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‘History Is Human’: Remembering David McCullough
Two years ago, I happened to come across an interview with David McCullough in the Vineyard Gazette, his hometown newspaper. I still have it, printed out and placed in a folder in my desk drawer. I kept it because, as was so often the case, McCullough had said something that I wanted to remember. “There are any number of ways to begin a book,” he had told the interviewer while they sat on the back porch of his house on Martha’s Vineyard. “I like to begin with somebody on the move.”The first book I read by McCullough was John Adams, one of his many masterworks that begins with men on the move. “In the cold, nearly colorless light of a New England winter,” he wrote, “two men on horseback traveled the coast road below Boston, heading north.” For me, that was all it took. I wanted to know who these men were, where they were going, what was going to happen next. I did not care that the book was nearly 800 pages long. I was hooked.For writers of nonfiction, there are subjects, and then there are stories. McCullough always told stories. In 2003, in an electrifying speech titled “The Course of Human Events,” which he gave for the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, McCullough famously said that “no harm’s done to history by making it something someone would want to read.” History, he believed, was for everyone. It affected us all, so it belonged to us all. It could begin or prevent wars; expand or distort human understanding; connect us to other cultures, other times, other species. It was important, but that did not mean that we had to grit our teeth and set out on a forced march through the past. On the contrary, we should be sucked in from the first page. McCullough’s books, his hundreds of interviews and articles, his words of wisdom to struggling writers, the irresistible stories he told his legions of loyal readers, left an indelible mark on my own writing, and I am far from alone. Since the publication of his first book, The Johnstown Flood, in 1968, when he was 35 years old, narrative nonfiction, as it has come to be known, has grown exponentially, giving rise to such accomplished and dazzling writers of biography and history as Erik Larson and Laura Hillenbrand, Isabel Wilkerson and David Grann. Those of us who admire these authors have, in many ways, McCullough to thank for their riveting work. He opened a door and they walked through, carrying us along. [Read: A 1977 review of David McCullough's The Path Between the Seas]For most of his life, McCullough wrote in a small, book-lined backyard shed, which he called “the bookshop.” “Nothing good was ever written in a large room,” he argued in a 1999 interview with The Paris Review. Inside the bookshop, on a small desk, sits a green banker’s lamp above a Royal typewriter, which he bought for $25 in 1965. “When I was setting out to write my first book, I thought, ‘This is going to be business, McCullough. You ought to have one of these at home,’” he said. “Everything that I’ve ever written, I’ve written on that typewriter . . . And after a while, I began to think, maybe it’s writing the books. So I didn’t dare switch.” As loyal as he was to his typewriter, McCullough was exacting when it came to his subjects. He did not have to love them, but he did have to be able to live with them. “It’s like picking a roommate,” he said, explaining why he had decided not to write a biography of Pablo Picasso, even though he himself loved to paint. “After all you’re going to be with that person every day, maybe for years, and why subject yourself to someone you have no respect for or outright don’t like?”The many books that did survive McCullough’s careful review, pounded out on his trusty typewriter, told wide-ranging deeply human stories that inspired a new generation of writers. He mesmerized us with tales of the astonishingly brave and slightly insane men who built the Brooklyn Bridge and the bicycle-selling brothers who found first flight. We studied his young Theodore Roosevelt, born into aristocracy, galloping into history, and marveled at the incredibly crowded and complicated presidency of Harry S. Truman, a quiet, piano-playing haberdasher from Independence, Missouri. “History is human,” McCullough said. “It’s about everything. It’s about education. It’s about medicine. It’s about science. It’s about art and music and literature, and the theater. And to leave [all that] out is not only to leave out a lot of the juice and the fun and the uplifting powers of human expression, but it is to misunderstand what it is.”From David McCullough we learned that it is never enough to simply describe the past. To read one of his books is not just to understand the people who populate its pages, but to feel like you know them. As a reader, the only way to achieve that kind of intimacy is to find a writer like McCullough, whose own fascination with his subjects is palpable in every word he wrote. Unfortunately, there is no other writer like McCullough. We have lost one of the greats, but how lucky we were to have learned from him, and to know that, every time we reach for one of his books, we are setting off on an adventure. Be ready to hit the ground running because somebody’s going to be on the move.​​When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.
Becoming Eve Babitz
Eve Babitz was one of the truly original writers of 20th-century Los Angeles: essayist, memoirist, novelist, groupie, feminist, canny ingenue. By the time of her death at the end of last year, she was enjoying a renaissance. Two essay collections, Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company, were back in circulation; I Used to Be Charming, a gathering of previously uncollected pieces, was released in 2019. That same year, Lili Anolik published her deliciously fangirlish biography, Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A. A half-century after her major-magazine debut at Rolling Stone, Eve Babitz was being introduced to a new generation of readers by writers who had sharpened their craft by reading her.If you know only one thing about Eve Babitz, it’s probably that in 1963, at the age of 20, she was photographed at the Pasadena Art Museum playing chess with Marcel Duchamp—in the nude (elle, not il). In March of this year, the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, less than four miles from the venue of that chess match, announced the acquisition of the Babitz archive—a few dozen bankers boxes of manuscripts, original works of art, journals, photographs, and correspondence.I was lucky enough to be granted early access to the archive. A longtime admirer of Babitz’s work, I could hardly believe my good fortune. As a teenager, my point of entry was her writing about rock and pop: If you know only two things about Babitz, the second is probably that she’s the L.A. woman in the Doors song. (One of the archive’s nice surprises: an unpublished story called “… Coming Closer …” based on her relationship with Jim Morrison.) I was overwhelmed with curiosity about what her papers might reveal. What could the personal documents of a writer who was so public about her private world teach us about her work? How much of that persona was a performance and how much a reflection of her real anxieties and ambitions?One of the oddities of the archive is that when it comes to her letters—I spent time in just two boxes, which mostly contained correspondence—one doesn’t know whether any of these notes were ever sent to their putative recipients: These are not carbons but original drafts, many of them signed. Babitz comments elliptically on this peculiar epistolary practice in a letter to her friend Carol Grannison-Killorhan: “Today I’m going to mail the letter I write to you instead of sticking it into a file of unmailed letters I’ve started because they’re practically a diary.” I read this, of course, in a file of unmailed letters.If you know three things about Babitz, you probably know that Joan Didion gave her her first big break as a writer. Babitz’s actual friendship with Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, was more complicated, however, as friendships always are. A little over halfway down the second page of the eight-page (!) dedication in her first collection, Eve’s Hollywood, Didion and Dunne get a pretty sideways thanks: “And to the Didion-Dunnes for having to be who I’m not.” Just ambiguous enough to be glossed over? But privately, Babitz nursed some old wounds: In an undated note from the early 1980s, she remembers, years earlier, “John [Gregory Dunne] asking if Dan [Wakefield, a boyfriend] had written my stuff.”[Read: Joan Didion’s magic trick]In an extraordinary letter, likely from 1972, that was almost certainly never sent, Babitz takes Didion to task for hiding behind her various forms of privilege in order to opt out of feminism. The letter begins with Babitz voicing her frustration that she can’t get Didion to read Virginia Woolf, and proceeds to deftly turn the argument of A Room of One’s Own against her: “For a long long long time women didn’t have any money and didn’t have any time and were considered unfeminine if they shone like you do Joan.” Didion benefited from the ways that the literary establishment changed in response to Woolf’s critique, Babitz suggests, but Didion is unwilling to acknowledge the debt or pay it forward. “And so what you do is live in the pioneer days,” Babitz continues, “putting up preserves and down the women’s movement.”Part of the reason that Didion can do without feminism, Babitz suggests, is that the 5-foot-2, 95-pound Didion didn’t loom as a physical presence—didn’t make men uncomfortable. “Just think, Joan, if you were five feet eleven and wrote like you do and stuff—people’d judge you differently and your work,” Babitz writes in that same letter. “Could you write what you write if you weren’t so tiny, Joan? Would you be allowed to if you weren’t physically so unthreatening?”Babitz was four inches short of that 5 foot 11, but she had other attributes that made her presence, and her femininity, impossible to ignore. Her most explicit attempt to address this challenge was “My Life in a 36DD Bra, or, the All-American Obsession,” a piece she wrote for Ms. in April 1976. Babitz felt that the disembodied prose of Didion simply wasn’t possible for her. Evidence of her bodily self-consciousness punctuates the correspondence. In an undated manuscript, she suggests that, as a woman working in the music industry, she’s every bit as threatened by typecasting as a Hollywood starlet: “I’m just a sex symbol, nobody thinks I can really act just because I took my clothes off in my first movie!” In a 1972 letter, she wonders why men so freely dismiss her: “Big tits, I suppose, they think they have a right because of that.” Eve Babitz’s diary, 1975.(The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens) Babitz’s response to this situation was characteristically complex. It’s summed up in the two-sentence letter of introduction she sent to Joseph Heller in 1961: “I am a stacked eighteen-year-old blonde on Sunset Boulevard. I am also a writer.” As a grammar nerd would tell you, it’s the parataxis that’s doing the interesting work here: I’m both of these supposedly mutually exclusive things, and I insist that you acknowledge both; neither is subordinate to the other. Wrap your head around that. Not surprisingly, her correspondence is full of references to Marilyn Monroe and Babitz’s anger at the men who surrounded her who, dazzled by Monroe’s sexuality, would not take her seriously.A series of letters from the fall of 1972 comment on her relationship to her body and its effect on her sense of self. Her concerns about her weight, and her adoption of various diets, are mentioned across the entire corpus of the letters—but that fall, she took up running and began to see results in both her waistline and, more significantly, her legs. In “My Life in a 36DD Bra,” Babitz deploys the “leg man/tit man” binary to her own shrewd rhetorical ends, but in these letters, she’s thrilled that getting in better physical shape means getting recognized for her legs (which in one letter she likens to Betty Grable’s) rather than her breasts. Her breasts (“tits,” she frequently insists on calling them) were given, not made; those toned legs were something that she had created herself. If she was going to be admired for what evolutionary biologists call “supernormal stimuli”—and from the age of 15, she knew that she would be—she preferred that it be for what she’d labored for rather than what she’d simply been blessed (and cursed) with.It’s clear that throughout her career, Babitz’s writing was underrated (or ignored) by powerful men in the publishing industry. Often, it was dismissed as “gossip.” In an undated letter to Heller, she thinks through the gendered implications of that term: “‘Serious’ people just don’t think that gossip, the specialité de ma maison, is ‘serious.’ Whereas I know that nothing on earth overjoys people the way gossip does. Only I think that because it’s always been regarded as some devious woman’s trick, some shallow callow shameful way of grasping situations without being in on the top conferences with the ‘serious’ men, the idea of ‘gossip’ has always been considered tsk tsk. Only how are people like me, women they’re called, supposed to understand things if we can’t get into the V.I.P. room.” Gossip, Babitz suggests, is a different, subaltern way of knowing—disdained by the (male) structures of power, but with a power (and an appeal) all its own. Eve Babitz in 1983, photo Suzanne Tenner. (The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens) One of Babitz’s characteristic habits of thought is not to reject such criticism, but to embrace it. In a 2000 letter introducing herself to a new editor at the Los Angeles Times, Babitz writes, “Basically, fun is my subject—and I can at least make some attempt to write about Los Angeles as interesting, no matter what bad things they say about it in more civilized quarters of the world, where they know they’re right.” Writing to the Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, she explains the fundamental mistake that the editors of his Los Angeles Flyer project are making: “See, those guys insist that they want hard news, but what they don’t understand about Los Angeles, is that we don’t like news, we like artifice.” Indeed, in one letter to a friend, Babitz goes further, essentially denying that gossip is distinct from information and data: “My friend Earl says I like information too much. Data. But I love data and information—it’s such a ballet—it’s such a morality play—everything is always so perfect and people seem to be dancing in the same mirrored ballroom where—like a kaleidoscope—just when you think every thing’s falling apart—it’s just going into another beautiful design.” Gossip is made in the eye of the beholder.“Information”: those 22 bankers boxes contain lots of information, both data and gossip. But as one sits in the Huntington’s Ahmanson Reading Room, poring over files and folders and photos, something even more interesting, “another beautiful design,” gradually emerges: a portrait of an artist in the process of inventing herself. If the first page of a Google image search is littered with Babitz playing chess with Duchamp, here, we’re privileged to look in on Eve Babitz playing a character called Eve Babitz, in the way that Oscar Wilde fashioned, and then played, Oscar Wilde. Most thrillingly, perhaps, this is what the archive as a whole delivers to its readers: an experience of watching Eve Babitz drafting, revising, perfecting, becoming.
Your Guide to the Literature of Tough Childhoods
The neglected or endangered child—the orphan, the vagrant, the waif—is a character with deep roots in the Western canon. Beginning perhaps with the binding of Isaac in the Bible, this figure appears everywhere: in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, in Charles Dickens’s oeuvre and, more recently, in Toni Morrison’s. These stories captivate young and old readers, provoking thrill and worry. Children who are lost fill us with grief, kids who wish to rise above their tough circumstances or go on an epic adventure bring us the highest joy, and we seek these narratives out in books as disparate as Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and Tove Ditlevsen’s The Copenhagen Trilogy. Why? Because each of us knows, in some measure, what they’re feeling.We all understand what it means to feel abandoned, ignored, or underestimated. Some of us may have experienced it for just a moment, or a day; others may have felt it for a decade, or a lifetime. Regardless, we carry those memories for the rest of our lives, and we have been trying to express those feelings for as long as we, as a species, have known how to express anything.In the sea of great literature that tells these tales, here are some of the titles that helped me write about my own complex childhood in my new memoir, Dirtbag, Massachusetts. Their circumstances are varied, but their depictions of the unique ways kids feel delight and pain will resonate with any reader. W. W. Norton and Company Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, by Nick FlynnTo not mention this book—and to not mention it first—would be a crime. Flynn’s memoir is about his family’s struggles with alcoholism and with one another; it’s set in Boston and centers on a homeless shelter where Flynn himself worked. When I first read it, I was surprised by the number of places, emotions, and even experiences that overlapped between the author’s life and my own: addiction, mental illness, generational trauma. I was spellbound by how Flynn structured the narrative, which was inspired by Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. In that novel, the reader is aware of the titular white whale for most of the story through hearsay, with the giant beast appearing only in the final pages. In the same way, Flynn’s father casts a shadow over his own family history and life, without being present during his childhood. Only after meeting his father does Flynn begin to work on himself. When I finished it in my early, early 20s, I remember thinking, That’s the type of book I want to write—vulnerable, poetic, kind. Grove Atlantic The Yellow House, by Sarah M. BroomWhat I love about this memoir, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2019, is its incredible sense of place. Broom’s story is submerged in one of the most lionized—and complex—cities in America: New Orleans. More specifically, she focuses on New Orleans East and the yellow shotgun house that the author’s steadfast mother, Ivory Mae, bought in 1961, and where Broom grew up as the youngest of 12 siblings. The Yellow House takes on history and structural racism while also telling small, intimate stories that show how families, like neighborhoods and cities, are evolving, living things that shift and affect their members in an endless dance. Broom’s brilliant book demonstrates that context and setting are crucial to telling a story, and will ring true for anyone who also grew up in a house that loomed large over everything that happened to their family.[Read: How to write the book no one wants you to write] Picador Wolf in White Van, by John DarnielleIn this novel, the wounds of youth are carried for a lifetime. Its author is the man behind The Mountain Goats, a band I’ve adored for more than two decades. Wolf in White Van tells the story of Sean Phillips, who suffered a disfiguring injury when he was 17 and became a recluse. When we meet him, he has invented an intricate, mail-based role-playing game to allow for a modicum of human connection. But when something terrible happens to a couple of teenage players of the game, he is forced to enter the real world again. Wolf in White Van is a master class in restraint. Darnielle paints a picture of isolation and loneliness, but by not giving away the whole truth of what happened to Sean until the very end, he dares the reader to figure out the complexities of the novel in almost the same way they untangle the complexities of the game. It encouraged me to not turn away from the anger in my younger years—and to keep some of its causes unseen until the last pages of my own book. Scribner Heavy, by Kiese LaymonThis memoir is incredible. The writing talent on display is undeniable, and every sentence sings. “My body knew things my mouth and my mind couldn’t, or maybe wouldn’t, express,” Laymon writes early in the book. That sentence hit my heart; it was something I knew to be true, but had never been able to articulate. At the book’s center are Laymon’s relationships with his mother and with his own body. Who among us has not had difficulty with our body? With our mother? (If you haven’t, I’d love to hear your secret.) What truly inspires is not the book’s universal themes, but instead Laymon’s incredible striving. Here is a man trying to find the truth, to communicate something to his parent and find common ground or, if not that, an understanding of what their relationship has become and why. To do so, Laymon examines sex, gambling, racism in America, and himself. Digging into how he grew up becomes a way to finally say aloud what he’s always carried with him—and to hope for a better future.[Read: The personal cost of Black success] Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Skippy Dies, by Paul MurrayIn the opening pages of this raucous novel filled with unforgettable characters, Skippy, a hapless 14-year-old pupil at a fancy boys’ school, writes a mysterious message in jelly filling on the floor of a doughnut shop and drops dead. But this mystery wasn’t what drew me to the book, nor the fact that it focuses on adolescents who attend a boarding school, as I did. The core of Murray’s writing is its humor: Skippy’s experience at his school, Seabrook, is raunchy, searching, and complex, but always deeply funny. Told from numerous different perspectives, stretching across a wide variety of subjects—string theory, organized religion, folklore, poetry—Skippy Dies is a tutorial in the ability to find laughter in the bleakness of growing up. Anchor The Nickel Boys, by Colson WhiteheadThis 2020 Pulitzer Prize–winner is tragic and unrelenting. A report released in 2016 documented more than 50 skeletons buried on the grounds of the Dozier School for Boys, in Florida, which operated from 1900 to 2011 housing orphans, wards of the state, and children convicted of crimes. Whitehead uses that real-life horror to weave an incredibly powerful novel about the cruel, racist abuse suffered in the name of rehabilitation at the titular Nickel Academy. At the center of the story are two young boys, Elwood Curtis and Jack Turner, who both end up there in the 1960s. The Nickel Boys is about how the smallest bit of bad luck can have a rippling effect throughout one’s entire life—but it’s also about how the people we love can change us in ways we might not ever be able to imagine.[Read: What is crime in a country built on it?] Little, Brown The Goldfinch, by Donna TarttOne of the biggest titles of the past decade, The Goldfinch, a kaleidoscopic achievement, covers so much ground. It’s the story of Theo Decker, whose mother is killed during a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Young Theo slips away from the explosion with a painting by the Dutch artist Carel Fabritius, the titular Goldfinch. The whole book is masterful and has indelible moments in both New York City and Amsterdam, but the section that I absolutely love is set in the sandy outskirts of Las Vegas, in the novel’s middle. Here, Theo and Boris Pavlikovsky, two friends without much parental supervision, forge the bonds of young rascals; they drink, take drugs, and try to figure out what to do with Theo’s stolen, priceless painting. As someone who grew up playing violent games in the woods with real BB guns and turning old hair-spray cans into flamethrowers with my friend, I can attest that The Goldfinch artfully displays the reckless abandon that comes from a feral, unsupervised youth. Library of America The Collected Breece D’J Pancake: Stories, Fragments, Letters, by Breece D’J PancakeThis assemblage of Pancake’s work—especially its 12 bleak, beautiful stories about trilobites and coal country and truckers and also tenderness, in their way—is a fundamental stepping-stone in my evolution as a reader. Pancake writes about Virginia and West Virginia, places that I had never been when my father gave me my first copy. But here was writing that reflected my own experiences growing up in a low-income area in North-Central Massachusetts: people in trailers. Hunting. Rural isolation. The joys and hardships that come from living in the woods. The prose is unpolished, yet Pancake’s lyricism somehow manages to shine, whether it’s describing a pregnant farm wife or a snowplow driver with a secret. The mythos of the collection is also part of its pull. Pancake died by suicide at 26; I have grappled with suicidal ideation, and this galvanizing book convinced me that my account might also have some value.​​When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.