2015-11-05 / Around Town

McCullough Honored as Cultural Icon

By Betsy Sherman Walker

Medal designed by Newport stone carver John “Fud” Benson. Medal designed by Newport stone carver John “Fud” Benson. When Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough comes to town next week at the invitation of Redwood Library and Athenaeum, he will be speaking to a packed room about his most recent book, “The Wright Brothers,” which has been on The New York Times bestseller list since July 1, 2015. Mc- Cullough’s presentation, which has been sold out since mid-September, will be on Thursday, Nov. 12, at Salve Regina University's Bazarsky Lecture Hall. The author, who has won two Pulitzers, two National Book Awards, the 2006 Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a reserved spot next to the reading lamp on the nation’s bedside table, is due for yet another honor when he will receive the inaugural Abraham Redwood Medal for Contributions to American History and Culture.

To have an author-historian of McCullough’s stature speaking beneath the Redwood banner is, for Newport’s venerated library, significant on many levels. For Executive Director Benedict Leca, the medal represents a vital and vibrant way of keeping the library and its original mission—“having nothing in view but the good of mankind”— both up-to-date and relevant. As a link between past and present, he says it is “a logical extension of the sort of enlightenment and education of the people in the community” so ardently embraced by Redwood and his circle of philanthropist friends.

Had McCullough lived in 18thcentury Newport, it is fascinating to imagine how, as a man of letters, his prolific output might have lent tone and texture to the cultural scene. “The beauty of McCullough,” Leca says, “is that he is the modern-day historian who engages the public.” Chances are he would have become a familiar face at Redwood Library, a popular lecturer at the athenaeum. A portrait of him could still be on display somewhere among the stacks.

The Athenaeum part of the title, Leca is also quick to point out, remains as vital in 2015 as it was in 1747. “We are meant to be an athenaeum,” he explains, employing the royal, 21st century we: a place for orators to practice their orations. “The library,” he stresses, “was a performance hall, where people came to discuss politics and topical issues of the day.” Fastforward nearly 300 years, and the event calendar for November 2015 (including the “If it’s Tuesday it Must be Shakespeare” series and “Salons of the Mind”) illustrates how well the institution continues to serve the community, based on its founding format.

Yet as important as maintaining the library’s powerful link with the past is Redwood’s commitment to the future and the community. “We don’t just want to be seen like a time capsule hitched to the 18th century,” says Leca, an ardent scholar of all things from that not-too-distant era. Similarities between the then and now from mission to message to vision of the future are striking. When the Company of the Redwood Library was founded, “it was considered experimental. It was meant to be a place for people to discuss history and contemporary events, and to speculate on the future.”

McCullough’s visit, and what it represents, Leca adds, also speaks of a focus on the future, shifting cultural landscapes and the need for today’s cultural institutions to adapt. “Museums, libraries, and universities,” he says, “are all in a transitional period. There are changes in how content is being delivered; the role of humanities is even being questioned.” Bringing someone of McCullough’s stature to Newport makes a strong statement. “It benefits Newport all around.” It’s an example, he adds, of how Redwood has succeeded in bridging past and present while always engaging the broad public. The flip side of that: “Ignore it, and do so at your own peril.”

Leca is also quick to point out— and roundly endorse—the fact that the library kept the price of hearing McCullough on the low side. He calls it, and all that it entails, the “culture of yes.“ In keeping with the mission of Redwood, and the spirit of the medal—and of McCullough, as well as notions of “public consumption and the public good,” Leca is satisfied that Redwood continues to keep, in its view, the good of this small corner of mankind.

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