Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Josephy and David McCullough—the narrative historian

Always, for Alvin, “story” was the important notion in “history.” He insisted on accuracy, trusted the testimony of individuals, and was disgusted by some of the stilted prose and arcane argument of the academics. He loved the idea of history permeating our lives. And capturing its excitement and making it available to the greatest number of citizens was done by writing clean prose and telling good stories.



In 1961, Alvin left Time Magazine for an upstart hard cover magazine called American Heritage. In 1964, he hired a literature major from Yale who had worked for Sports Illustrated and the Unlisted States Information Agency to join him. Multiple Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards later, David McCullough would say that American Heritage was his “graduate school.”


In the fall of 1984, I went to Jackson Hole, Wyoming to sit in the audience as the Snake River Institute honored Alvin Josephy with a weekend of readings, speeches, films and discussions about "The Next Hundred Years in the American West." It was an august crew—George Horsecatcher and Terry Tempest Williams, Hal Cannon, Teresa Jordan, Jack Loeffler, Ed and Betsy Marston, Tim Egan, Bill Kittredge, Drum Hadley, Gary Snyder, David McCullough and more rose to say a few words about Alvin and read a poem or tell a story or think aloud about the West to come.

McCullough began with a story about American Heritage. He and Alvin were in the office during the big east coast power failure and resulting “blackout” of 1965, and the two of them carefully walked all of the office secretaries down flights of stairs and to their homes or safe stopping places. I think Ed Marston’s picture of Alvin and Teresa Jordan, later printed in High Country News, was their reaction to that story.

Alvin and David were obviously old friends, men who shared a notion of history, the importance of history, and the telling of it. McCullough went on to talk about history, and a Disney effort to own and control some Civil War sites—could history become commercial property in the next 100 years?

What McCullough didn’t detail that day was his transition from history editor and history lover to historian. I found the answer in a 1999 Paris Review interview.

He had grown up in Pennsylvania with stories of the Johnstown Flood, had later found a trove of photos of the flood at the Library of Congress, and gone back to read books. They didn’t match what he knew about Pennsylvania and Johnstown, and he resolved to write the story himself. But how to begin?

“One evening, in New York, at a gathering of writers and historians interested in the West, my boss, Alvin Josephy, pointed to a white-haired man across the room. He said, That’s Harry Drago. Harry Sinclair Drago. He’s written over a hundred books. I waited for my chance and walked over. Mr. Drago, I said, Alvin Josephy says that you’ve written over a hundred books. Yes, he said, that’s right. How do you do that? I asked. And he said, four pages a day. Every day? Every day. It was the best advice an aspiring writer could be given.”

David McCullough left American Heritage and went on to become the leading writer of popular, well researched narrative history books of our time, books on the Brooklyn Bridge and Panama Canal, and Pulitzer Prize winning books on presidents Truman and Adams. He became a popular host of American Experience programs on Public Television, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor.

And throughout this distinguished career, McCullough has promoted and maintained the values of narrative history. In the Paris Review interview, he said that “The problem with so much of history as it’s taught and written is that it’s so often presented as if it were all on a track—this followed that. In truth, nothing ever had to happen the way it happened. Nothing was preordained. There was always a degree of tension, of risk, and the question of what was going to happen next… No one knew Truman would become president or that the Panama Canal would be completed.”

On receiving a National Book Award, he put it this way: “There’s no secret to making history come alive. Barbara Tuchman said it perfectly: ‘Tell stories.” The pull, the appeal is irresistible, because history is about two of the greatest mysteries—time and human nature.”

Alvin Josephy couldn’t have put it better.

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