Eminent historian McCullough talks with Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn about his new book and his discovery that Orville and Wilbur came from a most extraordinary family.

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Lit Life

In David McCullough’s telling, it wasn’t the Wright brothers, it was the Wright family. Wilbur the genius. Orville, fellow flyer, mechanic, entrepreneur. Sister Katharine was the glue that held the family together. The father, Bishop Milton Wright, was the preacher-patriarch who laid the foundation for it all.

In McCullough’s new book, “The Wright Brothers”(Simon & Schuster, 320 pp., $30), he goes beyond the Wilbur-and-Orville paradigm to document a family circle of four extraordinary people.

In one sense, McCullough’s task as a biographer was smooth. The Wright brothers, who invented and flew an aircraft for the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight, were indefatigable letter writers. They left an account of their adventures from Ohio to France and back.

Author appearance

David McCullough

The author of “The Wright Brothers” will appear at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 14, at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle. Free — tickets and reservations are not required. Doors open at 1 p.m. (206-386-4636 or spl.org).

In another sense it was not. The brothers, self-taught bicycle mechanics-turned-inventors, were not emotional fellows — only in expressing the thrill of first flight did Wilbur ever describe transcendence. The brothers never married, and there was never a hint of a romantic involvement in their letters. They first achieved fame in France, and accounts of those triumphs were published in French.

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What they did have was focus, with a capital F, and McCullough’s book is a case study in the concentrated energy of genius. The author, 81, will be in Seattle on Sunday (June 14) to talk about his new book, and he recently answered questions about the enigmatic family of Wright:

Q: When did you first think of the Wright brothers as subjects for a biography?

A: I was working on my book (“The Greater Journey”) about Americans in Paris in the 19th century. I didn’t know when (chronologically) I was going to end that book, and who do I run into in France but the Wright brothers.

I was delighted to find that Wilbur, at every chance, went to the Louvre to look at paintings, and the degree that he was moved by the great Gothic works of France was far beyond that of an ordinary tourist. … It’s important to convey now, when so many people are dismissing the liberal arts or skirting around them … (that) the Wright brothers, who accomplished one of the greatest technical achievements of all time, achieved what they did by reading widely and deeply.

Much of what has been written about the Wright brothers (in French) has been ignored. That’s what pulled me into doing the book.

Q: The brothers, particularly Wilbur, seemed to have extraordinary powers of concentration. Where did they get that?

A: Some of it may have been hereditary. Their father had a lifelong sense of high purpose, as a missionary and itinerant preacher. They were in the same spirit, not dedicated to God, but to achieving something they thought could be done.

And they never gave up. They never gave up. They knew that you don’t quit when things go bad, you learn from what went wrong.

I think we don’t know enough about how important how you are brought up at home is in proceeding through life. The way you’re brought up is far more important than we realize. I think their father was an exceptional leader, an inspiring force in their lives, as well as their mother, whose shyness was a serious handicap, as it was for Orville.

Q: It’s clear that they took their lives in their hands every time they flew. How did they square the risk?

A: They thought it was worth it. They were excited about achieving something that never had been done before.

One of the most important things to understand, they didn’t just invent the airplane, they learned how to fly it (their first successful flight was in 1903). Octave Chanute didn’t do it, (Samuel) Langley didn’t do it. The one who did it in Germany, (Otto) Lilienthal, got killed doing it.

Wilbur and Orville Wright (National Air and Space Museum)
Wilbur and Orville Wright (National Air and Space Museum)

Q: Early on, they had a hard time getting the U.S. government to recognize their efforts; it turned down their design without even seeing the aircraft. In France, they were heroes. Why was that?

A: I found that when no one in this country would take them seriously, the French took them very seriously. In France, it was part of the spirit of the wealthy playboy crowd. All those French aviators were people with a lot of money. It was like skydiving, or skiing. They had the money to blow on exciting, dangerous things.

The hardest thing to understand is why we weren’t interested. A big cause of that was the failure of the Langley experiments (a U.S. government-funded attempt at flight that ended in spectacular failure). The government didn’t want to get caught up in a fiasco.

Q: Was it hard to create a portrait of two people who weren’t especially emotionally expressive?

A: I think that in their way, they expressed an awful lot in their letters, including their humor, their ordeals — their letters from Kitty Hawk about the mosquito attack and the wind. At the same time, they looked upon it as the happiest time of their life. It wasn’t the getting to the mountaintop, it was the climbing up. Wilbur had a lot of poetry in him, great feeling and intensity.

Q: What’s your next book? When is someone going to write a biography of you?

A: I wouldn’t allow it — someone might find out about my dark side (laughs). I’ve thought about writing my autobiography, about my adventures in history.