Brave Companions


David McCullough




Date Reviewed:

April 16, 2021

rave Companions is a collection of essays written by David McCullough during the late 1960s and early 1970s. McCullough apparently is allowed to write about whatever interests him, and since he is interested in many things, the essays cover a wide range of topics. The book informs us that McCullough originally imagining himself a portrait painter, but instead he became a writer and paints his portraits with words instead.

The first essay introduces us to Alexander von Humbolt. I had heard of the name before, but I could not have told you what he was famous for. Humbolt was an 18th century explorer of Central and South America, he covered an incredible amount of terrain that was mostly uncharted wilderness. He paddled up the Orinoco River into the Amazon basin, collecting specimens as he went, often the first European to see these species. Somehow, Humbolt collected thousands of samples, he had crates of specimens, a whole museum worth of interesting artifacts to classify. In my head, I imagine those classic Victorian expeditions where 100 porters haul tea sets and dining tables into the jungle. (Humbolt was a Prussian, not British). I wonder how all those collections were transported home for future study. Humbolt roamed for 5 years (1799 - 1804 ) in Latin America. He and his companions hiked over the Andes and into Peru. The famous Peruvian current, the Humbolt current, is named after him. In 1802, Humbolt and his companions attempted to climb Chimborazo in Ecuador, then thought to be the tallest mountain in the world at 20651 feet. They stopped short of the summit, reaching 19268 feet, but it was higher than any European had ever been, including higher than the highest hot air balloon.

The second essay describes Louis Agassiz, a 19th century scientist famous for classification of fish, later, he switched to glaciology and became the first person to suggest that at one point in Earth's history, great sheets of ice had covered much of the earth. Agassiz was a popular lecturer, drawing crowds of 3000 to hear him speak (he was a Harvard professor).

An essay about Harriett Beecher Stowe describes how her 1851 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin fueled the abolitionist movement because it depicted the humanity of blacks; recognizing that they are just like white people. When Lincoln met Stowe, he was quoted as saying: "So this is the little woman who made this big war."

The article on Theodore Roosevelt describes how he came to North Dakota and toughened himself up. The ranch failed, but Roosevelt did become a robust "rough rider". Roosevelt's written descriptions of the American West did a lot to popularize our vision of the frontier. McCullough later wrote Mornings on Horseback to expand this material about Roosevelt.

Roosevelt's contemporary was the painter Frederich Remington. A prolific painter who specialized in scenes of the West, Remington was a huge man (he weighed over 300 lbs) who was hugely successful, his paintings also gave us the enduring vision of the west. He died a wealthy man.

An article about the Panama Railroad is one of the best in the book. The 47 mile railroad was the first transcontinental railroad built, at the enormous cost of $8 million and approximately 6000 lives. Plagued by rain, mud, cholera and insects, it took 4 years to build, finished on Nov 24, 1853. It proved to be an enormous financial success, carrying prospectors to California and gold back to the East Coast. McCullough late wrote A Path Between the Seas describing the construction of the Panama Canal, so clearly he loved this material.

There are two articles about the Brooklyn Bridge. McCullough wrote a book called The Great Bridge, these articles may be bonus material that didn't get into his book.

An essay about early pilots who were also writers (the wife of Lindbergh, Beryl Markham. Amelia Earhart, Antoine de Saint-Exupery) is one of the weaker entries to this book. McCullough later wrote the excellent The Wright Brothers.

I had never heard of the author Conrad Richter, but he was famous for his novels The Trees, The Fields, and The Town about early pioneers settling in Ohio. McCullough later wrote The Pioneers which seems to cover the same topic, so maybe he was inspired by his interviews with Richter.

The article about the lawyer Harry Caudill is especially depressing. Written in the 1960s, it describes the horrific damage to the Kentucky Appalachian region by destructive strip mining techniques. Obviously, Caudill failed to stop the ruthless mining companies. Even 50 years after McCullough's story, strip mining continues. The former administration relaxed regulations to allow coal miners to continue their destruction of the landscape in their endless, destructive quest for profits from coal.

The article about Miriam Rothschild, a brilliant wealthy woman who studies insects isn't that interesting.

The story of photographer David Plowden makes it sound like his pictures are uninteresting. I did an internet search of "David Plowden Photographs" and see a display of empty farms, old buildings, open landscapes, old trains. etc.

Washington on the Potomac is McCullough's enthusiastic description of our capital city.

McCullough is an interesting writer, I am sure all of his books are worth reading. I have read 1776 and The Wright Brothers, I need to decide which one to read next.