David McCullough, Honorary Doctor of Letters

A Recommended Itinerary,
by David McCullough


May 1986

President Robison, honored guests, distinguished trustees, members of the faculty, proud parents, ladies and gentlemen, my remarks are titled A Recommended Itinerary and they are addressed to the Middlebury College Class of 1986. I once knew an able and accomplished man who had been fired from his first job after college because his employer decided he was deficient in positive attitude "You'll never go anywhere," he was told as he departed. Unable to find another job, he spent the next several months seeing the world and, remembering the old employer and those parting words, he took particular pleasure in sending him a postcard from each stop along the way, from one foreign capital after another, to let him know just how far he was going.

I want you all to go far.

I want you to see Italy, Florence in particular, at least once in your lifetime. I hope you can spend an hour in front of the great, incomparable Botticelli at the Ufizzl, "The Birth of Venus," an hour with that one painting, for the unparalleled pleasure of it, but also so you will have the experience to draw on whenever overtaken by the common hubris of our time, which is that our time outranks all others in all attainments. Botticelli lived five hundred years ago. I hope by the time you are my age you will have been to Edinburgh, little Edinburgh, and walked its stone streets and read its great thinkers and considered their impact on our own Founding Fathers. And that you will be asking yourselves, as I do, how possibly so much creative vitality could have burst forth in so small and out­of­the­way a place and in such a brief span of time.

Why does a Florence happen? Why an Edinburgh? One explanation is that everyone was in touch with everyone--painters with lawyers, dramatists with engineers, philosophers with physicians. Quite the reverse idea, you see, from our age of specialization. Any suggestion that science and the arts are mutually exclusive would have been thought downright silly.

Go to Palenque­­Palenque, the stupendous Mayan ruin in the beautiful Mexican province of Chiapas. Climb the long stairway of the central pyramid­tomb to the very top and, with the main palace and other monuments spread before you, try to keep in mind that what you are seeing is only a fraction of what once was and that all of it was built under the rule of one man who lived more than a thousand years ago, a king called Pacal, a name virtually unknown to North Americans, except for a handful of scholars, yet plainly one of the most remarkable leaders in the whole history of our hemisphere. He had to have been. You need only to see Palenque to know that.

I hope you go to Italy and Scotland and to places like Palenque because I think you will afterward see and understand your own country more clearly. That is an old idea, I know that the country you learn most about by traveling abroad is your own­­but then some old ideas bear repeating. At Palenque, for example, you may find yourself speculating on what the effect might have been on our attitude toward the American Indian had we encountered such monuments in the wilderness of our own North America. What if here where this campus stands the first settlers had found the massive limestone structures of Palenque? How could we have ever looked down on the Indian, considered him sub­human, had that been our experience? Imagine, we would have encountered a people whose ancestors understood astronomy, whose system of mathematics included the concept of zero (something not even the Romans achieved), and who built whole cities that in size and grandeur surpassed anything we were able to build for two centuries after landing at Jamestown.

And go please to Monticello. Walk through the vegetable garden that Jefferson carved out of the south side of his "little mountain." Tour his extraordinary house, see his trees, enjoy the view, so much of which still looks as he saw it. But pay particular attention to the vegetable garden and remember what it tells you about patriotism. It is 80 foot wide and 1000 foot in length. He grew no less than 45O varieties of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and herbs. 450 varieties! The garden was begun in 1774, which makes it older than the United States. He was constantly experimenting, trying "new" vegetables like okra and egg plant and Arikara beans brought back from the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He grew 15 varieties of peas alone.

In his perfect hand in his garden diary he recorded all that he planted there, where, when, and when it came to his table. He considered agriculture a science to be taken very seriously. But his patriotism was also involved. "No greater service can be rendered any country," he once said, "than to introduce a new plant to its culture"--that from the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence!

Patriotism in a plant­­how different from what the HolIywood impresarios have in mind for us for this summer's tribute to the Statue of Liberty. Patriotism, love of country.

Your travels should take you also through the great heartland of Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas. And you must get off the Interstates. You must ride the side roads where the small towns are, and the farmland, where main streets are boarded up and you soon grow tired of counting the abandoned farms because there are so many. What kind of people are we if we turn our backs on the land and the people who have worked it for so long in all seasons?

Go to eastern Kentucky. See with your own eyes what the strip miners are doing, still, for all the ballyhoo about reclamation. The reports you have read about reclamation are largely lies. Go see the rape of the land that continues every day, not in far­off, who­cares­a­damn­about­it, good­for­nothing, backwoods hillbilly Kentucky, but your Kentucky, your country.

Look at people when you travel. Talk to people and listen to what they have to say. Learn to listen. So few ever learn to listen.

Patriotism, love of country. Imagine a man who professes over and over his unending love for a woman but who knows nothing of where she was born or who her parents were or where she went to school or what her life had been until he came along and furthermore, doesn't care to learn. What would you think of such a person? Yet we appear to have an unending supply of patriots who know nothing of the history of this country, nor are they interested. We have not had a president of the United States with a sense of history since John Kennedy­­not since before most of you were born. (It ought to be mandatory for the office. As we have a language requirement for the Foreign Service, so we should have a history requirement for the White House.) Harry S. Truman, who never had the benefit of a college education but who had read more history and more biography and remembered it, more than almost any man who ever occupied the office, once said, "The only new thing in the world is the history you don't know."

If nothing else seeing the country should lead you to its past, its story, and shore is no part of your education to come that can be more absorbing or inspiring or useful to your role in society, whatever that may be. How can we know who we are and where we are going if we don't know anything about where we have come from and what we have been through, the courage shown, the costs paid, to be where we are?

Put Antietam on your list. Go to Antietam in Maryland and stand on the hillside near the old whitewashed Dunkirk church and try if you possibly can to imagine what happened there that terrible day, September 17, 1862. Once, last summer, sitting in a garden restaurant in Washington with a friend of mine from out­of­town, she told me how moved she had been by her visit to the Vietnam Memorial. Had I seen it, she wanted to know. I said I had. I had gone the first time late the afternoon of a day spent at Antietam.

"What is Antietam?" she said. She is a graduate of one of our greatest universities. She is an editor of the op­ed page of one of our largest and most influential newspapers. It was a bright summer afternoon and people at the adjoining tables were all happily eating and chatting.

"Antietam," I said. "Maybe you know it as Sharpsburg," I said. She hadn't any idea of what I was talking about. I said there are 57,000 names on the Vietnam Memorial and the Vietnam War lasted 11 years. At the Battle of Antietam in one day there were 23,000 casualties. In one day. It was not just the worst, bloodiest day of the Civil War, its toll in human life exceeded that of any day in our history. It happened hardly more than an hour's drive from where we were sitting and she had never heard of it.

I feel so sorry for anyone who misses the experience of history, the horizons of history. We think little of those who, given the chance to travel, go nowhere. We deprecate provincialism. But it is possible to be as provincial in time as it is in space. Because you were born into this particular era doesn't mean it has to be the limit of your experience. Move about in time, go places. Why restrict your circle of acquaintances to only those who occupy the same stage we call the present? It doesn't have to be that way.

For a lift of the spirits walk over the Brooklyn Bridge, one of the surpassing masterworks from our past and as strong and enduring a symbol of affirmation as I know. There is something wonderful about a bridge, almost any bridge, but it is our greatest bridge.

See the Smithsonian, the Air and Space Museum; go stand under the St. Louis arch and look up. See the telescope at Mount Palomar.

Or drive out of your way in Wyoming, south of Caspar, to see what for me is the most remarkable American Monument of all, Independence Rock. It rises out of the open plains beside the Clear Water River, an enormous, isolated dome of granite nearly 200 foot high and covering 25 acres. You see it from miles off, as they did in the last century when the huge human tide of immigration rolled by on the Oregon Trail, fully 300,000 people. On July 4, 1847, Independence Day, a tremendous celebration was held by some one thousand immigrants camped beside the rock, hence its name. But it is all the thousands of names carved there that makes it such a moving experience for a visitor. It has been called the great register of our desert, with an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 names, many cut so clearly and plain it is as if those people had passed by only the other day.

Or go to a tiny graveyard on the Nebraska prairie north of the little town of Red Cloud and look about until you find a headstone no bigger than that. It reads "Anna Pavelka, 1869­1955."

By every fashionable index used to measure success and importance, Anna Pavelka was nobody. Three weeks ago my wife Rosaleo and I were among several hundred visitors who arrived in a caravan of Red Cloud school buses to pay her homage. Who was she and why did we bother?

She was born Anna Sadllek in Mltzovic, Bohemia (present­day Czechoslovakia), in 1869. In 1883, at age 14, she sailed with her family to America to settle on the treeless Nebraska prairies in a sod hut. Sometime later, in despair over the struggle and isolation of his alien new life, her father killed himself. As a suicide he was denied burial in the Catholic cemetery. They buried him instead beside the road and the road makes a little jog at the spot there still.

Annie afterward worked as a "hired girl" in Red Cloud. She fell in love. She left town with a railroad man she hoped to marry but was deserted by him and forced to return. She bore an illegitimate child. Later, she married John Pavelka, also of Bohemia, who had been a tailor's apprentice in New York, a city man, and who knew little of farming. She ran the farm and she bore him, I believe, eleven more children. She spent her life on the farm shore on the prairie.

And that's about all there is to the story--except that she adored her children and her farm and she was also known to a younger woman from Red Cloud named Willa Cather who transformed her life into a very great and enduring American novel called My Antonia. The Antonia of the story--the Annie Sadilek Pavolka of real life--was a figure of heroic staying power. But it is her faith and joy in life, her warmth that matter most. "At first I near go crazy with lonesomeness," says her city­man husband at the close of the novel, remembering his first years in Nebraska, "but my woman is got such a warm heart."

Annie Pavelka reaches out to us because of what Oliver Wendell Holmes called the transfiguring touch of Willa Cather's art, because of what she, through Willa Cather, says about the human spirit.

On a wall in Washington, at Kennedy Center, is the following inscription which I hope you will see in your travels. It is from John Kennedy: "I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics but for our contributions to the human spirit."

Take the novels of Willa Cather when you go to Nebraska. Bring Faulkner when you' re going south. Take Cather, Faulkner, take books wherever you go. Read. Read all you can. Read history, biography. Read Dumas Malone's masterful biography of Jefferson and Paul Horgan's epic history of the Rio Grande, Great River. Road Luigi Barzini's books on Italy and America. Read the published journals of those who traveled the Oregon Trail. Read the novels of Maya Angelou and Robertson Davies, read Wendell Berry, Wallace Stegner, and the poems of Robert Penn Warren. As much as you have read in these four years, it is only the beginning. However little television you watch, watch less. If your experience is anything like mine the books that you read in the next ten years will be the most important books in your lives.

And as you go your way, go in the spirit, please, of the two elderly ladies I encountered climbing a flight of stairs near Jefferson's garden a few days ago. They were moving extremely slowly and with difficulty, one on a cane, the other grasping the rail for dear life, both talking up a storm. As I passed one was saying to the other, "Now's the time to be travelling, Alice, before we get too old."

And when to go? Always a question. I think of a comment by the late George Aiken about the pruning of trees. "Some say you shouldn't prune except at the right time of year," he said. "I generally do it when the saw is sharp."

George Aiken, of Vermont, as I hope you know, was one of the best things that ever happened to the United States Senate.

And wherever you go, don't forgot Vermont. Don't forgot this lovely town and those mountains and the people who live here.

I am extremely pleased and honored to be included in your day. For me and for my family, this is a heart­warming occasion, because of all our friends here and our associations with this town and this campus. We have had good times here. I wrote my book, The Great Bridge, in the milk room of a barn not far from here. I did the research for The Path Between the Seas, in the Starr Library. In September, I am also very pleased to say our fifth child, Dorie McCullough, will begin her four years here in the Class of 1990.

God bless you. Good luck. Try not to waste too much of your time chasing after success. Success is fickle and very perishable and largely beyond your control. Attainment--excellence--is the thing to strive for, believe me. It will belong to you. Choose your work carefully. It will shape you, it is what you will become. Take your work seriously, but not yourselves.

Go with confidence. Prize tolerance and horse sense. And some time, somewhere along the way, do something for your country.