Johnstown Flood (McCullough)

The Johnstown Flood
David McCullough, 1968
Simon & Schuster
304 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780671207144

At the end of the last century, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was a booming coal-and-steel town filled with hardworking families striving for a piece of the nation's burgeoning industrial prosperity. In the mountains above Johnstown, an old earth dam had been hastily rebuilt to create a lake for an exclusive summer resort patronized by the tycoons of that same industrial prosperity, among them Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and Andrew Mellon.

Despite repeated warnings of possible danger, nothing was done about the dam. Then came May 31, 1889, when the dam burst, sending a wall of water thundering down the mountain, smashing through Johnstown, and killing more than 2,000 people. It was a tragedy that became a national scandal.

Graced by David McCullough's remarkable gift for writing richly textured, sympathetic social history, The Johnstown Flood is an absorbing, classic portrait of life in nineteenth-century America, of overweening confidence, of energy, and of tragedy. It also offers a powerful historical lesson for our century and all times: the danger of assuming that because people are in positions of responsibility they are necessarily behaving responsibly.

The bestselling author of The Path Between the Seas and Mornings on Horseback makes available again his classic chronicle of the tragic Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood of 1889. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—July 7, 1933
Where—Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA
Education—B.A., Yale University
Awards—National Book Award, 1978 & 1982; Pulitzer Prize,
   1993 and 2002
Currently—lives in West Tisbury, Massachusetts

Critics have called David McCullough America's premier narrative historian, and rightly so: McCullough is both a scholar and a storyteller, a meticulous researcher and a highly engaging writer. Given his ability to turn a 750-page biography of an often-overlooked, one-term president into a national bestseller, it might even be said that McCullough is a magician. Gordon Wood, author of The Radicalism of the American Revolution and a professor of history at Brown University, has said McCullough "is without doubt the most celebrated of what you could call our 'popular historians,' and he's also respected by academic historians."

McCullough, who majored in English literature at Yale, began his career as a magazine writer, but turned to history after reading some uninspired accounts of the disastrous 1899 flood of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He wrote his own history of the flood and its aftermath, and went on to chronicle two great feats of engineering: the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the creation of the Panama Canal.

Both The Great Bridge and The Path Between the Seas were bestsellers, and the latter won a National Book Award. Critics praised McCullough for his vivid descriptions and lively excerpts of firsthand accounts. The Great Bridge, wrote Robert Kirsch in The Los Angeles Times, is "a book so compelling and complete as to be a literary monument, one of the best books I have read in years." McCullough then progressed from the Panama Canal to its great proponent Theodore Roosevelt, the subject of his first biography, Mornings on Horseback, about the young Teddy Roosevelt, was hailed as a "masterpiece" by Newsday 's John A. Gable and praised as "a beautifully told story, filled with fresh detail" by The New York Times Book Review.

McCullough spent the next ten years researching and writing about Harry Truman, and the resulting book was a complex, compelling and affectionate portrait of America's 33d president. Truman won the Pulitzer Prize for biography and sold well over 1 million copies. Another Pulitzer Prize was awarded to McCullough's next book, John Adams, also a bestseller.

"McCullough's appreciation for Adams, like his appreciation for Truman, depends on an adherence to certain old-fashioned moral guidelines, which is to say on strength of character," wrote New York Times reviewer Pauline Maier. McCullough is eloquent about his subjects' honesty,  and deep sense of civic duty, though critics have sometimes charged that he is too quick to excuse or pass over their failings. But McCullough has his own reservations about "a certain school of historians who don't just want to prove somebody from the past had feet of clay, they want to show he's nothing but clay."

McCullough can admire his subjects in spite of their faults; as he once said, "The more we see the founders as humans the more we can understand them." Through his books, millions of readers have found American heroes whose human characters are as well worth studying as their historic accomplishments.

In researching John Adams, McCullough went to every place in Europe that Adams had lived, in England, France and Holland. He also traveled with his wife along the same route Adams and Jefferson took when they toured the gardens of England. "If I had been able to sail across the Atlantic in a 24-gun frigate, as John Adams did, I would have done that, too," he said.

In addition to his work as a writer, McCullough has hosted the public television shows Smithsonian World and The American Experience, and narrated Ken Burns's documentary The Civil War. (From Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
The [Johnstown is] one of the country's greatest and most storied civilian disasters, which, in a few hours, killed more than 2,000 persons and caused millions of dollars in property damages.... It's re-creation now by David G. a superb job, scholarly yet vivid, balanced yet incisive. The flood was not a "natural" disaster nor an act of God, Mr. McCullough finds, but the consequence of misfeasance by the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, a collection of Pittsburgh swells that included Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick. The club's dam gave way, starting the flood on its way. Those responsible were never brought to justice, which was an irony of the flood, but the ethos of that age. Mr. McCullough makes the most of it in a book of interesting social history.
Alden Whitman - New York Times (4/24/1968)

A first rate example of the documentary method.... Mr. McCullough is a good writer and painstaking reporter and he has re-created that now almost mythic cataclysm...with the thoroughness the subject demands.
New Yorker

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

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Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for The Johnstown Flood :

1. What was Johnstown like before the flood—how does David McCullough describe its people and surroundings? Consider, also, what the book reveals about class and ethnic divisions.

2. McCullough insists that the Johnstown flood was not a natural disaster. Is he right? Where McCullough lays the blame? The dam was repaired after its purchase in 1879—why were those repairs not sufficient? Should individuals have been held accountable?

3. Could something of the magnitude of the Johnstown Flood happen today? Why...or why not? Or would you say that we have, in fact, experienced similar kinds of man-made disasters in recent years?

4. Is McCullough able—through his use of only language and imagery—to create a vivid picture of what the wall of water would have looked like? Overall, are McCullough's descriptive powers as a writer up to the task?

5. How did the townspeople cope after the flood? Talk about the administrative, governmental measures they undertook the day after the deluge. Were you impressed by their level-headedness or ingenuity?

6. McCullough presents us with a portrait of one of America's most beloved heroines, Clara Barton. Talk about Barton and her work in Johnstown.

7. Talk about some of the individuals McCullough writes about—those who acted bravely and those who acted foolishly. Who most impressed you...and who least impressed you?

8. After reading The Johnstown Flood, what have you learned about the flood and/or the era? What surprised you...or struck you as particularly interesting...or made the greatest impression on you?

9. Have you read other words by David McCullough? If so, how does this one compare?

10. Overall, how would you describe The Johnstown Flood—in terms of clarity of writing, story-telling power, ability to sustain your interest, and exposition of historical events and people?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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