At the ADA Award of Merit Dinner on April 11th in Philadelphia, the Antiques Dealers' Association honored the internationally renowned author David McCullough for his ability to inspire people to appreciate the great stories of American history. Much as antiques dealers, curators and collectors use objects of the past to tell stories, McCullough uses letters, diaries, and other primary source documents to delve ever deeper into the tales he tells. The keynote speaker for the evening, author John Demos, impressed more than 150 attendees with his thoughtful commentary about why history and objects matter, and why the honoree David McCullough has seen such overwhelming success as an author of popular history. The following remarks from the dinner are written by and courtesy of John Demos. The ADA thanks Demos for generously sharing a transcript of his notes.
My chief role here tonight is to introduce your award-winner. But when Arthur Liverant invited me for this, I asked if I might also speak a bit about antiques in relation to history—to the study of history. (And he gave me permission; at least I think he did.) After all, how often would I have a captive audience of antiques dealers? I didn't want to lose the opportunity. So my
remarks will be divided in two: first, as I say, a little riff on antiques and history, and then the introduction of David McCullough. I hope both will seem, albeit in different ways, a propos.
I've been a historian for a little over fifty years, and an antiques collector for around thirty. And through much of that time I've struggled with the question of how these different tracks in my life intersect. On the one hand, it seems obvious: history is about the past, and antiques are remnants of the past. Indeed, antiques are evidence of the past; in scholars' lingo, they belong to the "material culture" produced by historical actors who lived and died long ago. In practice, however, the vast majority of working historians ignore material culture, and base their studies entirely on verbal evidence, the words of those same actors, as written and preserved in paper documents.
Antiques dealers, for their part, understand and appreciate the "pastness" of the objects they have and hold (and buy and sell), but rarely do they try to put those objects into any wider context. They seek out details of construction and provenance—where, and when, something was made, and who may have owned it. But, as for the life and times in which it was set, they are agnostic.
And that's unfortunate. Both groups, the history people and the antiques people, have much to learn from each other. I don't mean that it's an easy process—this blending of different specialties. I haven't done very well with it myself. Mostly, I've gone at it through my teaching—taking a few objects from my personal collection into a class where they might serve to illustrate some larger historical point. But that's just a beginning; in the long run, we need to do
So.... I want to use the next several minutes to suggest some of the ways all of you might imagine contributing to the study of history, and might even think of yourselves as historians. There are three or four important lines of possibility; let me speak briefly to each one.
In rare cases, a particular antique may reflect directly on a significant event or problem. One example, known to me from quite a few years ago, involves a little coffin-shaped box—perhaps you would call it a "trinket box"—that my late friend Bob Thayer found at a Manhattan antiques shop sometime in the 1980s. (I'm sure many of you knew Bob during his dealer years. He was a mentor to my wife and me, as we made my way in the antiques world, so it's especially nice to
be able to mention his name here.) Anyway: this little box, which included on its lid a nicely carved image of an early steam locomotive, proved to be a kind of memento mori. And, as such, it solved an enduring puzzle in railroad history.
The gist is that the first locomotive ever imported into this country—called the AMERICA, and greeted with great fanfare upon its arrival in New York in the spring of 1829—had then exploded in the course of a secret trial-run; hence the inscription, on the lid's underside, of the words: BLEW UP, AUGUST 12, 1829. Immediately after this presumably shocking event, the owners and sponsors did a cover-up so far as the public was concerned—a lot of money was at stake—but they also created the box as a record to be kept privately among themselves. So now, at last, we know what happened to that first locomotive; till the box turned up, it seemed to have vanished into thin air. (If you go to the railroad exhibition gallery in the Smithsonian today, they still don't know. Or at least they profess not to.)
To be sure, that sort of direct revelation is unlikely to occur very often. But a second category of ways to use antiques as evidence is much larger—and is indeed very obvious. It's for the process simply of re-envisioning, and reconstructing, the physical environment in which past lives were lived.
Here's another example—this one directly from my own experience. In the 1960s, as a then-very-young historian, I was deeply involved in the study of early American family life. My research focus was Plymouth Colony, the famous "pilgrims" of yore. I spent many hours (and months and years) digging into written records produced by and about them. I analyzed their household structure, the ages at which they married, the various roles they assumed, the ideology of family, and so on. Then, on a summer afternoon, I wandered into one of the ancient houses still standing up there in Plymouth—the Harlow House, built around 1670, and now fitted out with a lot of period furniture. Well, I was totally set back on my heels—indeed stunned—by what I saw, and felt. There was an atmosphere—an ecology even—that seemed utterly apart from all I had previously learned: dark, close, a little brooding; earthy, organic, flexible. Nothing I had done with the written evidence prepared me for this. And the book I went on to write was
powerfully affected as a direct result.
A third piece of the antiques-to-history connection is the way basic cultural attitudes may be exemplified and understood. Perhaps there is no more basic illustration of this than the chair, the antique chair. As most in this audience will already know, chairs in the pre-modern era were not primarily about comfortable seating; they served, instead, to express rank, and status, and social power. Some of that meaning survives in the common language of today; thus we refer to the
chair-man of this or that organization—the boss, the head—who should, at least from a history perspective, have a special chair for declaring his (or, nowadays, perhaps her) authority.
But the meaning here goes well beyond a linguistic carryover. You need to confront, face-to-face, the physical reality of early chairs (invariably, of course, armchairs); every one of them looks like a little throne. And even that is not enough. You need to sit in such a chair, and thus to experience the way it forces you into an authoritative posture: back straight, arms
extended to the front, legs pressed parallel and bent at the knees in a sharp 90-degree angle, feet planted firmly on the floor. Do this, and you feel powerful. And to anyone who is nearby and looks in your direction, you appear powerful.
Another illustration, this one more singular and specific. Several years ago I acquired, at a Skinner's auction in Boston, an old cast-iron fire-back. The imagery on its front features a grotesque, monkey-like human figure, decked out in fancy robes and a large, elaborate hat. Above the figure are these words: AN APE WIL NEVER BE A MAN. At first I didn't know what to make of this; was it Darwin-related, a bit of anti-evolution propaganda from the late 19th century? But no; its other decorative elements suggested a much earlier date, most likely around
the year 1700. And, eventually, I came to realize that this was about the pope—"ape" equals "pape," equals "pope"—and was actually an expression of strong anti-Catholic feeling. To get the full effect, you need to light a fire in front of the piece; then you see this simian caricature of the pope engulfed in flames. (And you can imagine what those flames are supposed to represent.) There is no more powerful way to grasp the extraordinary virulence of anti-Catholicism, in Protestant England at the start of the 18th century.
One more bit before I shift gears. The need to preserve, and protect, these old objects has never been more pressing than now, in the age of electronic communication. I mentioned a few minutes ago my use of antiques in my teaching; here's a specific instance. It happened at a lecture, part of my regular course for undergraduates on colonial American history. My topic that day was women's lives in the colonial era, including their vital role in food preparation around the domestic hearth. I'd brought along a cook-pot, for demonstrative effect. At the end of the lecture several students came to the front to examine the pot close-up, something I always encouraged. Then one of them turned to me, and said: "Professor, most of my other professors use Power Point. You don't use Power Point, but this is almost as good!" For her at least—and, I fear, for many others of her youthful cohort—the virtual trumps the real. That's why antiques have, nowadays, an even greater interest and importance than before.
On to the second part of my presentation, the introduction of this year's
recipient of the ADA Award of Merit....David McCullough has been called "America's historian." Not just "American historian," although he is that as well. But "America's"—the possessive form. And it fits. He belongs to America, most especially to the legion of admirers of his many fine books. Also, in a different sense, America belongs to
If, as some say, history is hot nowadays, McCullouch can claim a disproportionate share of the credit. His topical range is extraordinary: from the Revolution to the mid-20th century; from politics, culture, social life, and technology, to presidential biography. His many honors, including two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards, attest to his success not only with readers but also with the gatekeepers of literary and scholarly excellence.
McCullough did not set out to be a historian. An English major in college, he initially aspired to write fiction. His first paid work was as an editor in the magazine world (Time, Life, Sports Illustrated, American Heritage). But on finding a subject to which he was strongly drawn—the disastrous flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania (1889)—he plunged into history and never looked back. At the same moment, he took the risk of going freelance, of committing himself to
the life of a historian without benefit of institutional connection or support.
Perhaps his lack of professional training—no Ph.D, no graduate school at all—has actually worked to his advantage. Had he entered an academic doctoral program in, say, the 1970s, he would not have emerged as the David McCullough we know and celebrate today. That was a time of sweeping change in historical studies. Old-style narrative history was out, and "social science history" was in. Leading professionals, especially younger ones, joined in revolt against (what they saw as) the shallow, impressionistic, intellectually loose performance of previous scholarly generations. They also rejected their predecessors' focus on elites. Instead of Great Deeds by Great White Men, their concern was the everyday experience of ordinary people—or, as some put it, "history from the bottom up.'
The results of this shift were profound—and decidedly mixed. Certainly, there were huge gains in coverage and depth of understanding. Whole groups appeared for the first time on the stage of history: women, African Americans and Native Americans, industrial workers and farmers, the marginalized, the downtrodden, the oppressed. There was also a new sophistication of method—more careful, more systematic ways of interpreting the life of the past.
Bottom-up history meant going well beyond the straightforward study of written documents. It called for numbers (quantitative analysis), material forms of evidence (including what we now call antiques), and the use of empirically grounded theory. History—as a discipline—became a matter less of art than of science. Put differently, it was professionalized.
What was lost, or at least suppressed, in this process of change was accessibility. The new histories were filled with graphs, charts, and other technical paraphernalia—with seemingly arcane concepts, with long words, and (in at least some cases) with outright jargon. More than that, individual persons—singular, living-and-breathing specimens of humankind—largely disappeared from view. And the audience for writing about history shrank precipitously.
Enter David McCullough, and what would soon become known as "popular history." As the "professionals" vacated the field of accessible learning, others gladly rushed in. Like McCullough, most had no academic pedigree; they thought of themselves as writers, first of all, but with a special preference for historical subjects. It was through them that narrative history—and people-based history—and fun-to-read history—came back to the fore.Thus for the past several decades the study of history has proceeded along two tracks: the popular and the professional. At some points they divide and compete; at others they overlap and intersect. But the popular historians make good use of the work of their professional counterparts. And the professionals are paying more and more attention to access. Some are striving to resurrect history as a literary endeavor; others are trying harder to present their discoveries in a way that will appeal to non-academic readers. In short, there is gain on all sides.
David McCullough has been both a foremost practitioner of popular history and a key bridge between the tracks. With unquestioned skill as a researcher and writer, an unerring instinct for what counts as important, and (not least) an extraordinary generosity of spirit, he has forged for himself a unique role. "America's historian" indeed.