In one of his lesser known — but still exquisite — books, first published in 1992, David McCullough writes about painter Frederic Remington, an artist who captured the last glimmers of the twilight of the American West of the 19th century, a place of charging horses and bucking broncos and dusty trails. Remington was a big man, a man with passionate appetites, and he tackled his art the same way he would dive into a plate of roast beef: with galloping gusto.
Musing about his profession, Remington noted, "I have always wanted to be able to paint running horses so you would feel the details and not see them."
The line comes in McCullough's "Brave Companions," and it is an apt description of McCullough's own work as well, a rich, lively collection that includes best-sellers such as "Truman" (1992), "John Adams" (2001) and "1776" (2005), along with his new book, "The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris" (Simon & Schuster).
He wants us to feel, not just watch. He wants us to know more than just the dry facts of our country's history; he wants us to share the vivid emotional experience of those who inhabited it. Life is love and conflict and drama and change, not just names and dates. McCullough reminds us of that with each shimmering, resonant page he writes.
That's what makes his work so appealing, even to people who otherwise might cringe and leap away from a history book the way one of Remington's horses rears back from a rattler.
Across the course of a long and distinguished career that has included two Pulitzer Prizes and the Chicago Tribune Literary Prize, McCullough has established himself as America's pre-eminent popular historian. The old saw about never letting the facts get in the way of a good story has no relevance in McCullough's universe; he gives us the facts and a good story, to boot. There is no conflict between truth and a crackerjack narrative.
"The Greater Journey" is a group biography of the Americans who, between 1830 and 1900, made the perilous crossing to Europe to dip their cups into the brightest, bubbliest, most refreshing stream that then flowed: Paris.
It may have been, as McCullough writes, "a dark labyrinth of narrow, filthy, foul-smelling streets running off every which way," a medieval city marked by "ancient stone buildings, some black with centuries of smoke and soot," but it was something else, too: the center of the world. It was the place where the very best in art, architecture, literature, science, philosophy, landscape design, sculpture and medicine thrived.
Among the intrepid Americans who made the trip were Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary Cassatt, Margaret Fuller, Samuel Morse, James Fenimore Cooper, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. and Emma Willard. Painters, writers, educators, dreamers.
So why did our nation's foremost historian turn his gaze away from America?
Simple, McCullough said in a recent interview: to see America with new eyes.
"While my setting is Paris, you also learn, through the weave of images and characters, what was happening in the United States," he said.
The United States was still a young country in the 19th century, the world's freewheeling, exuberant kid sister. Paris was the accomplished older brother, supremely confident in his knowledge and thus always willing to teach. "The Greater Journey" is the exhilarating story of what Americans learned.
McCullough may write like a dream, but if he never picked up a pen again he would still be an American treasure because of his voice — a deep, resonant one with which he has narrated TV series such as "The Civil War" (1990) and almost two dozen installments of "American Experience," as well as the film "Seabiscuit" (2003). McCullough's is the go-to voice for projects that need a solid, four-square narrative heft that also twinkles with a hint of whimsy, of rueful kinship with the ambition and occasional folly that are endemic to the human condition.
In the end, only the ambition really matters, McCullough said. It is the point of "The Greater Journey," he added, identifying the book's spirit as one of "reaching a little higher. Not in competition with anyone — but for enjoyment, for the thrill of self-expression and of making the world a little better. These lives of accomplishment were affirmations."
And they remind us of what dwells on the other side of history's slow, stolid accumulation of ironclad fact: human beings. People who challenged themselves daily, who worked and planned, who lusted and struggled — and who dreamed of Paris.
David McCullough will speak at 6 p.m. Monday in the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium at the Harold Washington Public Library, 400 S. State St. The event is free.
Twitter @litkellCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times