From Alexander von Humboldt to Charles and Anne Lindbergh, these are stories of people of great vision and daring whose achievements continue to inspire us today, brilliantly told by master historian David McCullough. The bestselling author of Truman and John Adams, David McCullough has written profiles of exceptional men and women past and present who have not only shaped the course of history or changed how we see the world but whose stories express much that is timeless about the human condition. Here are Alexander von Humboldt, whose epic explorations of South America surpassed the Lewis and Clark expedition; Harriet Beecher Stowe, "the little woman who made the big war"; Frederic Remington; the extraordinary Louis Agassiz of Harvard; Charles and Anne Lindbergh, and their fellow long-distance pilots Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Beryl Markham; Harry Caudill, the Kentucky lawyer who awakened the nation to the tragedy of Appalachia; and David Plowden, a present-day photographer of vanishing America. Different as they are from each other, McCullough's subjects have in common a rare vitality and sense of purpose. These are brave companions: to each other, to David McCullough, and to the reader, for with rare storytelling ability McCullough brings us into the times they knew and their very uncommon lives.
I am not always fond of McCullough's writing style, a little clunky at times but mostly very readable. He brings a rich enthusiasm to his topics and I learned quite a bit reading this. His first couple chapters on Alexander von Humboldt and Louis Agassiz are almost stunning with their infectious exhiliration. I liked this bit on Humboldt: "Emerson was to call him "one of those wonders of the world, like Aristotle ... who appear from time to time, as if to show us the possibilities of the human mind.""
The profiles are not just of people however. One of my favorites was on The first ocean to ocean railroad, 47 miles across Panama and the tremendous cost in lives to build.
Having just read Conrad Richter's "The Lady," I was surprised when I came to chapter ten. McCullough devotes a chapter to Richter, who he considered a friend. I found some of the topics much more interesting than others and I suspect this will vary among readers. I debated with myself how to rate this, as I think it is a little uneven, but I am very glad to have read it. It has made me want to read more about many of the subjects. 4 - 4 1/2 stars Recommended.
The first four or five stories were magnificent. Articles on Alexander von Humbolt, Louis Agassiz, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederic Remington and Washington Roebling were magnificent. Also outstanding are stories concerning Medora, North Dakota and the Panamanian railroad.
Keeping this work from five star status are several less than stellar essays, primarily one dealing with strip mining in Appalachian Kentucky, a work so slanted against the mining industry (and extractive manufacturing in general) as to be almost unreadable by anyone in manufacturing. I can imagine readers becoming inflamed by McCollough's prose only to be offered the alternative of increasing their power bill by 10% in return for discontinuing the practices he abhors.
Also lacking were essays on photographer David Plowden and Miriam Rothschild. However, 80% of the works were typical McCollough excellence in teaspoon doses, a solid overall four star effort.
Several of the essays touch on subjects that were previously (or subsequently) covered more fully in book length efforts (Brooklyn Bridge and Panama Canal in particular), but having read them did not feel that he was repeating himself. If you're a McCollough fan, a definite must read.
With each chapter of the book, his narrative voice, his personality, is more and more present. I could see sitting on a front porch in a rocking chair drinking mint juleps or sweet tea and listening to him speak about these really interesting people he has studied or met, but the book is almost melodramatic. I can see why at least one of his works has been adapted to film (John Adams for HBO). It was too personal in ways to be enjoyable to me throughout as a straight forward history until I realized what his point-of-view was about history.
It's pacing, content and overall style is really more consistent with a conversation or narrative history, than a dry study--the sort of thing that I'm much more familiar and conversant with. One of my friends says McCullough's style is "folksy." That may be a good way of summarizing it. I gained much greater insights about McCullough, but not perhaps, history, in his later chapters. McCullough writes, "I never walk by without thinking of this--and of the historians who dismiss the role of personality in history, the reverberations of a single yes or no." p. 200. History is personal to him. It's something colorful and alive. The problem is that at times, then, the narrative can become much more illustrative of McCullough, than history. The Lonely War of a Good Angry Man and Washington on the Potomac were examples of this to me. How could you write about Washington in the 1980s and not even mention the famous tear down that wall speech and the subject of communism? The entire book is riddled with themes about the human spirit, about individualism and the human struggle for dignity.
Who he finds interesting isn't always who I'd find interesting or praiseworthy, but I find his way of writing and his choices entertaining. My interest is peaked. I'll definitely read his other pieces. His prose are impeccable even if I don't always appreciate his perspective or choice of subject matter.