Homeward Bound: An Interview with David McCullough

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
Author and popular historian David McCullough wrote several acclaimed books, including The Johnstown Flood and The Great Bridge. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, he was interviewed for the Summer 1994 issue of Pennsylvania Heritage, in which he discussed his influences and inspirations. Commonwealth Media Services

Author and popular historian David McCullough wrote several acclaimed books, including The Johnstown Flood and The Great Bridge. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, he was interviewed for the Summer 1994 issue of Pennsylvania Heritage, in which he discussed his influences and inspirations.
Commonwealth Media Services

David McCullough is a familiar name – and face. Known to millions as the author of bestselling books, including The Great Bridge, The Path Between the Seas, Truman, Mornings on Horseback, and Brave Companions, and as host of the popular PBS television series “Smithsonian World” and “The American Experience,” he is noted for his remarkable gift of writing richly textured, sympathetic social history. His first book, The Johnstown Flood, published in 1968, was critically acclaimed by Time magazine as a “meticulously researched, vivid account of one of the most stunning disasters in U. S. history.” Newsday praised McCullough’s 1981 biography of the young Theodore Roosevelt, Mornings on Horseback, as “a masterpiece.” For his latest book, Truman (1992), a biography of Pres. Harry S. Truman, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

A writer, historian, lecturer, teacher, and television narrator and host, McCullough has twice received the Society of American Historians’ coveted Francis Parkman Prize, as well as the Los Angeles Times Book Award in 1981, and two National Book Awards (now the American Book Award), one for history in 1978 for The Path Between the Seas, and one for biography in 1982 for Mornings on Horseback. His reviews and essays have appeared in Audubon, Life, The New Republic, and American Heritage. He is, above all else, a brilliant storyteller whose books and essays eloquently express much that is timeless about the human condition.

David McCullough was born and raised in Pittsburgh. A 1955 graduate of Yale University, he worked early in his career for the United States Information Agency under Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965). He has taught at Wesleyan University, Cornell University, and Dartmouth College, and holds twelve honorary degrees in the humanities and in engineering. He is currently serving as the honorary chairman of the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania’s capital campaign for the new Pittsburgh Regional History Center. The author resides with his wife Rosalee in West Tisbury, Massachusetts.

This interview was conducted on Tuesday, May 4, 1993, the day the author received the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Humanities, presented by Gov. Robert P. Casey, during ceremonies held in Harrisburg.


Were there any particular influences that led you to a career in writing?

I guess probably as important as anything is that I grew up in a house full of books. In those days when you were a child you were expected – and usually did – suffer a variety of childhood diseases which required that you stay home from school and stay in bed. Since there was no television and since my mother would not tolerate us listening to soap operas when we were ill, we would look at books. Sometimes that is literally all I did was look at them because I could not read that well yet. I remember we had all the Scribner’s classics, illustrated by the great Pennsylvania illustrator N. C. Wyeth. I used to pour over those pictures. To this day, if I look at some of the illustrations from The Last of the Mohicans or Treasure Island by N. C. Wyeth, I’m immediately drawn back into that childhood world of the imagined story which I was probably not able to read.

I also had wonderful teachers at Linden School, the public school in our neighborhood, who were not only interested in us as children, but who were vitally interested in what they were teaching. We had a marvelous teacher, Miss Schmeltz, who had a display of bridges made out of match sticks. I’ll never forget it. When I saw that display it just did something to me. She had every kind of bridge represented. People often say, “Where did your interest in bridges begin?” I know exactly where it began.

I went to Shady Side Academy, a private high school in Pittsburgh. We had a wonderful teacher of American history named Bob Abercrombie and he really made us think. He also got us reading books other than just textbooks. I remem­ber we read Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday, which was just wonderful. So I think that had an influence.

But I think the real change for me came after I graduated from college when my Aunt Martie McCullough gave me a graduation present of Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox. I read that book and it was as if a window had been thrown open, because suddenly I got the idea that history was about living people in a way that I had never felt before. I knew it before but I hadn’t felt it before. I don’t think I knew hen that the book was changing my life but, in retrospect, I think it really did. It started me reading about the Civil War. Soon I was reading other people. I was reading Barbara Tuchman and Margaret Leech and branching out beyond the Civil War.

Many of us get hooked on reading history, but what inspired you to write?

At that time I wanted to be a writer. I had majored in English at Yale, I had worked on the Yale Daily News, I had tried my hand at some fiction, I took a famous course that is still taught at Yale called Daily Themes. I went to New York after graduation, as did so many others who aspired to write, to try to get a job on the New York Herald-Tribune. I wound up instead with a job on a new magazine started by Time, Inc., called Sports Illustrated. I still was thinking about fiction or possibly drama; I thought, I’m either going to be a novelist or a playwright.

But I was also reading all this wonderful history and I began to see that the form offered a great field – great opportunity – for self-­expression. That sounds like a contradiction to some people. If you’re writing history, if you’re writing the truth, if you’re record­ing actual events, how can that offer you a chance for self-expression? Well, I don’t see it that way and I’ve tried to explain it. There’s a line in Delacroix’s journal, “What I demand is accuracy for the sake of imagination,” and I think that touches on it.

I see myself as a writer who has chosen the past as his field for investigation. Much the way a correspondent might be reporting from another part of the world, I’m reporting from another time. Although there are immense differences between history and biography in the way of form and in the way of obligations to the writer, it is essentially always a writing problem. I don’t see any dividing line. I don’t see any wall between fiction, poetry, drama. There are certain ground rules­ – I can’t make anything up. I can’t invent dialogue. One must stick to the facts, one must substantiate.

The opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D. C., has brought attention also to the revisionism concerning the “truth of the Holocaust.” How do we know historical truth? The whole deconstructionist movement raises the question about the blurring of the lines between how we know something and how we can document historical fact. This must be of some concern to you since the public is prepared to doubt historians because of docudramas, revisionism, and simulated accidents on news broadcasts. Viewers can’t really know if what they’re seeing is real or not. Do you see this as a problem?

I think it’s a problem with our culture. This is a much larger problem than doubting a historian’s facts. The problem is we have a society in which people are assuming that nothing that they see or hear or smell or touch is necessarily what it seems to be – which is a very swift, wide highway to insanity. If we can’t believe what we see or hear or are told, and we assume that everything is not what it looks or sounds like, we’re in big trouble. That’s a form of serious mental illness on a national scale. I’m outraged by those who doubt the truth of the Holocaust or those who distort real events for their own purposes, dramatic effect.

How is this different from what you perceive as imagination?

When I wrote The Great Bridge, about the Brooklyn Bridge, the idea was to take a constructive event in our past and treat it seriously, historically, just as you would a destructive event such as the Battle of Gettysburg. Why couldn’t I take the building of one of our most famous structures and treat that as one would treat a great battle? Only it’s the reverse – instead of the purpose being to destroy, the purpose is to create. After all, you had thousands of people risking their lives, many were going to die; it’s taking place in the out of doors like a battle; there’s a commander; there are people who are going to do their job superbly and people who are going to do their jobs terribly; there are people who are going to cheat and people who are going to lie; and there’s going to be every form of human expression and frailty and heroics – and what an opportunity. It hadn’t been done before. So that to me was an imaginative concept. It didn’t mean I was going to distort what really happened. Always, there are certain shades that we cannot finally know but the honest thing is to simply say that you don’t know. When I read a book which is reputedly the work of objectiv­ity and honesty, in which the Secretary of State is described walking from the Old Executive Office Building back to the White House, and as he walked he was worrying about this, or thinking about that, or saying to himself such and such … that’s nonsense, you don’t know that. There is no possible way of knowing that unless there is a letter which said, “as I walked from the Old Executive Office Building back to the White House, I tried to ponder what was the solution to such and such.”

I think that the strength of your books, such as The Great Bridge or The Johnstown Flood, is that you use documentary evidence and had access to wonderful collections in archives.

What most people don’t realize is how much there is to work with! There is not just the legendary trunk in the attic filled with letters and diaries, but there are government records, testimonies taken for legal purposes, court records, newspaper accounts, photographs, motion pictures, privately published memoirs. And that’s not to mention all that’s in print in libraries. There is no final word on any­thing. I object to the term “definitive biography.” There’s no such thing. There will always be new evidence coming to light and there will always be different ways of painting the portrait. Because one painter has done someone’s portrait doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be further portraits of that same person. A book is always a reflection of the author as much as it is the subject. ls there such a thing as fair, honest, accurate, responsible history and biography? Absolutely. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be doing what I do. I’ve devoted my life to it and it’s a serious occupation and, I think, a valuable occupation. I wouldn’t pretend to know all the answers, but I think that knowing history, knowing our story, is essential to knowing who we are. I think that a family or a town or a state or a nation can suffer from a kind of amnesia with comparably detrimental results as can an individual. I think that we are, alas, raising a great many people – a whole generation perhaps – who are historically illiterate. And it’s a very serious problem and I’m doing everything I can to try and help with the problem. The real work has to start in the grade schools, and it has to be carried right through high school and on into college.

There is a connection between preserving history and preserv­ing democracy. Totalitarian countries probably understand this point better than we do.

You are absolutely right. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the first step is to get rid of the historians. What it is about in many ways is quality of citizenship, but I don’t think that one ought to read history or teach history or write history in order to make better citizens. I think what we’re really talking about is life. I think of history as an extension of life. Why should we limit ourselves to just the experience that’s possible within the very brief time that we’re allowed biologically to be on earth? Why can’t we also enjoy all that there is from the past, the larger experience?

If you went to somebody and said you have to stay within a ten mile radius all of your life – you’re never allowed to leave that ten mile radius – you would get enormous objection to that, which is provincialism in space. But you can be just as provin­cial in time – and why limit yourself in time? I don’t think that you should separate history from culture, and yet we do it all the time. We have history of art, history of music, history of science, history of medicine – and then we have history as if all these other things aren’t part of it. There should be no barriers. I think that it’s just as important to know about Thomas Eakins as it is to know about William Penn. It is absolutely as important to know about George Gershwin as it is to know about the National Recovery Act. And it’s going to be a far more compelling subject, too, when all of culture is included. How can we possibly understand the history of the twentieth century without understanding the history of science? We can’t.

Placing individuals, such as Eakins and Gershwin, in the context of their time is extremely important. It’s not an accident that they appear when they do.

The man who invented barbed wire had far more influence on the West than all but maybe three or four people who served in Con­gress from the West in those years. Think of barbed wire, the refrigerator car, and the windmill which made it possible to pull water up out of seemingly dry ground, barren wasteland, and you have the three ingredients that created the so-called West, “The Cowboy West,” as we know it.

People talk about the “dead” past. The great thing about the past is that anywhere you touch it, anywhere you scratch the surface, you find life. I was astonished when, for the first time, I tried to do historical research in a serious way, which was for my book on the Johnstown Flood, I discovered how much you can learn about people who are anonymous in their own time, just ordinary people.

How did you come to choose the Johnstown Flood as a subject?

I was working at the United States Information Agency in Washington during the Kennedy administration when the agency was headed by Edward R. Murrow. It was a very exciting time. I was extremely busy and I was at the Library of Congress researching something else and I happened to go by a large table in the old Prints and Photographs Section that was covered with photographs that had been acquired by the library from the estate of a photographer in Pittsburgh. This photographer had somehow managed to get into Johnstown right after the disaster and had taken extraordinary photographs. I looked at those pictures and was overwhelmed by the violence reflected in them and by the total devastation of what had been a vibrant city of real interest and consequence. I had grown up in Pittsburgh and had heard about the Johnstown Flood all my life. I wanted to know more about it, so I took a book out of the library which wasn’t very good. And so I got another book out of the library and it was even less accurate or well written. I knew enough about the geography of western Pennsylvania to understand that neither author quite comprehended that. I had wanted to be a writer, I aspired to be an author of books. I never dared talk about that and I never had an idea that I thought was good enough to at least make the attempt. Suddenly I thought, “Why don’t I try to write a book about the Johnstown Flood that I would like to read?” Write the book that they didn’t write. I knew nothing about research, I knew nothing about the processes of historical investigation, but I didn’t allow that to deter me and I went to work. People have since said to me, “Well you must have known a great deal about the Johnstown Flood.”

I will confess to you the sum total of my knowledge of the Johnstown Flood, which was that when we were kids growing up in Pittsburgh we used to make a little lake of gravy in our mashed potatoes and then we’d take the fork and break through the potatoes and as the gravy poured down among the peas we would say, “the Johnstown Flood,” not really knowing what that was about. I don’t know whether some grandparent had taught us to do that, I have no idea where it came from. It was a very common thing at dinner, at lunch.

I did know about libraries and newspaper files. And I got to Johnstown at a time when there were still a number of flood survivors alive. One thing you discover in doing historical research, which is certainly also one of the great lessons of history, is that one thing does, indeed, lead to another. If you ask around enough and poke around enough you find answers.

Is that the exciting part?

Research has always been exciting for me. I’ve always found something important that I didn’t expect to find and I’ve always been given enormous help by all kinds of people. It’s amazing the extent to which people will go out of their way to help you and the time that they will give you and the interest that they’ll take in your project. One of the very first things I learned – and I’ve said this again and again to students and people that I’ve worked with over the years – is to never try to conceal from a librarian or an archivist how much you don’t know. The great thing is to go in and say, “Here’s what I’m trying to do, I’m not sure how I should go about this. Will you please help me?” That’s why they’re there, that’s what they want to do. Enlisting the interest of archivists and librarians is not only fulfilling in a personal way but those wonderful people will often call you up months or even years later and say, “I just thought you would like to know, I’ve found what you were looking for.”

In addition to researching and writing, you also teach. How does one find a way to teach history?

When I was at Cornell I taught a course in which I gave every student a different photograph. There were one hundred and eighty students and each student was given a different historic photograph and with only a minimal amount of information in the caption. And that was their assignment for their term paper.

Let’s say it’s a photograph of an American oil tanker being sunk off the coast of Florida in February 1942. Write your term paper. Now, you might investigate that photograph thoroughly and write about that specific tanker or you might write about the oil company that owned the fleet of tankers. How many other ships did they lose, how many millions of gallons of oil did they ship, how did it bear on the war effort overall? Or it might be about Admiral Doenitz and the U-boat campaign against American oil shipments. Whatever, it’s up to you. And you’ll be graded by how much imagination you bring to the work, how resourceful you are in your research, how well you write, and how hard you work.

How did the students react?

They loved it, and it worked because they got on the track. They got the sense of the adventure that the research can be and they discovered for themselves from experience that curiosity is accelerative. They often wound up doing not just the work to produce the paper but much more than that. I don’t think we learn anything by having it all handed to us. Of course, we can take it in that way and spew it back three weeks later and do well on an exam. But will it stick? Will it stay in our minds? Not likely. But if we have to struggle, if we have to do the work ourselves and if we have to figure it out ourselves, we’ll never forget it.

I always assumed that your interest in writing The Great Bridge began with your growing up near Saxonburg, which was founded by John Roebling.

This business of picking subjects, it’s like falling in love. It’s visceral and it’s intuitive and it’s risky and it’s exciting and there’s a click and suddenly you know that’s it. Every book is different and each presents a different kind of writing problem. People ask, “How do you pick your subjects?” I honestly don’t know. Sometimes I think the subjects pick me. The moral of the Johnstown Flood story – which is why it’s like Three Mile Island – is that it’s extremely risky, perhaps even perilous, to assume that because people are in positions of responsibility they are therefore behaving responsibly. That’s the story. The Johnstown Flood is a parable, a morality play in which human beings are extremely selfish, shortsighted, and self-destructive. Right after the book was published I had two other publishers come to me; one wanted me to do the Chicago fire and the other wanted me to do the San Francisco earthquake. I was being typed as disaster writer. And all of my impulses were exactly the opposite. What I wanted to do was to write a book in which human beings did something right. In effect, I was looking for a symbol of affirmation. I needed an antidote after what I’d been through.

I was having lunch one day with two friends, one of whom also comes from Pittsburgh. We were eating in a German restaurant on New York’s Lower East Side. One fellow is a technology writer, the other an engineer. They began talking about all that the Roeblings had not known, all the problems they had no solutions for when they set out to build the Brooklyn Bridge. They spoke particularly about the sinking of the caissons and all of the terrible problems that resulted in that effort. And I knew immediately that was my subject. I just knew it. I knew nothing about it, but just from what they had said.

I had grown up in Pittsburgh, so I had been interested in bridges just as a form. I’m not interested in the technical point of view. I had no math beyond plain geometry. I had very nearly not gotten into Yale because I had done so poorly on the physics side of the college board exam. So it wasn’t that I had some long standing or natural bent for technical subjects. I went from that lunch immediately to the 42nd Street Library to look in the card catalog. If you remember the 42nd Street Library, the card catalog was on the third floor, up a long flight of marble stairs. I think 1 took those stairs four at a time, as if I had a jet engine on my back. I was being propelled by the idea and the book was taking form in my head as I crossed town, as I went up those stairs. I looked at the catalog and saw that there were more than one hundred cards on the subject of the Brooklyn Bridge – but no card describing anything like the book I was then imagining. I then found through people at the Smithsonian that there was a collection of material at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Troy [New York] and I went up there and, yes, there was a closet, a large storage room, filled with all the memorabilia, all of the records, diaries, scrap books, that had belonged to the Roebling family, pertaining to the bridge, all there. And none of it in any kind of order.

There were bundles tied up with old shoelaces that had obviously never even been untied since the time they had been given to Rensselaer. So I had not only to learn a subject about which I knew nothing, but I had to take it all apart and put it together again on my own. And I can’t tell you how much I learned from that experience.

You served as both the archivist and the researcher?

I wanted to know about engineering and the techniques of sinking caissons and all that. Not only did I discover that I could do it, I could understand it – even without a teacher – but that it was fascinating. Suddenly I was strongly motivated to learn a lot about technology and engineering. If I were to be given an exam on the subject of the Brooklyn Bridge today I know I would do very well and yet it’s been nearly twenty-five years since I wrote that book.

There really isn’t much written about John Roebling coming to Pennsylvania and founding the town of Saxonburg.

Saxonburg … it’s a marvelous community. It’s exciting to walk down the street and there’s the whole plan as Roebling laid it out … there’s the church that he had built … there’s his own house that he built, the house where his son Washington, who is one of the great Americans of our past, was born. The Roebling family itself is extremely interesting, extremely important. There’s a great biography to be written about John Roebling [German-born American civil engineer hailed as the builder of the Brooklyn Bridge]. To come back to this point about not dividing culture from history: it would be hard to pick a state in which this is more apparent than Pennsylvania. How can you separate industrial history, or labor history, or the history of technology and science, or the history of medicine from the history that has taken place in Pennsylvania? You can’t.

Are there any Pennsylvanians who figure prominently in your work?

I owe an enormous debt of gratitude and appreciation to one of the great figures in American letters who came from Pennsylvania, who was born here and who died here. That’s Conrad Richter. Through an assignment that I was given by Harper’s Magazine I got to meet Richter and as a consequence became a very close friend. I was just at the stage where I was ready to start trying to write a book on my own, just before I began work on The Johnstown Flood. I came to Pine Grove [Schuylkill County] several times to talk with him and to listen to his theories about writing and to walk through the old town with him and have him tell me all that he remem­bered about who lived where and what went on. It was easily the most important step in my education as a writer. He was a great man. He used Pennsylvania in his work and probably more effectively than anybody I can think of.

Conrad Richter used Pine Grove in The Waters of Kronos, which is in many ways his most beautiful book. Pure and simple. A Simple Honorable Man is entirely about his father, who elected at the middle of his life to become a minister, to give up his work in a hardware store to become a minister. It’s virtually straight from the story of Richter’s own father and Richter’s own experiences as a child as a result of his father’s making that huge change in his life. He understood the necessity for economy and compression in writing. He taught me a great deal about the vitality of certain words and how to go about research. In fact, he told me once that he was never happier than sitting at a library table surrounded by books and original letters and manuscripts from which he was drawing material for his books. And the library he was talking about was here in Harris­burg, The State Library of Pennsylvania. That’s where he came to do his research.

In addition to being a writer and historian, you are also a public figure. How do you balance the tension of being a historian and a narrator of public television broadcasts?

On the Civil War series [by Ken Burns], for example, we had a number of stiff differences about interpreta­tion. Sometimes I would win and sometimes I would not do so well.

First of all I think the Civil War was one of the worst of all tragedies in the history of our country. I am by no means convinced that it was necessary. I think the bloodshed, the butchery of it, was so appalling as to defy the imagination, but I felt that we, in creating the film, were putting too much emphasis visually on stacks of dead bodies. We were not giving quite enough emphasis to the sort of visceral appeal of the military drumbeat, the excitement of going off to war. As self-defeating and as fraudulent as that might be at times, that was nonetheless part of the reality.

Why do you think people responded so positively to that broadcast?

One of the things we tried to do was to emphasize that this all happened here. This didn’t happen on the other side of the world, or in France. This happened here, down the street, across the way, in American towns, on American farmland. The series also demonstrates how great is the interest in our story as a people, what a need there is to know all about our past and how limited has been the grasp of that on the part of those who control television. We were asked, “Do you honestly expect people to tune in every night for five hours – which turned out to be eleven hours – to watch a program about the Civil War made up of nothing but old photographs, old still photographs? Who are you kidding?” Well, it turned out to have the largest audience of any show, any series of programs ever on public television.

Charles Guggenheim, a friend and a great documentary film producer who did The Johnstown Flood, pointed out that the Civil War series succeeded not in spite of the old still photographs, it succeeded because of the old still photographs. And that there is something particularly compelling, something particularly arresting, about the still image, especially to an audience that’s so conditioned to nothing but moving images, and particularly now with the MTV way of editing, of fast cuts. To hold on a still picture, particularly if it’s of an emotionally powerful moment, is to emphasize that emotional power in a way that motion pictures perhaps can’t achieve. What seemed to be the handicap was in reality the huge advantage.

You’ve done so much for broadcast as a medium but it seems you prefer writing.

There’s nothing comparable to the printed page as a means of expression, as a means of communication. A television producer with whom I worked, Martin Carr, who produced the
“Smithsonian World” series, described television as skywriting. It’s up there, it gets seen by a lot of people and it goes away. Dissolves, disappears. That’s not true with a book. That’s not true with the printed word. Furthermore, you can do more on a printed page than you can in half an hour of television. For all of the added advantages of music, sound effects, photographs, and writing that can be brought to bear on the screen, it’s very difficult to deal with abstract ideas, it’s very difficult to deal with internal unspoken feeling and emotion.

I know you also read your own manuscripts.

Out loud. And I have someone else read it out loud to me, nearly always my wife, Rosalee. She reads it back to me so that I can hear it, not just look at it.

So the sound of the writing is important to you?

I think by hearing it you can often hear where you’re being redundant or repeating the same word, let’s say, more often than you should in a way that you might not get by just looking at it.

Is it fair to say that writing is not an occupation, but a passion?

I love to write, I love to research. When I first started out I would try and do all the research and then write the book. I don’t work that way any longer, I try to do maybe fifty to sixty percent of the research and then I start writing. It’s only when you start to write that you realize, in no uncertain terms, what you don’t know.

And then that leads you back to the source?

Then you can begin to build a list, so to speak, and go after specific things that you need. Writing is really thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard. The old writing adage for creative writing courses is to write about what you know, so they will encourage you to write about somebody you’ve known or some experience you’ve been through yourself. With this kind of work it’s the reverse. It’s to know what you’re writing about.

Have you fallen in love with any new subjects?

No, the bug has not bitten yet. I’m sorting through about six or seven ideas and it may be that it’s there and I don’t see it yet but I’ll know when it happens. You have to know because you’re committing so much of your life and your efforts. It’s a little like choosing a roommate. You’re going be with that person or that subject day after day for three, four, maybe as many as ten years.

You are serving as honorary chairman of a drive to create the Pittsburgh Regional History Center. Why is this so important to you?

I love Pittsburgh. That’s the answer. I think that knowing and caring about the history of your city or your state or your country is an expression of affection. I just love it. And I also feel that Pitts­burgh happens to have one of the richest histories of any city in the country, or the world for that matter. And a large part of that has been ignored or has been misinterpreted or has been neglected too long by not just the public but by serious historians and biogra­phers. I have to say, I feel it in my bones, that if you were going to take a lens and set it down on the map of the United States at a point where you could, in effect, tell the whole story of this country you would be hard put to find a better place than Pittsburgh.

Diversity and inclusiveness have now become vogue words. We never knew anything else in a city like Pittsburgh. Every ethnic background, all races, every religion. I grew up in a marvelous city. They talk about the terrible dirt and pollution and all the rest. In what other city could you hop on a street car and go to the Carnegie Library and the Carnegie Museum? What a huge advantage that section of Oakland was to a youngster. Get on the street car and go to the movies and go to the Nixon Theater and see a play. Go downtown with your brother for a concert. It’s all there.

I’m trying to raise money to bring in several very good photographers to photograph people in a variety of important and interesting careers in Pittsburgh today to be part of the historic record for the future. Because there is so much, I’m sure, of historic importance going on in Pittsburgh today. I think we have the chance to create the most interesting and imaginative and important urban history center in the country. I think that what we’re doing has national importance and it’s also been great fun. It has to happen. We’ve got to do it. And the support we’ve been given so far from the governor of Pennsylvania, from the state of Pennsylvania, from leaders of corporate Pittsburgh, from foundations, and from individuals has been thrilling.

You write, teach, lecture, and read. Is there any time for other interests?

I’m very interested in art, and I still like to paint and sketch. I like to walk – I think I was doing this somewhat before I em­barked on my biography of Harry Truman but in the last ten years at least I’ve been taking a good, long early morning walk in Truman fashion. I’m interested in photography. I like to swim. I’m very interested in food and cooking. I love to travel. I have a large and marvelous family – five children, five grandchildren – ­and we’re very, very fond of each other and we see a lot of each other and that’s vital to my work … they’re my collaborators on all these projects. Oliver Jensen, the former editor of American Heritage, once saw me up on the Hill at the Library of Congress doing some research. I had two of my sons helping me and he said, “Oh, I see you grow your own staff.”

My roots here in Pennsylvania are very deep. I’m bragging when I say that – all of my forbears come from Pennsylvania … from Peach Bottom, from Oxford, and from Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh family was part of a big Scotch-Irish migration that settled there before the Revolutionary War.

I’m descended from farmers, and from at least one banker, one lawyer, a good many tradesmen, business people, a teacher. It’s very important to me, my Pennsylvania heritage. When I think of how much history took place in this state – it sounds obvious and maybe trite – but where else in the country have the most important documents in our history been written? The most important battle of our most terrible and crucial testing, the Civil War, took place here. It’s the state of not just Benjamin Franklin and William Penn but Samuel David Gross, the great physician of Philadelphia, Thomas Eakins, Pittsburgh astronomer John Brashear, Stephen Foster, heart surgeon Thomas Starzl, Conrad Richter, John O’Hara, John Updike, James Michener, Annie Dillard, John Edgar Wideman. It’s marvelous. A protean society.


For Further Reading

Dillard, Annie. An American Childhood. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.

McCullough, David. Brave Companions: Portraits in History. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.

____. The Great Bridge. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

____. The Johnstown Flood. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.

____. Mornings on Horseback. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.

____. The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.

____. Truman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.

____. “Writing Truman.” Prologue. 25, 1 (Spring 1993). 6-15.

O’Hara, John. Appointment in Samarra. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1934.

____. Ten North Frederick. New York: Random House, 1955.

Richter, Conrad. A Simple Honorable Man. New York: Knopf, 1962.

____. The Light in the Forest. New York: Knopf, 1953.

____. The Waters of Kronos. New York: Knopf, 1960.

Updike, John. Rabbit Run. New York: Knopf, 1960.

Wideman, John Edgar. Brothers and Keepers. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984.


The Pittsburgh Regional History Center, envisioned by David McCullough as “the most imaginative and important urban history center in the country,” is a project spearheaded by the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. The one hundred and sixty thousand square foot facility will not only feature museum exhibitions dedicated to the city’s
ethnic, business, industrial, medical, sports, and architectural history, but it will safeguard the documents, records, and papers of western Pennsylvania families, businesses, corporations, organizations, and institutions.


Brent D. Glass has served as the executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission since 1987. From 1983 to 1987, he acted as executive director of the North Carolina Humanities Council, and was the Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer for the North Carolina Division of Archives and History for four years. In addition to lecturing, he has written numerous articles on urban, industrial, and public history. His contributions to Pennsylvania Heritage are “Expanding a Vision: Seventy-Five Years of Public History” (winter 1989) and “‘The Public Is Entitled to Know’: Fighting for the Public Memory of Henry Clay Frick” (winter 1992).