A History of the American People Summary

Paul Johnson

A History of the American People

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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 industry than about the labor-management wars of the 1870’s or 1930’s.

Sources for Further Study

Commentary. CV, April, 1998, p. 31.

Commonweal. CXXV, March 27, 1998, p. 22.

Forbes. CLXI, April 6, 1998, p. 28.

Foreign Affairs. LXXVII, July, 1998, p. 118.

Library Journal. CXXIII, February 15, 1998, p. 156.

National Review. L, March 9, 1998, p. 59.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, March 1, 1998, p. 12.

Newsweek. CXXXI, March 2, 1998, p. 78.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, December 22, 1997, p. 45.

The Times Literary Supplement. November 21, 1997, p. 3.