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Book review: David McCullough and the American Spirit

Posted June 27

"THE AMERICAN SPIRIT: Who we are and what we stand for," by David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, $25, 192 pages (nf)

David McCullough is ostensibly a historian. However, for nearly a half-century he's assumed the role of something more like a national mythmaker in America. His compelling narrative histories have shaped contemporary life not necessarily by divining novel ideologies or providing fresh theses but by putting tried-and-tangible lessons from America's past back into our collective consciousness.

From Pulitzer Prize to Pulitzer Prize, McCullough has bequeathed to the nation portraits of John Adams, Harry Truman, a young Theodore Roosevelt and the Wright Brothers, among others.

His latest offering, "The American Spirit," is a "greatest hits" collection of McCullough’s speeches. Many draw on stories and quotations from his books, and some speeches are certainly stronger and more timely than others (they span from 1989 to 2016).

But largely McCullough's style-for-all-seasons makes up the difference. He seamlessly combines a pitch-perfect patriotism — apropos for an era of heightened American anxiety — with plenty of history and helpings of grandfatherly advice (the book is dedicated to McCullough's 19 grandchildren).

The book falls short, however, when it deviates into armchair social science. The text is strongest when it takes history from the shelf and blows dust off important anecdotes and momentous narratives, reminding readers of the most poignant lessons from America's past.

In one passage, for example, McCullough recalls from his personal recollection the 1978 Senate debates over the Panama Canal Treaty. McCullough was on the Hill serving as an “independent advocate for the treaty” at the time. He writes, “In the course of the debates I saw Republicans and Democrats alike change their point of view and I saw that both sides were trying to do what they felt to be the right thing. I witnessed no animosity, no enmity.”

Politics is no yoga session, there's usually very little flexibility and even less mindfulness, but modern America would do well to remember this kind of political cooperation.

McCullough quotes Samuel Johnson who writes that we “more frequently require to be reminded than informed.” In this book there's plenty of reminding, especially about the importance of deep learning to obtain wisdom, avoid simple errors and overcome prejudice.

With regard to the later, McCullough gives an anecdote about Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner. As a young man in the 1830s, Sumner went to France. There, after noticing blacks studying with perfect ease alongside whites at the Sorbonne, Sumner had an epiphany — slavery and segregation in America was merely a cultural construct and “does not exist in the nature of things.”

The book reminds us of how important improvisation is to the American spirit. Why did America succeed in creating the Panama Canal and the French didn’t? His answer is improvisation and innovation. The same, he contends, could be said of the American Revolution.

“Keep in mind,” he writes, “that when we were founded by those Americans of the eighteenth century, none had had any prior experience in revolutions or nation making. They were, as we would say, winging it.”

These types of observations and anecdotes appear on each page. But for readers looking for the kind of singular historical portraits McCullough is known for, they may find that "The American Spirit" lacks some depth or substance — it’s a collection of speeches, after all.

But the book is the ideal introduction to McCullough's style. For those unfamiliar with McCullough — especially young people — “The American Spirit” provides a good sampling of his broader body of work. Although it may not make the summer reading list of hardcore history buffs, it will whet the appetite for McCullough’s more substantive tomes like "John Adams" or "1776."

Content advisory: "The American Spirit" contains nothing offensive.

Hal Boyd is a student at Yale Law School and co-editor of the forthcoming, Psalms of Nauvoo: Early Mormon Poetry.

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