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 (twice); Pulitzer Prize (twice); Presidential Medal of Honor
Currently—lives in Boston, Massachusetts

David McCullough is an American author, narrator, historian, and lecturer. He is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian award.

McCullough's first book was The Johnstown Flood (1968), and he has since written nine more on such topics as Harry S. Truman, John Adams, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Wright Brothers. McCullough has also narrated numerous documentaries, such as The Civil War by Ken Burns, as well as the 2003 film Seabiscuit, and he hosted American Experience for twelve years.

McCullough's two Pulitzer Prize-winning books, Truman (1992) and John Adams (2001), have been adapted by HBO into a TV film and a mini-series, respectively. McCullough's history, The Greater Journey (2011), is about Americans in Paris from the 1830s to the 1900s.

Youth and education
McCullough was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of Ruth (nee Rankin) and Christian Hax McCullough. He is of Scots-Irish descent. He was educated at Linden Avenue Grade School and Shady Side Academy, in his hometown of Pittsburgh.

One of four sons, McCullough had a "marvelous" childhood with a wide range of interests, ranging from sports to drawing cartoons. McCullough's parents and his grandmother, who read to him often, introduced him to books at an early age. His parents often talked about history, a topic he says should be discussed more often. McCullough "loved school, every day"; he contemplated many career choices, everything from architect, actor, painter, writer, to lawyer, and contemplated attending medical school for a time.

McCullough attended Yale University, graduating with honors in English in 1955. He considered it a "privilege" to study at Yale because of faculty members such as John O'Hara, John Hersey, Robert Penn Warren, and Brendan Gill. He occasionally ate lunch with the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder. Wilder, says McCullough, taught him that a competent writer maintains "an air of freedom" in the storyline, so that a reader will not anticipate the outcome, even if the book is non-fiction.

While at Yale, he became a member of Skull and Bones. He served apprenticeships at Time, Life, the United States Information Agency, and American Heritage, where he enjoyed research. "Once I discovered the endless fascination of doing the research and of doing the writing, I knew I had found what I wanted to do in my life."

Early career
After graduation, McCullough moved to New York City, where Sports Illustrated hired him as a trainee. He later worked as an editor and writer for the United States Information Agency in Washington, D.C. After working for twelve years, including a position at American Heritage, in editing and writing, McCullough reached a point where he believed he "could attempt something" on his own.

Although he had no idea that he would end up writing history, McCullough "stumbled upon" a story that he felt was "powerful, exciting, and very worth telling." After three years of writing in his spare time (while still at American Heritage), he published The Johnstown Flood. The book, a chronicle of one of the worst flood disasters in United States history, was published in 1968 to high praise. John Leonard, of the New York Times, said of McCullough, "We have no better social historian." Despite precarious financial times, but encouraged by his wife Rosalee, he decided to become a full-time writer.

People often ask me if I'm working on a book. That's not how I feel. I feel like I work in a book. It's like putting myself under a spell. And this spell, if you will, is so real to me that if I have to leave my work for a few days, I have to work myself back into the spell when I come back. It's almost like hypnosis.

After the success of The Johnstown Flood, two new publishers offered him contracts, one to write about the Great Chicago Fire and another about the San Francisco earthquake. Not wishing to become "Bad News McCullough," he decided to write about people who "were not always foolish and inept or irresponsible." He also remembered Thornton Wilder telling told him that "he got an idea for a book or a play when he wanted to learn about something. Then, he'd check to see if anybody had already done it, and if they hadn't, he'd do it."

McCullough decided to write a history of the Brooklyn Bridge, which he had walked across many times.

To me history ought to be a source of pleasure. It isn't just part of our civic responsibility. To me it's an enlargement of the experience of being alive, just the way literature or art or music is.

Published in 1972, critics hailed The Great Bridge (1972) as "the definitive book on the event."

Five years later, The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal was released, gaining McCullough widespread recognition. The book won the National Book Award in History, the Samuel Eliot Morison Award, the Francis Parkman Prize, and the Cornelius Ryan Award.

In 1977, McCullough traveled to the White House to advise Jimmy Carter and the United States Senate on the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, which would give Panama control of the Canal. Carter later said that the treaties, which were agreed upon to hand over ownership of the Canal to Panama, would not have passed, had it not been for the book.

Other works
McCullough's fourth work was his first biography, reinforcing his belief that "history is the story of people." Released in 1981, Mornings on Horseback tells the story of seventeen years in the life of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States. The work ranged from 1869, when Roosevelt was ten years old, to 1886, and tells of a "life intensely lived." The book won McCullough's second National Book Award, his first Los Angeles Times Prize for Biography, and New York Public Library Literary Lion Award.

Next, he published Brave Companions, a collection of essays written over a period of twenty years. Essays cover historical or literary figures such as Louis Agassiz, Alexander von Humboldt, John and Washington Roebling, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Conrad Aiken, and Frederic Remington.

McCullough's next book, his second biography, Truman (1993), was about the 33rd president. That book won McCullough his first Pulitzer Prize for "Best Biography or Autobiography" and his second Francis Parkman Prize. Two years later, the book was adapted as an HBO television movie by the same name, with Gary Sinise in the role of Truman. Commenting on his subject, Truman said

I think it's important to remember that these men are not perfect. If they were marble gods, what they did wouldn't be so admirable. The more we see the founders as humans the more we can understand them.

Seven years later, in 2001, McCullough published his third biography John Adams, about the life of the second US president. One of the fastest-selling non-fiction books in history, it won McCullough's second Pulitzer Prize for "Best Biography or Autobiography." He intended the book to be about the two founding fathers and back-to-back presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, but he became so intrigued with Adams that he decided to focus on Adams alone. In 2008 HBO adapted the book as a seven-part miniseries by the same name, with Paul Giamatti in the title role.

Published in 2005, McCullough's 1776, tells the story of the founding year of the US, focusing on George Washington, the amateur army, and other struggles for independence. Because of McCullough's popularity, its initial printing was 1.25 million copies, many more than the average history book. Upon its release, the book became a number-one bestseller in the US.

McCullough considered writing a sequel to 1776 but instead wrote about Americans in Paris between 1830 and 1900. The Greater Journey, published in 2011, covers 19th-century Americans, including Mark Twain and Samuel Morse, who migrated to Paris and went on to achieve importance in culture or innovation. Others included in the book are Elihu Washburne, the American ambassador to France during the Franco-Prussian War, and Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in the US.

Personal life
David McCullough lives in Boston, Massachusetts, and is married to Rosalee Barnes McCullough, whom he met at age 17 in Pittsburgh. The couple has five children and nineteen grandchildren. He enjoys sports, history and art, including watercolor and portrait painting.

His son David Jr., an English teacher at Wellesley High School in the Boston suburbs, achieved sudden fame in 2012 with his commencement speech. He told graduating students, "you're not special" nine times, and his speech went viral on YouTube. (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 9/2/2015.)

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:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

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.)

top of page (summary)

Site by BOOM Boom Supercreative

LitLovers © 2015