David McCullough has won two Pulitzer Prizes and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006, the highest civilian award a U.S. citizen can receive. The Point Breeze native's illustrious career is not a product of happenstance or fate, but the inspiration for his latest book, The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, (Simon & Shuster) is due to “immense good luck and accelerating curiosity,” says McCullough in a recent interview.
During a speaking engagement at Ohio University a few years ago, McCullough wondered about the provenance of Cutler Hall on the campus. Finding out it was named after Manasseh Cutler, one of the founders of the university led McCullough to Marietta, Ohio, where he discovered “one of the great collections of letters and diaries and unpublished memoirs that I have ever encountered in more than 50 years of writing books,” in the school’s library.
Manasseh Cutler’s advocacy for the Great Northwest Ordinance — passed by Congress in 1787, prior to the election of George Washington as the country’s first president —led to the establishment of Ohio as the gateway to the west. The ordinance, which included an emphasis on education and a determination that the region would be free of slavery, is now mostly forgotten, further whetting McCullough’s desire to write The Pioneers with the treasure trove of documents that illuminated the forgotten episode.
“It wasn’t just the quantity of the collection, which numbers in the thousands, literally, but the quality of the writing,” says McCullough. “And, of course, that also means the quality of the thinking and their values were superbly delineated by their stories and writing that is so greatly in need in our time.”
One of the disappointments for McCullough is the lack of writing from women of the era. The only pieces he could find were letters to family members, as it was considered “not seemly, not approved of, for women to complain. And they had so much to complain about,” McCullough says, noting the hardships most women had to endure as primary caretakers of children and the endless responsibilities of maintaining households.
McCullough had better luck finding writing that drew a darker picture of the settlements. Notably, Charles Dickens — yes, the author of A Tale of Two Cities and Bleak House — and Frances Trollope (Domestic Manners of the Americans) were less than enamored of the settlers and Americans in general.
The main characters in The Pioneers include Cutler and his son Ephraim, who became a farmer, educator, judge, and politician who got up from his sickbed to cast the deciding vote that banned slavery from Ohio. There’s Rufus Putnam, a Revolutionary War general who was one of the founders of Marietta, the first established settlement along the banks of the Ohio River, and Joseph Barker, another early settler and home builder; and Samuel Hildreth, a physician whose many interests included science, history, and geology.
McCullough, whose previous books include John Adams (winner of a Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2002), 1776, and The Johnstown Flood, his 1968 debut, uses an effective and simple literary device to illuminate the people he writes about. He allows his subjects to take center stage instead of trying to interpret their intentions.
“I like to let them talk as much as possible,” he says. “I like to have them express in their words and in their way what they were feeling privately and publicly, and what the impact of their sufferings had on them. All of that. It's all there.
“People often say to me, 'Are you working on a book?' I say yes, but what I really feel like saying is `I'm working in a book.' You get inside their lives, inside their times, inside their private thoughts and private aspirations and disappointments, and you become connected to them.”
Editor's note: A number of historians and critics have accused The Pioneers of "romanticizing white settlement." McCullough and his publisher are not addressing the criticism or giving comments on it at this time.
Between the Lines
The third edition of Large Print: Teen Literary Journal, will be released May 24 in the Teenspace section of the main branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Oakland. The after-hours event, starting at 6 p.m., will feature snacks, an open mic, and copies of Large Print. Teens (ages 11-19), parents, families, friends, and librarians are welcome to attend. Entry will be via the front entrance off the Schenley Avenue extension.
Free. 6 p.m., May 24, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. 412-622-3114 or carnegielibrary.org/kids-teens/largeprintjournal