Typewriter and quote of the moment: David McCullough

I bought my Royal Standard typewriter in 1965. It was secondhand. I have written everything I’ve ever had published on it, and there is nothing wrong with it.

Giambarba photo of historian David McCullough and his typewriter

  • Pulitzer-winner David McCullough, defending his refusal to write on a computer during a Dallas book-signing.

(Found in Dallas Morning News, Alan Peppard, “Salutations, Year in Review, Local Celebrities,” December 17, 2007, page 1E, in graphic on page 4E)

More from McCullough on typing, and on writing, reading and understanding history, below the fold.

From Giambarba’s 1981 interview with McCullough:

The real fun of what I do is in doing it. The reviews are gratifying and sometimes thrilling, the awards, the wonderful letters from readers…all that is terrific. I dearly love it and need it, but the real fun is in going out there and doing it. My favorite book is always the book I’m working on.

I’m a pretty fast typist. I work on the typewriter. I compose on the typewriter and that comes from having worked on magazines. I rewrite. If I can produce two typewritten pages that I’m satisfied with in a morning, then I’m moving along just fine. Four in a day. I’m out there all day. In my work it isn’t all writing. I’m reading. I’m checking notes. Mulling. I do a lot of mulling. Looking up quotations or facts or whatever…it’s not just writing. When I’m really working full out, four good pages a day is what I aim for.

I rewrite as I go along. I don’t write a first draft, so called, and then rewrite the whole book. I could never do that. I’m building as I go along. So when the chapter is finished — except for later on when I might come back and edit when it’s been retyped — I feel that’s it.

I work from an outline, but I keep revising it as I go along. I’ve never gone to a publisher with an outline. My outline is strictly for me. It’s a guide, mainly to show where you begin and where you end and sort of how it’s going to be. But it’s always changing, mainly because it picks up a life of its own. And you change as you go along. Take a book of my kind, on which you’re spending four years. Well, four years later, you’re not the same person you were four years before. And, more obviously, your knowledge of the subject has become much deeper: there’s more range and sensitivity to what your mind is able to grasp in all this. So that, very often, I’ve had the experience that when I’m nearing the end of the book, I realize that the first part — that I wrote in the beginning — is not quite the same tone of voice.

The real insights start to happen for me after I’m well into it because you begin to make connections which you didn’t make before. You begin to see what you didn’t see then. Conrad said, “Writing is seeing.” He was right. It is. My great feeling is that you have to see a subject in context. If I have an operational word it’s context. I try to see the story in the context of a lot of things that other writers on the subject have not bothered with.

A subject like the Panama Canal, let’s say. My effort there was to see that event, that achievement, in the context of politics, of history, of medicine, the geology of Central America, the advent of certain technology in the late nineteenth century which was changing what could be accomplished, what could be proposed…to see it in the context of our North American view of Latin America — all those. Finance — a French company went broke; it was the biggest financial collapse in the history of the world up to that point. So that meant that I had to know an awful lot about how that came about and why that was. That same story unleashed the first serious outbreak of anti-Semitism in France. So I had to understand what that was all about. It eventually let to the Dreyfus affair.

In the Roosevelt book, I’ve tried to see that individual, not just in the context of his family who were the closest to him and most important to him, but also to see the family in the context of a particular social class in which they were prominent. And, then, to see that social class in the context of New York City, circa 1970 to 1885, 1886, and so forth. To see their income in the context of the times, for example. Not to look at those dollar figures that people quote and say, “That’s what it was.” You have to ask “What does it mean in scale?”

I think the training that I had, the experience I had in drawing and painting has helped me enormously in this work. Because one thing you do learn about is scale. And proportions. To see events and facts, if you will, or personalities, in proportion. Teddy Roosevelt says, “My inheritance meant that I would have an income of $8,000 a year. That made me comfortable, but not rich.” Every biographer who has ever written about Roosevelt has taken that statement and just played it back at face value. So I thought, “Well, what did that mean in his time?” And I found that what it meant, and it’s an astonishing thing to discover, is that his income was more than that of the president of Harvard, who earned $5,000.

History is the story of people. The events are the people…unless it’s a natural event. Krakatoa goes off. That really has nothing to do with people except that it has a lot to do with how people responded to it, how they felt about it, who got killed, and so forth. Very few professional historians are, at heart, interested in people. And that’s one of the reasons that so much that is written in the way of history, and in the teaching of history, is boring. I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and said, “Oh, if history had only been taught like that when I was in school, I would have become a history major.”

(“History is the Story of People. Not Events,” interview and photography by Paul Giambarba from CapeArts 2, 1981)

Historian David McCullough at his typewriter, circa 2002 (AP photo)


2 Responses to Typewriter and quote of the moment: David McCullough

  1. Ed Darrell says:


    You mean like this?

    Or like this, on August 12, 1954?

    Thanks! I’m particularly fond of As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and “Delta Autumn,” myself.


  2. bernarda says:

    Another writer who still uses a typewriter is David Mamet. I looked for a picture of him with his typewriter, but didn’t find one. However, I found this with William Faulkner.


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