Notes from the Green Couch

David McCullough

Historian and biographer was webcast live from the Writers House.

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

To say that the king died, then the queen died merely iterates a sequence of events. To say, however, that the king died, then the queen died of grief creates a story with real characters and emotions.

Famed historical writer David McCullough looks beyond the sequence - he seeks the story. He strives to uncover this humanity in his research. For this reason, it is not enough to say McCullough scribed the heralded biography of John Adams. To realize the story, it needs to be said that McCullough scribed the heralded biography of John Adams because of the aforementioned compulsion to discover the humanity in history.

Notes from the Green Couch

Speaking to a Writers House lunch crowd seated aside former Penn president Sheldon Hackney, McCullough reveals the story behind his biography on America's second president. At the onset of his project, he intended to write a dual biography of Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The staunchest of political foes, the two founding fathers ultimately reconciled, forming an unlikely friendship late their lives.

Though intrigued by this sequence, it soon became evident that Jefferson lacked a story. He destroyed most personal records - notably, all letters with his wife - and what remains shows no emotion, as Jefferson was reluctant to put his thoughts and feelings on paper.

Adams, on the other hand, was a biographer's dream subject. When McCullough discovered the president's personal letters, especially those between him and his beloved wife Abigail, he eliminated Jefferson from the book to focus wholly on Adams. McCullough highlights the duration of his research on Adams as "the most stimulating journey."

While present day biographers still have an opportunity to uncover more subjects like Adams, McCullough emphasizes that future biographers will face an infinitely more daunting task. Our generation has an obsession with recording every bit of minutia, yet ironically, nothing is truly recorded. Our writing comes in the forms of e-mails and Word documents - quickly deleted or difficult to uncover.

Adams represents a near extinct breed of people who leave a written legacy for future generations to cherish and learn from. McCullough even jokes that anyone who writes a diary and donates it to a university will achieve immortality, because there will be so few written records available.

However, future biographers are not the only people being deprived by our generation's habits. In McCullough's opinion, we are all the losers for not physically, literally putting pen to paper. The act of writing stimulates the mind. It is a way of thinking clearly. Most often, we are really writing for ourselves - to ourselves - working our ideas out on paper, giving birth to ideas that otherwise would have taken much longer to realize.

Historians have responsibilities. They must represent the dead, bringing the forgotten fallen out of the shadow go gain new insight into the past to help humanity in the future. They must remain impartial, careful to avoid stereotypes and quick judgment. They must have perspective in viewing world events, remaining conscience of the relative impact of each success and tragedy to each era.

After the terrorist acts of September 11th transpired, McCullough put American history in perspective. Albeit the worst day in recent memory, the United States hit its lowest point ever almost 250 years ago - the Revolutionary War. Inspired by this perspective, McCullough is now not only writing a book on the War of 1776, but also assisting in the foundation of the National Revolutionary War Museum to be in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

Toward the beginning of the discussion, one guest asked McCullough if he would ever consider writing a genre other than historical non-fiction. McCullough exposed himself as a "closet mystery addict" and expressed a desire to write a murder mystery. Yet, in a sense, writing history and mystery is really one and the same. In writing history, the author searches for clues and researches endlessly to uncover the truth. In mystery, as with history, not all characters are created equal; certain accounts hold more credence in regards to developing plot and reaching a conclusion. Moreover, it is essential to discover the human in each character to truly understand the ultimate truth by story's end.

In conclusion, for those who do not listen to this event's recording, I wish to impart the best advice McCullough ever received on how to write a book: "Write four pages a day."