Portraits in History
Lyrical historical homages--many drawn from magazines such as Life, etc., to both people and events, by eminent historian McCullough (Mornings on Horseback, 1981, etc.). The destinies of McCullough's human subjects unfold from their character and landscape. Enlivened here by the author's lyrical prose, these men and women embody the pioneering spirit in a multitude of pursuits: science (Alexander von Humboldt, Louis Agassiz, Miriam Rothschild); construction (a dual portrait of John Augustus Roebling and Washington Roebling); aviation-writing (a group portrait of Antoine de Saint ExupÃ‰ry, Beryl Markham, Charles and Anne Lindbergh). Not all the pieces, though, encapsulate historical figures: there's an essay on world history since 1936, a speech celebrating the bicentennial of Congress, and a personal reminiscence of novelist Conrad Richter. The quality, meanwhile, varies: Two articles on the Brooklyn Bridge are fascinating footnotes to McCullough's The Great Bridge (1972), but a piece on idiosyncratic naturalist Miriam Rothschild ("My microscope is my marijuana") begs for more development, while one on the relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and Marquis de Morés even rambles. Other subjects are Harriet Beecher Stowe, as unwitting author of the abolitionist manifesto; Frederic Remington, as self-taught artist of the Wild West; Harry Monroe Caudill, as crusader against strip-mining interests; David Plowden, as photographer-historian of vanishing aspects of America; and the history-conscious city of Washington, D.C. Shortcomings apart, a fine gallery of diverse and yet subtly connected companion pieces ("no subject is ever one subject," says McCullough) that serve their subjects well.