A History of the American People (Magill Book Reviews)
Paul Johnson is a throwback to the Victorian age, when amateurs produced grand, nationalistic histories. Anecdotal, unanalytical, opinionated, lucidly written, with provocative interpretations, and meant for general readership, A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE essentially is a succession of colorful sagas—history as pageant. The heroes, almost without exception, are bold men of action who served the interests of the country’s ruling class and who did not allow constitutional scruples to stand in their way, whether establishing the principle of judicial review (John Marshall), destroying the Cherokee Republic (Andrew Jackson), conquering California and Texas (James K. Polk), preserving the Union (Abraham Lincoln), seizing the Panama Canal (Theodore Roosevelt), ending World War II (Harry S. Truman) or opposing revolutionary nationalists (Ronald Reagan).
Johnson basically thumbs his nose at contemporary American historical scholarship, claiming it has been crippled by postmodernist theories and political correctness (his asides on this subject are incessant). Not by accident are the likes of Frederick Douglass, Jane Addams, and Cesar Chavez ignored, not to mention Elvis Presley, Muhammad Ali, or Selena. The author studiously avoids social history with the quip that students of popular culture would elevate comic books to a level with literary classics. One exception: Johnson passes along more information about the “Cola wars” in the soft drink...
(The entire section is 279 words.)
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A History of the American People (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Near the beginning of A History of the American People, Paul Johnson defines the “proto-American”:
He had certain strongly marked characteristics which were to be associated with the American archetype. He was energetic, brash, hugely ambitious, money-conscious, none too scrupulous, far-sighted and ahead of his time, with a passion for the new and, not least, a streak of idealism which clashed violently with his overweening desire to get on and make a fortune.
The man thus referred to is Sir Walter Ralegh, Elizabethan planner of the ill-fated seventeenth century Roanoke colonization venture to the New World. The laudatory description, however, could well have applied to most of the individuals whose exploits are recounted in a series of what might be called mini-biographies. Among the more colorful of these: Captain John Smith, Nathaniel Bacon, Benjamin Franklin, Eli Whitney, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Edward H. Harriman, and Andrew Carnegie. During America’s formative years, the author believes, a free-market economy allowed a meritocracy to develop and thrive. Noting the central role of religion in fomenting freedom—in contrast to European practices, where prelates generally were on the side of autocracy—Johnson distinguishes between separation of church and state and manifestations of civic religion. At the outset, he announces his intent to grapple with three fundamental questions: First, has America atoned for...
(The entire section is 2021 words.)