Turning the page is a common metaphor for beginning a new year—often implying that we are leaving what was unpleasant in the last year behind. There was plenty of unpleasant in 2020, but some good things happened too, sometimes in spite of or even as a result of the Pandemic. Read Rich’s Post →
Category: David McCullough
Over and over again
I finished reading David McCullough’s John Adams, and despite the fact that he omits early colonial dealings with Native peoples, I enjoyed it immensely. It was good to see and hear how narrow the passages to the government we got were—how, as McCullough says in other places, things could have turned out differently.
And although I had heard and probably mouthed myself the centrality of slavery to the American story, I liked how McCullough—through Adams—brings the issue forward with the compromises in the composition of the Declaration of Independence, Washington and Jefferson’s holding of slaves, and Adams’ disgust with it all. According to McCullough, Adams was willing to compromise with the southern colonies in order to form and hold the new union, but it always troubled him. He had dreams of blacks and whites slaughtering each other, and feared that “a struggle between the states over slavery ‘might rend this mighty fabric in twain.’”
In later years, when old differences with Jefferson were repaired in their famous correspondence, he suggested to Jefferson that he free his slaves. But Jefferson, who believed slavery a “moral and political depravity,” feared the results of sudden emancipation, and looked for it to happen gradually under the watch of younger men. At his death, he freed but few of his own slaves, and the rest were sold at auction.
It seems odd that slavery could occupy the moral deliberations of two of the founding fathers to such an extent, while the situation with Native inhabitants is in many ways hidden, or neglected, or not thought about. In Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, he gives examples of significant, and often friendly, interactions of Indians and Europeans on first contact—think of the early New Englanders getting farming help and new crops from the Indians, of trappers working with Indians as they moved West, etc.—which are then followed by conflict and removal.
Josephy said that from the get-go there were three attitudes towards Indians: One, romanticize them as true children of nature; two, kill or remove them to make room for a new, superior civilization; or three, assimilate them, make them white. He spent his working life exploring how these three ways played out in history—while simultaneously marveling at the miracle of tribal survival and promoting their full participation, as Indians, in the American experiment.
On finishing Adams, I picked up a copy of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Benjamin Franklin, and here I find Indians. I find meetings with Indians, and the Albany Plan for Union, put forward by Franklin and inspired in part by the Iroquois Federation. Was Franklin one of the romanticizers? Did Franklin and Adams never discuss this? And, most importantly, how was the Indian situation different than the situation with slavery?
I think what Alvin was telling us, over and over again, is that Indians were here, and despite all attempts to eradicate them and make them white, are still here. And that it is important for us, as a nation, to put them back into our past as we listen to them in our present. So I am compelled to find out what Franklin thought.
And I think too about Indians always being here, and our country as a nation of immigrants—white, black, brown, yellow; European, Asian, African, Islander—who have come to live among them. That is a different narrative than McCullough’s. Will there be some of it in Franklin?
I had been reading David McCullough’s book, John Adams, with great pleasure. My knowledge of colonial times and the birth of the nation is old and limited, so the exploration of the lives and careers of Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Jay, Madison, Hamilton, and all of the lesser names and big ideas that led to a Declaration of Independence, the War for Independence, the Constitution and formation of a new nation was carrying me along like a good novel. The man can write!.
And then, on page 396, the first mention of Indians. Their absence in the first 395 pages had barely occurred to me.
Assessing the state of things on Adam’s return from Europe in 1789, McCullough tells us that the nation’s population has grown to four million, that the biggest city is Philadelphia, with 40,000, New York is growing quickly with 18,000, and Pittsburgh, the last western outpost, has but 500. (There are 700,000 slaves!)
As a result of the Paris Peace Treaty, the boundaries of the new nation ran to the Mississippi River, and now we come to Indians. According to McCullough, “Approximately half the territory of the United States in 1789 was still occupied by American Indians, most of whom lived west of the Appalachians, and though no one knew how many there were, they probably numbered 100,000.”
Where did he get the number? His old colleague, Alvin Josephy, had estimated 6-8 million Indians in North America back in 1968, 33 years before McCullough’s book was published. Maybe that stretch of “unknown” (by whites) land from Pittsburgh to the Mississippi held just a sliver of the millions; maybe more. But how did he know?
More importantly, how could he write a book about the foundation of the country with no attention to its original inhabitants? The index lists two references to “Indian wars,” but when you turn to the pages, you find him naming the French and Indian War, with no
discussion of its Indian participants.
And, although there are pages on the relationship between Franklin and Adams, including the Committee of Five charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence, there is nothing of Franklin’s time spent among the Iroquois. It is from another book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James Loewen, that I learn that Franklin had proposed an “Albany Plan of Union” based on ideas from the Iroquois League, in 1754! “It would be a strange thing if six nations of ignorant savages” says Franklin, “should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted ages and appears insoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies.”
Franklin’s plan was rejected, but, according to Loewen, it was a “forerunner of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. Both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention referred openly to Iroquois ideas and imagery.” We don’t know what—or whether—Adams thought about these things.
McCullough is not alone. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Age of Jackson, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. failed to mention the removal of Indians from the American Southeast, the horrible and illegal—Jackson defied the Supreme Court—series of events we now know as “The Trail of Tears.” Historian Michael Phillips says that Schlesinger “couldn’t reconcile the mass murder represented by the Trail of Tears with his big story, the triumph of liberalism, so he pretended it didn’t happen.”
That was in 1945; McCullough’s book was published in 2001. In between, Alvin Josephy worked hard to tell us what did happen, to make Indians visible again. There is still work to be done.
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McCullough and Josephy—part 2
I mentioned in an earlier blog that Alvin hired David McCullough at American Heritage. I implied that Alvin began working for and hired David for the magazine, but in fact Alvin’s first job and his hire of David were in the book division of American Heritage. Alvin would later become editor of the magazine.
Parallels: David McCullough was a lit major in college, and had been a journalist with Sports Illustrated and the United States Information Agency when Alvin hired him at American Heritage. At some point, McCullough came across a batch of photos of the Johnstown flood. He had grown up in Pennsylvania with stories of that catastrophe, so his interest was aroused, and he went to the bookshelf. Finding no acceptable history of the event, he determined to write it himself. The Johnstown Flood was his first book.
Alvin was working at Time Magazine when he came across the Nez Perce story. He had been a print and radio journalist before the War and a Marine Corps correspondent during the War. He picked up all the available literature on the Nez Perce—and like McCullough with the Jamestown flood, found the books on the shelf wanting. Eventually, after finding Yellow Wolf and Hear Me My Chiefs, first person accounts of Nez Perce history and the their war, Alvin determined to write the Nez Perce book himself.
Here is where paths part. David McCullough finished the Johnstown book, and, after three years at American Heritage, determined to make it in the world as a narrative historian. He knew it was a gamble, but, with support from his wife (who was his first reader), he made the leap and never looked back. Books on the Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal, and presidents Truman and Adams followed He also began introducing and narrating historical programs—“Smithsonian World,” and then “American Experience”—for public television. Today, David McCullough is the recognized dean, and probably the most widely read, historian in America.
Alvin started plugging away at his Nez Perce book in the early 1950s—while working full time and climbing the editorial ladder at American Heritage. His books were written at a slower pace—The Nez Perce and the Opening of the Northwest was a dozen years in the writing—because he had the other jobs, and because he was becoming an advocate for Indians as well as historian. But the “other job” at American Heritage allowed him to weigh in, as editor, editor in chief of book division, editor of the magazine, on a wide range of subjects that interested him, from the history of flight and seafaring to wars and civilizations. It allowed him to make his marks in American history in many ways—choosing topics and writers for books and the magazine, and hiring the likes of McCullough!
It also gave him access to organizations and individuals promoting Indian rights, and he was soon on the board at the Heye Museum of the American Indian, giving speeches at the National Congress of the American Indian, working with the Native American Rights Fund, and consulting on Indian affairs to Stuart Udall under President Kennedy and directly for President Nixon.
The interesting thing about Alvin is that through it all, a big part of him worked away at being a narrative historian. He did write Patriot Chiefs and the Nez Perce book, and, eventually, a landmark historical treatise on the Civil War in the West. He worked on a Hudson’s Bay history project, which was aborted by the death of Happy Rockefeller (but that is another story!), and there are 13 huge folders of material and manuscripts for articles and a book on the Sioux in the Josephy Archives at the University of Oregon.
I believe that what drove McCullough in his writing and his public television presentations, and what drove Alvin, as an editor, publisher, and historian, is a similar view of history. They both believed in narrative history, well researched and showing all sides of historical events and the people involved in them. More importantly, it was history as a living thing, a series of men’s and women’s actions and choices rather than of predetermined events and glories. McCullough summed it up in the Paris Review interview I quoted last time around:
“In truth, nothing ever had to happen the way it happened. Nothing was preordained. There was always a degree of tension, of risk, and the question of what was going to happen next… No one knew Truman would become president or that the Panama Canal would be completed.”
That view drove McCullough to serious history; it drove Josephy to history—and to activism!
Josephy and David McCullough—the narrative historian
In the fall of 1984, I went to Jackson Hole, Wyoming to sit in the audience as the Snake River Institute honored Alvin Josephy with a weekend of readings, speeches, films and discussions about “The Next Hundred Years in the American West.” It was an august crew—George Horsecatcher and Terry Tempest Williams, Hal Cannon, Teresa Jordan, Jack Loeffler, Ed and Betsy Marston, Tim Egan, Bill Kittredge, Drum Hadley, Gary Snyder, David McCullough and more rose to say a few words about Alvin and read a poem or tell a story or think aloud about the West to come.
McCullough began with a story about American Heritage. He and Alvin were in the office during the big east coast power failure and resulting “blackout” of 1965, and the two of them carefully walked all of the office secretaries down flights of stairs and to their homes or safe stopping places. I think Ed Marston’s picture of Alvin and Teresa Jordan, later printed in High Country News, was their reaction to that story.
Alvin and David were obviously old friends, men who shared a notion of history, the importance of history, and the telling of it. McCullough went on to talk about history, and a Disney effort to own and control some Civil War sites—could history become commercial property in the next 100 years?
What McCullough didn’t detail that day was his transition from history editor and history lover to historian. I found the answer in a 1999 Paris Review interview.
He had grown up in Pennsylvania with stories of the Johnstown Flood, had later found a trove of photos of the flood at the Library of Congress, and gone back to read books. They didn’t match what he knew about Pennsylvania and Johnstown, and he resolved to write the story himself. But how to begin?
“One evening, in New York, at a gathering of writers and historians interested in the West, my boss, Alvin Josephy, pointed to a white-haired man across the room. He said, That’s Harry Drago. Harry Sinclair Drago. He’s written over a hundred books. I waited for my chance and walked over. Mr. Drago, I said, Alvin Josephy says that you’ve written over a hundred books. Yes, he said, that’s right. How do you do that? I asked. And he said, four pages a day. Every day? Every day. It was the best advice an aspiring writer could be given.”
David McCullough left American Heritage and went on to become the leading writer of popular, well researched narrative history books of our time, books on the Brooklyn Bridge and Panama Canal, and Pulitzer Prize winning books on presidents Truman and Adams. He became a popular host of American Experience programs on Public Television, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor.
And throughout this distinguished career, McCullough has promoted and maintained the values of narrative history. In the Paris Review interview, he said that “The problem with so much of history as it’s taught and written is that it’s so often presented as if it were all on a track—this followed that. In truth, nothing ever had to happen the way it happened. Nothing was preordained. There was always a degree of tension, of risk, and the question of what was going to happen next… No one knew Truman would become president or that the Panama Canal would be completed.”
On receiving a National Book Award, he put it this way: “There’s no secret to making history come alive. Barbara Tuchman said it perfectly: ‘Tell stories.” The pull, the appeal is irresistible, because history is about two of the greatest mysteries—time and human nature.”
Alvin Josephy couldn’t have put it better.
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