You may already know that David McCullough is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of such best sellers as John Adams, The Wright Brothers, Truman, Brave Companions, The Johnstown Flood, The Path Between the Seas, and The Pioneers. Or you may recognize his voice as the narrator of The American Experience, the film, Seabiscuit, or Ken Burn’s miniseries, The Civil War. But what you may not know is his perspective on how some of the soldiers, pioneers, builders and inventors he has written about perceived their lives in the face of the constant threat of death. In this podcast you’ll hear McCullough weigh in on the concept of The Bucket and mortality-based living. He also shares his opinion on the importance of having purpose in life and his secrets for living life to its fullest. Spoiler alert: “It only comes once — life — and enjoy every morsel of it.”
David Abend: Welcome to The Bucket Podcast. Today’s a special treat for me as I hope it will be for you. I’m talking to one of my literary heroes, David McCullough. David is an author, lecturer, and historian. He is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and The National Book Award, and the recipient of The Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian award. He’s also an incredible narrator whose voice you will recognize from the film Seabiscuit, Ken Burn’s documentary The Civil War and The American Experience. It’s a privilege and a thrill to welcome David McCullough.
David McCullough: Thank you sir. It’s a pleasure for me to take part in this, I think it is a wonderful idea.
David Abend: Talking about your narration. My wife and I over the years will walk in on someone watching a show, and it’s your narration, and we look at each other and say sorry, it was David McCullough, we couldn’t stop listening.
David McCullough: Oh, thank you. Well, I have a story that my kids love, and grandchildren love and number of my friends love. I was in the supermarket in Boston, in Back Bay, where we were living at the time, and a fellow there with a Star Market shirt on was going by. I couldn’t find the cashew nuts. I asked him, please if he could show me where they were, and it was very crowded, we were in the midst of a blizzard, and people were trying to get provisions to survive. Of course, as you know, you have to have cashews to survive. He led me to it, then went away and I thanked him. About 10 minutes later, I was checking out at the cash register and he came up to me and he said, excuse me, I was listening to your voice, were you the narrator of the Ken Burn’s Civil War series? And I said, yes, I was. He said, well, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart, because when that series first came on the air, I was suffering terribly from insomnia. I heard your voice and would go right out. So, you never know what form compliments are going to come in.
David Abend: It’s quite a compliment. Well, I’ve read a lot of your books, the actual books, but lately I listened to a lot on audible while I’m driving. Hearing you read a lot of your books, is such a treat and what you really feel like is that you’re not a historian, you’re a reporter. You’re at the scene and you’ve done so much research, it’s like you’re there. Was that always how you intended to write history or was that something that you discovered?
David McCullough: Well, I never really intended to write history. I was an English major in college, and I went to work for Time and Life in New York after I got out of college. When John Kennedy called on us to do something for our country, I took it entirely to heart and went down to Washington to see if I could find a job where my education and my six years’ experience that might be applicable. I wound up working for the U.S. Information Agency. It was during those years that I happened upon a collection of photographs at The Library of Congress about the Johnstown Flood. A cameraman, a photographer from Pittsburgh, which is nearby where I grew up — he got over the mountains into the city and took these incredible photographs showing the total destruction of a city. It was so decimating, so hard to believe that that had ever happened in our country, that I thought, what caused it, what happened? I began reading and doing a little poking around and I became utterly fascinated by it because it’s about what can happen when you assume that people in positions of responsibility are behaving responsibly, and they weren’t.
I’d thought maybe I can write a book about this because the books that were then available were not satisfactory at all, for me at least. Once I started doing it, I realized this is what I want to do. So, I have tried to write as I’ve always admired great writing: people write for the ear as well as the eye. I’ve always asked my dear wife Rosalee to read what I’ve written aloud to me, because you hear things you don’t see on paper. You hear yourself repeating the same word too often or repeating the same sentence structure. And, of course, most important of all, you hear when you’re being boring, and I don’t want to subject people to that. History should never be boring. It’s about people. It’s about life. It’s about the uncertainties and tragedies and the sufferings of life. It is also of course about some marvelous accomplishments by human beings who set out to do something of high purpose and value, never imagining what adversities were going to be upon them. And nonetheless, because they didn’t give up, they succeeded. In a way, that’s what every one of my books has been about.
David Abend: You’re an expert on the revolutionary experience. Reading 1776, which was basically post Bunker Hill, the siege of Boston, up to The Battle of Trenton, a couple of things I noticed in that was the kind of glorification of war in some ways. There’s a couple of quotes, where, Jay S. Fitch from Connecticut said, “Enjoyed soldiering and felt that his son would too.” You talk about British soldiers saying, “The great majority were young, drawn by the promise of adventure, perhaps a touch of glory.” It seems like there was a romantic nature to war for some of these people. And, that’s very intriguing to me as part of The Bucket in terms of how people thought of their own mortality back then. Did they think they’d live a long life? If not, did that affect decisions they made?
David McCullough: Well, it’s a very perceptive question and I thank you. First of all, I have believed, and I still do more so than ever, that there’s far more to history than politics and war. It’s taught in the reverse. The way it’s taught, is that’s all it is, politics in war. Of course, in many ways, that side of history, which isn’t politics or isn’t war is often what has lasted longest. In the form of art or architecture or sculpture or music and so forth. Having written the book about John Adams in which there’s no direct contact with war, the reality of the one that was being fought, I felt obligated to do a book about the realities of the war that was fought.
One thing that most Americans don’t understand about the Revolutionary War, is that it was thought to be an impossible achievement. Only a third of the country was for it. And, a third was absolutely against it. They preferred to remain part of England, and the remaining third, in the good old human way, was waiting to see who won. I wanted to write that book as pure narrative. It is designed to move forward from the beginning page to the end. I love doing that, so they didn’t have to take a sidestep to talk about the philosophy or the philosophical attitude of certain characters and so forth. I also love to find good first-person reactions, descriptions, innermost feelings of little-known people in letters and diaries. Now, we don’t write letters and diaries anymore, but in many ways, you can get to know people doing research on them better than you know people in real life. Because for one thing, in real life, people don’t let you read their letters or let you read their diaries. I felt that they, of course, did not expect to live as long as we do, but that was not in any way bothersome because human beings had never lived as long as we do. That’s all new. And, that perspective of length of life is all new. We see it in our children and grandchildren, they don’t get married, for example, until they’re 10 years older than we were when we got married. They grow up slower in a way, very often it can be even more than 10 years later, it can be 20 years later, and they don’t see that as any way out of the normal. The extension of life is a new adventure. Being old, old is a new adventure in the human experience, which I think is fascinating. Some of the best things I’ve done, in my view, I’ve written since I was 65. I think an awful lot of what matters in how old you feel or how down you might be inclined to feel, because you’re growing old, has to do with how interested you are in what is happening to not just to the world, but in your own life.
I’ve always wanted to be busy. I’ve always like making things. Particularly making things with my hands. As a little boy I loved building model airplanes and I loved painting. I still love painting. It’s one of the greatest reliefs I know of. You get out there and paint, you forget everything else, it’s as if that’s all that’s on your mind. Same way with writing. I like to work on a typewriter because it’s more with my hands and I can see the letters being printed on real paper. After it’s all done, I can keep that manuscript. It doesn’t float away off into thin air. And, it will be that way long after I’m not around. My wife has found the original copy of the Johnstown Flood, which was written over 50 years ago. There it is just the way it was when it came out of the typewriter. My feeling is why not keep busy and why not make yourself useful, that in part was due to the way I was raised. Make yourself useful. What did you do today, dear, that made things a little better either for us or for other people or for the country or whatever?
David Abend: Going back to revolutionary war days and the people, do you think that there was more importance in legacy than longevity?
David McCullough: Very well put. Absolutely. What are you going to be remembered for? Do you want to be remembered for sitting around in a comfortable couch watching television? Is that what you’d like to be remembered for? Not by the greater population of world, but your own children or your own grandchildren. What stories have you had to tell? Nobody lives the same life as anybody else. You will never meet anybody who doesn’t know something that you don’t know, and it isn’t just because they have an equal advantage of a higher education or professional expertise or whatever. When I wrote my first book, I thought, well, I can’t tell anyone about what I’m doing because they’ll steal my idea. One of my older writer friends said, don’t worry about that nobody’s going to steal your idea. Tell everybody you can possibly tell them about what you’re working on because you never know who knows something that you don’t know, that you need to know, or would like to know, in order to write that book. I still feel that way.
I love curiosity. I’ve never embarked on a book I knew much about. If I knew all about it, I wouldn’t want to write the book. To me, the book is an adventure. It’s going to a continent where I’ve never set foot, and that’s the pull. I’ve never not found something along the way that nobody else had yet found or if they had, they hadn’t realized how important it was. Just the discovery, the excitement of discovery. I try to encourage students I have lectured, for years, at colleges and universities all over the country, to have curiosity because curiosity accelerates. And curiosity continues on irrespective of age or where you’re living, and it’s energizing.
David Abend: You talk about how people didn’t live as long, but it’s interesting that Adams lived until 90 and Jefferson lived into his 80s.
David McCullough: The characters that I’ve written about in my new book, The Pioneers. They’re living in the midst of every kind of disease, every kind of accident can happen, every kind of awful natural calamity; floods, earthquakes. They all live on into their eighties because what the truth is, if they survive the various diseases of childhood, the chances of living a long life were very good.
David Abend: Do you think they lived their lives expecting that they wouldn’t? Like they made decisions on what to stand up for, not thinking that they would live that long, and they had to do something while they were young?
David McCullough: Yes. I think one of the mistakes that we make in looking back at our forebears in retrospect is you sort of forget that they had no more idea of how it was going to come out than we do. No foreseeable future. Never was.
David Abend: Talking about The Pioneers that mission to go to what was then called the Northwest territory. There was such risk involved. The chances of dying were very good.
David McCullough: Well, for one thing, it was youth and very often lack of family responsibility. They weren’t married yet, or they didn’t have children yet. Now, many of them were married and did have children, and they suffered as a consequence. Ephraim Cutler, one of the main characters in my book, went out with his wife and four children. Two of his children died en route from disease on their trip down the Ohio River. To a degree that was part of life. Dying was part of being alive. Dying among children was very common. I’m not sure that I would have gone, but I’m very proud of and very impressed by, and I’ve learned a lot from the people who did go. That’s because they left their records in their private letters, private diaries, unpublished memoirs, and so forth. And those have all survived and they were all in one place. I had the immense luck of finding them. I think we can never underestimate the importance of luck, not just in life, but in history. It’s a factor. You can have very bad luck, but you can also have phenomenally good luck.
David Abend: Reading The Pioneers, just the letters that you found, and that’s what I was saying before, it’s like you’re reporting. This is what happened because I have proof, there’s this letter exchange between these two people.
David McCullough: I also hugely admire those people, not for their courage of going out and doing that, but the purposes they had in mind. They wanted to create an America where all men are created equal, in fact, not just words on paper. No slavery. So here they were opening up a territory that was as large as all of the original 13 States, in area, where there would be no slavery. That had never been tried before. There were slaves in every one of the original 13 colonies. The other was their total faith in learning, the need for learning. They were going to create the first public school systems ever to be known in America. We had no public schools until then. The idea that the two primary leaders of creating that first public school system were both men who’d had no real education, and they knew that it was essential to the bigger, better life. And of course, to the religion cause you needed to be able to read the Bible.
David Abend: That perception that death was everywhere, I’m not sure it’s a catalyst, but it was like, I could die here, or I can die there. It was a motivator to get people to take risks.
David McCullough: Risk is part of life, still is. I think that what really motivated them was purpose, admirable purpose. To make life, make society, make the country and its motives higher up in value and importance. My brother had polio. My wife, Rosalee’s brother had polio and it effected their lives in very long-lasting ways. You could die of Scarlet fever. You could die by any number of other medical problems. Today, nobody worries much about it.
David Abend: So, is life more valuable or less valuable now?
David McCullough: Oh, it’s equally as valuable. It’s valuable longer if you know how to approach every day and beyond the time when you retire supposedly. The great thing about my line of work is I don’t have to retire unless I want to.
David Abend: Have you ever been in a situation in your life where you thought about, and I’m not talking about now, I’m talking about maybe 20 years ago where you thought about, this is statistically about how much time I have left? Is this what I want to do with that time?
David McCullough: Oh, sure. Oh, sure. I knew I didn’t want to stop. I love my work. I love to do what I do at work far better than anything else. I don’t want to play golf or go fishing or to play tennis.
David Abend: Is there anything else besides writing?
David McCullough: Yes. Painting and walking and talking with friends. Oh, and keeping and maintaining contact with old friends. As you age, your appreciation for certain elements that you took for granted are no longer taken for granted, like your health, your family, friends, and making yourself useful.
David Abend: At The Bucket, we have what’s called The Bucket Age. When people come to the site you calculate your bucket age, which is basically statistically how long you’re expected to live and subtract your current age, and that’s your Bucket Age. So, I’ll live to about 85 and I’m 61 so my bucket age is 24, so I have statistically 24 years left to live. We think that by calculating your bucket age, you will say this is how many years I have left live. We think that it might be a catalyst to help people make choices about doing something they’ve always wanted to do.
David McCullough: Well, they should. They absolutely should. But some things that you used to want to do when you reach the age that I am, I’m 86, I don’t much want to do anymore. I don’t want to go to Europe. I’ve been to Europe many times. I’ve never been to Asia, but I don’t want to leave home. I like it right here. I don’t aspire to be a Broadway star anymore.
David Abend: Did you once?
David McCullough: Oh, sure, sure. When I graduated from college, I had five things I wanted to be. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to be an actor. I wanted to be an architect. And for a little bit, I thought maybe I’d like to go into medicine. I couldn’t make up my mind. It suddenly dawned on me; I know what I’ll do. I’ll go down to New York and something will happen. And that’s exactly what happened. It just appears to me that the happiest people of my generation, are still the busiest people. Stay busy and want to get up in the morning. I love the morning. I love getting up and realizing there’s a new day ahead of me. I just love it. I’m married to the most wonderful human being I’ve ever known. There’s nothing like the joy of a long-lasting love affair. We’ve been married 65 years, and I’m as crazy about her today as I was when we first met.
David Abend: I’m going to ask you a tough question: Let’s say something happened and, hypothetically you are on your death bed. Would you have any regrets?
David McCullough: No regrets. I’d be happy as can be that I’ve had the life I’ve lived and had the chance to be with the people that I’ve lived with, both within my family and within the realm of my work.
My real strongest feeling was gratitude. There are two qualities that history teaches us in a way nothing else does, and most people who try to understand why they want to major in history or take history or read it, I don’t think they see this in the way that they should. That is gratitude and empathy. To put yourself in the place of other people. In order to understand history, you have to be able to put yourself in the place of those people who fought in the revolution, or who decided they were going to build the Brooklyn Bridge. And, have gratitude for what they did for us, and to walk around and say this is the way it’s always been. No, it hasn’t always been. Those people who went before you, in many cases, worked their whole lives or sacrificed their lives so that you could have what you have, and you can’t take it for granted.
If I have one aspect of my own life on the earth that I would change, is that I never expressed sufficient gratitude to my mother and father for all they did for me and my brothers. To thank them for sending me to college, thank them for helping anytime I was in trouble of some sort or other, and we all should do that. To go to the teachers who changed your life, who awakened you in a way that nothing ever had and say, thank you, sir. Thank you, ma’am. We didn’t do it then and we didn’t do it later. And I just wish I could do it.
David Abend: What do you say to people who feel they’re in a rut who feel like, I like to live that way and be grateful and do something I’ve always wanted to do, but I can’t do it. I can’t get out of this rut. I can’t afford to or something. Is it something money will solve or is it an attitude?
David McCullough: Well, of course it’s in part both. I think attitude can be stimulated, can be, fertilized, often by encouraging that person to try something new. To try making something out of clay, learning more about birds. There’s so much we don’t know, and if we know it it makes life more interesting. It’s all available to us right out there in this miraculous country we live in.
David Abend: I think a lot of people are afraid to fail. To try something and fail. One of the things I wanted to talk to you about as part of this idea of mortality is the Wright Brothers. It was a wonderful book learning about all this, realizing how little I knew about it. They faced death every day they went up in that airplane. What do you think was their perception was of mortality? Was it that their goal was more important to them, their legacy?
David McCullough: I think the answer to your question is all expressed in the very end of the book. When Orville takes his father, who was in his 80s up for a ride in the plane in front of a huge crowd gathered outside of Dayton, on the airfield, really a cow pasture, where they had done most of their experimenting. They got up into the air, and all the father kept saying, which Orville could clearly hear, “higher, Orville, higher.” That was the spirit that prevailed in the family. One of the reasons I wanted to write the book is how much further beyond the mechanics of flight or bicycle making that was in the mind of Wilbur Wright. When he goes to France and he finds himself transfixed by the paintings in the Louvre, and the architecture of the Gothic cathedrals, so that every chance he has he’s going to look at paintings or to visit the great cathedrals. I thought what in the hell are you doing in Paris? You’re meant to be out in Ohio making bicycles or whatever. That’s what led me to write the book.
David Abend: So, I want to ask you, or have you talk a little bit, about what we’re doing at The Bucket. This idea of helping people live more fulfilling lives by acknowledging and embracing their own mortality, thinking about their Bucket Age, and how many years they have left, and what they’re going to do with those years?
David McCullough: I’m all for it. I think it’s a terrific idea. I think you’ve got an audience waiting, of size and influence, so that what you are providing for them, they can provide for other people, including their children or grandchildren. It’s an attitude to develop. An attitude that each day has promise, each day has some something of interest or of importance, or of help to those who need help, that you don’t know about yet. Or a new friend. We all love our old friends, but I’m still making new friends. I think that’s healthy, isn’t it? You don’t just want to rely on what you did yesterday or five years ago or 65 years ago. What you can do today! I see people walking along the streets in New York or Boston, wherever I am, and they’re all looking at their little cell phones or whatever, and it’s a beautiful day and the sky is bright and blue. I think, why don’t you shut that thing up and get a life? It only comes once, life. And enjoy every morsel of it. Good to the last drop.