Paul Johnson Critical Essays

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.