There are a lot of historians, of course, and many of them take deep dives into subjects that are of great interest, perhaps, to them, but maybe not to us. My years in academia pushed me into reading a lot of books that weren’t very well done. Sometimes embarrassingly not well done, to be frank. It was as though they were challenging you to understand what they were trying to say.
There was absolutely none of that in David McCullough, who died a few days ago and left a deep and sad hole in literary America, particularly in the part of that world that writes history. He obviously had wonderful research skills, but that wasn’t what attracted me to him. I have a few paragraphs I would ask you to read from his 1968 book, “The Johnstown Flood…The Incredible Story Behind One of the Most Devastating ‘Natural’ Disasters America Has Ever Known.”
He sets the scene in western Pennsylvania in a booming Johnstown, a growing city down in a pit where a collection of streams met on their way to the Allegheny River. It is a town literally down in a hole, but booming with steel mills, bars, more than a few bawdy houses and a working class that was expanding as rapidly as its heavy industry was expanding. The year was 1889.
“At Johnstown, it was as though the bottom had dropped out of the old earth and left it angry and smoldering., while all around, the long, densely forested ridges, ‘hogbacks’ they were called, rolled off in every direction like a turbulent green sea. The climb up out of the city took the breath right out of you. But on top, it was as though you had entered another world, clean, open and sweet smelling.”
He writes about the rain up in those mountains around an exclusive fishing camp, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Camp, set up by steel barons from Pittsburgh, so they could escape the pestilence they created with their steel mills back home. Among the founders, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Philander C. Knox and Robert Pitcairn.
It was his description of storms up in those mountains that first grabbed me, giving me a little taste of the great writing and stunning reserach that would define the book to its last pages.
“It would be as though the whole sky were laying siege to the burly landscape. The rain would drum down like an unyielding river. Lightning would flash blue-white, again and again across the sky, and thunderclaps would boom back and forth down the valley like a cannonade, rattling every window along the lakeshore.”
It is a book you have to read to understand what a great loss readers have suffered with McCullough’s death. There would be many others after the Johnstown Flood book, all of them as meticulously researched and gracefully written. His death is sad, of course, but it doesn’t diminish his work a bit. Find his books, read them, and mourn his loss.