David McCullough Wondering How Much Scratch He Could Shake Out Of Frederick Douglass

McCullough is hoping to turn Frederick Douglass into his own personal cash register.
McCullough is hoping to turn Frederick Douglass into his own personal cash register.

BOSTON—Saying that he’s been “wondering how much cheddar he could squeeze out of Old Man Abolitionist for a while now,” renowned historian David McCullough told reporters Friday that he’s strongly considering writing a biography of the famed social reformer and statesman Frederick Douglass.

The 80-year-old Pulitzer Prize–winning author, widely hailed as the country’s preeminent historian for his biographies of American presidents and historical nonfiction works such as 1776 and The Johnstown Flood, revealed his recent interest in “scaring up some of that sweet paper” out of Douglass “like [he] did with the Founding Fathers gravy train.”

“I’m really starting to think about how I could rattle a few clams out of Frederick Douglass’ life story,” McCullough said, noting that “the well’s certainly been tapped before, but I doubt that baby’s dry.” “Freddy D always sells, but when you consider the fact that we’ve got a black guy in office right now, you’re looking at a zeitgeist factor that could spell some serious cabbage.”


“It’s not like John Adams hadn’t been covered, and I rode him like a rodeo straight to the bank,” McCullough added. “Made some major moolah.”

McCullough, who confirmed he’s been researching subjects for his next book ever since he hit pay dirt with The Greater Journey, said that it wasn’t until he came across an article about a meeting between the legendary slave-turned-statesman and President Abraham Lincoln that he finally thought, “Cha-ching!”

Noting that the most difficult part of beginning a new book project is settling on the right horse to ride all the way to the goddamned bank, McCullough said that since he’s decided to explore Douglass’ life, all that he has left to do is “construct an engrossing narrative, throw in a couple of demonstrative anecdotes from his childhood, then sit back and watch the dough roll in.”

“I wrung Roosevelt dry, then stacked paper like a madman with Adams and Truman,” said the Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, adding that he “pretty much shook all the founding fathers by their ankles and raked in some big-time dinero.” “As soon as I realized that no one’s really examined the encounter between these two iconic figures, I just couldn’t help but think, ‘Man, that’s basically a license to print money right there.’”


“Make room in your coffers, Simon and Schuster,” McCullough continued. “Frederick Douglass is about to lay a whole lot of golden eggs.”

McCullough speculated that he would strike the mother lode by revealing the human side of the great American social reformer with riveting tales about Douglass breaking the law to teach other slaves to read.


“The book will feel very novelistic as opposed to a straight-up piece of nonfiction, and then, boom, a little bit of that signature McCullough thunder where I examine what patriotism meant to Frederick Douglass, and then the skies will open up and it will be pouring dollar bills,” said McCullough, adding that the Douglass treasure trove was good for at least 3.7 million copies and 40 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. “I’ll have those chump readers hook, line, and sinker, eating out of the palm of my hand while Freddy D brings home the bacon.”

“After that, I can see Ken Burns and me finessing this puppy into a sweet little four-parter PBS doc. Probably pick up some nice scratch for the film rights,” continued the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. “I can just picture Ken’s reaction when I tell him I’m thinking of doing a Douglass bio; he’ll get that dollar-signs-in-his-eyes look. I could narrate that sucker, too. We’ll have a regular money tree growing in our backyard.”


McCullough said that if he began his research now, he could finish the book in time for his publisher to release it in hardcover for the 2014 Christmas season and then “have that shit out” in paperback in time for Black History Month when copies would move like crazy and “cram Davy’s piggy bank with the shiny stuff.”

“Sure, the old Lion of Anacostia’s been picked over pretty good, but they don’t call you the master of the art of narrative history if you can’t squeeze a little juice out of a trusty lemon like Frederick Douglass,” McCullough said. “If I can just plumb some relatively obscure episode from his early years and tease it out into a thematic thread that runs through his life, I’ll be sitting pretty. It’ll be fields of green till kingdom come.”


“Freddy,” he added, “come to papa.”

Share This Story

Get our newsletter