Paul Johnson 1928-
(Full name Paul Bede Johnson) English historian, journalist, biographer, nonfiction writer, essayist, and memoirist.
The following entry presents an overview of Johnson's career through 2000.
A prolific popular historian and polemical journalist, Johnson is one of England's most outspoken contemporary writers on conservative issues and values. Once a staunch supporter of socialism in England, an ardent liberal, and an active member of Britain's Labour Party during the 1950s and 1960s, Johnson made a very public and sensational conversion to the Conservative Party in 1977, helping to elect Margaret Thatcher as prime minister in 1979. His political transformation is pointedly expressed in his book Enemies of Society (1977). Fiercely opinionated and uncompromising in his views, Johnson's forays into a diverse range of historical subjects have led to entertaining, and, at times, personalized narratives distinguished by their scope, detail, and literary qualities. Modern Times (1983), Intellectuals (1988), The Birth of the Modern (1991), and A History of the American People (1998) are among his most notable books. A provocative and energetic writer, Johnson stands as one of England's best-known and most formidable cultural critics.
Born in Barton, Lancashire, to William Aloysius and Anne Johnson, Johnson spent his early life in Staffordshire, where he was raised as a Roman Catholic. Johnson's father was devoted to Catholicism and worked as headmaster of an art school. After graduating from Stonyhurst College, England's oldest Catholic secondary school, Johnson attended Magdalen College, Oxford University, where he earned a B.A. degree in history with honors in 1950. Johnson launched his career as a journalist in 1952, joining the staff of the Paris-based magazine Realities as assistant executive editor. In 1955, Johnson joined the editorial staff of the left-wing political and literary magazine New Statesman. He remained with the weekly periodical for the next fifteen years, serving as its editor from 1965 to 1970. During his years at New Statesman, Johnson remained a vigorous advocate for socialism and supported Britain's Labour Party, becoming chairman of the Iver Village Labour Party in 1966. His belief in socialism and support for the Labour Party began to wane in the 1970s, however, as he perceived the party shifting its support away from the individual and becoming dangerously anti-elitist. The final straw for Johnson came with the issue of the “closed shop,” whereby British labor unions insisted that employees of certain companies be union members. In 1977, Johnson formally broke with the Labour Party and joined the Conservative Party. After leaving New Statesman in 1970, Johnson began a successful career as a freelance writer, producing volumes of history and nonfiction, and such biographies as The Life and Times of Edward III (1973), Pope John XXIII (1974), and Elizabeth I (1974). From 1974 to 1977, Johnson was a member of the Royal Commission on the Press, and from 1984 to 1990, he served on Britain's Cable Authority. The Recovery of Freedom (1980), a collection of essays written between 1975 and 1979, provides a record of the change in Johnson's political philosophy and party affiliation. Since his defection to the Conservative Party, Johnson has been a standard bearer for capitalism and democracy while decrying all forms of socialism, the erosion of family and social values, and the decline of religious practice. While serving as DeWitt Wallace professor of communications at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., Johnson published The Things That Are Not Caesar's (1980) and The Moral Basis of Democratic Capitalism (1980), the latter in collaboration with Irving Kristol and Michael Novak. During the 1980s and 1990s Johnson continued a rapid-fire publication of books which followed his diverse and wide-ranging interests. Works centering on architecture across the United Kingdom—British Cathedrals (1980) and Castles of England, Scotland, and Wales (1989)—are interspersed with those on economics—such as Saving and Spending (1985). Many of Johnson's other works feature historical, religious, social, and political subjects, including Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Restoration (1982), A History of the English People (1985), Wake up Britain! (1994), and The Renaissance (2000). In addition to producing a prodigious number of books, Johnson writes a weekly column for the Spectator, and is a regular contributor to the London Sunday Telegraph. He lives in London with book reviewer Marjorie Hunt, whom he married in 1957.
Although Johnson has addressed a broad spectrum of topics, works concerning history and religion dominate his oeuvre. Even while surveying religion, Johnson writes from the perspective of a historian with a strong and highly developed narrative voice. This is evident in A History of Christianity, which relates the story of the public church vis-à-vis the intellectual and political history of Western Europe. This work attempts to relate a complete history of Christianity, including commentary on episodes such as the Roman Catholic Church's complacency during Nazi rule in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. This work asserts that, despite Christianity's failings, the religion's espousal of the human potential for goodness provides a counterweight to the human capacity for evil. The decline of Christianity in the twentieth century is cited as a major contributing factor to the ills and abominations that have occurred since 1900. A History of the Jews grew out of Johnson's copious research for A History of Christianity, when he discovered that Christianity owed a much greater debt to Judaism than he had previously realized. A History of the Jews offers a singular look at 4,000 years of Jewish history, beginning with the biblical legend of Abraham and ending with the founding of the modern state of Israel. Ostensibly examining what it means to be a “chosen people,” whether by God or by one's own vision, A History of the Jews focuses on themes that surface perennially throughout Johnson's major works: the importance of experiencing meaning in life; the role religion plays in that experience; and the need to live according to the rule of law, principles of rationality, and an unwavering moral philosophy. Johnson's memoir, The Quest for God, returns to many of these themes in a deeply personal yet often combative way. Johnson saw the memoir as a tool to help himself and others come to a better understanding of their beliefs and to share the comfort and conviction of his Catholic faith. He argued fervently for God's existence, associating a godless world with moral anarchy. In this work, as in others, he cited multiple examples of twentieth-century calamities that he attributed to the growth in secularism and decline of religion—among them communism, feminism, and Freudianism. In keeping with this view, Johnson identified moral relativism as the greatest of all possible sins. Within his overtly historical books, particularly those written during and after his political shift from the Left to the Right, Johnson's neo-conservative political and religious views are intimately woven into his themes and narrative perspective. Decrying all forms of socialism, his work focuses on the virtues of capitalism, democracy, morality, authority, and rationality. Starting with Enemies of Society, Johnson voiced intense criticism of the left-wing, holding its activists responsible for the irrationalism and violence that erupted in western society during the 1960s and 1970s. Johnson expanded his exploration of these ideas in Modern Times (originally published under the title A History of the Modern World from 1917 to the 1980s), presenting a detailed study of the damaging effects of moral relativism combined with the harm caused by the loss of religion and tradition. To support his argument Johnson listed numerous examples of disastrous world events since the signing of the Versailles Treaty in 1917, as well as the solar eclipse that confirmed Einstein's theory of relativity in 1919. Johnson laid blame for the rise of moral relativism on liberal thinkers, arguing that social radicals misapplied the theory of physical relativity to morality. Intellectuals launches an attack on secular, leftist intellectuals by scrutinizing the personal lives of twelve prominent thinkers and artists from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries, arguing that their personal failings invalidated their authority to tell the rest of the world how it should behave. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway, and Jean-Paul Sartre count among those Johnson included in his assessment. The Birth of the Modern explores the roots of modernity in world society, finding them firmly planted in the fifteen-year period stretching from the fall of Napoleon and the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in 1830. This massive work—more than 1,000 pages—provides a detailed chronicle of events around the globe during this period, but centers mainly on England and Western Europe. This work also asserts that global integration—the defining mark of modernity—resulted from the events of this period along with the rise of the middle class, which made the Industrial Revolution possible and allowed capitalism to mature and flourish. A History of the American People compares the American experience to that of Britain and other parts of the world. After presenting 400 years of American history, Johnson concluded that America, despite its history of civic religion, faces a moral crisis spurred by the decline of religion that only a spiritual revival can overcome.
Outspoken and widely read, Johnson has aroused mixed and often extreme critical reactions to his work. Frequently viewed as combative, dogmatic, and brazen, he has been both hailed and criticized for taking on vast subjects that lie outside his immediate area of expertise, such as Jewish history. Some critics have praised this characteristic, which they argue, gives Johnson the opportunity to view his subjects with a fresh and unbiased perspective. They also have admirably spoken of his boldness and passion for his topics. Other reviewers have lauded Johnson for his ability to convert previously dry and academic subjects into engaging and entertaining narratives created for a wider, more popular audience. An indefatigable researcher, Johnson has often received high marks for the amount of detail he provides concerning the people, places, events, and conditions in his studies. However, some critics have claimed that Johnson sacrifices analysis for superfluous detail, becoming sidetracked and allowing extraneous facts to detract from his argument. Johnson also has been criticized for randomly selecting subjects to illustrate his theses and for too often oversimplifying complex subjects to suit his arguments. Moreover, critics fault Johnson for an over-reliance on both secondary sources and conventional views of history. Some critics have also taken issue with his habit of combing the individual diaries, journals, and letters of historical figures for salacious details that he misuses at times, converting the information into general principles. Many critics have noted Johnson's obsession with the sex lives and sexual misconduct of influential men and women throughout history, and how he often cites these and other damaging personal details as a way of discrediting their ideas or achievements. Although some critics have viewed him as a neo-conservative ideologue who has used history as a mask for promoting his political, social, and religious beliefs, even Johnson's harshest detractors have acknowledged the elegance of his writing and complimented his intellectual capacity to marshal enormous amounts of data and information. These qualities have redeemed him in the eyes of many critics, including some of those who have taken him to task for egregious errors of historical fact and insufficient analysis of his subject matter. Nonetheless, Johnson has demonstrated the possibility of literate history to reach and affect a wider audience.
The Suez War (history) 1957
Journey into Chaos (non-fiction) 1958
Left of Centre (non-fiction) 1960
Merrie England (non-fiction) 1964
Statesmen and Nations (non-fiction) 1971
The Offshore Islanders: From Roman Occupation to European Entry (history) 1972
The Life and Times of Edward III (history) 1973
Elizabeth I: A Study in Power and Intellect (biography) 1974
A Place in History (history) 1974
Pope John XXIII (biography) 1974
A History of Christianity (history) 1976
Enemies of Society (non-fiction) 1977
Britain's Own Road to Serfdom (non-fiction) 1978
The Civilization of Ancient Egypt (history) 1978
The National Trust Book of British Castles (non-fiction) 1978
Civilizations of the Holy Land (history) 1979
A Tory Philosophy of Law (non-fiction) 1979
British Cathedrals (non-fiction) 1980
Ireland: Land of Troubles [republished as Ireland: A History from the Twelfth Century to the Present Day] (history) 1980
The Moral Basis of Democratic Capitalism [with Irving Kristol and...
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SOURCE: “Barbarians at the Gate,” in New Statesman, May 20, 1977, pp. 677–78.
[In the following review of Enemies of Society, Ascherson commends Johnson's intelligence and scathing humor, but disagrees with his overriding notions about civilization and morality.]
Outside the headmaster's study, winding from the green baize door to halfway up the stairs, waits the queue. Whacks and screams suggest that Teilhard de Chardin is having a rough time in there. Paul Tillich and Marcuse stuff paper into their trouser-seats; Fanon and Schoenberg begin to snivel; Sartre, Marx, Freud, Diocletian, Meinhof, Laing, Lévi-Strauss, Cicero, the rulers of independent Africa, Francis Bacon, Edmund Leach … the Rev. Paul Johnson BA is going to root this thing out before it spreads any further. ‘You'll think twice before undermining civilisation again. Touch your toes …’
This book [Enemies of Society] is cross. But it is adventurous, learned and vehemently funny. Paul Johnson is one of the British masters of polemic, and he has summoned together all his enormous reading, all his prejudices and loves, into a political testament.
The book is about what Mr Johnson calls ‘civilisation’. Whatever that is, why does it decline? He begins with a huge, rapid sketch of the history of the human race, the chalk squeaking and snapping on the blackboard as he draws....
(The entire section is 1537 words.)
SOURCE: “False Prescriptions,” in Spectator, May 21, 1977, p. 22.
[In the following excerpt, Booker offers an unfavorable assessment of Enemies of Society.]
This book [Enemies of Society] is bound to arouse considerable expectation in many people's minds. The question to which it is addressed could scarcely be more important or fascinating: why, at the end of the twentieth century, does our civilisation appear to have entered on a crisis of unprecedented magnitude?
Almost any serious attempt to discuss this question should be widely welcomed. And in recent years Paul Johnson's fiery and trenchant journalism has shown him to be the sort of author who might come up with some thoughtful and unexpected answers.
Certainly any analysis which is to make sense of our present crisis must go very wide and very deep, both into human nature and into history. And Johnson promises well by plunging us at once as far back as he could possibly go, to discern in the archaic civilisations of the post-Neolithic world all those factors which seemed to preserve them in a kind of timeless amber of ritualised stagnancy. What intrigues Johnson, as it has intrigued many before him (Toynbee, Wells, Spengler etc) is—what makes a civilisation dynamic, and what brings about its eventual collapse?
He begins by examining the rise and fall of what he sees as the...
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SOURCE: “Noisome,” in New Statesman, August 2, 1985, pp. 25–26.
[In the following review, Jones objects to the numerous typographical and spelling errors found in The Pick of Paul Johnson, which he attributes to poor copyediting rather than authorial oversight.]
Reading this book [The Pick of Paul Johnson] has been a tormenting experience. I don't say this because of any antipathy to the writer; I enjoy being at the receiving end of Paul Johnson's prose, in spite of—or quite often because of—his violent prejudices and his bizarre view of the world. He expresses himself with impeccable clarity, eschews jargon and is precise and thoughtful in his choice of words; few writers with a large and regular output can claim these merits. Admittedly, reading these collected pieces at a stretch can become tedious, but that isn't Paul Johnson's fault, since they were written to be read as they appeared in the Spectator or the Daily Telegraph.
The blame for the torment rests solely with the publisher, who has produced the book in a form that can only be called disgraceful. The paper is grey. The layout of the pages is mean and ugly, with narrow margins and the minimum of space at the top and bottom. The type is nasty, and pervaded by oddities such as the use of acute accents for quotation marks. The whole effect recalls the appearance of books in the wartime and...
(The entire section is 698 words.)
SOURCE: “Masterpiece in a Minefield,” in Spectator, March 28, 1987, pp. 28–29.
[In the following review, Welch offers a positive assessment of A History of the Jews.]
Paul Johnson has already published histories of Christianity, of the civilisations of ancient Egypt and the Holy Land, of the modern world and of the English people. If you have read any or all of these, you will have some idea of what to expect now. A clear, unaffected but vigorous narrative style, brilliant insights, bold speculation and revaluations, boundless enthusiasm, passionate involvement and insatiable curiosity; strong and firm views well argued, a fierce determination to know not only what happened but why and what its consequences were; a masterly ability rationally to link cause and effect, clear judgments, no hedging, a powerful, all-pervading and all-directing moral sense; an unfashionable conviction, shared with the Jews, indeed derived from them, that history has a meaning and purpose. This reveals itself not to dry pedants who, thrashing around amidst the archives, learn more and more about less and less, but rather to some of those who, like Mr Johnson, can stand back at times and from a distance see its great tidal ebbs and flows. All this you will expect and get in his A History of the Jews.
Of course there must be mistakes in it. I am not qualified to point many of them out. Was Marx's...
(The entire section is 1949 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Saving and Spending, in American Historical Review, Vol. 92, No. 2, April, 1987, p. 420.
[In the following review, Crossick commends Saving and Spending’s survey of working-class financial behavior, but concludes that Johnson's study lacks systematic analysis and does not penetrate beyond existing research on the subject.]
One of the least researched aspects of working-class social history is how people coped with the economic uncertainties that confronted them daily—that complex and presumably exhausting process of “getting by.” Our knowledge of the subject derives partly from the life histories of individuals, consisting mostly of oral testimony but also of autobiographical writings. It also comes from the history of institutions created to ease the financial uncertainties of working-class families—the friendly societies, consumer cooperatives, insurance companies and clubs, and the rest. Paul Johnson's study [Saving and Spending] pulls together contemporary and historical research to paint a picture of one aspect of this network: the patterns of saving and borrowing that were so fundamental to people's social existence and yet so bemused outside observers.
Johnson is not bemused, and he usefully surveys death insurance, friendly societies, cash saving, cooperative societies, and the ubiquitous resort to shopkeeper's credit and the...
(The entire section is 551 words.)
SOURCE: A review of A History of the Jews, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 19, 1987, pp. 1, 6.
[In the following review of A History of the Jews, Neusner objects to Johnson's reductive linear narrative of Jewish history and his falsely homogenous portrait of Jewish identity.]
Paul Johnson is excited by “the sheer span of Jewish history.” Loving these “long continuities,” and seeing the Jews as having a “separate and specific identity earlier than almost any other people which still survives,” he has come with great enthusiasm to a subject he in fact does not grasp at all. The result [A History of the Jews] is a pleasure to read, but most of what is in it is either half-true or all wrong.
Liberal editor turned conservative historian, Johnson has published, among other works, A History of the English People, A History of Christianity and—the best known and most idiosyncratic—Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties. He is, by common consent, a talented writer and an indefatigable researcher. In this book, unfortunately, he is undone by—of all things—an error of theology.
Specifically, Johnson believes that the Jews have a separate and single specific identity. What he means by identity he does not say. But at the center of his book is the premise that a single group, which everywhere...
(The entire section is 1088 words.)
SOURCE: “From Eternity to Eternity,” in Washington Post Book World, May 24, 1987, p. 5.
[In the following review of A History of the Jews, Bloom praises Johnson's “impressive verve and insight,”but notes that Johnson's Roman Catholic perspective inevitably clouds his understanding of Jewish theology.]
In the later 1960s, a turbulent era throughout the Western world, Paul Johnson was the editor of The New Statesman, the British socialist weekly. A conservative a decade later, he found a new vocation as a popular historian, particularly in his Modern Times, a chronicle of the world from the 1920s to the '80s, and in A History of Christianity, which reflected his beliefs as a Roman Catholic. Still a working journalist, rather than an academic historian, Johnson is an audacious teller of the supposedly true stories of history. His audacity serves him well in his surprising History of the Jews, a generous and personal survey of the 4,000 years of Jewish achievements, sufferings, and scandalous survival—as a people, as a religion, as a culture, and for 40 years now as the reborn state of Israel.
Cheerfully and overtly working from the standard secondary sources, Johnson gives us a necessarily mixed performance, weakest at the origins but progressing steadily up to the present, where he is at his best. Ancient Judaism need not be seen through the...
(The entire section is 959 words.)
SOURCE: “A Special People,” in Commentary, Vol. 83, No. 6, June, 1987, pp. 64, 66, 68.
[In the following review, Gilbert offers a favorable assessment of A History of the Jews.]
Perhaps inevitably in our current decade, the vast preponderance of historical writing about the Jews has focused on the Holocaust: its origins, its course, and its implications. Since 1980, the whole globe of Jewish history has seemed to tilt increasingly on a Holocaust axis. It would be absurd to make this a complaint; what we now call the Holocaust has scarred, and will continue to scar, the Jewish consciousness, and will do so to such an extent that many students of universal Jewish themes, myself included, have already neglected, and will go on neglecting, the wider historical and cultural spheres for this one. It is for that reason as much as any that Paul Johnson's new book [A History of the Jews] is to be welcomed. It covers 4,000 years of Jewish history, and although it devotes 10 percent to the five years of the Holocaust, the remaining 90 per cent, in its bold sweep from biblical times to today, is a powerful reminder of Jewish achievement throughout the ages.
I use the word “achievement” deliberately, for Paul Johnson is emphatically not of the school of Sir Lewis Namier, professor of history at Manchester University, England, who, when asked by a non-Jewish admirer why, as a Jew, he...
(The entire section is 2260 words.)
SOURCE: “An Ideology of Blood,” in National Review, August 14, 1987, pp. 45–46.
[In the following negative review, Neusner condemns A History of the Jews as both a “fairy tale” and a masked ideological defense of Israel.]
The famed British journalist Paul Johnson wields his magic pen to tell the wonderful tale of the Jews. But the enchantment does not hold, because, in the end, you can't turn four millennia of diverse and scarcely intersecting stories into a single, unitary, linear, harmonious history—which is what Johnson pretends to do [in A History of the Jews], with intellectually disastrous results.
Jews have had histories. The Jews have not. No single line runs from Abraham in Ur to Jerusalem in the State of Israel. For Johnson, most unhappily, there's no “the” there. Most Jews’ stories do not get told in this crowd-pleasing rehearsal of ethnic self-love. For to have a single unitary history, you have to have a continuing social group, living in one place, speaking one language, responding to the requirements of a cogent culture, working out one destiny. Then you may have a coherent story: the history of Germany, the history of France. You do have histories of Jews in India or England, Poland or Peru. These histories do have beginnings and middles, and some of them have tragic endings, others, happy ones. But these histories do not connect. That is...
(The entire section is 1122 words.)
SOURCE: “Independent People,” in New York Review of Books, October 8, 1987, p. 7.
[In the following review, Momigliano offers a positive assessment of A History of the Jews, but notes shortcomings in Johnson's incomplete coverage of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Italian Jews.]
For more than a millennium the Jews have been divided between Muslim and Christian countries, and there have been centuries in the Middle Ages when the intellectual influence of Arab philosophy might appear to have given a decisive direction to Hebrew thought. For reasons that Bernard Lewis can explain better than any other living scholar, this was in fact not so, and it is in Christian countries that the Jews have emerged as the most creative, determined, and innovative. In other words, they have profited from the centuries of Christian technical and intellectual superiority, the Italian Renaissance included.
This admits an element of paradox because the Jews, even perhaps more than the Christians, had a recognized position in the Muslim world, whereas, as far as I can see, only one way was open to them, in principle, in the Christian world until the nineteenth century—and that was conversion to Christianity. A mixture of murder and conversion of the Jews was attempted by the Crusaders before they went against the Muslims. Conversion or expulsion was the famous solution of Spain at the end of the...
(The entire section is 1292 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Saving and Spending, in English Historical Review, Vol. CIII, No. 409, October, 1988, p. 1083.
[In the following review, Offer concludes that Saving and Spending is “a first-class contribution to working-class history.”]
With their low and fluctuating incomes, how did workers and their families make ends meet? That is the subject of Paul Johnson's Saving and Spending: The Working-Class Economy in Britain, 1870–1939. At some times the difficulty was to meet regular needs out of erratic incomes, at others an unforeseen crisis mopped up the regular trickle of wages. Different expedients and habits were adapted to the different time-horizons in working-class life: from the weekly problem of rent on Monday, through the seasonal one of coal for winter and the annual one of saving up for a few days’ holiday; from recurrent problems posed by the arrival of children, by illness, and by unemployment, to the terminal ones of old age and burial. Johnson takes them in reverse order, starting with the all-pervasive burial insurance, and the Friendly Societies that provided some protection from the hazards of sickness, unemployment and old age. He estimates the value of cash assets in savings banks and building societies, and assesses the role of co-operative retail societies. A rich variety of credit is considered under three headings: ‘not paying', pawning, and...
(The entire section is 496 words.)
SOURCE: “Dogs in Sheep's Clothing,” in New Statesman & Society, October 7, 1988, pp. 32–33.
[In the following review, Wood gives an unfavorable assessment of Intellectuals, which he judges to be “a naive book trying to look sensible and grown-up.”]
Intellectual is one of those words which lead relatively quiet lives as adjectives, but get shrill and nasty when they turn into nouns, especially in the plural. You can hear the indignation in them. This word crawls in red script up the cover of Paul Johnson's book [Intellectuals] like an accusation, like a sneer, saying, “Who do they think they are?” In the past the complainers were in the habit of using the prefix pseudo, thereby suggesting a respect for real intellectuals, if there happened to be any around. But this was wasteful, because there never were any around, and the distinction, it now seems, was just too generous. Real intellectuals are pseudos, genuine only in their fecklessness and greed for power. That certainly simplifies matters.
The index to this angry and depressing book has an item which is itself a brilliant review, almost sparing us the need for further comment. Under “intellectual characteristics” the entries are: anger, aggressiveness, violence; espousal of principle of violence; canonisation of; cowardice; courage; cruelty; deceitfulness, dishonesty; passion...
(The entire section is 1876 words.)
SOURCE: “Especially the Warts,” in Spectator, October 8, 1988, pp. 30–31.
[In the following review of Intellectuals, Mount writes that, despite the “customary brilliance in handling and summarising” with which Johnson presents his assertions, the book is flawed by Johnson's limited definition of intellectuals and gratuitous personal attacks.]
All too often, when coming to the end of a biography, one can only gasp to oneself (if internal gasping is a physical possibility): ‘What a horrible man.’ Set out over 400 pages or so—and biographies seem to be getting remorselessly longer again—there is something dispiriting about the lives of the heroes of our own and indeed of other times. So many of them were such cold and desolate monsters, emotional cripples belabouring with their crutches everyone within range, apparently incapable of genuine affection, or of a truly selfless act. Kindly readers blame the ‘debunking’ school of biography for distorting the truth. But biographers tend to be mild and hesitant judges. Often they themselves are as shocked by what they discover as their readers. Most of them tend to understate the reality, wherever they can.
That is not a fault often attributed to Mr Paul Johnson. And in this [book, Intellectuals, a] brisk and enjoyable canter through the lives of a dozen left-wing sages who have helped to hammer and glue...
(The entire section is 2008 words.)
SOURCE: “The Life and Work of Paul Johnson,” in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter, 1989, pp. 87–92.
[In the following negative review of Intellectuals, Hitchens attacks Johnson's mean-spirited prurience and hypocritical personal conduct.]
In a novel called Left of Centre which is now, to the relief of its publisher and author alike, safely out of print, Paul Johnson wrote what is generally agreed to be the most embarrassing spanking scene ever penned. The eclipse of that otherwise unreadable novel did nothing to dim the memory of the cringe-making episode, which was continually recalled to mind by Johnson's public and social behaviour. This often involved drunken and boorish conduct towards women, including his wife. On a famous occasion in a Greek restaurant in Charlotte Street in 1973, he struck her across the face for disagreeing with him in public and, when rebuked for this by a colleague of mine, threatened to put him through a plate glass window.
At a lunch given for the Israeli Ambassador in Britain in the board room of the old New Statesman, I watched Johnson bully and barrack Corinna Adam, then the foreign editor, as she attempted to engage Gideon Raphael in conversation. ‘Don't listen to her, she's a Communist!’ he kept bellowing, his face twisted and puce with drink. ‘Fascist bitch!’ he finally managed, before retiring to a sofa on...
(The entire section is 2360 words.)
SOURCE: “The Men Who Knew Too Much,” in Washington Post Book World, February 26, 1989, pp. 4–5.
[In the following review, Judis offers an unfavorable assessment of Intellectuals, questioning the book's “intellectual value.”]
The noun “intellectual” appeared in the early 19th century and was used in the same pejorative sense as the more recent term “egg-head,” but, in the intervening years, it has come to refer more neutrally to someone who dwells upon the larger questions of life and society. In this book [Intellectuals] profiling major liberal intellectuals from Rousseau through Mailer, however, British conservative Paul Johnson wants to restore the original, negative sense of the term. Johnson's intellectuals are egotistical, male chauvinist, avaricious, deceitful and sexually perverse. They are responsible for everything Johnson detests, from Stalin's Russia to the “childish” decade of the '60s.
Johnson argues that the ideas of these “secular intellectuals” are “rooted in” their depraved personalities. “Sartre's inability to maintain a friendship with any man of his own intellectual stature helps to explain the inconsistency, incoherence and at times sheer frivolity of his political views,” Johnson writes. There is even a causal chain from the man to his works to the acts performed in his name. Johnson writes of Marx's capacity for...
(The entire section is 903 words.)
SOURCE: “Fight, Fight, Fight,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 19, 1989, pp. 2, 12.
[In the following review, Jacoby offers a negative assessment of Intellectuals.]
Did you know that Rousseau enjoyed being spanked? Or that the poet Shelley was a “lifelong absconder and cheat”? That Karl Marx ate highly spiced food, rarely bathed and fathered an illegitimate child? The elderly Ibsen was a flirt, and feared heights and dogs? Brecht a womanizer, with dirty teeth, neck and ears? Or Sartre indulged in whiskey, jazz, girls and cabaret while his mother laundered his clothes? If you find this valuable, you're in luck: Paul Johnson has compiled this information in Intellectuals, an almanac of titillating facts and hearsay about writers and thinkers.
Johnson is an English journalist and historian of decidedly conservative bent; his histories have been vast, popular and often instructive studies peppered with scathing attacks on liberalism and leftism. Unfortunately, Intellectuals lacks the scope and crispness of his earlier volumes. It pivots on a simple proposition: Inasmuch as intellectuals offer advice to the world, we are entitled to inspect their personal credentials and record. “How did they run their own lives? … Were they just in their sexual and financial dealings?”
With no further ado, Johnson convenes court. He examines the accused...
(The entire section is 1178 words.)
SOURCE: “Crawling with Animus,” in New Leader, March 20, 1989, pp. 19–20.
[In the following review, Davis offers a negative assessment of Intellectuals, comparing the work to other contradictions and misrepresentations in Johnson's previous works.]
If Intellectuals were a movie, it would be called Enemies II. It is the rancorous sequel to the book Paul Johnson published in 1977 called Enemies of Society, with scary chapter headings like “Schools for Attila,” “Heart of Darkness,” “Crime, Madness and Savagery,” “The Return of the Devils.” After a rapid survey of practically every aspect of Western civilization—science, economics, politics, education, the arts—Johnson warned that unless we return to a belief in moral absolutes civilization is doomed. The book received little attention.
A decade later Allan Bloom made an amazing publishing success by sounding the same alarm in The Closing of the American Mind, except that his guide was Plato, not the Pope. Whatever one thought of its thesis, Bloom's book, with its frequent references to Hobbes and Heidegger, Hegel and Nietzsche, was wittily argued and intellectually demanding. How many of its tens of thousands of purchasers read it through—or understood much of what they read—we cannot know.
Johnson's new work, crawling with animus, makes no intellectual...
(The entire section is 1779 words.)
SOURCE: “Bad Guys,” in National Review, April 21, 1989, pp. 44–46.
[In the following review, Sobran offers an unfavorable assessment of Intellectuals.]
Intellectuals is a book for people for whom “intellectuals” is already a dirty word. Paul Johnson offers case studies of 12 outstanding men of the mind who in private life were pretty nasty numbers: Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, Tolstoi, Hemingway, Brecht, Bertrand Russell, Sartre, Edmund Wilson, Victor Gollancz, and Lillian Hellman. The final chapter glances at Cyril Connolly, Norman Mailer, Kenneth Tynan, James Baldwin, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Noam Chomsky.
What do all these people have in common? I'm still wondering. They vary enormously in their ideas, interests, stature, and sins. Johnson never really explains what Tolstoi and Miss Hellman are doing in the same book. It seems odd to call Hemingway an intellectual, though he was a genius. If the common denominator is simply celebrity in the intellectual world, why is Gollancz included?
The real focal point of the book seems to be Johnson's attitude toward his subjects: fascinated disapproval. Most of them are “progressives” whose own lives were hardly advertisements for their ideas; none could be called “reactionary.” But it's hard to say whether Johnson disapproves of them because they don't live up to their own ideals, or because...
(The entire section is 862 words.)
SOURCE: “Bad Behavior,” in New York Review of Books, July 20, 1989, pp. 11–13.
[In the following review, Williams dismisses Intellectuals as a “useless” enterprise and suggests more fruitful questions that Johnson might have pursued instead.]
Paul Johnson is a prolific British writer who has produced histories of the Jews, Christianity, the modern world, and the English people. He is, I believe, a Catholic (if so, it commendably did not discourage him, in his substantial and very readable history of Christianity, from admitting that the religion, to all intents and purposes, was founded by Saint Paul). Between 1955 and 1970 he worked on the left-wing journal The New Statesman, and for six years was its editor, with more success than anyone has achieved since. He is now firmly entrenched on the right, and is a fierce critic of left intellectuals.
The background to his new book [Intellectuals] is the rise and influence of secular intellectuals as moral and political guides, a development which he interprets as an unsuccessful replacement for clerical authority. This general theme is only the background to the book—indeed, it might be called the excuse for it—and not its subject, since Johnson does not discuss the role of the intellectual in general terms, nor does he consider the difference between secular and religious intellectuals or ask whether they...
(The entire section is 3128 words.)
SOURCE: “Intellectuals All?,” in Modern Age, Vol. 33, No. 3, Fall, 1990, pp. 298–99.
[In the following review, Felix offers an unfavorable assessment of Intellectuals.]
Paul Johnson has written four wide-ranging, popular histories characterized by an intelligence cleansed of stereotypical conceptions and an ease in synthesizing vast varieties of experience. His Modern Times (1983) informed the reader about significant elements of recent history which the predominantly left-wing perspective of Western academia has distorted or passed by, for example, Herbert Hoover's anticipations of the New Deal or the extent of the damage caused by China's Cultural Revolution. His new book is not in this class. Indeed one hesitates to assign it to a class.
If Johnson's idiosyncratic views brightened a mass of data in the earlier works, those views take total command here regardless of the data. In his decade and a half with the left-wing New Statesman, six years of it as editor, he learned to detest the left-leaning orthodoxies from the inside. While his chosen targets are the left-wing intellectuals, he is so generous in his anathemas that he extends them to non-leftists like Tolstoy, Ibsen, Kenneth Tynan, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Just naming this last four suggests another problem with the book: many of its subjects are not intellectuals at all.
(The entire section is 790 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Intellectuals, in History, Vol. 76, No. 246, February, 1991, pp. 86–87.
[In the following review of Intellectuals, Briggs finds shortcomings in Johnson's “highly selective” subject matter and his failure to provide an adequate definition of an intellectual.]
In this book [Intellectuals] Paul Johnson reveals—or rather displays—intense distaste for intellectuals even though he has strong claims to be considered one of them. He provides no clear definition, however, of what an intellectual is, and is highly selective in his choice of both themes and of evidence. There is little in the book about ideas as such, although claims are made about their influence, claims which are unrelated to other factors, for example interests, which may account for their acceptance and their intensity. Johnson begins with Rousseau and includes later chapters or sections on Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Brandt, Russell, Sartre, Edmund Wilson, Gollancz, Lillian Hellman, Cyril Connolly, Fassbinder and Chomsky. Each character is given a vituperative capitalized label derived either from a contemporary or a critic. Rousseau is ‘An Interesting Madman’; Tolstoy ‘God's Elder Brother’; Sartre ‘A Little Ball of Fire and Ink’. The labels tell us little of the contents of the bottle, and significantly there are no contemporary British creative intellectuals in the...
(The entire section is 527 words.)
SOURCE: “The Day before Yesterday,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 2, 1991, p. 9.
[In the following review, Seheuer expresses disdain for Johnson's conservatism but praises The Birth of the Modern as “a profoundly, persistently, maddeningly interesting work.”]
What on earth does Paul Johnson mean by the Modern and World Society? The terms seem almost too broad to have meaning.
Over the last two centuries, Western society has changed radically in every respect in technology and commerce, art and intellect, popular government and private morals; through nationalism, colonialism, genocide. Science has journeyed to outer space and inside the atom. To isolate a brief, early period of transition would seem futile and misguided. But while The Birth of the Modern is many things—possibly too many—misguided isn't one of them.
Johnson, the author of such works as Modern Times, A History of the Jews and A History of the English People, doesn't shy from big subjects. Nor does he distill, condense or simplify. History isn't a tidy affair, and neither is this sprawling, cornucopian book. Its main thesis has two parts: that the ultimate mark of modernity is global integration, spurred on by technological revolutions; and that the world emerged from the period 1815–1830 significantly more integrated than before....
(The entire section is 1484 words.)
SOURCE: “Out with the Old, In with the New,” in Washington Post Book World, June 9, 1991, pp. 1, 18.
[In the following review of The Birth of the Modern, Caute commends Johnson's writing and use of anecdotes, but finds the book's underlying Thatcherite message and expansive digressions tenuously related to its purported theme.]
Paul Johnson's 1,000-page book [The Birth of the Modern] reports everything we might wish to know about the world during the 15 years after the fall of Napoleon—and some more. The Bourbon monarchy was restored in 1815 and fell in 1830; across the Channel, the British settled down to a period of Tory-controlled constitutional stability, and of virtual world hegemony. Although Johnson accords the emergent United States respectful attention, his chosen chronological frontiers clearly indicate a Eurocentric perspective. The British are the star players; the wider world is largely their chessboard. Devoted to balance and moderation, they frequently blast everyone else out of the water.
Industrial power is at the root of it. Science, industry, economic growth and land speculation in the American Midwest lead on to Australia, the aborigines and Maoris, the Cape, Burma, China and Johnson's dislike of Protestant missionaries. The Royal Navy polices the world, reluctantly teaching miscreants a lesson, particularly Arab slavers—a strong smell of the...
(The entire section is 1113 words.)
SOURCE: “The Wealth of Notions,” in National Review, June 24, 1991, pp. 42–43.
[In the following review of The Birth of the Modern, Sobran praises Johnson's wide-ranging knowledge but finds shortcomings in the book's lack of humor and drama, and in Johnson's “superficial” understanding of modernity.]
Paul Johnson is spreading himself thick. He has already written two surveys of modern intellectual life; histories of Christianity, the Jews, the English people, and Ireland; biographies of Elizabeth I and Pope John XXIII; and of course Modern Times. Some of these are in my opinion wrongheaded books, but all are impressive for sheer breadth of knowledge. Johnson never writes a page without at least a couple of surprising facts.
Now he is apparently reduced to inventing a new subject, The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815–1830. He contends that this underrated period is that during which “the matrix of the modern world was largely formed.” To those who doubt this, he says: “It is true that modernity was conceived in the 1780s. But the actual birth, delayed by the long, destructive gestation period formed by the Napoleonic Wars, could begin in full measure only when peace came and the immense new resources in finance, management, science, and technology which were now available could be put to constructive purposes.”
This is an...
(The entire section is 1574 words.)
SOURCE: “Criticizing Social Criticism,” in Boundary 2, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 207–26.
[In the following excerpt, Wolff examines the waning vitality of leftist social criticism and Johnson's “right-wing tirade of rage” in Intellectuals.]
These are anxious times for social criticism and social critics, especially for those who approach from the Left. Movement toward social democracy has been reversed in the United States for more than a decade. An individualism defined in terms of private wealth and power accumulations proclaims itself as the solution to all social problems. The 1950s’ celebration of U.S. capitalism as a pluralistic, democratic near-utopia—rudely interrupted by the 1960s’ New Left—seems once more to be in gear. Individualist thinking is the ascendant moral tone, political slogan, and economic fetish. Even movements associated with the Left have in part felt obliged to accept and promote individualism. One of the new kinds of Marxist theory proclaims its “methodological individualism” as the only possible future for Marxism.1 To take another example, in the struggle over abortion in the United States, many partisans on both sides stress the rights of “the individual,” differing on which individual and when individuality is achieved.
Perhaps all social critics can do is chip away at the remaining obstacles to individual...
(The entire section is 1847 words.)
SOURCE: “The Historian as Tattler,” in New Republic, August 12, 1991, pp. 36–40.
[In the following negative review of The Birth of the Modern, Stone finds serious flaws in Johnson's “monstrous, prejudiced, and incoherent book.”]
This is no brief and brilliant essay. [The Birth of the Modern] is a mammoth tome of nearly 1,100 pages. (Why are so many books a thousand pages long these days? Have publishers gone mad?) In his preface, Paul Johnson gives warning of what is to come: “Sometimes readers will have to bear with me while we retrace our steps a little before resuming the onward march: but we always get there in the end.” Well, yes and no. It would be easier if Johnson offered a clear account as to where “there” is, but he never does.
Before we get to the strengths and the weaknesses of the book's argument, however, it is essential first to describe its unusual contents. Johnson goes about his enormous undertaking in a very peculiar manner: he hops to and fro like a bird looking for worms. Despite his belief that “chronology forms the bones of history, on which all else is built,” he provides no narrative line of any kind. Thus he starts his first chapter with the battle of New Orleans in 1814, which he describes as “one of the decisive battles of history,” despite the fact that 3,000 miles away the Treaty of Ghent between Britain and the...
(The entire section is 4559 words.)
SOURCE: “All's Right with the World,” in Times Literary Supplement, September 6, 1991, p. 12.
[In the following review, Johnson offers a positive assessment of The Birth of the Modern.]
It has been customary among historians to describe the year 1815 as the year of Restoration, because that is what it appeared to be in France. A Bourbon prince was received at the gates of Paris with the words, “it is but a hundred days since your Highness went away.” The miscalculation of the length of time that Napoleon's escape from Elba had obliged the royal family to be absent from Paris is not important (historians appreciate round figures), but the implication that everything had returned to normal and that recent events were quite ephemeral is important. The principle of legitimacy had been supposedly restored, and whatever principles the Revolution might have stood for had failed, just as Napoleon had failed. The monarch took the title Louis XVIII to show that, although the son of Louis XVI had never ruled after his father's execution, he had nevertheless been the legitimate king.
Paul Johnson does not care for the French Revolution [in The Birth of the Modern]. He claims that it represented government by an elite, punctuated by terror, chaos and complots. Nor is he an admirer of Napoleon, whom he regards as a tyrant, a plunderer and the inventor of the police state. But he...
(The entire section is 942 words.)
SOURCE: “Intellectual Dinosaur,” in New Statesman & Society, September 20, 1991, pp. 44, 46.
[In the following review of The Birth of the Modern, Howe objects to Johnson's misleading and narrow Eurocentric perspective and his reliance on outmoded sources.]
This vast, often entertaining book [The Birth of the Modern] carries an utterly fraudulent title and preface. Paul Johnson proclaims that it “deals with the whole world and has no one angle of vision … seeking to portray international society in its totality.” It does nothing of the sort. It is a narrative of political, cultural, social and, to a very limited extent, economic changes in the world of the north Atlantic and western Europe, centred overwhelmingly on Britain.
Almost exactly half the text deals with British events and personalities, not including material on British travellers, soldiers, sailors and conquerors overseas; and more than half the remainder with the US and, to a lesser degree, France. Even within Britain, the focus is primarily on a very restricted and rather predictable range of figures: Byron and Coleridge, Hazlitt and Wordsworth, their friends, relations and rivals, and a few (a very few) scientists and statesmen.
Such social history as Johnson interjects—discussion of marriage and morals, drinking and duelling and so on—is drawn mostly from the...
(The entire section is 822 words.)
SOURCE: “With Jane Austen as Patron Saint,” in Spectator, September 21, 1991, pp. 37–38.
[In the following review of The Birth of the Modern, Hayter praises Johnson's “dazzling display of polymath erudition,” but finds the historical importance attached to the years 1815 to 1830 overstated.]
On 8 January 1815 British troops unsuccessfully attacked New Orleans; on 15 September 1830 the world's first long-distance passenger train on its opening sortie from Liverpool to Manchester ran over and killed Huskisson, without whom the weakened Tory Government fell, and the way was opened for the Reform Bill. The 15 years between these two events, this book suggests, contain ‘the matrix of the modern world', and to prove this thesis it provides an immense and impressive survey of political, economic, financial, technological and social developments in Europe, North and South America and, to a lesser extent, in Asia and Africa. The intricate intrigues of American presidential elections, the vagaries of Japanese xenophobia, the sinister implications of Hegelian philosophy, the techniques of every kind of mechanical process from rigging-block production lines to lithography, are dexterously unravelled. It is a dazzling display of polymath erudition.
What is implied by ‘The Modern’ to which, the title of this book [The Birth of the Modern] suggests, the years from 1815 to...
(The entire section is 1415 words.)
SOURCE: “From Far Left to Far Right,” in New Leader, November 4–18, 1991, pp. 21–22.
[In the following review of The Birth of the Modern, Draper appreciates Johnson's occasionally “fascinating” connective observations, but judges the book's overall tone to be “extreme” and “unfair.”]
During the 1970s, Paul Johnson departed the immoderate Left of the British Labor Party for the immoderate Right of the British Conservative Party. He tells a revealing story about his constitutional tendency to excess in the Introduction to The Oxford Book of British Political Anecdotes (1986). From 1955 to 1970 Johnson worked at the Leftist New Statesman. One day, he was seated at a luncheon beside Aneuran Bevan, the radical British Labor Party politician. The host, a Socialist millionaire, gave each guest a Monte Cristo, then as today Cuba's most expensive cigar. Bevan “puffed his with profound enjoyment. Then he noticed mine was untouched and asked why. I had only just become a Socialist, and I explained that I did not think it right that Socialists should enjoy such luxuries. ‘Oooooh, you are one of those, are you?’ asked Bevan with Olympian contempt. ‘Well, give it here, boy,’ and he took my cigar and tucked it safely into his top pocket.”
By the 1980s, Johnson had become perhaps the chief literary voice of Thatcherism. Yet he remains “one...
(The entire section is 1570 words.)
SOURCE: “Modernity,” in Commentary, Vol. 93, No. 6, June, 1992, pp. 54, 56.
[In the following review, Gall praises The Birth of the Modern as “a vast and vastly rich book.”]
From the terrible conflicts of this century we have learned that, in addition to the devastation they wreak, big wars can accelerate on-going innovations in organization and material technologies that will in turn expand the scale, complexity, and logistical reach of those human communities able to recover quickly from the conflagrations. Just so, Paul Johnson boldly argues in this vast and vastly rich book [The Birth of the Modern], “the matrix of the modern world was largely formed” in the years between the battles of Waterloo and New Orleans in 1815 and the overthrow of the restored French monarchy in 1830. According to Johnson,
modernity was conceived in the 1780’s. But the actual birth, delayed by the long, destructive gestation period formed by the Napoleonic wars, could begin in full measure only when peace came and the immense new resources in finance, management, science, and technology which were now available could be put to constructive purposes.
By then, thanks to steam power, the world's first passenger railway (Manchester-Liverpool) was running, and nine daily newspapers were being published in London. The same new...
(The entire section is 1559 words.)
SOURCE: “Stink Bomb,” in New Statesman & Society, May 20, 1994, pp. 38–39.
[In the following review, Pearce offers a negative assessment of Wake up Britain!]
The pity of this book [Wake up Britain!] is not that it is bad (though, curate's egg-wise, parts of it are less bad than grotesque) but that it conveys the heat that extinguishes light. It speaks a strong personality, but a personality at war with the author's intelligence.
Johnson has written on the throwing-away of the British empire, surrender to the Brussels dictatorship, the rise of the criminal and parallel rise of the welfare sponger, the failure of royalty, the hatefulness of the arts bureaucracy and the contemptibility of bishops. A good Conservative critique would be cool about state power, educational theory and the exact workings of the welfare state. But to be good it must be generous, must understand why the status quo came about.
It must also not be nostalgic. To look back to better times is to sculpt in sand. But chiefly, such a book must be cool. Johnson is the enemy of his own case because, like Furnace in Massinger's A New Way to Pay Old Debts, “At all hours and all places I'll be angry: / And thus provok'd when I am at my prayers / I will be angry.”
He must also avoid talking nonsense. If Johnson doesn't like post-Maastricht Europe that is his...
(The entire section is 987 words.)
SOURCE: “Rocking the Cradle,” in Times Literary Supplement, June 3, 1994, p. 30.
[In the following review of Wake up Britain!, Haseler finds shortcomings in Johnson's lack of vision and “reactionary” protest against Britain's decline.]
Paul Johnson's polemicism, always sweeping, surpasses even its own larger-than-life standards in his most recent addition to the great British decline industry. For anyone who wants a tour d'horizon of the country's national woes, Wake up Britain!: A Latter-Day Pamphlet is a perfect guide. Johnson, in what is essentially a series of essays, casts his eye across the full spectrum of failure—from the decline in law and order to the egregious abuses of the public sector and Welfare State, and from the conformity and mediocrity of Britain's culture to the loss of spirituality in the Church; and, of course, he engages with the worst supposed woe of all, the country's impending loss of national independence to Brussels.
This tract is certainly vintage Johnson, full of that intriguing combination of high-flown rhetoric and “did you know?” details which one of his heroes, Ronald Reagan, perfected as a debating tool. Johnson is also refreshingly open about his motives. “Along with many people of my age and older,” he declares, “I have felt this diminishing and demeaning of Britain with all my heart and soul.” And he has a...
(The entire section is 1066 words.)
SOURCE: “All Roads Lead to Rome,” in New Statesman & Society, March 15, 1996, pp. 32-33.
[In the following review of The Quest for God, Stanford appreciates Johnson's spiritual humility and moving personal sentiment, but finds fault in the book's infallible and combative tone.]
Paul Johnson has had more stabs at defining his personal philosophy than Zsa Zsa Gabor had at finding wedded bliss. In their restless and very public search for happiness, both have ended up as comic—and sometimes tragic—figures, Gabor preening like an extra in the Golden Girls and Johnson understudying for Victor Meldrew in the pages of the Daily Mail.
In political terms, Johnson has swung from left to right and then back again. Once editor of the New Statesman, he was bowled over by Margaret Thatcher—referred to reverently in The Quest for God as “this Queen of Politics.” Latterly, however, he has been seen ambling back along the road from Damascus in the direction of Tony Blair. There is little sign yet that John Smith House is preparing the fatted calf.
Close friends talk of two Paul Johnsons. One is the intolerant bigot who glories in parading an ever more eclectic list of prejudices in his journalism. Top of the current hit-list is Channel 4 boss Michael Grade, damned by Johnson as “a money grubber” and “Britain's...
(The entire section is 1186 words.)
SOURCE: “Created in His Own Image,” in Spectator, March 30, 1996, pp. 29–31.
[In the following review, Miles offers a negative assessment of The Quest for God.]
‘Even God weeps,’ the Sicilians say. Who would not grieve at the depths of human wickedness and weakness that we see on all sides? But surely, what drives the Almighty to reach for the Kleenex is not the daily diet of evil, rage and spite, but the dismal parade of pettiness and self-importance, of solipsism parading as significance that is passed off in His name. There will be tears in Heaven, then, at this new gospel according to St Paul Johnson, personal pilgrim by appointment to the Ancient of Days.
For [The Quest for God] is a deeply disappointing book, the more so as its avowed aim is ‘to help’ both the writer and ‘other people’. What could have been an intellectually rigorous, thought-provoking and fascinating journey of spiritual exploration proves to come straight from the ‘What-I-tell-you-three-times-is-true’ school of bashing the brainless and educating the great unwashed. ‘True? It's more than true,’ Johnson raves, ‘God's a fact!’ That's all right, then. Confident that the class must be paying attention after this irrefutable feat of intellectual persuasion, Johnson then sets up a series of self-referential circularities and answers his own pre-set propositions with a...
(The entire section is 909 words.)
SOURCE: “Right Recusant,” in Times Literary Supplement, June 21, 1996, p. 30.
[In the following review of The Quest for God, Symondson concludes that Johnson's idiosyncratic book will irritate many, while offering illumination and inspiration for like-minded Catholics.]
This book will cause annoyance. Paul Johnson delights in being a gadfly and he will not disappoint his critics. In this case, he irritates for God. The Quest for God is provocative and flies in the face of received liberal, humanist values, but it should not be dismissed therefore. Johnson believes that the existence or non-existence of God is the most important question man is ever called to answer. He has written this investigation to help himself and others to clarify their belief, and to share the conviction and consolation of his Catholic faith. Inevitably he runs the risk of thinking aloud and of rehearsing his own prejudices, some of which are contradictory. He makes a serious attempt to face the reality of God, and the implications that that belief entails.
The Enlightenment and the philosophers of the nineteenth century demonstrated that the existence of God cannot be proved. Progressives believed in wiping the slate clean, and making a fresh start on social and scientific principles in a world emancipated from God. Yet God refuses to die, faith survives and for those to whom it is given it is...
(The entire section is 989 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Twentieth-Century Britain, in History, Vol. 81, No. 263, July, 1996, pp. 492–93.
[In the following review, Thorpe offers a positive assessment of Twentieth-Century Britain.]
As we approach the end of the twentieth century, it is becoming increasingly feasible for history departments in higher education establishments to offer survey courses concentrating exclusively on the period since 1900. The literature is rich, and interest among potential students is high. Yet one of the problems with teaching such a course, until recently, has been the lack of good surveys. This gap is now being filled, but, even so, there was still a gap in the market for a book which moved away from the traditional ‘textbook’ format, heavy on politics and ‘events', and towards the broader conceptual questions of society, economics and culture without which any course on twentieth-century Britain would be, to some extent, just ‘one damned thing after another’. This gap is filled admirably by Johnson's volume [Twentieth-Century Britain]. The twenty-seven essays in the book, while not offering a ‘total’ coverage of the period, do at least explore numerous important (and sometimes neglected) aspects of the century. Politics per se is excluded, probably wisely, unless the editor wanted to double the length of an already substantial volume. Instead, the focus is very much on...
(The entire section is 414 words.)
SOURCE: “The Road Back to God,” in National Review, July 15, 1996, pp. 49–50.
[In the following review, Klinghoffer offers a positive assessment of The Quest for God, despite objecting to Johnson's “enthusiasm for imagining things beyond the scope of revelation.”]
For conservatives, the importance of Paul Johnson's new book [The Quest for God] is demonstrated not by comparing it to similar books—of which, by current writers, there are few—but by considering something apparently unrelated: the barely detectable conservative effort to fend off legalized gay marriage.
As most of us sense, the real reason to oppose gay marriage is simply that God opposes it. In Leviticus, He warned the Israelites to shun the “practices” of the Egyptians and the Canaanites, if they wanted to avoid getting ejected from the Holy Land, and the Talmud records that one of those practices was to allow men to marry men and women to marry women. If not a Holy Land, America is, or at least once was, a holy land. Just as God watched the Israelites, He is watching us.
Given that the first principle of conservatism is the belief that “a divine intent rules society,” as Russell Kirk put it, it is strange that on this issue we have heard little from the Right. On the New York Times op-ed page, Lisa Schiffren had the temerity to invoke “the Judaeo-Christian...
(The entire section is 1531 words.)
SOURCE: “Making Churchill Cry,” in Times Literary Supplement, December 27, 1996, p. 36.
[In the following review, Keates offers an unfavorable assessment of To Hell with Picasso.]
In Wycherley's The Country Wife, it is the foolish beau Sparkish who says of his wily mistress Alithea, “she'd have me believe the moon had been made of a Christmas pie.” In the case of Paul Johnson, one unique to the point of bizarrerie, the reader has always played Sparkish to his Alithea, but with a slight yet significant difference. Johnson is not only concerned that others should have faith in such astro-culinary transubstantiation. The important secondary feature is our acknowledgement that he himself believes in the miracle. As he is a Catholic of the most bigoted variety, this has never been a problem. The moral dangers inherent in conviction as an end in itself clearly do not trouble him. If he cherishes any sort of doubt whatever, this is to be shared with his wife Marigold or his father confessor, certainly not paraded before his readers.
The resulting impression is of a mind hermetically sealed within a kind of innocence which, according to our several tastes, must appear either utterly disarming or else almost menacingly hideous. Thus opening To Hell with Picasso, an accumulation of Johnsonian feuilletons designed for his weekly appearances in the Spectator, is...
(The entire section is 860 words.)
SOURCE: “Errand in the Wilderness,” in Times Literary Supplement, November 21, 1997, p. 3.
[In the following review of A History of the American People, McDougall finds shortcomings and unanswered questions in Johnson's work, but concedes that his “zesty, irreverent narratives teach more history to more people than all the postmodernist theorists, highbrow critics and dons put together.”]
Paul Johnson writes so many books—over thirty to date—so quickly, at such length, on such epic themes, that he invites condescension. Where great scholars of American history, for instance, may hesitate even in the autumn of life to harvest the whole field they have tended, Johnson sweeps in with a scythe, eyes alert for the choicest bits, hauls the crop to market, and moves on. The result is a lorry-load of rich wheat and annoying chaff, indifferently bundled. Still, one is obliged to remark on how well the big job was done, given the brief time invested.
In the preface to A History of the American People, Johnson confesses that he learnt almost no American history in school, that he came to it through the back door, and that he wrote the book in order to teach himself. It is not surprising, therefore, that his descriptions of such complex phenomena as Reconstruction or the origins of the Cold War are based on a few secondary sources; that he lingers over subjects in a way...
(The entire section is 2664 words.)
SOURCE: “Parts of It Are Excellent,” in Spectator, December 20–27, 1997, pp. 77–78.
[In the following review, Stone offers a positive assessment of A History of the American People, despite finding shortcomings in Johnson's cursory treatment of topics such as media bias, education, and New Deal economics.]
An interesting review of this book [A History of the American People] came from Ray Seitz, a recent American ambassador in London, in the Sunday Telegraph. Yes, he said, judiciously, it was a success, in many ways a brilliant one. The first three-quarters or thereabouts had the best qualities of the best history books: curious, hitherto-unknown detail, some fun, solid work based on solid sources, balance, etc. Then it went haywire. When it reached the ultra-modern era, it became propaganda.
The discerning reader of Ambassador Seitz's review will therefore turn to that bit first. The Sixties, and especially the Seventies, saw the American Dream fall apart. The Eighties, under Reagan, were quite different. The Nineties seems to have consisted of missed opportunities and dithering. Paul Johnson does indeed say very good things about Reagan, whose presidency, to the astonishment of the American Establishment, was not only a great success, but was also fun (encouraged by Ronald Reagan's Bob Hope sense of humour). There is now a serious proposal to rename the...
(The entire section is 1798 words.)
SOURCE: “Just So,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 8, 1998, p. 4.
[In the following review of A History of the American People, Wright finds shortcomings in Johnson's characterizations of certain key figures, particularly Franklin D. Roosevelt, but concludes that Johnson provides “a vivid and highly readable portrait of the way in which the United States has emerged.”]
Paul Johnson is brave and bold, comprehensive and versatile: brave and bold, in that he writes a 900-page single-volume history of the United States without having studied its history at school (Stonyhurst) or university (Oxford) where, in any case, in his day no American history was taught. The book [A History of the American People] is comprehensive in that its history is a reinterpretation of the American story from the first settlements to the Clinton administration, covering politics, business and economics, immigration, the commercial aspects of slavery, the growth of cities, art, literature, science, religious beliefs, the problems of alcoholism from the frontier to Prohibition and beyond, the recurrence of public hysteria (from colonial witch hunts to red scares to McCarthyism) and Vietnam.
For all of it, Johnson draws on records, diaries and letters, and yet he writes in a style that is smooth yet trenchant and is supported by what must be a gazillion words of notes about his source...
(The entire section is 1787 words.)
SOURCE: “Johnson's America,” in National Review, March 9, 1998, pp. 59–62.
[In the following review, Lind offers a generally positive assessment of A History of the American People.]
Although he might be horrified by the comparison, Paul Johnson reminds me of another British writer, H. G. Wells. Like Johnson, Wells was an amazingly prolific generalist who took it upon himself to bring order to chaos in vast realms of human experience and to pronounce his judgments with the Olympian certainty and infernal wit that only journalists and pundits are licensed to deploy. Also like Wells, who was too smart to be a consistent leftist, Johnson, a convert from the Left to the Right, strikes me as constitutionally incapable of acting as a spokesman for any orthodoxy.
For any other writer, a history of the American people would be a daunting, lifelong project. For Johnson—the author of, among other works, synoptic histories of the Jews, Christianity, and modernity—the subject is comparatively modest. The very fact that [in A History of the American People] Johnson has undertaken to write a history of the American people is a clue to his perspective. For a national history presupposes a nation.
A significant current debate involves precisely this question: Is there an American nation? The “national question” is addressed by three schools of thought. American...
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SOURCE: “The Theater of Liberty,” in Washington Post Book World, March 15, 1998, p. 3.
[In the following review of A History of the American People, Yardley commends Johnson's coverage of early America but strongly objects to his portrayal of American history since the 1960s. As a result, Yardley concludes that the book “is deeply disappointing.”]
This massively ambitious book is the work of a distinguished British journalist who has made himself into an amateur scholar of forbidding accomplishments. Paul Johnson always aims high; his previous books include Modern Times, A History of the Jews, A History of the English People and The Quest for God, next to which the matters covered in A History of the American People seem positively modest.
The story told here is, of course, a large and great one. Johnson tells it with fluid prose, a powerful belief in the inherent goodness of the American people, a partisan and ideological cast that grows ever more evident as the story reaches its later chapters, and a breadth of knowledge that is at once deeply impressive and woefully limited. This last is not just a matter of factual inaccuracy, though there is evidence of that, but of an occasional inability—odd, in a book that means to be panoramic—to see the forest for the trees.
The “key text … for the American...
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SOURCE: “We're Just Wonderful People,” in Commonweal, March 27, 1998, pp. 22–23.
[In the following review, Appy offers a negative assessment of A History of the American People.]
Conservatives seem to believe that left-wing “revisionists” are winning the historical culture wars. If so, the revolutionary consequences are surprisingly hard to identify. Most of my students flock to places like Wall Street, Amgen, and Hewlett Packard, and very few are demanding workplace democracy or joining radical history book clubs during their hours of leisure. In the public arena, left-wing dominance is equally difficult to document. Witness the 1995 decision by the Smithsonian Institute to abandon an exhibit that raised historical questions about the necessity and morality of dropping atomic bombs on Japan in 1945. Editorials raged against the museum for “dishonoring” U.S. veterans “whose lives were saved by the bomb,” an ironclad faith the exhibit would have questioned. The Senate voted unanimously to condemn the proposal and the museum caved in, at the same time pulling the plug on another potentially controversial exhibit about the Vietnam War.
An analogous debate surfaced in 1994 regarding National History Standards. The idea of creating a voluntary set of outlines for historical instruction in American schools had received strong support from President George Bush, and the work...
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SOURCE: “Paul Johnson's America,” in New Criterion, Vol. 16. No. 8, April, 1998, pp. 12–18.
[In the following review, Arkes offers a favorable assessment of A History of the American People.]
Henry James describes, in one of his short stories, a writer of unabated success, and remarks that “it was not given her not to please.” In the case of the English historian Paul Johnson, it is not given him to write dull or opaque sentences, even on some rather abstruse and complicated subjects that do not figure to command a popular audience. For many good, imperishable reasons, we are not apt to see a musical version of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. And yet, one has the sense that, if Paul Johnson tried his hand at a work expounding Kant, he would somehow make a bestseller of it. He is not himself a biblical scholar, and yet he wrote a History of the Jews that could be read, with profit and satisfaction, by people who were well-tutored in the arcana of Jewish theology. One friend, learned in these matters, was quite astonished at the range of writings that Johnson managed to cover—and to explain in readable prose.
That astonishment may be warranted, in only a slightly modulated form, by his most recent offering, A History of the American People. For this work, too, must be counted as magisterial: it is not an array of “impressions,” offered up by a...
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SOURCE: “The Big Picture,” in American Spectator, Vol. 31, No. 4, April, 1998, pp. 68–71.
[In the following review, O'Sullivan offers a positive assessment of A History of the American People.]
This is a history of one of the eight wonders of the modern world by the ninth. Before getting to the American people, let us quickly review Paul Johnson. A successful print and television journalist—at different times editor of the intellectual leftist weekly, the New Statesman, columnist for the fogeyish London Spectator, and hard-hitting, straight-from-the-shoulder columnist for the populist Tory Daily Mail—Johnson took up history in his middle years, at about the time most of us are taking up pension brochures. He has since written a history of the British people, a history of Christianity, a history of the Jews, a history of the modern world, and a history of the birth of modernity, relaxing in between by writing quicker studies on such topics as God, intellectuals, and John Major's Tory government. That would be impressive if the histories were brisk snapshots of their topics; in fact, each one is a comprehensive account, generally between 800 and 1,000 pages in length, not merely summarizing the vast mass of historical research, but also shaping it into a coherent narrative in lively and readable prose.
As Norman Podhoretz said of Johnson a few years ago:...
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SOURCE: “Breezing through Egypt,” in Times Literary Supplement, November 26, 1999, p. 13.
[In the following review of The Civilization of Ancient Egypt, Ray commends Johnson's iconoclastic and well-illustrated book, but notes that parts of Johnson's account will likely “enrage” experts on the subject.]
If you or your family are looking for an opinionated book about Ancient Egypt to read over Christmas, stop looking: Paul Johnson's revised account of early Egyptian history and culture is precisely what you need. There is no sign in The Civilization of Ancient Egypt of the don's favourite mindset, the academic tentative, and not much use for padding devices such as “perhaps,” “probably,” and “On the one hand,. … On the other,. ….” If the Ancient Egyptians made a mess of anything or were on a hiding to nowhere, this is the book to spell it out. They get beta minus, for example, for embalming people, and overall they are not quite scholarship candidates, unlike the Greeks. If they managed to achieve something, they get a star on their record, but they get no special treatment. Here is an end-of-term report with the gloves off.
A treatment of the Egyptian calendar, for example, contains an alternative scheme which, the author assures us, “was too clumsy a system for the Egyptians, who liked accuracy even if they could not think in the abstract.” No...
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SOURCE: A review of Old Age from Antiquity to Post-Modernity, in American Historical Review, Vol. 105, No. 5, December, 2000, pp. 1699–700.
[In the following review, Haber concludes that Old Age from Antiquity to Post-Modernity is “a valuable contribution to the growing study of old age in the past,” despite shortcomings in the volume's lack of unity and narrow focus on Western Europe.]
In 1977, Peter N. Stearns noted that few scholars had published on the history of old age. While social history had addressed itself to childhood and the adult life of men and women, little research had been given to the last stage of life. Since that time, of course, numerous monographs and articles focused on the history of old age in both America and Europe. Coming nearly twenty-five years after Stearns's pronouncement, this collection of essays [Old Age from Antiquity to Post-Modernity] edited by Paul Johnson and Pat Thane adds significant voices to the study of old age and illuminates several debates that remain central in the field. Most clearly, as a group, these essays repeatedly argue against the long-standing myths that, despite the work of the last quarter of a century, continue to dominate scholarly ideas about old age. Convincingly, these essays demonstrate that old age has always existed. Even in ancient times, people did not assume that the forty-year-old was elderly; they marked...
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SOURCE: A review of The Renaissance, in Times Literary Supplement, December 15, 2000, p. 28.
[In the following review, Rabb offers a positive assessment of The Renaissance, but bemoans the book's lack of illustrations.]
Paul Johnson's brief survey of the Renaissance [The Renaissance], part of a new series of short narratives entitled The Universal History, is an enjoyable traversal of familiar territory. Although much that has occupied recent scholarship, such as the rise of civic republicanism, receives little attention, and the opinions are often highly individual (putting Kipling on a par with Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens, for instance), there are regular pleasures for the general reader: the conclusion, for one, in the description of warlord aesthetics, that “cultural patronage was the homage that vice paid to virtue.” The focus is on Florence and on the period's achievements in the arts. There are occasional slips, such as crediting Charles V with the creation of the Escorial, the assertion that the Renaissance left behind medieval “superstitions,” and the description of the Villa Rotonda as a house to live in, but overall this is a vivid distillation for a broad audience.
The one major shortcoming, in a book so centred on the arts, is the lack of illustrations. In their absence, what is the reader to make of a description of Santa Maria delle...
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Auchincloss, Kenneth. “Hymn of the Republic.” Newsweek (2 March 1998): 78.
Auchincloss gives a generally positive assessment of A History of the American People, though he notes that the book falters in focus during its discussion of the late-twentieth century.
Buruma, Ian. “The Gospel According to Paul.” New Yorker (20 May 1996): 93–96.
In this following review, Buruma offers a negative assessment of The Quest for God, objecting to Johnson's views on freedom, democracy, and authority.
Clarke, David. Review of A History of the American People, by Paul Johnson. Society 36, No. 3 (March–April 1999): 94–96.
In this review of A History of the American People, Clarke commends Johnson's emphasis on factual evidence but finds shortcomings in his system of documentation and interpretations of various events and people, particularly Ronald Reagan.
Hollander, Paul. Review of Intellectuals, by Paul Johnson. Society 26, No. 6 (September–October 1989): 97–99.
Hollander offers a generally positive assessment of Intellectuals.
Maier, Pauline. “The Do-It-Yourself Society.” New York Times Book Review (1 March 1998): 12.
Maier gives a mixed assessment...
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