David McCullough, a towering force in American literature and biography, winner of the President’s Medal of Freedom, two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards, died on August 7. He was 89 years old.

He died of natural causes at home in Hingham, the family confirmed, where he had lived for the past few years, with all five children by his side.

Mr. McCullough devoted his writing life to telling the American story, beginning with his first book about the Johnstown Flood, published in 1968, and continuing to chronicle events, politicians and structures that made up the American experience. He followed up his debut with a book about building the Brooklyn Bridge, then headed to the creation of the Panama Canal (his first National Book Award). A book about Teddy Roosevelt followed (his second National Book Award) and then books on Harry S. Truman and John Adams, both of which won the Pulitzer Prize.

Much of his work was written in a small eight-by-10 foot shed in his backyard on Music street in West Tisbury, where he settled in 1972 full-time with his wife Rosalee, raising five children on the Island. He was known for his discipline as a writer, walking the short commute from his home to his writing shed each day.

Rosalee and David McCullough. — Alison Shaw

But at a talk at the Nathan Mayhew seminars on the Vineyard in 1992, following the publication of Truman, he told the audience it never felt like work.

“People say to me “Are you working on a book?’ I am. But I don’t feel that way. When I am in the subject it is almost like putting yourself in a spell. You get to the point where you know these people.”

David McCullough was born July 7, 1933. He attended Yale University, where he studied under Robert Penn Warren, Thornton Wilder, John O’Hara and John Hersey, another prominent Vineyard writer.

After college, he moved to New York City where he worked at various publications, while also writing in his spare time. His first book centered on a tragedy close to where he grew up in Pittsburgh, the Great Flood of 1889, which wiped out the city of Johnstown.

The book was an immediate success and he turned to writing full time, moving to the Vineyard to better focus on his craft without distraction. He was introduced to the Island by his wife Rosalee, who had deep family roots.

“That was the summer of 1951,” Mr. McCullough said in a 2019 interview with the Gazette. “I suppose I’d heard a seagull, but I don’t think I’d ever seen a stone wall before....I fell in love with the girl. But I also fell in love with the Island.”

The family settled in West Tisbury and Mr. McCullough became a year-round fixture on the Island, speaking at events annually, particularly after the publication of yet another prize-winning book. He often schooled reporters on Island history.

“You know why this is called Music street?” he asked a Gazette reporter during an interview in 2011 at his home. “When sea captains retired from whaling, most of them wanted to be as far from the ocean as they could get on Martha’s Vineyard. They’d seen enough water. So they settled here. And one of the status symbols, if you will, was to have a piano in your house and a daughter taking piano lessons. And supposedly there were pianos up and down this street. And that’s why it became known as Music street.”

In addition to his writing, Mr. McCullough narrated numerous documentaries and hosted American Experience on PBS from 1988 to 1999.

Mr. McCullough worked on an old Royal typewriter and he and his wife read early drafts aloud to each other. — Alison Shaw

At talks on the Island, Mr. McCullough frequently stressed that he didn’t choose subjects to write about, he chose people.

“I am not a bridge buff. I am no expert on the building of the canal. These stories are a metaphor,” he said during a 2011 interview. “It is about the United States and the people. History is about people and that is the most important.”

He wrote on an ancient Royal typewriter, typing away on Music street.

“It was made in 1940,” he said during the 2011 interview. “I bought it secondhand in 1965 when I started my first book; I think I paid about $25. Everything I have written, I have written on this typewriter. And nothing has ever gone wrong with it. It’s looked after by Denny da Rosa in Oak Bluffs. He gets me the ribbons and every once in awhile we have to have the roller replaced.”

“Sometimes I think it’s writing the books,” he continued.

He always gave credit to his wife Rosalee, who died in June, describing during an interview how they read his early drafts aloud to each other.

In 1981, Mrs. McCullough sent a copy to the Gazette of her husband’s commencement speech at Colorado College, noting that their son Geoffrey was in the audience as a graduate that year. In his speech, Mr. McCullough talked about the complexity of the country and its history, beginning with a litany of what had gone wrong.

“But that isn’t the whole of the real world, we know,” he continued. “It isn’t half. And it’s not the point... Understanding the real world, being part of it and enjoying it, has mainly to do, I believe, with being a real person. That’s the point. It means taking an interest in other people, all kinds of people. It means enjoying people and trying to understand one another. It means kindnesses. It means doing what we can to move civilization forward, to make the world a little better place because we are in it.”

A memorial service will be held on Tuesday, August 16, at 2 p.m. at the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury. Burial will be private.