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Brave Companions

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From Alexander von Humboldt to Charles and Anne Lindbergh, these are stories of people of great vision and daring whose achievements continue to inspire us today, brilliantly told by master historian David McCullough.

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.

Brave Companions
David McCullough
 
Questions and Topics for Discussion
 
  1. 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?
  2. 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? 
     
  3. 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 Remington was dishonest in his art.  How would you explain the driving force behind his work?
     
  4. Emily Roebling, wife of John A. Roebling, was said to be a women of "unusual executive ability," when Roebling took ill, she was in many ways second-in-command as gatekeeper and communicator between Roebling and the board of trustees.  If Emily Roebling had a position in her own right, imagine what position she would hold and what would her job entail?  What do you think is the role of a "first lady"?  Explain.
  5. The drawings of the Brooklyn Bride were on the verge of disposal until Francis Valentine discovered the collection totaling over ten thousand drawings.  What is the historical context that made those drawings dispensable?  What contributed to a lack of respect for the technological feat that was the Brooklyn Bridge?  The Municipal Archives is currently the rightful owner of the drawings.  In your opinion, who should be the rightful owner of the drawings?  What museum or locale would better serve the public?  Give your rationale.
  6. In "Long Distance Vision" McCullough highlights the writings of pioneer aviators who include, Amelia Earhart, Beryl Markham, and Anne Lindbergh.  What was is about flight that inspired the literary works of these pioneers to great heights?  McCullough writes, "The airplane offered a spiritual pilgrimage in ways other machines never had.  These aviators wrote of being lifted out of themselves by the very act of flight, of becoming part of something infinitely larger than themselves."  Explain what he means by this.  What can be said of space explorations contribution to art?  Why do you think we've had no literary stars among astronauts? 
     
  7. The vignette on Conrad Richter was more a personal elegy for McCullough than a glorification of Richter's work.  What did McCullough intend for the reader to take from this story?  Explain Richter's attachment to the mainland of North America and why it was important to him as a writer?
     
  8. Miriam Rothschild was insatiable passionate about nature and a well decorated and honored scientist.  Rothschild says, "Somehow people have lost the sense of being in a landscape."  Explain what she means by this statement.  Does her sentiment apply today?  What in your daily routine puts you in mindful contact with nature?  How does that connection affect your spiritual wellbeing?
     
  9. David Plowden's creative process was often a never-ending search in trying to capture the most interesting moment.  How would you define his creative process and how does that process serve as a framework in understanding David McCullough's work.  Why do you think he chose to include Plowden in Brave Companions?
  10. What do you make of McCullough's ode to The Capitol in "Washington on the Potomac"?  In it, he begs the question, "Why do so many politicians fell obliged to get away from the city at every chance?  The claim a pressing need to get back to the real America.  To win votes, many of them like also to deride the city and mock its institutions." What contributes to a lack of pride in The Capitol?  What would a politician gain from a disassociation with Washington, D.C.?  Do you agree with McCullough?  Why or why not?

11. In "Extraordinary Times" what events pinpoint 1936 as the turning point for this essay?  McCullough argues that since 1936, the United States has been in a steady social and moral decline.  Do you agree?  Craft your own historical narrative of events following 1936. 

 

12. In "Recommended Itinerary" a convocation speech at Middlebury College in Vermont, McCullough says, "We have not had a president of the United States with a sense of history since John Kennedy".  Do you think this is true of the current administration?  Why?  Why is history important to you?  Is history loosing value in our society?  Explain.

 
Photograph by William B. McCullough

David McCullough has twice received the Pulitzer Prize, for Truman and John Adams, and twice received the National Book Award, for The Path Between the Seas and Mornings on Horseback. His other acclaimed books include The Johnstown Flood, The Great Bridge, Brave Companions, 1776, The Greater JourneyThe American Spirit, and The Wright Brothers. He is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. Visit DavidMcCullough.com.

Cleveland Plain Dealer If you enjoy good stories well told about interesting people and places, you should read this book. You will learn something about history -- and also about good historical writing.

The New York Times Book Review McCullough's portrayals...are models of compression, perspective, and the discriminating use of detail, and of what the author calls "the possibilities for self-expression in writing narrative history."

Dallas Morning News It will come as no surprise to the reader to learn that Mr. McCullough's first ambition was to be a portrait painter. He has supplied us with admirable portraits....All his subjects come alive.

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