David McCullough obituary

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Jacquelyn Martin/AP</span>
Photograph: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

David McCullough, who has died aged 89, was the US’s most popular historian. His books were bestsellers; his biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams both won Pulitzer prizes, and were taken up for TV by HBO. Two more of his books, on the creation of the Panama Canal and about Theodore Roosevelt’s early years, won the US National Book award.

But McCullough was perhaps best known for his voice, as the narrator of documentaries, most notably Ken Burns’ epic series The Civil War (1990) and the Disney film Seabiscuit (2003), about the 1930s sensation racehorse, and as host of the long-running PBS series American Experience.

The American experience was at the core of everything McCullough wrote about, and his narrating voice, a gentle, high-pitched baritone made him sound like a relaxed teacher telling familiar stories.

In 1998, when he received an honorary degree from his alma mater, Yale University, the citation said: “He gives us pictures of the American people that live, breathe and above all confront the fundamental issues of courage, achievement and moral character.”

David was born in Pittsburgh, the son of Christian McCullough, president of the McCullough Electric Company, founded by David’s great-grandfather, and Ruth (nee Rankin), a leading figure in Pittsburgh society. David followed his father to Shady Side academy, Pittsburgh’s poshest prep school.

Related: David McCullough, Pulitzer-winning historian, dies aged 89

He then went to Yale to study English. His teachers there included John O’Hara, John Hersey, Robert Penn Warren and, most influentially, the playwright Thornton Wilder, from whom he learned to maintain an “air of freedom” to avoid giving away a story to a reader; he applied this to his own writing, even though history’s outcomes are always thought to be known. He was also a member of the secret Skull and Bones Society, many of whose members have gone on to have a profound influence on history.

At the Rolling Rock country club in Pittsburgh in 1951 he met Rosalee Barnes. After his graduation from Yale, they married. Intending to be a playwright, he took a job with the Luce magazines, including the newly launched Sports Illustrated, then worked for the US Information Agency and finally for American Heritage magazine, then published by Forbes.

His first book came after he “stumbled” across the story of the 1889 Johnstown flood, a disaster that struck the steel town an hour east of his own hometown. The Johnstown Flood (1968) garnered excellent reviews, and McCullough decided to become a full-time writer. It took four years before his next book, The Great Bridge, was published; McCullough so immersed himself in Washington Roebling, the force behind the bridge’s construction, and one of the many killed in its construction, that he grew a beard exactly like Roebling’s.

He followed that five years later with The Path Between the Seas (1977), the story of the Panama Canal, which won the National Book award as well as three other major history prizes, including the Francis Parkman. He served as an adviser to President Jimmy Carter on the treaty that handed control of the canal to Panama; Carter credited the book for making the treaty possible. Mornings on Horseback followed in 1981, winning his second National Book award.

By then, Burns had acquired the rights to make a documentary based on The Great Bridge; he so loved McCullough’s voice that he used him as the narrator of Brooklyn Bridge – the first of six PBS documentaries McCullough narrated for Burns, including The Congress (1988), which McCullough also co-wrote, and The Civil War, where the narration served as a bridge between the two main interviewees, the homespun “Lost Cause” insights of Shelby Foote and the more revisionist takes of Barbara Fields. McCullough also narrated The Donner Party (1992), on the ill-fated pioneer group whose survivors resorted to cannibalism, for Ric Burns.

The success of his narration led to his work on the series Smithsonian World, and then hosting and sometimes narrating American Experience, a total of 48 episodes between 1988 and 2001. He also served as an adviser to their programmes on Truman and Teddy Roosevelt, and returned in 2022 to narrate an episode on the history of jeans.

He worked for 12 years on his biography of Harry Truman, which was published in 1992 and won his first Pulitzer, and second Parkman award. It was made into an HBO film, Truman (1995), starring Gary Sinise. He took nearly a decade to research and write John Adams (2001), which also won the Pulitzer, and was made into a hugely successful HBO miniseries starring Paul Giamatti as the US’s second president.

His narrating voice, a gentle, high-pitched baritone, made it all seem like a relaxed teacher telling familiar stories

Both books were huge bestsellers. They dealt with presidents whose own achievements were overshadowed by predecessors who had led the nation through major conflict, and Truman in particular was criticised somewhat for its seeming partisanship for its subject. McCullough followed with 1776, about the year of the Declaration of Independence, an offshoot of his Adams research. It managed to be comprehensive while telling a story immediately recognisable from American myth.

His later books were received with less acclaim. The Greater Journey (2011) was more a compendium of stories about Americans transformed by Paris, including some less familiar figures. He returned to determined battlers against nature with The Wright Brothers (2015), the story of their quest to fly.

McCullough had always maintained a publicly neutral political stance, but before the 2016 US presidential election he made a short video for a Facebook page called Historians on Donald Trump, in which he called the soon-to-be president “unwise ... plainly unprepared, unqualified and, it often seems, unhinged”. This may have influenced his next book, The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For (2017).

David McCullough receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W Bush at he White House, 2006.
David McCullough receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W Bush at he White House, 2006. Photograph: Pablo Martínez Monsiváis/AP

His final book, The Pioneers (2019), followed in the footsteps of the historian Francis Parkman, telling the story of settlers of the Northwest Territory. Like his presidential biographies and 1776, its focus on the heroism of those who made America was now criticised for, in its romanticism, downplaying the plight of Native Americans. Years earlier McCullough had commented: “Some people not only want their leaders to have feet of clay, but to be all clay.” That was not his way.

McCullough was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006, and in 2008 was the subject of his own HBO documentary, Painting With Words. In 2012 Pittsburgh’s 16th Street was named after him. He was also one of the many contributors to the 2016 documentary California Typewriter.

Rosalee died two months before him. He is survived by their daughters, Dorrie and Melissa, and their sons, David Jr, William and Geoffrey.

• David Gaub McCullough, historian and writer, born 7 July 1933; died 7 August 2022

• This article was amended on 18 August 2022. As David McCullough’s date of birth indicated, he was 89 when he died, not 93 as an early version said.