We are all part of a larger stream of events, past, present, and future. We are all the beneficiaries of those who went before us–who built the cathedrals, who braved the unknown, who gave of their time and service, and who kept faith in the possibilities of the mind and human spirit. —David McCullough in The American Spirit
When I read the work of a writer as gifted as David McCullough, I fear I will not be able to express myself as he deserves in my review. Many feelings are coursing through me as I put his words through the filter of recent world and national events.
In the wake of George Floyd’s recent death at the hands of Minneapolis police, there has been a lot of talk about racism, to be sure, but there has also been a lot of talk about American history. It is said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. How do we learn about it? By reading it. There is so much to know and so many facets.
I was, of course, familiar with David McCullough. As someone who loves documentaries, he is a fixture on PBS, narrating countless stories in his grandfatherly voice. But McCullough is also a renowned American historian and prolific author, winner of the National Book Award, two Pulitzer Prizes, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has made it his life’s work and personal crusade to humanize historic icons of the past and bring unsung contributors of our nation to the forefront. (Benjamin Rush is my new historic interest.)
It wasn’t difficult to decide which of David McCullough’s books to read first. While visiting our local digital library site, The American Spirit was the only one readily available (I put holds on several others.) But, as so often happens when I read an author for the first time, it was providence that this would be the first of his books I would experience.
This is what you do with his writing. You don’t just read it. You experience it.
Unlike his other books, which are mostly about prominent figures in American history, The American Spirit is a collection of speeches that David McCullough has given over the years. Many are to new college graduates, some are at events commemorating anniversaries (of Congress, the White House, the 250th birthday of the Marquis de Lafayette, etc.) But before you groan at the word “speeches,” let me assure you that these are each mini works of art. They are vibrant. They inspire. They provoke. They motivate and they elevate.
History’s greatest enemies are those who distort, deny, sugar-coat, reimagine, and try to erase it. McCullough does none of these things. That level of honesty is not only refreshing, but vital. Despite our many flaws and struggles, America has a lot about which to be proud. I found this comforting, especially in the midst of recent events. We also have a lot we need to change. But let’s change things for the future without denying the past. Learn from it. Read about it. Improve upon it.