REVIEWED: The American Spirit

a spirit

The American Spirit by David McCullough (Nonfiction/Collected Speeches, 2017).

The respected winner of a fistful of major history awards, David McCullough is also something of a familiar voice from his many appearances on Public television. He’s in demand as a commemorative speaker, as well, and this relatively brief (173-page) collection of speeches he has delivered over the years amply demonstrates why this is so. The fifteen talks included here are presented in chronological order and most are commencement addresses at various universities, yet they’re bookended by addresses delivered at the US Capitol Building (a 1989 speech to a joint session of Congress that marked the 200th Anniversary of that body and one from 2016 commemorating the building itself. Predictably, each speech examines a different aspect of the nation’s history and how it relates to the nation today, and each is enlivened with artwork and/or photographs of notable people, events and locations relevant to that particular talk.

McCullough is a compelling speaker and writer, his insights and opinions producing stirring yet honest appraisals of our past and present. His work (here and elsewhere) gives the lie to any who find the study of history necessarily dry or (even worse) unimportant. The man is a born storyteller, and a damned good one.

The first of these, “Simon Willard’s Clock” employs the story of the mechanical clock that has graced what today is the capitol’s Statuary Hall wince the 1830s  and of the man who crafted it as a framing device for an account of memorable incidents the device has borne witness to. Moreover, he uses this speech to lament that too many interesting and pivotal people, events and institutions connected to Congress still lack truly worthwhile book-length recounting.

At the other end of the book, “A Building Like No Other” provides more asides and insights into what the Capitol meant to various Senators and Representatives who held sway there (for better or worse). But he also focuses on those who physically brought the structure itself into existence. And in a nod to today’s atmosphere of suspicion toward “outsiders,” he makes the point this “temple of liberty” was designed and build largely by immigrants, with outright slaves doing a good portion of the physical labor. Of special note (for my money, at least) was the tale of Italian artist Constantino Brumidi painting the beautiful frescoes on the inside of the dome from scaffolding (and very nearly falling to his death in the process). It is very human stories like that that brings history to life and McCullough excels in sprinkling them throughout all his speeches.

In between, he brings the individual histories of the places he visits to similar life. The stories of where various institutions of higher learning (large and small alike) came from, and of the people who dedicated their lives to found them and see that they grew are at once informative and surprisingly entertaining. The twin recurrent themes in these addresses concern the value of having a truly educated population and of the responsibilities (to themselves and to the country as a whole) the graduates he’s speaking to face.

Likewise, his talk at Jefferson’s home (on the occasion of a naturalization ceremony for 62 new American citizens) provides a fresh and heartfelt (and honest) look at the great, conflicted man’s spirit. “The First to Reside Here” marked the 200th anniversary of the White House and centers on John and Abigail Adams, and the still-half-incomplete conditions they endured there. “History Lost and Found” centers on the often overlooked little building called Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia–and the big things that happened there. In “The Summons to Serve,” McCullough speaks in Dallas, fifty years after the assassination of John Kennedy–rather than dwelling on the President’s death, he quotes the man’s best and most important speeches in the course of detailing his spirit.

It’s plain from this book (and in the entire body of his work) that McCullough is a true and thoughtful Patriot. he loves and admires what’s good about the country. He’s not blind to its problems or shortcomings–no mindless flag-waver he. But he insists on being hopeful, overall–helped along by a broad view of history. And if his take on what the true Spirit of America can and should be (and more often than not is), is at all accurate, there’s every reason to be proud–and to struggle as the best of those who came before us did and make things better.


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