August 2 – 8, 2019Vol. 21, No. 9

David McCullough Histories and Maine Connections

by Martha F. Barkley

David McCullough and his wife Rosalee spend summers in Camden to be close to their daughter and grandchildren who live there year round. He used to love sailing, but now David's sons and sons-in-law captain the sailboat while he continues to enjoy outings at 84. He told Brian Lamb on Q&A recently that he loves writing every morning: why stop what you love doing?

How I loved finding The Pioneers, McCullough's newest history, at our Belgrade Library last week. One of the best pages I found was a complete showing of all the covers. Usually, for some unknown reason, Brave Companions has not been included. This time it is in there in all its beauty like the other artfully done covers.

Big, ancient trees, ship building and fishing are a common theme in The Pioneers that constantly made me think of Maine. An 80-pound catfish from the Ohio River and a 100-pound fish — I forget which species — were caught during the first settlement of Marietta, named after Queen Antoinette of France. Our fishing and our French population in Maine are similar to the Northwest Ordinance territory, somewhat larger than France: Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin.

The pioneers were constantly clearing old growth trees and many were used for ship building at Marietta. Bath Iron Works is still going strong here with a wonderful ship building museum to explore. An easy day trip from Belgrade.

It fascinated me to read McCullough's words about Harriet Beecher Stowe who left that area of the country to come with her husband to Bowdoin College and write Uncle Tom's Cabin: "In the early spring of 1850, a shabby woman no more than five feet tall boarded a steamer at Cincinnati, where she had been living for seventeen years, and departed upstream on the Ohio. She was happily heading 'home' to New England, to Brunswick, Maine, where her husband had recently joined the faculty of Bowdoin College..."

McCullough continues to write about Stowe's world famous novel Uncle Tom's Cabin quoting from his earlier book Brave Companions. I loved Brave Companions, because it had short chapters about so many interesting topics, such as Alexander Humboldt the German explorer, map maker, and scientist and Abe Lincoln's horseback riding route from the White House to the summer cottage at the Old Soldiers Home, etc.

New England villages were established all over Ohio and the Northwest Ordinance states. Public schools for every child were promoted for the first time and the university system in each state came into being.

Slavery was not allowed and that was a big demarcation from the first thirteen states, which all had slavery. Maine broke from Massachusetts at a time when slave and free states needed balancing in Washington, DC.

Aaron Burr, after his notoriety of killing Hamilton, arrived in Marietta to promote secession of the west from the east. Not north and south, but east and west! He found money and alliances with an Irish couple who built their magnificent mansion on Blennerhassett Island, just across the Ohio River from Marietta. The Blennerhassett family had a slave to ferry them back and forth to Marietta.

John Adams's son, John Quincy Adams, visited Marietta and Revolutionary soldiers found common ground with Lafayette's great tour 50 years after our country was established. Many veterans were offered land in the Northwest Ordinance territory as payment for their service.

The Greater Journey by McCullough introduced me to Elihu Washburne and all those remarkable Americans from Livermore, Maine. The Portland Museum of Art has many Maine artists who trained in Paris and also Italy.

In his Pulitzer Prize–winning biography John Adams, I was amazed to read that as a young lawyer, our nation's second president came on horseback to our nearby Pownalborough Court House on the Kennebec to serve only once. The rough horseback ride into the woods was too much for John Adams to return.

The Pioneers was a slow read for me in comparison to others by McCullough. Mike Hill, his assistant for thirty-five years, certainly had loads of well organized letters and journals to help sort through and I felt I was reading quote after quote of meticulous detail in The Pioneers daily challenges on the frontier. Maybe you could find another McCullough history on the shelves. Most every single one is enlightening and I keep wondering why history in school was not as fascinating as these books by respected David McCullough.

He was kind enough to sign my very old paperback of The Johnstown Flood. when he introduced his daughter at Merrill Auditorium in Portland years ago. She was beginning her writing career with a novel. He certainly was the proud papa.

I also heard David McCullough, Jr. at the Savannah, Ga. Book Festival in February a few years ago when his nonfiction was published, You Are Not Special, a phrase taken out of context from his commencement speech at the school graduation where he teaches English. Boy, did that go viral on the web at that time, so he was forced into explaining the use of that phrase in his speech by writing a book. Very clear what he meant and the World Wide Web certainly does sometimes cause miscommunication. That was way before Tweets!