The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Monday, June 29, 2009

McCullough in Houston

A Literary Flashback

In the spring of 2002 I had the pleasure of attending a lecture at the University of Houston by the world-famous historian and best-selling author David McCullough. If forced to describe McCullough's lecture in a single word, the term I would choose is "inspiring." I don't mean that flippantly, as in the manner in which the word is thrown out by self-help gurus who "inspire" you to quit smoking or lose weight. I mean inspirational with a capital I, with the concept linked to Big Ideas and the Highest Idealism.

When I arrived at the lecture with my uncle, retired Professor John E. Devine, it appeared as though we wouldn't be able to see McCullough in the flesh. Despite having reserved tickets in advance, we discovered when we went to pick them up at the box office shortly before the lecture was to start that our tickets were for an "overflow" room. That meant that we would have to watch and listen to the lecture on a giant TV screen in another room, since so many people had reserved tickets ahead of us that there were no seats available in the Lecture Hall.

Actually sometimes seeing a lecture that way can be an advantage, since you can usually see and hear better over the closed circuit TV than you can from a lousy seat in the actual Lecture Hall itself. The major disadvantage of seeing it on TV, however, is that you miss out on some of the more subtle aspects of the experience, in particular the interplay of energy between the speaker and audience.

After taking our seats before the giant TV screen, McCullough himself completely unexpectedly appeared in the overflow room. He thanked us for coming and apologized for the lack of space for us in the main hall, then promised to keep our presence in mind as he gave his talk. As it turned out, shortly after he left we were all invited into the Lecture Hall anyway, since many people who had reserved seats failed to show up, thereby making the overflow room unnecessary. Yet I would estimate that by the time the lecture began the hall was still 99% full.

McCullough's impromptu visit to those of us who had been originally exiled to the overflow room was one of the classiest gestures of respect for an audience I've ever seen a public speaker perform. A literary prima donna would have taken the news of an overflow crowd as food for his ego, not as cause for concern and a personal display of gratitude. That kind of endearing humility simply cannot be faked.

The emminent historian was introduced by U of H President Arthur K. Smith, who did a solid job of summarizing McCullough's mind-boggling list of accomplishments, stretching from his Yale graduation in 1955 through virtually every literary award you can imagine, ending finally with a humorous counterpoint to his highbrow resume by stating that McCullough "likes to cook spagetti on Sunday nights."

McCullough began his talk, entitled "First Principles," by observing that since the tragic events of September 11 it has become commonplace to hear people say that, "everything is different, everything has changed." While conceding that "we are probably changed in more ways than we realize," he dismissed the notion that this is a time of special hardship for the United States.

Instead he urged us to regard current events from a historical perspective. He pointed out that even in the lives of people still living there were such extreme trials as the Great Depression and World War II. In a particularly apt and original example, McCullough referred to the great influenza epidemic of 1918, which took over 500,000 lives, a death toll that completely dwarfs the 3000 people who lost their lives on September 11. Of course history is not a contest where challenges are rated on a scale defined by body counts, but the point he made was that America has faced many hard challenges, and that our current threats are not unique in either size or severity.

McCullough compellingly made the case that the most difficult period in our nation's history was at the very beginning. In bringing this point home McCullough proved to be a virtual fountainhead of facts, figures and anecdotes which vividly brought to life the Revolutionary War era. I doubt that I was unique among those present in feeling as the talk progressed that I really don't know enough about our Founding Fathers and Mothers, and should probably begin reading up on them, perhaps beginning with McCullough's famous books. Of course part of the reason authors such as McCullough make lecture tours is to generate interest, and thereby sales, in their own writings. But there was no hint of the huckster in McCullough's talk and it was very apparent that he believed - and passionately - in everything he said.

That sincerity was the quality that elevated McCullough's speech above the usual fare one encounters from the literary lecture circuit. As he recounted the terrible hardships, the steely determination, and the unflagging idealism of the heroes of the American revolution, McCullough effectively brought to life the commitment required of the revolutionaries noble vision of "the life of the mind without boundaries."

For example, he read this electrifying passage from the correspondence of Abigail Adams: "These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life or the repose of a pacific station that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, waken to life and form the character of the hero and the statesman."

This is heavy stuff, which McCullough presented with a motivational sense of historical drama, made all the more compelling because he made clear the extent to which we moderns who were sitting in the audience are a part of that same dramatic and historic heritage. It would've been a person with a very cynical heart who could've left that lecture without a renewed sense of patriotism and civic responsibility. Indeed the lecture was on one level the kind of intellectual scolding that leaves one feeling somewhat like a shmuck for all that we take for granted. Fortunately the wisest people, such as McCullough, recognize the need for such scoldings.

Receiving a more than deserved standing ovation at the conclusion of his speech, McCullough entertained a half-dozen questions from the audience. Among them:

-The incongruence between the fight for American liberty and the institution of slavery was raised in the context of John Adams, to which McCullough responded by pointing out that Adams was the only Founding Father who refused to own slaves on principle, and that Adams supported public education for blacks.

-McCullough was also asked what he thought of the literary scandals involving plagerism surrounding his fellow best-selling historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Describing both of them as personal friends, he refused to comment.

-Someone asked McCullough to compare the father and son presidencies of John and John Quincy Adams with George and George W. Bush. At first hesitant to reply, McCullough, who is notoriously proud of his Yale pedigree, drew laughter by declaring that the Yale graduated Bushes were superior because "the Adamses only had a Harvard education."

-He dismissed as inaccurate the suggestion that Adams and Benjamin Franklin did not get along, insisting that they had enormous respect for one another. He also humorously pointed out that Franklin, author of the maxim, "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise," was himself rarely out of bed before eleven o'clock!

If the role of a historian is to give the public a useful perspective on the present by examining the past, then David McCullough perfomed that role beautifully at the University of Houston. In all it was an unusually entertaining and informative evening which provided much sincerely felt inspiration.

Nostalgia Trip

Here's some hijinks by the Subway on King Street in Northampton in 1990. I used to work in the convenience store across the street.

Jim Neill shares this picture of himself and a friend playing the Ted Nugent pinball machine at UMass around 1980. I remember that game as well as the Evil Kneival one next to it. People have forgotten what big stars Nugent and Kneival were at one time.

I ruled the pinball machines at UMass, which was just a natural progression from my lordship over the machines at the Two Guys snack bar on Boston Road in Springfield. Eventually the pinball machines at UMass were replaced by computer games, but now there are no games at all, since everyone can play them for free at home or on their laptops. Here's the gaming area after the games were removed forever in 2007.

Pictures of Lilly

Ya gotta hand it to the Florence section of Northampton, it's got attitude.

Of course what exactly one is supposed to be resisting is not clear. Florence has a great library named after someone named Lilly.

Lilly is a He, and the bewhiskered Mr. Lilly gazes down upon the patrons from his golden frame.

The children's area has a cool starship section.

How come the kids get to have all the fun?

Saturday Night

I stopped in at the Yellow Sofa Cafe in downtown Hamp.

There was a band playing consisting primarily of juveniles.

Again, kids having all the fun!

Today's Video

Tony in England sends along this evidence that the Brits are keeping a stiff upper lip over the Michael tragedy.

Tony also shares this video of Neil Young performing at London's Hyde Park on Saturday night. Although not included here, I'm told that Paul McCartney made an appearance.


jim said...

I wonder if Mr. Lilly would approve of the library being a place where children can access pornography on the computers?

Tim said...

Tom,Regarding the "Resist" logo; Like Groucho said in "Horsefeathers," "Whatever it is, I'm against it!" "No matter who conceived or commenced it, I'm against it!" Nice to see someone resisting something. You sure don't see any "Question Authority" stickers anymore since the "Just exactly perfect" crowd hit D.C.

mary said...

Neil Young must be taking his vitamins.

Bill Doughty said...

Neil Young and David McCullough on the same blog... Rockin' in the Free World, indeed! old man, take a look at my... blog: a review of David McCullough's 1776...
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