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.
Despite the diversity of their interests and achievements, the men and women profiled in this collection of 17 essays by bestselling historian McCullough ( The Great Bridge ; The Path Between the Seas ) had a lot in common. Whether scientist (Louis Agassiz, Alexander von Humboldt), engineer (John and Washington Roebling), writer (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Conrad Aiken) or artist (Frederic Remington), each had a special perspective that continues to influence us. A skilled portraitist, McCullough vibrantly captures these viewpoints as he relates their impact on his own thought. Produced over 20 years, the essays unfold seamlessly to reveal the uniqueness of individuals whose "work and interests are inspiriting forces." History Book Club and QPB alternates.
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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Simon & Schuster
November 01, 1992
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Excerpt from Brave Companions by David McCullough
Journey to the Top of the World
On a morning in May 1804, there arrived at the White House by Baltimore coach, and in the company of the painter Charles Willson Peale, a visitor from abroad: an aristocratic young German, age thirty-four, a bachelor, occupation scientist and explorer. And like Halley's comet or the white whale or other such natural phenomena dear to the nineteenth century, he would be remembered by all who saw him for the rest of their days.
He had come to pay his respects to the president of the new republic, Thomas Jefferson, a fellow "friend of science," and to tell him something of his recent journeys through South and Central America. For the next several weeks he did little else but talk, while Jefferson, on their walks about the White House grounds; or James Madison, the secretary of state; or the clever Mrs. Madison; or Albert Gallatin, the secretary of the treasury; or those who came to dine with the president or to do business with him, listened in awe.
The young man, they found, was a naturalist, an astronomer, a geographer, a geologist, a botanist, an authority on Indian antiquities, a linguist, an artist -- an academy unto himself, as the poet Goethe would say. He was at home in any subject. He had read every book. He had seen things almost impossible to imagine. "We all consider him as a very extraordinary man," Gallatin told his wife, speaking apparently for Jefferson's entire official family, "and his travels, which he intends publishing on his return to Europe, will, I think, rank above any other productions of the kind." He also talked at double the speed of anybody Gallatin had ever met before and would shift suddenly from English, which he spoke superbly, into French or Spanish or German, seemingly unaware of what he was doing, but never hesitating for a word, apparently to the very great confusion of his newfound American friends, Jefferson and the Swiss-born Gallatin not included.
Gallatin, a man not easily impressed, found the extent of the visitor's reading and scientific knowledge astonishing. "I was delighted," he said, "and swallowed more information of various kinds in less than two hours than I had for two years past in all I had read and heard."
In a letter to Jefferson written from Philadelphia a few days earlier, the young man had said, "[I would] love to talk to you about a subject that you have treated so ingeniously in your work on Virginia, the teeth of mammoth, which we too discovered in the Andes." Jefferson had responded immediately and most cordially. "A lively desire will be felt generally to receive the information you will be able to give." In the new capital city, Jefferson wrote, there was "nothing curious to attract the observations of a traveler," which was largely so, save, of course, for Jefferson himself. Upon arrival the young man had found the presidential mansion anything but imposing -- crude wooden steps led to the front door, rooms were still unplastered -- and at one point he had inadvertently encountered the chief executive sprawled on the floor, wrestling with his grandchildren.
But there they were in Washington for several days, two of the most remarkable men of their time, fellow spirits if ever there were, talking, talking endlessly, intensely, their conversation having quickly ranged far from fossil teeth.
The young man's name was Humboldt, Alexander von Humboldt -- Friedrich Wilhelm Karl Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt -- or Baron von Humboldt, as he was commonly addressed. He had been born in Berlin on September 14, 1769, the second son of a middle-aged army officer, a minor figure in the court of Frederick the Great, and of a rather solemn, domineering young woman of Huguenot descent who had inherited a sizable fortune. He was a baron in about the way some Southerners are colonels.