My Favorite Historian

Some things we love instantly and passionately. Others grow up more imperceptibly to become a dominant favorite. David McCullough is the latter. While I have moved the majority of my library to E-books, I still own the first paper book of his I read, 1776. I just finished Mornings on Horseback, a biography limited to the first part of Theodore Roosevelt’s life which was published the year I was born. (I picked this latest one because my father-in-law bears a striking resemblance to Teddy!) I think I have read about 5 of his books now, including the Pulitzer Prize winning John Adams.

History is story over time. I don’t often remember dates. I doubt I would be very successful in a Jeopardy match of this category. Yet I venture to say that I love history, because I love story. And like a good story, history should be full of detail, character, and narrative. David McCullough combines these elements to produce historically accurate books that are also readable, enjoyable, and profitable.

A good historian must be charitable as well as critical. Some historians favor charity, and yield works of hagiography. Others focus on judgment and wind up with works of character criticism. McCullough keeps his perch on the fence, pointing out flaws and errors and pulling no punches when necessary, without engaging in the 21st century habit of looking down on all previous times as epochs of abject barbarism. He allows the people to be people of their time, but acknowledges their shortcomings even within their context.

McCullough also manages to impregnate his works with his own love of country – a patriotism that is wholesome without being conceited. I forget if it was Chesterton or Lewis who said we don’t teach others to love their mothers by disdaining our own. McCullough loves his forefathers without idolizing them. He appreciates the exuberance of America without losing himself completely in her colors. He enjoys the indomitable spirit of his ancestors without joining every crusade.

I rarely (ok, never) walk away from a historical work as an expert on that subject. But I always walk away from McCullough edified in some way. In my most recent read, Mornings on Horseback, McCullough explores the Roosevelt family dynamic through family letters as well as events. The Roosevelt family correspondence is remarkable not only for its extensive nature but also for the candid expressions of affection for one another. The children loved their parents (and vice versa), but the regard and love for their siblings is neither implied, muted, or subtle. Would that I had words to tell my own father how I long to live up to his character, or to express to my mother what joy and delight she has brought to my life!

In search of a good book to read? Pick any David McCullough book. You just can’t go wrong.

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