Master historian relishing life in historic Hub

Get Adobe Flash player
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / May 31, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

David McCullough was taking his customary morning stroll through the Public Garden one day last week when a woman asked for a word with him. Spotting the eminent historian was easy enough. With his mane of snow-white hair and stately, professorial mien, McCullough, 77, is as recognizable as any working — or walking — American author alive today.

The woman praised his book “1776’’ for its humanizing of Revolutionary War-era history. McCullough, who moved from Martha’s Vineyard into a Back Bay apartment two months ago, graciously heard her out. Then, with little prompting, he told her how much he’s enjoying living in the city — “one of the two or three top destinations in the country for history, a center of civilization,’’ filled with great statuary, architecture, museums, and libraries.

The woman reacted as if she’d just gotten an impromptu cello lesson from Yo-Yo Ma.

If McCullough had an extra spring in his step that morning, it wasn’t solely due to his chance encounter with a fan. Last week also marked publication of his latest book, “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,’’ a sprawling narrative centered on a large contingent of artists, writers, physicians, and politicians who migrated to Paris in the 19th century, to lasting effect on their lives and careers. Spanning seven decades, McCullough’s story weaves memorable portraits of Samuel Morse, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Sumner, Mary Cassatt, and John Singer Sargent, among others.

The book draws heavily upon personal correspondence and diary entries, a hallmark of McCullough’s previous books, which have earned him dozens of honors, including two Pulitzer Prizes and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The Boston-Paris connection in “Greater Journey’’ is a strong one, McCullough said while making his way south from the George Washington statue, near Arlington Street, to the park’s Boylston Street border.

“George Healy, for instance, is a great American story,’’ McCullough said as he walked along at a brisk pace, pointing out treats like a chestnut tree in full bloom. “An Irish boy from the streets of Boston with no connections or money and not much education. Yet he goes off on his own and becomes the premier American portrait painter of his time.’’ Pause. “He’s like Forrest Gump. He keeps showing up at important moments.’’

Minutes later, arriving at the statue of Sumner that stands by the park’s southern perimeter, McCullough beamed. A highlight of his daily walks, he confided, is getting to “say good morning to all my friends’’ on a route that often steers him by statues of Abigail Adams, Samuel Eliot Morrison, General John Glover, Washington, Sumner, and many others.

“What interested me very much was, what did these people bring back with them from Paris, figuratively or literally?’’ McCullough mused. “For Sumner, it was the revelation about black people. Here’s someone who was highly educated yet felt he hadn’t learned enough.’’

As if narrating a public television documentary, for which McCullough is justly famous as well, he deepened his miniportrait of Sumner: how, while attending lectures at the Sorbonne, Sumner noticed the black students in class were treated like everybody else; how that “epiphany,’’ as McCullough put it, turned Sumner into a staunch abolitionist; and how, after entering politics and being elected to the US Senate from Massachusetts, Sumner became Washington’s most powerful antislavery voice.

“I doubt one person in a thousand in Boston knows who this is,’’ McCullough went on, with a wry smile. “Most people probably think he must have built the Sumner Tunnel.’’ Pause. “I’ve suggested they add a little more [to the pedestal] than just his last name.’’ Pause again. “We’ll see.’’

“Greater Journey,’’ with its outsized cast and overseas setting, seems an odd departure for McCullough, whose biographies of John Adams and Harry Truman set the gold standard for contemporary presidential life writing. Does he agree? McCullough did not duck the question.

“Very much so,’’ he replied. However, he added, “History is more than just politics and military. To me it’s all a blend, as life is. To separate art and music and science and medicine into another category is to chop off what ought to be seen as a panorama.’’

A few more paces, taking him past the Swan Boats, gave McCullough time to reconsider.

“A departure? Yes and no,’’ he said this time. “I’ve done a lot of research in Paris for my previous books. The idea of setting a book there, with Americans, was exciting to me. I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed my work more, and I’ve enjoyed it all along. But this book gave me a chance to learn so much, to meet people I knew nothing about.’’

Currency and commercial potential rarely cross his mind while settling on a topic, he added. “If it’s a book I want to write, that’s all it takes. I’m at a stage in my life and career when I do what I want to do, now more than ever. I never had any doubt about this project. It’s what I had to do.’’

Married for 57 years, David and Rosalee McCullough spent 35 of those years on the Vineyard, where they still own a home. Beyond appreciating Boston for its cultural and scholarly resources, and the comfort that city living provides at this stage of their lives, the couple moved here to be closer to family. Four of their children and 14 grandchildren live in or near the Hub. A fifth familial branch is in Camden, Maine, where the McCulloughs also keep a residence. At this stage of life, he said with a twinkle in his eye, “Grandchildren are a powerful draw.’’

His next writing project isn’t yet settled on, McCullough said, but once it is, he’ll expect to work on it daily, as always. “There are an infinite number of wonderful subjects that are open to be looked at,’’ he noted. “I keep a running list until something just hits me. Then I know exactly what I want to do.’’

Before turning up Commonwealth Avenue on the last leg home, McCullough had a word to say about another treasured historical artifact: the Royal manual typewriter upon which he still writes his books.

“People tell me I’d go faster if I used a computer, but I don’t want to go faster, ’’ he said as traffic whizzed by, a few heads turning in his direction. “If anything, I want to go slower.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at