Author David McCullough gives credit where credit is due

The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian continues to chronicle the story of America, and share his respect for the past and optimism for the future.

"Wilbur was a genius, no question about it," Mr. McCullough said about Wilbur Wright. — Photo by Michael Cummo

On Tuesday evening, Pulitzer Prizewinning author, historian, and lecturer David McCullough spoke about his latest book, “The Wright Brothers,” to a sold-out room of rapt fans in the Grange Hall in West Tisbury, around the corner from his Music Street house. The occasion was a West Tisbury Library Foundation fundraiser for the West Tisbury Free Public Library, of which he and his wife Rosalee have been longtime supporters.

No. 1 for the ninth week on the New York Times bestseller list, “The Wright Brothers” is his 10th book. Mr. McCullough, 83, signed his first contract with Simon and Schuster 50 years ago. He has never had another publisher.

He has just returned from an 18-city book tour with Rosalee, and after five decades punctuated by a series of critically acclaimed and enormously popular histories of signature American events and achievements, several of its most remarkable leaders, and its abiding national spirit, Mr. McCullough’s enthusiasm for telling the stories of America and Americans is undiminished.

The Wright brothers, largely forgotten until Mr. McCullough sat down in his Music Street backyard behind his Royal typewriter, embody self-reliance, ingenuity, courage, honesty, and, above all, perseverance in the face of trials that would have defeated ordinary men.

In private conversation and in his many lectures and interviews, Mr. McCullough, as personable and courtly in person as he is on a podium or before a camera, speaks optimistically about what may still be achieved with great leadership and the power of an idea.

In a telephone conversation Monday morning, Mr. McCullough spoke to The Times about the Wright brothers, American history, and the importance of libraries to the nation.

Mr. McCullough said much of his work has been about recognizing those figures in American history who might otherwise be forgotten. In part, that is what attracted him to the Wright brothers.

Where credit is due

“I think that a lot of my work is to give credit where credit is long overdue. And I felt that way with Truman, and I felt that way with Adams, and I certainly felt that way about the people who succeeded in building the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal. And in a way, this book is the third book in a trilogy of major American accomplishment against the odds, against the seeming dictates of history. It involved great danger and loss of life, and all three of those remarkable achievements occurred in roughly the same time period, in the 1880s and in the first decade of the new century.

And none of them would have happened had it not been for people of exceptional determination and ability, and physical courage, and big ideas. And I feel very strongly that … that history should not be perceived or taught or written as largely only about politics and war, that our achievements, and our failures and disappointments and tragedies, that have nothing to do with either politics or war are often as, or even more important. And I include with that the works of literature, art, music, medicine, and so forth.”

The fact is, Mr. Mccullough said, that what most students learn in the 10 minutes or so devoted to the Wrights in school is that the brothers were a pair of bicycle mechanics from Ohio who invented the airplane. No different from these students, Mr. McCullough knew little about the pair when he began his project. That is a theme characteristic of his long career. He writes, in part, to learn, ultimately a most joyful part of the whole effort.

“If I knew all about it, I wouldn’t want to write the book, because for me, the book is an adventure in new knowledge, in learning and discovery. Discovering what I didn’t know, but also discovering what nobody else has found about the same subject. I’ve never undertaken a book where I didn’t learn something that nobody has known before.”

His respect for the Wright brothers, as well as for their sister and father, largely unheralded figures, grew with his research. “I was in awe of them, particularly Wilbur. Wilbur was a genius, no question about it. The evidence is all there. Orville was very clever and very innovative mechanically, but Wilbur had a reach of mind that was far beyond that of his brother, or virtually anyone of any time. His interest in art and architecture, for example, came to me not only as a complete surprise but a very welcome side of his mental life. And his love of both.

“And I also had the very great pleasure, really one of the joys of the book, in bringing their sister Katharine front and center stage, where she belongs, and has belonged all along, but she has been largely ignored. Her letters are phenomenal — all their letters are phenomenal. Of the main four, the bishop [their father, Milton Wright], the brothers, and Katharine, all of their letters are in the Library of Congress, or I assume most all, and not one of them was capable of writing a dull letter or a short one, which really was a gold mine of insight into their personal and public lives.”

This brought to mind his historian’s disappointment with the digital age, a familiar theme of his conversation. Curiously, the digital age will challenge future biographers and historians. “We don’t write letters; nobody in public life would dare keep a diary anymore. It could be subpoenaed and used against you in court. It’s a shame, it really truly is a great shame, and a cause for a lot of concern, and rightly so, among many librarians and historians.”

Lessons in failure

Success for the Wright brothers was not immediate. There were mistakes and failures. The ability of great people to admit them and learn from them has been a constant in Mr. McCullough’s storytelling: “We don’t spend much time thinking or talking, particularly with our young people, about failure. Failure is part of life. Failure is part of work. And some people, when they get knocked down, lie there and whimper and whine and feel exceedingly sorry for themselves, or blame other people. And there’s the other kind, who get back up on their feet and keep going, but also stop to think about, What did I learn from this? How can I make this machine so it doesn’t do that? And there’s the old line, All right boys, let’s start her up and see why she doesn’t work.”

Mr. McCullough’s work has reminded readers of the virtues of America and Americans, those who succeeded and those who failed. “I think there is much in our story to be very proud of. Now, there’s a lot that’s not very inspiring or admirable, to be sure. And I’ve never left any of that out. But we are the beneficiaries of people who made immense efforts to improve our way of life, and often at risk of their lives or their reputations or their families, what fortunes they might have accumulated, and it would be extremely rude of us to have no interest in that.

“I think history is our story, and it’s not about statistics and dates and memorizing, all that sort of thing. It’s about the people who went before us, people who are not only capable of teaching us a great deal, but whose company is, should be, a wonderful part of being alive. And you get to know them if you spend, as a biographer or a historian does, years of your time with one or several of those people from other eras. You get to know them extremely well. For one thing, you get to look at their letters — and in real life, you don’t get to look at other people’s mail.”

Education for free

Mr. McCullough could easily attract a crowd to fill the largest venues on Martha’s Vineyard. He chose the Grange Hall because it is a short walk from his house, and he preferred a more intimate conversation. “I’ve spoken there often, and I love the size of the audience, and there’s a direct connection about that space that I really like, so I thought, I’m coming home; why don’t I do it where I’d really like to do it?”

He does not think technology will undermine the importance of libraries to our society. “Well, I think our libraries are one of the most important institutions in our country, and they’re essential. And whether you’re getting your information off a computer screen or out of the pages of a book, they’re still essential, and they will remain so. I go into the great main reading room in the Boston Public Library often, and I’ll see nothing but people sitting at those tables looking at their computers. But nonetheless, they’re using that library. And I like to remind people that anybody could get a full education, the equivalent of a college education, by just, for free, going to the library. Now, it would help if you had some guidance from someone, but that could be arranged. And I use them all the time. I’ve used them all my working life and before. And when people get down about the state of American culture, I like to remind them: Don’t forget there are still more public libraries in our country than there are McDonald’s.”

People remain strong

Mr. McCullough does not hold the view that men and women of character are missing from the national landscape. He says he’s confident that our system remains capable of producing leaders. But the nation needs leadership — people capable of lifting the spirits of the country and pointing us in directions that are consequential and demanding.

“We need some leaders with some big ideas. Obviously, most notably is Kennedy — we’re going to go to the moon. Or Kennedy calling on young people to serve your country. It’s been 50 years since a president said that to us. We’re hungry for it. I know we are.

“I’ve been speaking to audiences all over the country, and there is a real feeling of, We want to sustain the basics, the basic foundations and ideals. Jefferson’s great statement — ‘Any nation that expects to be ignorant and free expects what never was and never will be’ — we need to be reminded of that. All the people that I’ve written about, without exception, leaders in various fields such as politics, were all readers. That was one of the things that fascinated me about the Wright brothers, how much they read, and what they read, because of their father’s insistence and direction. The idea that they would give their sister as a birthday present a box of Sir Walter Scott, that tells you a lot about what was going on, not just in their minds and in their taste, but in that house, that little house.

“Truman, though he never went to college, was a great reader. Most people never imagine, but it was true. Truman read Latin for pleasure. Obviously, Adams and the Roeblings, great readers, thinkers, their interest in ideas and a direction of value.

“On this trip Rosalie and I made — every city we went to, there was something going on that the people in the city were proud of and eager to tell you about, something new, something positive, of the kind that you don’t normally see in the papers. And yes, there are serious problems — and everybody knows that — but there’s more optimism than you might expect. I came back quite refreshed.

“I think history does that for you. I do. Because yes, terrible things have happened, of course they have. That’s the point. We’ve come through those dark times. We’ve solved those seemingly impossible problems, again and again.

“And I get quite angry within when I hear people say, ‘Oh, but you have to understand, those were simpler times.’ No they weren’t. Ever. There were no simpler times. History is a great antidote to the hubris of the present, I like to tell people. It is.”

Are Americans complacent — do they take for granted that in times of strife there was a Washington, an Adams, a Lincoln, a Truman, or a Teddy Roosevelt? Mr. McCullough made a longer list.

“But we’ve also had a Mark Twain, and a Winslow Homer, and the Roeblings, and the great medical geniuses. Imagine — imagine what’s happened in medicine just in our lifetime. I think some youth in the future, 100 years, 200 years from now, they may very well look back on this period in time and say the most important thing going on was in medicine.”

What about adding David McCullough to that list? He laughed.

“Well, thank you. And Louis Armstrong — don’t forget to include him.”