MCCULLOUGH Apr-11-2008 (830 words) With photo. xxxn
Christophers winner David McCullough reflects on a life well lived
By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- It's not every college English major who becomes an acclaimed historian, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and a revered television personality -- to mention just three items on his resume.
But author and former PBS program host David McCullough has squeezed a lot into his 74 years, and was honored for it April 10 in New York with the Christophers' Life Achievement Award.
"I felt very proud, honored and gratified" upon hearing in March that he had been named for the prize, McCullough told Catholic News Service in an April 9 telephone interview in Washington, where he was touring in support of the seven-part HBO adaptation of his 2002 Pulitzer-winning biography "John Adams."
"There's also something about that 'life achievement' designation that I hope doesn't mean that this is my curtain call," he said with a laugh. "I have a lot more I intend to do."
His current project is a century-long look at Americans in Paris, 1830-1930, and the inspiration they derived from time spent in what was then the world's cultural capital, not the least of whom, McCullough said, were Edith Wharton, who wrote her novel "Ethan Frome" there, and Samuel Morse, whose time there gave him the spark that led to the invention of the telegraph.
"You can't see history solely as military and politics and social issues," he told CNS. "It has to do with art and literature and poetry. It has everything to do with being a human being. Because that's what history is. To leave art, music, history, literature out of our history is to leave a lot of the color, the flavor, the magic out of life; it is to leave a lot of the soul out of life."
McCullough added, "It's so exciting I can't wait to get up early enough in the morning to write."
Although not a Catholic himself, McCullough said that, while he's won plenty of prizes and has 40 honorary degrees under his belt, "it means even more to me" that the Christophers, a Catholic organization, bestowed this award on him.
"I think it has to do with history," McCullough said. "There's a longevity, a sense of continuity, about the Catholic Church that appeals to me enormously. And I dearly love architecture, and I think I have been as moved by a sense of sanctity in the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe as anywhere I've ever been. I've had so many Catholic friends over the years -- all my life -- the story of Catholicism in this country is part of our history, and that interests me greatly."
McCullough, as could be guessed, is an avid reader: "Oh, I read all the time. I have to read. (Thomas) Jefferson said, 'I can't live without books.' I know exactly what he meant." McCullough reads books for his own book projects, plus mysteries and, as of late, the works of such 18th-century writers as Daniel Defoe, Anthony Trollope, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson and Tobias Smollett.
As an undergraduate at Yale, McCullough lunched often with novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder, perhaps best known for the play "Our Town." Wilder served as an inspiration for McCullough's eventual career as a writer.
"He was a very, very approachable good-hearted man. And he loved to talk," McCullough said. "He was asked how he got his ideas for his plays and his novels: 'I imagine I'd like to see a story performed on a stage or in a book, and I check around to see if it's been done. So I write so I can see the play, I write the book so I can read it.'"
"That's how I came to write my first book, 'The Johnstown Flood,'" McCullough continued. "The two books that had been written on the subject to that point weren't" -- he edited himself in mid-sentence -- "they were inadequate. I wrote it so I could read it. And I've been writing ever since."
Asked how he decides on the subjects for his books, McCullough replied, "I can't answer that. I don't know. Something clicks. I just think, 'This is it! This is it!' Somebody says something in a chance remark at lunch, or it's something I read. I've been very, very fortunate in my subjects. ... If I knew all about the subject, I wouldn't write the book."
He added, "The journey of discovery, that's the kick, that's the thrill. In each case, the subject becomes larger and more interesting the more I write the book. That's the way learning gets you. ... I tell students 'You've already read books that have changed your life. You don't know it yet.'"
"I guess of all the things I have done," McCullough said, the thing that makes him proudest is that "none of my books has ever been out of print. It's how your work stands up in the long run that matters."
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