I’ve been rereading an older book by David McCullough called Brave Companions: Portraits in History, and recommend it highly. The title tells you what the book is about, profiles of outstanding people in history who performed marvelous deeds of service to the human race, sometimes to the peril of their lives. As a writer, what keeps me going back to Brave Companions is McCullough’s artful use of meticulous, carefully chosen detail to show us as exactly as he can what people like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Remington were really like. Sometimes the detail is uncomfortably accurate, like Mrs. Stowe’s love for her huge, unwieldy husband who believed in ghosts and Frederick Remington’s love for the west, a place he loved to go and paint, but only for so long.
But the most masterful piece of historical description in the book is not that of a person but a city: Washington D.C., where the author lived and worked. It is Chapter Fourteen, “Washington on the Potomac.” McCullough uses as a focal point his own exploration of this fabulous city by walking wherever he could and describing what he saw. It is a comprehensive, encyclopedic, charming picture of the city he paints, enlivened by those irresistible details. The city is very much a companion to the author and reader. I lived in New York State for a long time and have been to Washington twice. Yet the next time I go, my guide-book will be Chapter Fourteen. How much I’ve missed in my last two trips! How much there is remaining for me to see!
“Washington on the Potomac” filled me with pride in our country and the greatness of our capital city, which the author believes rivals European cities. And at this time when we’ve all come through another horrible political campaign with massive sums spent on tasteless advertising and the press checking every sentence obsessively to make sure the truth is being told, and the constant twittering, I realize that the sum of Washington’s parts is far greater than the irrelevant politicians who live and work there.