David McCullough, historian and film narrator, died at 89 He wrote acclaimed books about Harry Truman and John Adams, along with the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal. He also was the authoritative voice narrating TV films such as The Civil War in 1990.

Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough has died

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David McCullough has died at the age of 89. The popular historian won national book awards for writing about the Panama Canal and Theodore Roosevelt. He also won Pulitzer Prizes for his biographies of other presidents, like John Adams and Harry Truman. He was fittingly awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006. NPR's Neda Ulaby has more.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: In a 2008 documentary about him, David McCullough sits in a bright study packed with piles of paper and twinkles at the camera.


DAVID MCCULLOUGH: A friend of mine recently said, yearbooks aren't about history. They're about life. And I thought, well, yes because that's what history is - life.

ULABY: The sense of fun continues as the distinguished historian sings at the piano with a friend. McCullough wrote about monumental moments in history - the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal, the shaping of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. But McCullough seemed undaunted by his topics. They were fun for him and for the readers who flocked to see him speak, as he said in the HBO documentary called "Painting With Words."


MCCULLOUGH: It's hard to talk about some of these things without sounding pretentious, but I think of writing history as an art form. And I'm striving to write a book that might qualify as literature.

ULABY: David McCullough studied literature at Yale University. He was a kid from Pittsburgh who wanted to be a playwright. But instead of the stage, McCullough moved to New York and started working for magazines - Sports Illustrated, Time and one about history called American Heritage. His taste for research led to his first book about the 1889 dam disaster in Pennsylvania, the Johnstown Flood. You can hear his joy in history on NPR on the Fourth of July in 2006 about why Americans celebrate winning the Revolutionary War.

MCCULLOUGH: We should because it was an extraordinary American triumph. We hadn't proven ourselves very adept as soldiers. We didn't know much about drill or the manual of arms or the sanitation of military camps and the like. But we knew how to do things.

ULABY: McCullough identified with his characters. He recognized them and ourselves in them. His biography of Truman topped the New York Times bestseller for nearly a year in 1992. His immediacy made him an effective onscreen narrator in the 2003 movie "Seabiscuit," for example, or the magisterial 1990 Ken Burns documentary about the Civil War.


MCCULLOUGH: The Civil War was fought in 10,000 places from Val Verde, N.M., and Tullahoma, Tenn., to St. Albans, Vt., and Fernandina on the Florida coast.

ULABY: McCullough's expansive and immersive style occasionally went to method acting lengths as when he grew a beard, like one of the main protagonists of his history of the Brooklyn Bridge, or took walks in the manner of Henry Truman, as he told HBO in 2008.


MCCULLOUGH: I've always felt that in working on my books, history or biography, that I ought to try and go where my subjects went, try and do what they did. For me, it's essential.

ULABY: It was less essential for McCullough to provide the point of view of people adversely affected by President Truman's choices, which earned him a degree of criticism. But the historian's admiration for American accomplishments was matched by his sense of marvel. David McCullough died Sunday at home in Massachusetts of natural causes. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.


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