Brave Companions: Portraits In History, by David McCullough
As is frequently the case with historians, books are made out of the articles that authors have published elsewhere. These feasts on scraps are especially notable with posthumous works, as authors like C.S. Lewis and others have had a substantial portion of their writings made up of books made up of smaller texts that are fit together. As far as I know, at least, midbrow historian David McCullough is still alive, but he is certainly getting older at this point and this sort of books makes sense from the perspective of wanting fresh material that will be new to most people. In reading this book I was particularly struck with the approach that the author had with his subject matter, most of which is made up of accounts of people whom history has largely forgotten for one reason or another. Despite the fact that some very harsh things could be said about many of these historical subjects, but the author chooses to focus on their achievements and on why they are worth remembering. This is perhaps not very popular within the contemporary guild of historians, but there is something refreshing about focusing on the positive even as the author acknowledges that another side exists.
This book is between 200 and 250 pages long and is divided into five parts. The book begins with an introduction. After that the author provides articles relating to phenomena (I), including a journey to the top of the world by Humboldt and his companion (1), the American adventure of the forgotten Louis Agassiz (2), and the unexpected life and career of Mrs. Stowe (3). The author then looks at “the real west” (II) with a discussion of the glory dates of Medora in the Dakota territory (4) and the paintings and life of Remington (5). The third part of the look explores pioneers (III), such as the steam road to El Dorado (6), a look at builders (7), the treasure from the carpentry shop (8), and a look at long-distance vision (9). The next part of the book contains various figures from history in their context (IV), such as the crossing of the blue mountain (10), the lonely war of what the author considers to be a good angry man (11), Miriam Rothschild and her expertise in insects (12), and an account of David Plowden (13). The firth part of the book then ends the volume with a discussion of Washington DC (14), extraordinary times (15), a recommended itinerary (16), and Simon Willard’s clock in Congress (17), as well as index.
It is unclear why exactly the title of brave companions makes a fitting title for the book as a whole. There are very few chapters in this book that deal specifically with brave companions. Perhaps the title “Portraits In History” would have been too ponderous and heavy, but it would have better explained the contents of the work. Be that as it may, the book is an interesting one in examining the shorter material of the author that has not been published previously in book form. As someone who does not read the articles of the author, I have to say that this book revealed to me a lot of information about the author and his worldview and political perspective. As one might figure to be the case, I found the author’s political perspective rather unappealing. Yet at the same time I could understand why it is that many contemporary historians who are far more radical than the author will find the author’s perspective troublesome and irritating as well. And that is something to find interesting even if the author does not wish to dwell on this subject to any great degree, even if that would be of interest to the reader.