What made McCullough so different from his critics is that he maintained affection and charity towards the United States and its peoples despite its flawed history. McCullough had the courage to admire American civilization and its virtues. He understood that history is not always good versus evil or in linear directions. History is complicated. McCullough understood this in ways that much of academic history does not.
A friend of mine who works in New Testament observed to me once that if you attend a typical session on Paul at AAR/SBL you’ll hear paper after paper by Pauline scholars who despise St Paul. That’s always struck me as being horribly sad both for the scholars themselves and for their readers (not that they usually have that many) and their students.
There’s something dark about spending so much of your time attempting to master works written by someone you hate. I just can’t see how such a life possibly forms you to be a person marked by compassion, patience, or any number of other important virtues.
But I think it also probably makes you a lousy teacher. The best teachers I had were the ones who reveled in their subjects; when they began to teach they almost seemed to be caught up into something we didn’t yet understand, but that might one day become accessible to us, given enough work and patience.
One of my favorite academic memories is when my Reformation history prof walked into our lecture hall and realized she’d left her notes in her office, which was in a building several blocks away. She looked into her briefcase one more time to see if they were there, sighed, looked at us, and shrugged her shoulders. Then she said, “Eh, I know all this stuff anyway. Let’s get started.” And for the next 75 minutes she lectured without notes on the Ars Moriendi, late medieval liturgical and sacramental beliefs, and the ways in which the decadence and corruption of the Roman church created a crisis of trust and authority, which set the stage for Luther—and here I am 14 years later, still remembering the outline of that lecture and able to recount it here. I wish everyone could have the experience of being taught by someone like that and hearing a lecture like that. But you never will if your teachers hate their subjects.
I have to think about this as I study some of the African history that so fascinates me. I did a 100 page thesis on Kwame Nkrumah as part of my undergrad degree (my thesis adviser was… intense, and I loved him for it). If I’d done a PhD in History, as I once planned on doing, I would’ve done something on Nkrumah.
In many ways Nkrumah was a deeply unpleasant man. He was incredibly vain. He could be preening and exacting and unreasonable in his personal relationships. He enacted a one-party state in Ghana. He imprisoned some of his political rivals—although relative to what the US-backed military governments that defined the second generation of African independence did, Nkrumah’s acts were fairly tame. Even so, there is a lot to dislike about Nkrumah. And you can find books by people who hated the man. But you know what? They’re not very good.
The far better books will help you understand where that vanity came from—he was a precocious political talent who accomplished an enormous amount at a very young age. They’ll help you see why a one-party system made sense to him, even if it was still a wrong choice. (Kenneth Kaunda is super helpful on that, by the way. I may post an excerpt from his discussion of that issue.) It comes back to the phrase Eric Hutchinson used to talk about John Williams: To read without pleasure is stupid. Why study someone if you don’t actually enjoy reading about them or spending time in their head? Life’s too short, etc etc. You don’t have to excuse their evils. But you should be able to look at the person with some degree of empathy. And as I studied Nkrumah what I found was a fascinating man, in many ways a great man, but also a man beset by crippling sins and, what’s more, by vicious colonial powers intent on undermining him as he tried to lead Ghana into a non-aligned, independent future. He was a great man and a tragic man and I couldn’t help loving him, even as I saw his significant flaws.
There’s a moving passage in Jayber Crow where Jayber tries to understand how Mattie Chatham, the Beatrice figure to Jayber’s Dante, could make such a horrible marriage to such an awful man, the novel’s villain, Troy Chatham.
It would have been easier if I could have thought that Mattie was willfully foolish or silly, in some way deserving of him. But this was impossible for me to think, given any number of things I knew. I had to propose to myself that she had seen something in him that I had not seen, and then I had to wonder what. I thought, and hoped, it was more than this undeniable physical attractiveness, though that might have been enough. I admitted, reluctantly, that he had energy; he was not lazy. With greater reluctance, I required myself to admit that he was not stupid. He had, in fact, plenty of intelligence—plenty more than he ever used, in fact. And then I thought, ‘Suppose there is somewhere in him, after all, some tenderness that he has shown only to her.’ And then perhaps I could imagine a little how it was. Suppose you were a young woman, offering yourself to the life of this world, to the use of the life force, as young women do. Suppose this young man, excellently handsome and graceful and strong, out of his unquestioning self-confidence, turned toward you with tenderness, with need, such as he had shown to no one else. Suppose that you could not know that you yourself had made the tenderness in him that you felt. Suppose that within his tenderness you felt rewarded, cherished, and safe. Do you see?
Troy was a bad man. And Mattie’s choice to marry him led to tragedy. But even so it was important to Jayber that he understand Troy as charitably as he could. And so the above passage.
I heard a counselor say once that people always make sense if you get to know them. Probably that’s a little overstated, but I think in the vast majority of cases it’s right. And particularly if you’re a historian, it seems to me your job is to get to know your subject. But you’ll find that very hard to do if you actively hate them.
McCullough, it seems to me, offers a far better way: You can still be frank about your subject’s failures. (Read his book on John Adams!) But you don’t have to hate them. And you can even try to understand why they failed in the ways they did, why they behaved in the vicious ways they did.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).