A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.
Amongst many other things my mother told me when I was a boy was the following counsel, "if you learn to love to read, and if you read works of quality and interest, you will have the power to banish boredom from your life". Wise words, and ones that have been proven true.
I thought of that advice this weekend when I finished one of the most delightful reads I have encountered in a long time, Brave Companions, by historian and author David McCullough. The book is an anthology of articles McCullough has penned over the years about famous, and not so famous people; his selection of subjects dictated by the criteria of those who lived remarkable lives within the context of remarkable times.
McCullough is an artisan of chosen craft, and I first encountered his work ten years ago in reading his biograhphy, John Adams. Five years ago at the Brookfield Public Library's annual book sale, I purchased copies of his masterful works, 1776 and Truman; the sweeping work on Harry S. Truman being the second finest biography I have ever read (Willam Manchester's work on Churchill occupies first place). It is an incredible look not only at the life of Truman, but the Twentieth Century and our entrance into the nuclear age.
McCullough combines his research with an insightful and light-handed writing style that brings illumination to even the dustiest of history's corners, and is free of the stiff and sterile cadence that so often enshrouds the tomes of academia. His readers encounter expansive yet unofficious vocabulary, compassion, empathy, deep insight, and superb story telling. This author is high on my list of "living people with whom I would love to have dinner".
In Brave Companions, we encounter the story of Washington Roebling, builder of the Brooklyn Bridge. I have long known the general story of Roebling, but knew nothing of his wife Emily, who when the great engineer became incapacitated from a then unknown and debilitating disease (the Benz had yet to be diagnosed, and Roebling contracted it from his rapid ascents from those awful caissons tunneled far below the bottom of the East River), became the unofficial project manager of what was at that time, the engineering marvel of the world. It was a feat to be considered incredible at any time of history. But for a woman to have assumed this role and completed it with such stunning competence and leadership in the latter half of the nineteenth century, was nothing short of remarkable.
We also read of the great aviators of the 1920's, the men and women who pioneered the nascent craft of human flight, and began the inexorable process of shrinking the world. We thrill to Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight, which as McCullough recounts, ".....he flew the 3,610 mile stretch from New York to Paris nonstop and alone, without radio or sextant, in a single-engine plane of only 223 horsepower".
And like Roebling before him, Lindbergh married well. His courageous wife and co-pilot Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who flew "most of the time in a state of sheer terror", was not only her husband's inspiration and co-adventurer, but an outstanding writer and poet as well. We learn of her prowess as a writer, and of her singular work, North to the Orient, a tale of her flight with Charles from New York to China, via "the great Circle Route over northern Canada and Alaska". A critic no less than Sinclair Lewis declared her book, "one of the most beautiful and great-hearted books that has ever been written", a testimony that will have me headed to the library tonight. Oscar Wilde told us long ago that "familiarity breeds contempt", and today we see trans-oceanic flight and trips to the Orient as mundane and routine; we simply cannot grasp the sheer courage and heroism of these early aviators. But McCullough captures and delivers them in his delightfully winsome prose.
There are more stories - Harriet Beecher Stowe, Alexander von Humboldt, and others. I cannot imagine not wanting to know more of these people and their times, and McCullough's wriitings are the perfect lens through which to view them. He identifies the importance of history in his preface to this tremendous work; I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is my hope to some day spend a part of my retirement in a classroom, bringing some of the great works of literature and history to young people. It remains to be seen if that dream will ever be achieved.
But if so, McCullough's Brave Companions will surely be one of the tools, one of my "companions" in that classroom.