Dr. Johnson and His World is an example of the type of book for young adult readers that was spawned by the growth of social history that began in the 1930’s. Social history is a rejection of the premises of two earlier schools of historical analysis: the “great individual” approach, which assumes that important persons shape history by their strength of will or originality, and the political approach, which assumes that the story of who rules the nation is the story of the nation. Unlike the first approach, social history sees important individuals as products of, as well as shapers of, their times. Unlike the second approach, social history sees the common citizen’s experiences of daily life as more illustrative of a historical period than which party is in power. In post-World War II England and the United States, studies that combined biography and social history became common; notable literary, scientific, and political individuals would be presented in the context of their world in the years when the person achieved prominence. Brown wrote several other books in the same format, including Shakespeare and His World (1964).
In an age of mass education through sanitized textbooks, illustrated works of social history offer several advantages for young adult readers. They provide a variety of images instead of densely packed information. They treat categories of topics, such as transportation or housing, that are familiar to readers and easily contrasted to their own experience. They avoid the perception that history is a museum of dead facts by presenting the past as a living theater in which real persons performed. They serve as introductions to interesting people and fascinating times that may inspire further study in more traditional, detailed sources. Illustrated works of social history serve as an intellectual transition between books for children, which make a few important elements of the past personal or fabulous, and books for adults, which delight in detail and interpretation.