David McCullough couldn’t find what he wanted on the bookshelf.
It was the 1960s, maybe ’64 or ’65. And Mr. McCullough was living in Washington, D.C.
Mr. McCullough is not from D.C., mind you. No, he’s a Pittsburgh man. Grew up riding the streetcars, inhaling the soot from the steel mills.
He’d gone to Yale, studied English under Thornton Wilder. And Mr. McCullough had learned something about bookshelves from Mr. Wilder. The reason Mr. Wilder wrote – as the Our Town author told The Paris Review – was “to discover on my shelf a new book that I would enjoy reading.”
And in ’64 or ’65, David McCullough could find no such book on the shelf.
You see, on a Saturday visit to the Library of Congress, Mr. McCullough had come across some loose photographs of the devastating 1889 Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood. Johnstown was only 70 miles east of Pittsburgh. And Mr. McCullough wanted to know more. Much more. But the only books on the flood were so-so at best, potboiler at worst.
Now, Mr. McCullough hadn’t written any books at that point. He’d written articles for Sports Illustrated. Was currently writing articles for American Heritage.
But Mr. McCullough had seen that what he wanted didn’t exist in the world. So, he decided to make it.
And in 1968, after three years of research on the flood and evenings at his secondhand Royal Standard typewriter (the one he still uses today), Mr. McCullough came out with his first book. It was the book that would launch his career. And it was the book on the Johnstown flood that he and, as it turns out, many others would enjoy reading.
All because Mr. McCullough couldn’t find what he wanted on the shelf. And decided to do something about it.