David McCullough says he doesn’t consider himself a historian even though he writes books about historical figures.
“I’m not an expert. I know a lot. An expert has a lot of answers,” he said. “I have mostly questions. I was trained as a journalist. I spent 15 years writing for magazines. The who, what, where, when and why is what I’m applying to history. I’m a writer. I write about what really happened.”
The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner put those skills to use in his latest work, “The Wright Brothers,” researching their letters and diaries, and spending time in Kitty Hawk. His goal: To tell the human side of their story, which he says has been overlooked.
Before he started the book, McCullough says he knew the same three things most people know about them: They were from Ohio, bicycle mechanics, and invented the airplane. By the end, he had become a fan. “Even if they had failed in their mission to fly, I would have wanted to write the book about them,” he said.
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McCullough, 81, was in Raleigh Thursday night to speak at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts about the writing of his 10th book and the HBO mini series that will be made about it. Before taking the stage, he talked to The News & Observer, a co-sponsor of the event, about his admiration for Orville and Wilbur Wright and a few current debates. Here is an edited excerpt from the interview.
On why he admires the Wright brothers:
One of the crucial and brilliant sides of their nature was their ability to write. Their father insisted that they learn to use the English language correctly and effectively. Neither of these fellas ever even graduated from high school. You read their letters and it’s humbling – their vocabulary. The way they could express exactly what they meant with great clarity.
The idea that it was these two young fellas from Dayton, Ohio – with no formal education, no experience working with technological engineers, no wealth, no university or a foundation or millionaire – they did everything on their own and for almost nothing.
The Wright brothers plane cost less than $1,000. ... Absolutely astonishing. They made the motor, everything. Everything was homemade. They were homemade people. The effect of how they were raised is a powerful lesson for all of us. Their manners, use of the English language, their courtesies, their honestly, their strength of character.
On who has the rightful title to aviation: North Carolina or Ohio:
Both. Ohio was the birthplace in that the plane that flew at Kitty Hawk was built in their bicycle shop, crated up and shipped down to the Outer Banks.
(But) they came to Kitty Hawk because they needed constant, reliable wind. The liked the idea of a soft landing with the sand. And it was scarcely populated. They didn’t want a lot of people hanging around watching and distracting them. They wanted to concentrate. They were very polite men, absolute gentlemen. So if somebody came up and started talking to them, they didn’t have it in them to say “go away.”
On the debate going on at UNC and elsewhere about whether or not to rename buildings whose namesakes are controversial:
It’s up to the university or college if they want to rename their buildings. I think if somebody had been an active member of the Klan, that’s good cause to reconsider. I, personally, don’t like buildings being named because somebody gave a lot of money.
I applaud naming buildings for outstanding individuals who played apart in our country or the history and development of the educational institution.
On replacing Andrew Jackson on the $20:
That I do not like. Make a $15 bill if you want. Name it for whoever you want.
Jackson is an extremely important figure in our history. Yes, he’s not entirely admirable, but he’s not entirely admirable from our point of view. That was not true in his time. ... He was courageous, (built) up from nothing. He was a pretty good president.
On letter writing:
People don’t write letters anymore. Nobody in public life would dare keep a diary because it could be subpoenaed and used against you in court.
Historians and biographers of the future will have almost nothing to work with in this way. They won’t have any idea of knowing what we were like, what we really felt, what we aspired to, or what our disappointments and heart-breaks have been. That’s where you find the humanity of history.