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David McCullough | Biography

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Influences and Education

David McCullough was born on July 7, 1933, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He attended Yale, where he studied English literature and crossed paths with luminaries including American poet Robert Penn Warren and American playwright Thornton Wilder. He also met his wife, Rosalee Barnes McCullough, while at Yale. After graduating he worked as a writer first at Sports Illustrated, then at the United States Information Agency, and later at the history magazine American Heritage.

While working at American Heritage McCullough made his first foray into historical writing, drawing inspiration from a real-life event that occurred in his home state in 1889—a devastating and deadly flood caused when a neglected dam burst in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. McCullough's first book, The Johnstown Flood, was published in 1968, and its success allowed him to dedicate himself to writing books full time. Six acclaimed books later, in 1998, Yale awarded McCullough an honorary Doctor of Letters degree, praising him for his ability to "paint with words, giving us pictures of the American people that live, breathe, and above all, confront the fundamental issues of courage, achievement, and moral character."

Besides writing award-winning historical narratives, David McCullough has cultivated a lifelong passion for art, architecture, and painting. In 2013 the city of Pittsburgh changed the name of its 16th Street bridge to The David McCullough Bridge, in honor of the author.

Publishing Career

After his debut effort, The Johnstown Flood, McCullough wrote two histories about major works of infrastructure: The Great Bridge (1972), about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, and The Path between the Seas (1977), about the creation of the Panama Canal. He then produced several presidential biographies: Mornings on Horseback (1981), a portrait of Theodore Roosevelt as a young man; Truman (1992), an account of the 33rd president, Harry S. Truman (1945–53); and John Adams (2001), an account of the second president. These titles in particular established McCullough's popular and critical appeal. The Path between the Seas and Mornings on Horseback both won the National Book Award, while Truman and John Adams both received the Pulitzer Prize.

1776 marked a shift in McCullough's approach to his materials. Instead of the vast scale of the Brooklyn Bridge and Panama Canal or the depth and detail of the lives of presidents, 1776 presented a narrower canvas—a year of action at the beginning of the American Revolution, which McCullough presents as a crucial test of the viability of the struggle for independence in Britain's North American colonies.

His more recent works have returned to his characteristic scope and scale in The Greater Journey (2011), about Americans in Paris, and The Wright Brothers (2015), a biography of the brothers who pioneered flight. In addition to his writing McCullough has been involved in a number of productions for public television, such as American filmmaker Ken Burns's documentary series Brooklyn Bridge (1981) and The Civil War (1990), both of which McCullough narrated. A 1995 TV movie was based on Truman, and in 2008 HBO made a television miniseries based on McCullough's John Adams.

Status among Contemporary Historians

The sum of his work in print, on the screen, and in person—as a visiting scholar at numerous colleges and universities—reflects McCullough's elevated status among contemporary historians. In addition to the prizes he has received for individual books, McCullough has received multiple awards and honors for his lifelong accomplishments, including the 2006 Presidential Medal of Freedom and election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He also won the 1995 Charles Frankel Prize of the National Endowment of the Humanities (now the National Humanities Medal) and two Francis Parkman Prizes from the Society of American Historians for The Path Between the Seas and Truman.

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