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Brave Companions: A book review by Bob Morris

Brave Companions: Portraits in History
David McCullough
Simon & Schuster (1991)

The consummate master of “painting with words”

I read this book when it was first published and have since read and reviewed most of
David McCullough’s other published works. For whatever reasons, I did not review Brave Companions until now after re-reading it during a recent trip. Parts I-V consist of thirteen essays that focus on historical figures of special interest and value to McCullough. Each is a “profile in courage,” a phrase reputed to be created by Ted Sorensen when collaborating with John F. Kennedy on that eponymous volume.

According to McCullough, when he was an English major at Yale, “I wanted to be a portrait painter.” That is a significant acknowledgement, given the fact that he has since created so many portraits of famous people that include John Adams, Harry Truman, and Theodore Roosevelt. HBO adapted John Adams as a seven-part mini-series by the same name. The DVD version of that series includes the biographical documentary, David McCullough: Painting with Words. Each historical context is best viewed as a “landscape,” rich in detail as well as significance.

That is certainly true of various brave companions who share a prevailing, unifying theme: “the part courage plays,” a quality that is communicable. “It was not Humboldt alone, but he and Bonpland together, who set off on the Orinoco; not one builder who went into the Panama jungle in the 1850s, but a force of many. She flew as her husband’s copilot across thousands of unchartered miles, remembers Anne Lindbergh, knowing sheer terror much of the time.”

Some of the most interesting as well as most valuable material is provided in Part V, comprised of the last three chapters. “In the final section, I’ve included two speeches written for such different  occasions as a college commencement in Vermont and the ceremonies celebrating the bicentennial of the United States Congress.”  Because David McCullough has such an eclectic curiosity, it should come as no surprise that it takes him far and wide as well as deeply within a diverse range of subjects.

“Yet,” as he points out, ” I find my subjects are more closely connected than I knew. Reading these essays again, selecting and arranging them as a book, I am struck by how much they have in common…These, as I have said, are brave companions, the best of companions.”

 

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