Monday, November 03, 2008

Brave Companions: Portraits in History by David McCullough

When you think about David McCullough, you think first about big, addictive biographies of American presidents. It was not always this way. Before the presidents, he wrote about big engineering feats, like the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal, and short pieces for journals, such as American Heritage, Audubon, and Smithsonian. Brave Companions: Portraits in History collects twenty years of magazine articles and essays, starting with short biographical pieces on naturalists Alexander von Humboldt and Louis Agassiz. Most of the pieces are biographical until near the end of the collection, where in essays McCullough tells about his love for Washington, D.C. and recommends that graduating seniors from Middlebury College travel the world to see historic places.

I read the collection a little at a time, enjoying a totally new subject every couple of days. My favorite pieces may have been the first two about the two naturalists about whom I really knew nothing but their names, or the piece about his day with photographer David Plowden taking pictures of small towns and cornfields, or the profile of scientist Miriam Rothschild, who studies anything and everything that interests her. The most moving piece may be "The Lonely War of a Good Angry Man" about Harry Monroe Caudill, who fought the coal companies over strip mining in Kentucky. The cast of characters that McCullough includes in this book is fascinating.

I suspect McCullough would be a great dinner guest, as he has been so many places and knows so many things. He's probably not available, so check out this book instead.

McCullough, David. Brave Companions: Portraits in History. Prentice Hall Press, 1992. ISBN 0131401041

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