A Storied Career

Last spring, freelance writer David Kindy paid a visit to Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough to chat about American history, his latest bestseller and his ancestral connection to Hingham.

By Dave Kindy  |  Photography by Derrick Zellmann

It is a spectacular spring day in Hingham and David McCullough is enjoying it. The two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author is sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of his home while birds chirp and bees buzz among the flowers of the garden in his backyard. Bright sunshine pours over the scene, warming the air to the perfect temperature for daydreams and contemplative thoughts about the “what ifs” of history.

McCullough’s moment is suddenly shattered by a stranger who walks onto the farmer’s porch and asks about his health. “Never better,” he booms in that righteously resonant voice. After some idle banter, McCullough asks, “Who are you?” The visitor reminds him of the interview scheduled by his publicist.

“Oh,” the deep voice resounds. “I didn’t know about that. I must have looked at the wrong date in my calendar.” After a moment’s pause, he adds with a congenial smile, “That’s okay. Get settled in my office and I’ll join you in a moment.”

A lifetime of fame and fortune has not eroded the demeanor of David McCullough. He still evokes the polite, kind and mild manners he learned as a child growing up in Pittsburgh. Friendly and gregarious, McCullough is quick with a smile and equally fast with a joke. At one point, his cellphone rings and he glances at the number. “Excuse me a moment,” he says. “It’s CVS. At my age, that’s an important call!”

At 86 years young, the prolific author shows no signs of slowing down either. His most recent book “The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West” (Simon & Schuster, 2019) was yet another New York Times bestseller. He is already thinking about his next project but is not ready to commit to anything yet.

“I don’t know what’s next for me,” he says. “It’s too early to tell, but I keep a list of ideas. I have to let the engine cool down. That was my 12th book, and I am very, very pleased about it.”

Tanned and white haired, McCullough speaks in slow, measured tones. The deliberate pace is not out of concern of saying something wrong; rather, it is the historian’s determination to tell the story right – the way it should be told.

McCullough won Pulitzers for his biographies “Truman” and “John Adams” —one of the fastest selling nonfiction books in history. He also received National Book Awards for “The Path Between the Seas” and “Mornings on Horseback.” He was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.

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David McCullough has written all of the first drafts of his books on a Royal typewriter he purchased secondhand in 1964. McCullough eschews the quiet tick-tack of a computer keyboard for the harsher click-clack of typewriter keys and the punctuating ding of the margin bell. It is how he writes, and it certainly has worked for him.

His most recent book is another epic retelling of a little-remembered moment in American history. McCullough chronicles the brave men and women, many from New England, who began the Westward expansion following the American Revolution and helped settle the Northwest Territory. This land—that would later become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan—would have monumental implications for the growing United States as it attempted to establish an ideal for what the country really should be, with true freedom.

“Nobody had told this story,” says McCullough. “Manasseh Cutler, who helped established the territory, said that it was not enough to put on paper that ‘All men are created equal,’ you have to show that you mean it. They created the first part of America where there would be no slaves.”

Critically acclaimed, “The Pioneers” is McCullough’s first book written entirely in Hingham. He started the project shortly after moving to the town three years ago to live in a 1799 farmhouse restored by his contractor son, Bill, who also built the adjacent building McCullough uses as his writer’s garret. Four of his five children reside in the town now, which is considered home by this extended clan.

“We’ve had 10 grandchildren graduate from Hingham public schools, went all the way from kindergarten through high school,” he explains. “All went on to very good colleges and universities. I think this is one of the finest public school systems I’ve ever known anything about. Superb teaching. Wonderful principals.”

McCullough is as comfortable with the ocean as he is with writing about history. He lived for years on Martha’s Vineyard and would go sailing at every opportunity with his family. He and his wife, Rosalee, still take to the seas but these days they tend to be passengers more than active sailors.

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One of his daughters, Melissa McDonald, and her husband John moved to Hingham 30 years ago, and were soon followed by others in the family. The town’s proximity to the open ocean and its important connection to America’s early days made it the perfect location for the McCulloughs’ final homestead.

“We love being close to the sea,” he says. “We love New England’s architectural charm, the old ways of life here, and the attitudes about values that are essential to the New England story. I love the Old Ship Church. It’s the oldest church still in constant use in the country. It has never not been a church since 1681.”

McCullough adds, “Rosalee and I have lived in 10 to 15 places. We’re ready to go no further.”

McCullough often jokes about his wife as the “CEO” and his arbiter of good sense since she represents his “adult supervision” in public. In addition to being the love of his life, Rosalee is clearly his muse as most of his books are dedicated to her. The repartee between the two shows their compassion and fun-loving attitude toward each other after 65 years of marriage.

At one point during the interview, Rosalee joins her husband in the garden for a photo session. McCullough is discussing the importance of women in history and to society. He mentions the book “The Natural Superiority of Women,” by Ashley Montagu, and talks about the physical, emotional and mental strength of the fairer sex. He stumbles for a word describing men’s subordinate role to women.

“What’s the word I’m looking for?” he asks Rosalee. “Inferior,” she deadpans. “No,” McCullough responds in mock indignation. “Expendable!”

The couple lives in a quiet section of Hingham near the downtown and, of course, not far from the ocean. It is in McCullough’s detached office, behind his house, that he escapes to read, research, contemplate and write about American history. The window of his office looks out on to a peaceful setting of woodlands and nature.

“I’m not in any way disturbed by noise or interference in my writing work,” he says. “No unwelcome interruptions. There’s none of that. Even though the house is literally on the street, here in my office we’re in the country. I’ve seen as many as three deer go by. I’ve seen a fox, I’ve seen wild turkeys. I like that.”

Hingham is definitely home for the McCulloughs. It turns out, it is also the ancestral location for the family. A genealogist recently discovered the McCulloughs landed in Hingham centuries ago before they started on their own westward migration to Pittsburgh. The author is proud of that connection and is pleased to be back where it all started on his family’s historical journey in America.

“We’ve come full circle,” McCullough says.

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