WASHINGTON — It's hard to keep up with David McCullough at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.
"I think it's one of the real treasures of the capital city, really of the country," says the 77-year-old historian during a recent interview, excited as a schoolboy as he walks quickly along hallways, up and down stairs, from room to room.
"Here's the painting I wanted to show you," he says, stopping in front of an oil portrait by Abraham Archibald Anderson of a pensive, bow-tied Thomas Edison.
"This has a nice story. Edison came to the World's Fair in Paris in 1889. That was the fair that introduced the Eiffel Tower to the world. He had some 400 of his inventions on display and was a sensation. The crowds followed him everywhere. The electric light was already transforming Paris, let alone the world. So he hid to get away from the paparazzi and the crowds. He stayed with a friend of his (Anderson), and Anderson painted this portrait of him while he was in the studio."
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He points out George Catlin's sketches of American Indians, and a bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. George Healy is a special passion.
McCullough marvels over Healy's portraits of fiery eyed South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun; a semi-casual Union general William Tecumseh Sherman, coat unbuttoned, hat in hand; a youthful take of Lincoln, painted in Illinois the year before he was elected president; a confident Confederate Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard, straight-backed and arms folded.
"He painted this at the time of the attack on Fort Sumter. It ran only a short while after he had painted Lincoln in Illinois," McCullough says of Healy. "The guy is like Forrest Gump. He keeps showing up wherever history is going on."
The artists he discusses share two vital qualities, McCullough says. They all spent at least some time in Paris and they all are in the same business as he is. They are historians, documenting the people, the customs and the conflicts of a given era.
McCullough believes that artists share the glory of the presidents and military leaders he has celebrated, and he honors the creative spirit in his new book, " The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris" (Simon & Schuster, 576 pages, $37.50) . It's a new telling of a classic American experience — living in Paris — inspired by the most dreary of American experiences, the traffic jam. McCullough was stuck a few years ago in Washington's Sheridan Circle, where he had little better to do than stare at the equestrian statue of the circle's namesake, Union general Philip Sheridan.
"I was looking over at him and wondering how many people who drive around this circle every day had any idea who he was," McCullough said. "And at the same time I was thinking about that, Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue' was playing on the radio.
"And I thought, 'Who is the more important person in American history. Who is the more important expression of who we are?' " he says. "And 'Rhapsody in Blue' started me thinking about Gershwin's 'An American in Paris.' "
McCullough won a Pulitzer Prize a decade ago for his biography of John Adams and his new book is meant to validate Adams' belief that his generation should study war and politics so that the grandchildren can pursue the fine arts. "The Greater Journey" begins decades after the Revolutionary War has been won, in the 1830s. McCullough ends in the early 20th century and doesn't bother with the stories he reasons that readers already know: Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin in the 1780s; Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald in the 1920s.
Instead, he tells of novelist James Fenimore Cooper befriending painter and future inventor Samuel Morse, Catlin arriving with an entourage of Iowa Indians, the parallel lives of painters Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent, who stayed and worked in Paris around the same time but hardly knew each other.
He frames the narrative, in part, around visits by author and lecturer Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. He is first seen as a medical student eager for distance from his Puritan father, then 50 years later, as a widower and international celebrity, paying an unannounced visit to Louis Pasteur so he could "look in his face and take his hand, nothing more." Midway through the book, McCullough devotes a long section to the German siege of Paris in 1870-71 and quotes extensively from rarely seen journals by the U.S. ambassador to France, Elihu Washburne.
"That's one of the biggest pleasures — that I learned so much. I love it when I'm learning something. That for me is the pull of the work," he says. "I had a terrific time with every book I've written, but this is the best time I've ever had. I've had more pure joy in writing this book. Structurally, the form is my own creation. I cast it with my own characters. There's no obligatory group I had to write about, no narrative chronology I had to follow."
McCullough is a million-selling author, a two-time Pulitzer-winning biographer of presidents John Adams and Harry Truman, and perhaps the most recognized historian alive today, with his white hair, jowls and fatherly baritone. But as a boy, and as a young man, he wanted to paint. At age 10, he was dazzled when his art teacher demonstrated the two-point perspective on the blackboard. In college, he worked at being a portrait artist.
If artists are really historians, then historians, ideally, are artists, he says. He sees himself as a kind of painter, "drawn to the human subject," he once wrote, "to people and their stories."