Paul Johnson Essay - Critical Essays

Johnson, Paul


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.

Principal Works

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)...

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Neal Ascherson (review date 20 May 1977)

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,...

(The entire section is 1537 words.)

Christopher Booker (review date 21 May 1977)

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...

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Mervyn Jones (review date 2 August 1985)

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...

(The entire section is 698 words.)

Colin Welch (review date 28 March 1987)

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...

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Geoffrey Crossick (review date April 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 551 words.)

Jacob Neusner (review date 19 April 1987)

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,...

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Harold Bloom (review date 24 May 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 959 words.)

Martin Gilbert (review date June 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 2260 words.)

Jacob Neusner (review date 14 August 1987)

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...

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Arnaldo Momigliano (review date 8 October 1987)

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...

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Avner Offer (review date October 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Michael Wood (review date 7 October 1988)

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...

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Ferdinand Mount (review date 8 October 1988)

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...

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Christopher Hitchens (review date Winter 1989)

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...

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John B. Judis (review date 26 February 1989)

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...

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Russell Jacoby (review date 19 March 1989)

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...

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Robert Gorham Davis (review date 20 March 1989)

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,...

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Joseph Sobran (review date 21 April 1989)

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...

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Bernard Williams (review date 20 July 1989)

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...

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David Felix (review date Fall 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 790 words.)

Asa Briggs (review date February 1991)

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...

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Jeffrey Seheuer (review date 2 June 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 1484 words.)

David Caute (review date 9 June 1991)

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...

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Joseph Sobran (review date 24 June 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 1574 words.)

Richard D. Wolff (essay date Summer 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 1847 words.)

Lawrence Stone (review date 12 August 1991)

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...

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Douglas Johnson (review date 6 September 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 942 words.)

Stephen Howe (review date 20 September 1991)

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 entire section is 822 words.)

Alethea Hayter (review date 21 September 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 1415 words.)

Roger Draper (review date 4–18 November 1991)

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...

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Norman Gall (review date June 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 1559 words.)

Edward Pearce (review date 20 May 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 987 words.)

Stephen Haseler (review date 3 June 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 1066 words.)

Peter Stanford (review date 15 March 1996)

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.


(The entire section is 1186 words.)

Rosalind Miles (review date 30 March 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 909 words.)

Anthony Symondson, S. J. (review date 21 June 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 989 words.)

Andrew Thorpe (review date July 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 414 words.)

David Klinghoffer (review date 15 July 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 1531 words.)

Jonathan Keates (review date 27 December 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 860 words.)

Walter A. McDougall (review date 21 November 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 2664 words.)

Norman Stone (review date 20–27 December 1997)

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,...

(The entire section is 1798 words.)

Esmond Wright (review date 8 March 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 1787 words.)

Michael Lind (review date 9 March 1998)

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 entire section is 2948 words.)

Jonathan Yardley (review date 15 March 1998)

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 entire section is 1706 words.)

Chris Appy (review date 27 March 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 1251 words.)

Hadley Arkes (review date April 1998)

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,...

(The entire section is 4639 words.)

John O'Sullivan (review date April 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 2832 words.)

John Ray (review date 26 November 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 932 words.)

Carole Haber (review date December 2000)

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...

(The entire section is 1106 words.)

Theodore K. Rabb (review date 15 December 2000)

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),...

(The entire section is 289 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 443 words.)