Monday, February 11, 2008

Defending David McCullough

In recent years, historian David McCullough has come under various attack. The outcome has been that, while McCullough remains a bestselling author and popular storyteller, he is not highly regarded in some scholarship circles.

A sampling of anti-McCullough criticisms include:

"Historians Under Fire" -- a 2002 news analysis from CBS News

"The David McCullough Nobody Knows" by Philip Nobile

These are just a couple of examples. There are many others that don't necessarily directly mention McCullough, but their critiques definitely pertain to him.

While it's true that David McCullough is human (as if this should even need to be said) and that he has mistakes (again, should this point even need to be made?), it is wrong to dismiss or demean David McCullough.

David McCullough has been indispensable in encouraging a mainstream love and appreciation of American history. Few historians have been able to connect with average Americans in a way that McCullough has. And it's perhaps this achievement (specifically the way he's achieved it) which has rankled many of his colleagues.

You see, David McCullough loves America! It's clear in reading McCullough's history books that the man loves this country and that he has a genuine appreciation for and respect for the principal players in the drama each of his books are telling. To many historians (and, for that matter, everyday cynics), this is just not acceptable.

For many, the measure of a fair-minded, balanced historian is one who finds as much fault with the United States of America as possible. And, of course, any historian who dares to admire the Founding Fathers - those "racist, sexist pigs" (some say) - is unworthy of any respect or esteem.

Well, listen up, people! For all their faults and flaws, the Founding Fathers are WORTH admiring. That's right! They are worth celebrating. It is to McCullough's credit that he paints them in a positive light. For I would contend that a POSITIVE light is an ACCURATE light. In fact, that's McCullough's contention - and he does a pretty good job making it.

As for America, why can't we love our country? It angers me that cynicism has made such deep inroads in America's psyche. It's like we don't deserve to love our country, but should hide in shame and guilt over all the past sins (many of which have been horribly exaggerated) of our nation. I'm frankly tired of the America-bashing and those who have bought into it by wallowing in national self-pity. It all makes me want to grab an American flag and wave it even more proudly!

So, I'm thankful for a historian who isn't afraid to love his country and tell great (and true) stories to encourage others to ALSO fall in love with their country.

Bravo, David McCullough! Keep up the good work. There are at least some of us in America who appreciate what you are doing.


Brad said...

I actually had the chance to meet McCullough in person. He came to my university for a seminar. Amazingly none of my history professors were in attendance. It is, as you say, due to the fact that many scholars within the historical community see him as a "Cracker-Jack" historian.

Personally, I found McCullough to be very refreshing. His writing is indisputably exceptional. Most historians would kill for that gift. Besides his writing, I found McCullough to be very humble and approachable (he graciously signed my copy of his bio on John Adams).

I have to wonder if some of the criticizm boils down to good old-fashioned jealousy. I've read a lot of McCullough's critics (and yes they do at times make some very valid claims regarding McCullough's work), but overall, McCullough has proven himself to be an exceptional historian, even if he lacks the Ph.D. to follow his name.

Brian Tubbs said...

Yup, I think it's academic elitism and jealousy. I have a very good friend who is in (what I jokingly call - to his face) the "academic elite." :-) He's the dean at a liberal arts university in Georgia. He had some dismissive things to say about McCullough UNTIL he read John Adams. He admitted to me that he had to 'eat some crow' after reading that book. McCullough is a solid historian and a great writer.