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Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough has died

He wrote acclaimed books about Harry Truman and John Adams, along with the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal. He also was the authoritative voice narrating TV films such as The Civil War in 1990.



Historian David McCullough, shown here in 2013, has died at 89. He wrote extensively and compellingly about American history and won two Pulitzer Prizes.
Historian David McCullough, shown here in 2013, has died at 89. He wrote extensively and compellingly about American history and won two Pulitzer Prizes. Matthew J. Lee/Boston Globe | Getty Images
Updated August 10, 2022 at 11:09 AM ET

David McCullough has died. He was a bravura historian and public intellectual whose biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams won Pulitzer Prizes, and whose best-selling stories of American accomplishment were complemented by his work as a public television host and narrator for popular movies and documentaries, including Ken Burns' The Civil War.

McCullough died Sunday at his home in Hingham, Mass., according to his publishers Simon and Schuster. He was 89 years old.

The subjects McCullough tackled were massive. The building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal. The shaping of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He wrote about epic figures, from Theodore Roosevelt to the Wright Brothers. McCullough seemed undaunted by his topics; they were fun for him and he made the subjects enchanting for readers. Perhaps only a McCullough treatment of Truman could've topped the New York Times best-seller list for nearly a year; the biography was a publishing sensation in 1992.

"To many people, the figures, the main characters or protagonists of the drama of our founding years are perceived as almost like characters in a costume pageant with their powdered hair and their ruffled shirts and satin britches and the rest," McCullough told NPR's Talk of the Nation in a 2006 discussion of the Revolutionary War. "But they were nothing like that. And they weren't gods, they weren't superhuman. They were very human beings. And each of them had his flaws, his failings, and his mistakes."

Working on films with Ken Burns

David McCullough, who narrated The Civil War, with the film's creator Ken Burns.
David McCullough, who narrated The Civil War, with the film's creator Ken Burns. Daniel J. White | Ken Burns

"He heard and respected the voices of the people who lived before us," says Burns of his friend and mentor.

When Burns made a film of McCullough's book on the Brooklyn Bridge, McCullough took time one day to help him improve the script. "He sat down with me and Amy Stechler, the writer of the film ... and I don't think I've ever had a greater tutorial than that afternoon in that studio, with a pencil, watching him change and make things more dramatic, understanding the essence of the story."

McCullough was narrator and creative consultant for The Civil War. "He would just sit and talk to us and say, 'Remember this was a huge adventure,' " Burns says. "He urged us to find people who made it through the war ... and who saw it as a way to expand their horizons."

How McCullough made his way to being a historian

David McCullough was brought up in Pittsburgh, Pa., and studied English literature at Yale University, where he developed a friendship with a professor, playwright Thornton Wilder, who wrote the Americana classic Our Town. Although he thought he might become a playwright too, McCullough developed a taste for research while working in magazines in the 1950s.

As well as writing numerous acclaimed books of history, McCullough narrated the 2003 film Seabiscuit. He won the National Book Award twice and, in 2006, became a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian award.

His alma mater gave him an honorary degree in 1998. "As an historian, he paints with words," the citation read. "Giving us pictures of the American people that live, breathe, and above all, confront the fundamental issues of courage, achievement, and moral character."

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Transcript :


David McCullough has died at the age of 89. The popular historian won national book awards for writing about the Panama Canal and Theodore Roosevelt. He also won Pulitzer Prizes for his biographies of other presidents, like John Adams and Harry Truman. He was fittingly awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: In a 2008 documentary about him, David McCullough sits in a bright study packed with piles of paper and twinkles at the camera.


DAVID MCCULLOUGH: A friend of mine recently said, yearbooks aren't about history. They're about life. And I thought, well, yes because that's what history is - life.

ULABY: The sense of fun continues as the distinguished historian sings at the piano with a friend. McCullough wrote about monumental moments in history - the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal, the shaping of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. But McCullough seemed undaunted by his topics. They were fun for him and for the readers who flocked to see him speak, as he said in the HBO documentary called "Painting With Words."


MCCULLOUGH: It's hard to talk about some of these things without sounding pretentious, but I think of writing history as an art form. And I'm striving to write a book that might qualify as literature.

ULABY: David McCullough studied literature at Yale University. He was a kid from Pittsburgh who wanted to be a playwright. But instead of the stage, McCullough moved to New York and started working for magazines - Sports Illustrated, Time and one about history called American Heritage. His taste for research led to his first book about the 1889 dam disaster in Pennsylvania, the Johnstown Flood. You can hear his joy in history on NPR on the Fourth of July in 2006 about why Americans celebrate winning the Revolutionary War.

MCCULLOUGH: We should because it was an extraordinary American triumph. We hadn't proven ourselves very adept as soldiers. We didn't know much about drill or the manual of arms or the sanitation of military camps and the like. But we knew how to do things.

ULABY: McCullough identified with his characters. He recognized them and ourselves in them. His biography of Truman topped the New York Times bestseller for nearly a year in 1992. His immediacy made him an effective onscreen narrator in the 2003 movie "Seabiscuit," for example, or the magisterial 1990 Ken Burns documentary about the Civil War.


MCCULLOUGH: The Civil War was fought in 10,000 places from Val Verde, N.M., and Tullahoma, Tenn., to St. Albans, Vt., and Fernandina on the Florida coast.

ULABY: McCullough's expansive and immersive style occasionally went to method acting lengths as when he grew a beard, like one of the main protagonists of his history of the Brooklyn Bridge, or took walks in the manner of Henry Truman, as he told HBO in 2008.


MCCULLOUGH: I've always felt that in working on my books, history or biography, that I ought to try and go where my subjects went, try and do what they did. For me, it's essential.

ULABY: It was less essential for McCullough to provide the point of view of people adversely affected by President Truman's choices, which earned him a degree of criticism. But the historian's admiration for American accomplishments was matched by his sense of marvel. David McCullough died Sunday at home in Massachusetts of natural causes. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHARRELL WILLIAMS SONG, "ANGEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.