of the people I’ve written about in the new book.”
Here are some excerpts from our talk:
On what he learned from “The Greater Journey”: “I didn’t know anything about George Healy before I started the book. I didn’t know much about [Augustus] Saint-Gaudens. I knew some of his sculpture and I loved what he’d done, but I didn’t know anything about his life much. I knew very little about Charles Sumner, except that he’d been very nearly beaten to death for his famous speech on the Senate floor. And on and on. I’d never heard of Louis Gottschalk, the musician. I knew nothing about Elizabeth Blackwell.”
On the value of writing: “I think what came through so often with this book is how many of these people — who did not think of themselves as writers, who did not think of themselves as characters in history or whose words were going to be showcased by some future historian or biographer — how well they wrote! It’s humbling to find that even such people as George Healy or Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who had virtually no education beyond grade school, how well they wrote, how descriptive their letters were. Of course, it was a time when people were expected to write letters. It was part of life. Unfortunately, we don’t do that anymore.”
On what makes this book unique: “The form of a book is, to me, the biggest first hurdle by far. What’s the form of the book? And once I have that, I’m ready to start in. And the form of this book is different from others. Because when you’re writing conventional history or biography, there’s the obligatory track that the reader, that you the writer, know can’t be ignored. Certain things happen in a certain order and you can’t just skip over and do only those that interest you; you can’t leave out characters. But with this book I could pick and choose my cast, so to speak. And if I included every American who went to Paris over 70 years, it of course wouldn’t be a book, it would be a catalog.”
On how he decided what to include: “I had to choose, who am I going to write about? And the criteria were my own criteria: Is this an interesting story? Is he an important character? What did he bring home, figuratively or literally? Did she or he leave a body of letters and diaries, so that we really know how they felt and what they were learning and what their worries were and the rest? And do enough of them interweave in their experience, so that there’s a pattern — it becomes a weave, it becomes a tapestry, rather than just one story after another that don’t connect.
“The very first character who’s mentioned in the book, for example, described in any detail, is Oliver Wendell Holmes, and he goes all the way through to the end. The same with Sumner, keeps coming back all the time. George Healy, too, goes through the whole book. So that was critical. And how did what they do change their profession or change American interest in art, or change how we view people of African-American descent, and so forth. I think what Sumner brought home, figuratively, was as important as what anyone brought home.
“And virtually all these creations that I’ve described in the book — Sargent’s paintings, the sculpture that Saint-Gaudens did in Paris, the architectural ideas that came back with Richard Morris Hunt or H.H. Richardson — all that came home. All of it’s here. All three of those paintings that are central to the part of Sargent’s life story that I tell — all painted in Paris, all painted when he was still in his 20s — are all in museums in either Boston or New York, and so forth.”
On his favorite characters: “I’m very much drawn to Holmes. I love his sense of humor. I love the fact that he saw no incongruity in devoting his life to medical science, but at the same time writing poetry and essays and starting a magazine called the Atlantic Monthly. I’m very fond of both Healy and Saint-Gaudens because they’re street kids who had no education but who had the gumption and ambition to excel, that made them go off to Paris to transform their lives and be the best they could be, as Healy said.
“I find Elizabeth Blackwell a terribly compelling figure, and Mary Cassatt — I think her backbone, her persistence is admirable in the extreme, quite beyond her obvious immense talent. And I think Sargent’s our greatest painter. As the wonderful critic Robert Hughes wrote not very long ago, it’s all right to like Sargent now.”
On whether his time at the Louvre influenced his painting technique: “Well, I’d say sure it has, but more I’m thinking Musee d’Orsay because so many of the painters that I really love are there.”