Reading David McCullough – March 2019

One of my reading goals for 2019 is to become more familiar with works by different authors by featuring a different author every month (see A Focus on Authors Reading Challenge). March was spent reading as many works by David McCullough, whom I had never read before, as I could. The following are the books I managed to complete:

The Path Between the Seas
Author: David McCullough
Genre: Nonfiction History
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: June 15, 1977
Pages: 698
Format Read: Audiobook
Standalone or series: Standalone
Where I got the book: Libby Library app
Date finished reading: March 11, 2019

Goodreads Description: This book tells the story of the men and women who fought against all odds to fulfill the 400 year old dream of construction an aquatic passageway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – a story of astonishing engineering feats.

My Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ 

wright-brothers-coverTitle: The Wright Brothers
Author: David McCullough
Genre: Nonfiction Biography
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: May 5, 2015
Pages: 320
Format Read: Audiobook
Standalone or series: Standalone
Where I got the book: Libby Library app
Date finished reading: March , 2019

Goodreads Description: Two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize David McCullough tells the dramatic story-behind-the-story about the courageous brothers who taught the world how to fly: Wilbur and Orville Wright.

On a winter day in 1903, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, two unknown brothers from Ohio changed history. But it would take the world some time to believe what had happened: the age of flight had begun, with the first heavier-than-air, powered machine carrying a pilot.

Who were these men and how was it that they achieved what they did?

David McCullough, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, tells the surprising, profoundly American story of Wilbur and Orville Wright.

Far more than a couple of unschooled Dayton bicycle mechanics who happened to hit on success, they were men of exceptional courage and determination, and of far-ranging intellectual interests and ceaseless curiosity, much of which they attributed to their upbringing. The house they lived in had no electricity or indoor plumbing, but there were books aplenty, supplied mainly by their preacher father, and they never stopped reading.

When they worked together, no problem seemed to be insurmountable. Wilbur was unquestionably a genius. Orville had such mechanical ingenuity as few had ever seen. That they had no more than a public high school education, little money and no contacts in high places, never stopped them in their mission to take to the air. Nothing did, not even the self-evident reality that every time they took off in one of their contrivances, they risked being killed.

In this thrilling book, master historian David McCullough draws on the immense riches of the Wright Papers, including private diaries, notebooks, scrapbooks, and more than a thousand letters from private family correspondence to tell the human side of the Wright Brothers’ story, including the little-known contributions of their sister, Katharine, without whom things might well have gone differently for them.

My Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ 

johnstown-floodTitle: The Johnstown Flood
Author: David McCullough
Genre: Nonficti0n History
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: January 15, 1987
Pages: 302
Format Read: Book
Standalone or series: Standalone
Where I got the book: Barnes & Noble
Date finished reading:  

Goodreads Description: At the end of the last century, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was a booming coal-and-steel town filled with hardworking families striving for a piece of the nation’s burgeoning industrial prosperity. In the mountains above Johnstown, an old earth dam had been hastily rebuilt to create a lake for an exclusive summer resort patronized by the tycoons of that same industrial prosperity, among them Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon. Despite repeated warnings of possible danger, nothing was done about the dam. Then came May 31, 1889, when the dam burst, sending a wall of water thundering down the mountain, smashing through Johnstown, and killing more than 2,000 people. It was a tragedy that became a national scandal.

Graced by David McCullough’s remarkable gift for writing richly textured, sympathetic social history, The Johnstown Flood is an absorbing, classic portrait of life in nineteenth-century America, of overweening confidence, of energy, and of tragedy. It also offers a powerful historical lesson for our century and all times: the danger of assuming that because people are in positions of responsibility they are necessarily behaving responsibly.

My Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The_Greater_Journey_(David_McCullough_book)_coverTitle: The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris
Author: David McCullough
Genre: Nonfiction History
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: May 24, 2011
Pages: 558
Format Read: Audiobook
Standalone or series: Standalone
Where I got the book: Library Libby app
Date finished reading:  

Goodreads Description: The Greater Journey is the enthralling, inspiring – and until now, untold – story of the adventurous American artists, writers, doctors, politicians, architects, and others of high aspiration who set off for Paris in the years between 1830 and 1900, ambitious to excel in their work.

After risking the hazardous journey across the Atlantic, these Americans embarked on a greater journey in the City of Light. Most had never left home, never experienced a different culture. None had any guarantee of success. That they achieved so much for themselves and their country profoundly altered American history. As David McCullough writes, “Not all pioneers went west.” Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in America, was one of this intrepid band. Another was Charles Sumner, who enrolled at the Sorbonne because of a burning desire to know more about everything. There he saw black students with the same ambition he had, and when he returned home, he would become the most powerful, unyielding voice for abolition in the U.S. Senate, almost at the cost of his life.

Two staunch friends, James Fenimore Cooper and Samuel F. B. Morse, worked unrelentingly every day in Paris, Cooper writing and Morse painting what would be his masterpiece. From something he saw in France, Morse would also bring home his momentous idea for the telegraph.

Pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk from New Orleans launched his spectacular career performing in Paris at age 15. George P. A. Healy, who had almost no money and little education, took the gamble of a lifetime and with no prospects whatsoever in Paris became one of the most celebrated portrait painters of the day. His subjects included Abraham Lincoln.

Medical student Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote home of his toil and the exhilaration in “being at the center of things” in what was then the medical capital of the world. From all they learned in Paris, Holmes and his fellow “medicals” were to exert lasting influence on the profession of medicine in the United States.

Writers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and Henry James were all “discovering” Paris, marveling at the treasures in the Louvre, or out with the Sunday throngs strolling the city’s boulevards and gardens. “At last I have come into a dreamland,” wrote Harriet Beecher Stowe, seeking escape from the notoriety Uncle Tom’s Cabin had brought her. Almost forgotten today, the heroic American ambassador Elihu Washburne bravely remained at his post through the Franco-Prussian War, the long Siege of Paris and even more atrocious nightmare of the Commune. His vivid account in his diary of the starvation and suffering endured by the people of Paris (drawn on here for the first time) is one readers will never forget. The genius of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the son of an immigrant shoemaker, and of painters Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent, three of the greatest American artists ever, would flourish in Paris, inspired by the examples of brilliant French masters, and by Paris itself.

Nearly all of these Americans, whatever their troubles learning French, their spells of homesickness, and their suffering in the raw cold winters by the Seine, spent many of the happiest days and nights of their lives in Paris. McCullough tells this sweeping, fascinating story with power and intimacy, bringing us into the lives of remarkable men and women who, in Saint-Gaudens’s phrase, longed “to soar into the blue.” The Greater Journey is itself a masterpiece.

My Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ 

My Review: This month I managed to read four of McCullough’s historical accounts including one biography. Here is what I thought of them:

I am going to start with my least favorite which was The Path Between the Seas, which was about the building of the Panama Canal. While I did get excited to hear Edward Herrmann’s voice (of Gilmore Girls fame) narrating for me on the audiobook version that I listened to, it wasn’t enough to keep me engaged. I learned some interesting facts of the Panama Railway; that the canal was going to be built in Nicaragua; and the issues that ensued related to funding, disease and natural disaster (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and avalanches) that shifted the earth and/or destroyed the architecture of the canal. However, in the end this was a miss for me.

The Greater Journey was about the many Americans in the 1800s and early 1900s that traveled to France (mainly Paris). I liked this one a bit more than the Panama Canal book. It begins with interesting characters from all professional backgrounds, including writers and poets like Washington Irving and James Fennimore Cooper; politicians like Charles Sumner (his was my favorite story); medical doctors like John Warren; painters like Samuel F.B. Morse; and more. I loved the telling of their first impressions of France, especially when the boat would stop in Rouen, and they would view the large gothic cathedral there. I was also interested in the things they learned about culture and society, like their views on sexuality (sometimes a lack of modesty) and views on race. This is what Senator Charles Sumner took away, as far as race, from a lecture he attended in France: “They were standing in the midst of a knot of young men and their color seemed to be no objection to them. I was glad to see this, though with American impressions, it seemed very strange. It must be then that the distance between free blacks and whites among us is derived from education, and does not exist in the nature of things.” This experience influenced him so much, that when he returned to the States, he continually spoke up against slavery. This was not always a popular view among some of his fellow politicians, one of which, Representative Preston Briggs from South Carolina, at one point repeatedly beat Senator Sumner with his cane until Sumner was knocked unconscious. I found this part of the book and the education of Americans in France fascinating, but that was a small portion at the beginning. The story dragged for me after that.

McCullough’s biography of the Wright brothers was absolutely fascinating. I was invested in the Wright family from the very beginning. I had never heard the story of Wilbur Wright’s accident during a hockey match, when a player, who would later become the infamous serial killer, Oliver Crook Haugh, hit him in the face with a hockey stick. This incident changed Wilbur’s life forever. As a reader, it was easy to follow the lives of the Wright brothers, as their interest in birds and how things like bikes work would eventually lead them to attempting to create a flying machine, focusing on solving the matter of equilibrium. I sincerely admire their persistence, and believe that was why they prevailed in creating a successful powered-glider. This book was a well-written and comprehensive biography. I especially enjoyed the story near the end of when the father got to go for a ride in his sons’ invention. That is how I want the book to end. I should never have read the epilogue. It is a bit of a downer.

My most anticipated McCullough read also turned out to be my favorite. I have had The Johnstown Flood on my bookshelf, since it was published. I just never had a chance to read it. It is a thrill ride right from the beginning, and if you don’t know anything about the Johnstown flood, it is an extremely tragic event in our nation’s history. Human error (neglecting necessary repairs to a large dam) and mother nature worked together to bring an end to thousands of lives. One of the most amazing paragraphs is the following and speaks to McCullough’s ability to engage the reader:

From where they were the men at the dam could see all this happening as the water raged through the immense gash below them. But just beyond Lamb’s Bridge the valley turns sharply to the right and disappears. So now they could only stand there, the rain beating down, and imagine, as much as that was possible, the things taking place beyond that turn.” (p.102-103)

This paragraph literally gave me chills and made it impossible to put the book down. I experienced lots of emotion throughout this book. I was on the edge of my seat in anticipation, horrified at the devastation, and sadden by the loss of life. All the personal accounts were amazing and full of vivid description. It was hard not to shed tears during the last few chapters. Through this book more than any others I read this month, I really truly saw the power in McCullough’s writing.

Most of the people in Johnstown never saw the water coming; they only heard it; and those who lived to tell about it would for years after try to describe the sound of the thing as it rushed on them.” (p. 145)

Basically, my overall opinion of David McCullough’s works, based on the four books I was able to consume during the month of March, was that I either loved them or I didn’t. However, that opinion might be based more on personal interests rather than the author’s writing/story-telling.


  • If you enjoyed McCullough’s The Greater Journey, I would recommend Sarah Vowell’s Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.
  • If you enjoyed McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood, you can check out the documentary of the same title on Amazon Prime, which is narrated by Richard Dreyfuss.

David McCullough’s new book comes out in a couple months: The Pioneers.

Please let me know your thoughts on David McCullough’s nonfiction in the comment section below. Next month I’ll be reading Margaret Atwood.


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