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Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough has died

Historian David McCullough, shown here in 2013, has died at 89. He wrote extensively and compellingly about American history and won two Pulitzer Prizes.
Matthew J. Lee/Boston Globe
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Historian David McCullough, shown here in 2013, has died at 89. He wrote extensively and compellingly about American history and won two Pulitzer Prizes.

Updated August 10, 2022 at 11:09 AM ET

David McCullough has died. He was a bravura historian and public intellectual whose biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams won Pulitzer Prizes, and whose best-selling stories of American accomplishment were complemented by his work as a public television host and narrator for popular movies and documentaries, including Ken Burns' The Civil War.

McCullough died Sunday at his home in Hingham, Mass., according to his publishers Simon and Schuster. He was 89 years old.

The subjects McCullough tackled were massive. The building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal. The shaping of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He wrote about epic figures, from Theodore Roosevelt to the Wright Brothers. McCullough seemed undaunted by his topics; they were fun for him and he made the subjects enchanting for readers. Perhaps only a McCullough treatment of Truman could've topped the New York Times best-seller list for nearly a year; the biography was a publishing sensation in 1992.

"To many people, the figures, the main characters or protagonists of the drama of our founding years are perceived as almost like characters in a costume pageant with their powdered hair and their ruffled shirts and satin britches and the rest," McCullough told NPR's Talk of the Nation in a 2006 discussion of the Revolutionary War. "But they were nothing like that. And they weren't gods, they weren't superhuman. They were very human beings. And each of them had his flaws, his failings, and his mistakes."

Working on films with Ken Burns

David McCullough, who narrated The Civil War, with the film's creator Ken Burns.
Daniel J. White / Ken Burns
Ken Burns
David McCullough, who narrated The Civil War, with the film's creator Ken Burns.

"He heard and respected the voices of the people who lived before us," says Burns of his friend and mentor.

When Burns made a film of McCullough's book on the Brooklyn Bridge, McCullough took time one day to help him improve the script. "He sat down with me and Amy Stechler, the writer of the film ... and I don't think I've ever had a greater tutorial than that afternoon in that studio, with a pencil, watching him change and make things more dramatic, understanding the essence of the story."

McCullough was narrator and creative consultant for The Civil War. "He would just sit and talk to us and say, 'Remember this was a huge adventure,' " Burns says. "He urged us to find people who made it through the war ... and who saw it as a way to expand their horizons."

How McCullough made his way to being a historian

David McCullough was brought up in Pittsburgh, Pa., and studied English literature at Yale University, where he developed a friendship with a professor, playwright Thornton Wilder, who wrote the Americana classic Our Town. Although he thought he might become a playwright too, McCullough developed a taste for research while working in magazines in the 1950s.

As well as writing numerous acclaimed books of history, McCullough narrated the 2003 film Seabiscuit. He won the National Book Award twice and, in 2006, became a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian award.

His alma mater gave him an honorary degree in 1998. "As an historian, he paints with words," the citation read. "Giving us pictures of the American people that live, breathe, and above all, confront the fundamental issues of courage, achievement, and moral character."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.
Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.

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