What is history? The study of it -- and the making of it, meaning politics -- changed for the worse when, in the 19th century, history became History. When, that is, history stopped being the record of fascinating contingencies -- political, intellectual, social, economic -- that produced the present, and became instead a realm of necessity. The idea that History is a proper noun, denoting an autonomous process unfolding a predetermined future in accordance with laws mankind cannot amend, is called historicism. That doctrine discounts human agency, reducing even large historical figures to playthings of vast impersonal forces. McCullough knows better.
Solid, unpretentious narrative history like ``1776'' satisfies the healthy human thirst for a ripping good story. McCullough says E.M. Forster, the novelist, efficiently defined a story: If you are told that the king died and then the queen died, that is a sequence of events. If you are told that the king died and then the queen died of grief, that is a story that elicits empathy.
Using narrative history to refute historicism, McCullough's two themes in ``1776'' are that things could have turned out very differently, and that individuals of character can change the destinies of nations. There is a thirst for both themes in this country, which is in a less-than-festive frame of mind on this birthday. It is, therefore, serendipitous that ``1776,'' with 1.35 million copies already in print, sits atop The New York Times best-seller list on Independence Day.
But, then, serendipity has often attended the Fourth of July. That day is the birthday of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804), arguably the father of American literature. And of Stephen Foster (1826), arguably the father of American music. And -- saving the most luminous for last -- of the sainted Calvin Coolidge (1872), who oversaw a 45 percent increase in America's production of ice cream.
So, this Fourth read McCullough. Perhaps by the light of a sparkler.