The bestselling author of Truman and John Adams, David McCullough has written profiles of exceptional men and women past and present who have not only shaped the course of history or changed how we see the world but whose stories express much that is timeless about the human condition.
Here are Alexander von Humboldt, whose epic explorations of South America surpassed the Lewis and Clark expedition; Harriet Beecher Stowe, “the little woman who made the big war”; Frederic Remington; the extraordinary Louis Agassiz of Harvard; Charles and Anne Lindbergh, and their fellow long-distance pilots Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Beryl Markham; Harry Caudill, the Kentucky lawyer who awakened the nation to the tragedy of Appalachia; and David Plowden, a present-day photographer of vanishing America.
Different as they are from each other, McCullough’s subjects have in common a rare vitality and sense of purpose. These are brave companions: to each other, to David McCullough, and to the reader, for with rare storytelling ability McCullough brings us into the times they knew and their very uncommon lives.
Read an Excerpt
Journey to the Top of the World
On a morning in May 1804, there arrived at the White House by Baltimore coach, and in the company of the painter Charles Willson Peale, a visitor from abroad: an aristocratic young German, age thirty-four, a bachelor, occupation scientist and explorer. And like Halley's comet or the white whale or other such natural phenomena dear to the nineteenth century, he would be remembered by all who saw him for the rest of their days.
He had come to pay his respects to the president of the new republic, Thomas Jefferson, a fellow "friend of science," and to tell him something of... see more
Reading Group Guide
Questions and Topics for Discussion
- Aime Bonpland Humbolt, naturalist, geographer, geologist, botanist, linguist, and artist believed in a harmony of nature that included man. Humbolt lived until ninety and saw most of his work become "old hat." What do you think was Humbolt's largest contribution to science? Why did McCullough include him in this collection?
- With little first-hand knowledge and exposure to the institution of slavery, Harriet Beecher Stowe was able to write Uncle Tom's Cabin, a kind of fictional muckracking that inarguably shed more light on the ills of slavery than any widely read publication or discourse of the time. Stowe writes, "The power of fictitious writing, for good and evil, is a thing which ought most seriously to be reflected on. No one can fail to see that in our day it is becoming a very great agency." What agency is Stowe speaking of? Do you agree with this statement? Can you recall a contemporary novel or publication that created a stir to ultimately impact social or political change?
- According to McCullough, Frederick Remington's successful career seems to have happened by chance and good fate. In this vignette, you never truly get a sense of how he was discovered, but it is clear that Remington's honesty and personal and artistic integrity took a back seat to the advancement of his career. Discuss the instances where Re