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Enjoyable, but Not McCullough's Best
on April 30, 2014
If David McCullough’s books are mountains, BRAVE COMPANIONS is his rock collection. A compilation of seventeen articles, we’re introduced to history-makers from 1980s England to the days of Jefferson. For a man who made his mark with books so weighty they could be used as architectural cornerstones, writing short pieces would seem confining. And, ultimately, the book’s quality is mixed.
The historical profiles are very good. One gets a sense that McCullough feels a duty to expose history’s underappreciated figures. Alexander von Humboldt, Frederic Remington, Louis Agassiz - all burned brightly in their day and age, but their impacts on the 21th Century are easy to overlook. The author feelingly shows how these men and women embodied their era. It’s everything that we love in historical biography.
A problem arises when the author focuses on living figures. Profiling a contemporary becomes journalism, and it’s not McCullough’s strong suit. His interview with photographer David Plowden is well-written, but mediocre. Same with Miriam Rothschild, a flamboyant heiress pursuing her eclectic interests with tireless fervor.
Some of the articles are useful appendices to earlier McCullough works. We’re provided more insight into the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal, for example. “The Treasure from the Carpentry Shop” is an intriguing postscript to the making of the Brooklyn Bridge - a reminder that history is tangible and valuable even if some artifacts are lost to dust and mothballs.
The book’s strongest component is the more free-form essays that conclude the collection. My favorite, “Washington on the Potomac,” will ignite an appreciation for the nation’s capital.
Altogether, this is a book specifically designed for fans of David McCullough, more of a B-side to the main albums we love so much, but still worth throwing on the turntable.