Author David McCullough has eye on Paris

Posted Nov. 20, 2009, at 9:51 p.m.
David McCullough , Farnsworth Museum talk   PHOTO COURTESY OF WILLIAM B. McCULLOUGH
WILLIAM B. McCULLOUGH
David McCullough , Farnsworth Museum talk PHOTO COURTESY OF WILLIAM B. McCULLOUGH

CAMDEN, Maine — Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian David McCullough is shifting his gaze from Colonial America to Paris.

His next book will feature American artists, writers, thinkers and more who traveled to Paris between 1830 and the early 1900s, and returned home with new ideas that changed the United States, he said Friday in a telephone interview from his Camden home.

“History isn’t just about politics and the military,” said McCullough, 76. “It’s about art, and music, and medicine, and science and poetry. Of course, in some cases — and going way back — what we chiefly know about some great civilizations is only their art. It’s the only thing we have.”

McCullough will speak about his research Sunday afternoon in a sold-out lecture at Rockland’s Strand Theatre titled, “The Story of Two Americans in Paris: Samuel F.B. Morse and James Fenimore Cooper in the Year 1832.” The event is part of the Farnsworth Art Museum’s lecture series, the Farnsworth Forum.

The as-yet-untitled book likely will come out in about a year, McCullough said. He has been immersing himself in the research for a few years, and said that after the publication of the biography “John Adams” in 2001 and of “1776” four years later, he was ready for a change of scenery.

“It’s as interesting a subject as I can imagine,” he said. “I feel I’ve been very fortunate with all my subjects — but I’ve never had a better time than with this.”

McCullough’s own interest in France is lifelong, beginning when he was a youngster in Pittsburgh, he said.

“I had an older brother who went over in college. He came back full of stories,” McCullough said. “And one of our hometown boys was Gene Kelly. I identified with him in the movie ‘An American in Paris.’”

The movie entranced him, and he saw it again and again. “I love it! Who couldn’t?” he said

That sense of rollicking enthusiasm seemed to bubble up naturally in conversation with McCullough, a historian with an easy way of sharing his sense of wonder and appreciation for the marvels of the past.

That enthusiasm was never more vivid than in his description of Charles Sumner, the Massachusetts senator who was attacked and nearly beaten to death in the U.S. Senate by a cane-wielding Southerner. Aside from Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sumner was the most important abolitionist of the 1850s, McCullough said.

“He went over to Paris as a student-scholar. He went to attend lectures at the Sorbonne,” McCullough said. “He noticed that the black students were treated exactly like anybody else. It changed him. It was a revelation.”

Sumner came home determined to act on “what was transforming inside,” McCullough said.

“He got into politics,” he said. “It’s thrilling. It’s just a thrilling story.”

Other Americans who traveled into McCullough’s pages include the poet, essayist and anatomy professor Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., Harriet Beecher Stowe, pioneering doctor Elizabeth Blackwell, the painter Mary Cassatt, and Emma Willard, the first woman to champion higher education for women in America.

“I’m dealing with hundreds of potential choices to include in the book,” McCullough said. “I feel sometimes like a casting director. ‘Don’t call me, I’ll call you.’ If I included everybody, it would be a catalog.”

But McCullough, who has been as honored for his work as any four-star general with a chest bristling with medals, is no cataloger. He twice has won the National Book Award, twice won the Pulitzer Prize (for “John Adams” and for “Truman” in 1993) and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006. Nearly 9 million copies of his books are in print, and he has narrated many documentaries, including the PBS series “The Civil War,” as well as the movie “Seabiscuit.”

McCullough has lived part time in Camden for about seven years, he said, partly to be close to his grandchildren. He and his family live quite privately here, he said.

“What I like best about Maine are the people, I really do,” he said. “I think the people here are terrific.”

He hopes that readers of his next book will come away with an appreciation of the hard work that is integral to making a name in literature, painting, music, theater and architecture.

“They only achieved what they did through very hard work, and ambition,” McCullough said of his biographical subjects. “To a large extent, the book is about the value of ambition — to be the best at what it is you love to do.”

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