Neal Ascherson (review date 20 May 1977)

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SOURCE: “Barbarians at the Gate,” in New Statesman, May 20, 1977, pp. 677–78.

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[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. Neolithic societies and the first city cultures could not progress because they were not free. The Roman republic promised well (‘a liberal economic process presided over by a night-watchman state’), but the Roman Empire fell because slavery paralysed initiative and prevented the emergence of a freedom-loving middle class. The barbarians who succeeded were in many respects ‘morally superior and socially more attractive’. But it was not until the late middle ages that the rise of a genuine ‘middle people'—free peasants and tenants, urban merchants—laid the foundations of a ‘civilisation’.

The Industrial Revolution begins in Britain because the victory of Parliament in the seventeenth century secured property rights and outlawed monopoly: not in Spain, because there was no middle layer between the rich and the beggars, not in France because it was an absolute monarchy, not in Holland because taxation was too high and too complicated. The take-off accelerates: here comes Adam Smith, then nineteenth-century liberalism, then Keynes, then Europe's post-war surge of growth.

And then human progress stumbles. In the Seventies, ‘for no apparent reason, the entire system staggered and lost confidence in itself’. This is the very moment when ‘capitalism was not only the physical mainstay of western civilisation; it was in the process of becoming civilised itself’. So why? Mr Johnson dismisses impersonal forces of history, cycles or dialectics as heathen mummery. If progress stumbled, somebody tripped it up. Who?

All the rest of the book tells us who. Everywhere, in a thousand guises, Paul Johnson discovers the social enemy at his work of wrecking and sabotage. The ecology lobby, for example, who egged on OPEC to put up the price of oil and thus avenged ‘the sin of growth’ on the poor of the entire world. The ‘pseudo-religions’ are guilty, for filletting theology and encouraging subjectivism and licence. Philosophers are guilty for leaving ‘civilisation undefended and confused’. Dons also are guilty, for trying to make universities ‘relevant’ and debasing standards. ‘Hirsute students and oleaginous sheikhs', ‘aggro-Dons', teachers who undermine middle-class morality, composers who desert tonality, painters whose work is impossible ‘to relate to morally', writers who deal in ‘a horror-reality of monsters, freaks and savages', the UN—all are part of the great conspiracy to ‘disorient civilised man’.

Some of this abuse has a brilliant, raving wit about it. Some of it perforates the right target: Teilhard deserves what he gets here. The chapter about euphemisms and the use of words to intimidate is especially well-aimed. But sheer wildness takes over. Frantz Fanon is named as the man who caused the guerrilla war in Rhodesia with its ‘dreadful purpose’ of expelling the whites, and then as a bonus is blamed for Palestinian terrorism and the Arab oil embargo (so the eco-lobby had an accomplice after all). Shirley Williams and Ted Short encouraged ‘the new student Fascist left', who, as is well known, are remote-controlled by the German mountebank, Marcuse. Women recruits to the Provisional IRA ‘are subjected to repeated rape and forced to take part in communal acts of sexual depravity’ (I would like to see Paul Johnson put that one over to the Columkill Ladies’ Choir in Derry). No Royal Marine who has read a newspaper about Rhodesia, experienced a British university recently, heard Mrs Williams or met a Republican woman is going to believe a word of this.

Paul Johnson's idea of civilisation is at the core of the book. It's a word many people try to avoid: I don't think many people who had visited Auschwitz would feel that the term had survived the teachings and accomplishments of the Third Reich. Those who do use it, like archaeologists, employ it only technically to describe certain combinations of material and social development. Chambers’ Encyclopaedia, in a definition by the late but great Marxist archaeologist V. Gordon Childe, says that ‘C. is currently used in a variety of vague and often emotional senses … civilisation is often the prerogative of only a minority in a society thus classified’.

This confusion between the notions of society and civilisation runs all through the book. Paul Johnson constantly refers to the value of truth as the definition of civilisation, but he gets muddled over the question of freedom. If the barbarians had a freer social structure than the Romans and (let's suppose) were more inclined to truthfulness, were they more civilised than the Romans? Even more simply, can you have a slave-holding civilisation? The word is dead, and ‘civilisation’ is now just the middle-class description of manners at table and in the office. In that sense, Mr Johnson would have done better to call this book Enemies of Civilisation, because—given Childe's point—an enemy of Johnsonian civilisation could easily qualify as a friend of society.

This ‘civilised minority’ problem emerges when Mr Johnson performs his scathing chapter on words and euphemisms (of which, of course, ‘civilisation’ is one of the most blatant). For a moment, he accepts that there is a majority with which the minority has problems. ‘Civilisation is best defended when all those in authority and influence combine to use words in their true and accurate meaning, and unite to denounce their misuse …’ A little further on, he adds that hieratic language at religious rites should be ‘special … the words must be bigger than their meaning’. And then: ‘This is where the heritage of language becomes so important, and hence attacks on it become attacks on civilisation itself.’

At one instant, an oligarchy of dominies is dictating what words will or won't mean. At the next, the masses are mumbling words they don't understand—but to ask the dominies to define them would be treated as gross insubordination. The missing dimension of this book is religion, because the appeal for absolute standards in the name of a certain pattern of moral behaviour is a religious appeal. To say: ‘I wish matters to be so because God commands that they should be so’ is a respectable old position. To say that they should be so because otherwise the middle class will not flourish is weaker by several dimensions. It is painful that Paul Johnson repeats the sound observation that some mental systems are closed because they can explain away any attack upon their premises in their own terms: painful, because the three great examples always quoted are Marxism, Freudianism and the Catholic Church. Mr Johnson chooses only to mention the first two.

This is a very Victorian book. As each victim touches his toes, he will glimpse upside down a sepia photograph of the Parthenon upon the headmaster's wall. Mr Johnson thinks a society is healthy when it is practical and realistic, and sick when its art stylises or abandons naturalism. He sees Brunelleschi's presentation of vanishing-point perspective as a decisive ‘civilising’ step; science and art have worked together to achieve an advance of truth.

Paul Johnson winds up with ten new commandments. They add up to principles for the defence of middle-class liberalism, in so far as they are not familiar precepts. He writes as an angry, kindly, generous man, in no way a Tsarist like Solzhenitsyn or a writer who defies the public hangman like Demaistre. But his cultural pessimism leads him to a view of general anarchy, in particular of anarchy in British life, which is quite unreal.

This is still a quiet, submissive, increasingly authoritarian place. Let one example serve. In the small city of Edinburgh, children are beaten with a strap in the local schools on thirty thousand occasions each year. Has this defence of values led to conflict with aggro-Dons, to mountebank psychologists and priests challenging morality and religion in the streets? It has not. The defence itself challenged those values in the victims’ own minds: the enforcement of obsolete middle-class standards by obsolete means breeds only inarticulacy, despair, a taste for destructive violence. People still need liberty, and it looks as if they will have to knock over Mr Johnson's ‘civilisation’ to get it.

Christopher Booker (review date 21 May 1977)

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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 first truly dynamic civilisation, that of Greece and Rome. Why was it dynamic? Because it developed the spirit of free inquiry, and an enterprising middle class. Why did it collapse? Because in the end, the institution of slavery, by providing cheap labour, was a disincentive to true technological progress, so that when Rome's resources were stretched by the rising tide of barbarism, it could only defend itself by ever higher taxation, ever greater bureaucracy. Freedom was thus stifled, the urban middle class destroyed. End of a civilisation. QED.

The second great dynamic adventure was given its thrust by the new Christian notion of time as linear, directed towards a distant goal. Johnson traces its emergence through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to what he calls the point of ‘final take-off', the Industrial Revolution (which happened in Britain simply because we had the greatest social freedom, and a strong, property-based middle class). In the past two centuries, culminating in the great boom of the twenty years after Second World War, we seemed to have arrived at ‘the permanent miracle'—happy, free, little materialists on an ever-rising growth curve. Then out of the blue the whole adventure came to a crashing halt. We were plunged into what Johnson rather melodramatically describes as ‘the great depression of the 1970s'—‘which must be the starting point for any investigation of the ills of our civilisation’.

What are those ills? Johnson immediately takes the steam out of any visions of apocalypse which might be rising in the reader's mind by an astonishing chapter called ‘Ecological Panic', in which he blithely dismisses any notion whatever that our civilisation might be threatened by such horrors as pollution, over-population, the exhaustion of natural resources, or the H-bomb. Mere fantasies! Any such fears are pure hysteria, usually springing from a naive anti-capitalism.

So what are our real worries? Well, for a start, and somewhat bathetically, the imprecise use of language. He has a lot of simple fun with the suffocating weight of academic and bureaucratic jargon. Then the collapse of old-fashioned institutional Christianity, which has left a void which is filled with pseudo-religions like Communism. There is the collapse of old-style philosophy (the pursuit of wisdom) into more vacuous word-spinning (Russell, Wittgenstein). There is the collapse of the great tradition of honest scientific inquiry into the modern woolly pseudo-sciences (Freudianism, Marxism, sociology, Marcuse). There is the collapse of the universities into hotbeds of ‘aggro-Fascist’ students. There is the rise of moral relativism (Tillich, Ivan Illich, Edmund Leach's ‘beware of moral principles’). There is inflation, destroying middle-class differentials (a ‘disaster’ among other things for ‘theatre, music, and the arts’). There is the blurring in psychology and literature of the line between sanity and madness (Laing). There is the exhaustion and disintegration of the arts (blank canvases, Schoenberg, random noise). There is the sanctification of violence (Sartre), and finally, the explosion of unreasoning hatred of the white among blacks (Fanon) and the Third World (reducing the United Nations to ‘the World Theatre of the Absurd’).

Perhaps the first thing which strikes one about this catalogue is how incredibly random it is. At no time does one feel that Johnson has taken any overall view. He has merely strung together a series of little journalistic essays on some of the themes which have after all preoccupied serious or non-so-serious thinkers for some years. But much more seriously there are simply not even the beginnings of a synthetic analysis of where all these symptoms of cultural disintegration might have sprung from.

The triviality of Johnson's view is summed up in his last chapter, ‘A New Deuteronomy’ as he calls it, in which he lists the ‘ten new commandments’ which might bring us back on course. We must ‘reassert our believe in moral absolutes’. What moral absolutes? Whence should they be derived? Violence is wrong. I agree—but why? Democracy is the least evil and most effective form of government. Really? Why then does it appear to be so fragile? We must reassert ‘the Rule of Law’ and the importance of the individual. Unbelievably, the sixth Johnsonian commandment is ‘there is nothing morally unhealthy about the existence of a middle class’! Number nine is—‘Trust science … our best hope for the future’; and finally ‘No consideration should deflect us from the pursuit and recognition of the truth’.

If Johnson genuinely wishes to pursue the truth he will have to produce something a great deal more rigorous than this mere anthology of attitudes and opinions, based on hasty research and riddled with minor inaccuracies (double-entry book-keeping was first recorded in Genoa, not Venice, Teilhard de Chardin was a geologist, not a botanist, the last great London smog was in 1952 or 1963, not 1951, the Lisbon earthquake was in 1755, not 1743, Oppenheimer's quotation ‘I am become death, the destroyer of worlds’ was at Alamagordo in 1945, not at the explosion of the first H-bomb, etc etc). Above all, if he wishes to understand the roots of our present crisis, he will have to travel a great deal deeper into the nature both of man and of our civilisation.

You could argue (as I might) that the whole post-Renaissance adventure has led Western man into increasing estrangement from his own nature, and from his place in nature; that we have therefore become increasingly trapped in our little material, rationalistic prison; that this is the root of our increasing sense of meaninglessness, disintegration and despair; and that, without a very drastic change of perspective, we are heading for catastrophe. But as a true child of so many of the orthodoxies whose consequences he so furiously deplores, Johnson has ruled out any such analysis. We are therefore inevitably left at the end with nothing more than his pitifully scratched together list of prescriptions, which are not unlike a man on the Titanic, just after it has hit the iceberg, saying that if only the passengers would dress properly for dinner then the ship might somehow keep afloat.

Mervyn Jones (review date 2 August 1985)

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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 early post-war years, when there was an acute paper shortage. In those days, however, at least they got the actual words right.

The words that have not been got right in this production, noted as I went through my suffering, make up a formidable list. Affrontery, beedy-eyed, accolate, wordly (for ‘worldly', the context indicates), gallaxy, scintilating, umbillical, harrassed, portentious, metalurgy, computor, critized, wrily, subpoened, laudible, gaity, innoculated, preventitive, dediction (apparently for ‘dedication', not ‘deduction’), squalour, ephermeral, double-died, absorbtion, solitarity (apparently for ‘solitary', not ‘solidarity’), decrepid, noisesome, prophesy (as a noun), plebian, womenly, harrangue, distintegration, reitterate and majoram. Also these names of people or places: Westminister, Churchil, Ebeneezer, Aubery Singer, Clancy Segal, Saltzburg, Sienna, Peacocke, Spezzia, Helas, Montherland, Woolfit, Anapolis and Van Dyke.

It's possible that some of these errors originated with the writer (though, as I remember his vigilant scrutiny of New Statesman page proofs, not many). Writing to a deadline, he may have forgotten, for instance, the unusual spelling of Clancy Sigal's name. But, in book publishing, such lapses are supposed to be corrected by a person called the copy editor. It's the copy editor, not the writer, who is required to possess no other skill and perform no other duty than that of ensuring accuracy, and is paid considerably more than a teacher or a nurse for doing so. Traditionally, when books are replete with blunders, reviewers sternly rebuke the author for failing to read the proofs. Nowadays, even if a writer reads the proof with scrupulous care (in unpaid time, of course), nobody in the production department takes any notice.

Indeed, it's worse than that. The evidence indicates that many of the errors are not merely overlooked, but inserted, by copy editors. An example in my list is the word ‘noisesome’. There is no such word in the dictionary, but there is such a word as ‘noisome’. It means ‘harmful’; it derives from the Norman-French noy, which is also the root of the verb ‘to annoy’; and it has nothing to do with noise. I'm pretty sure that Paul Johnson wrote ‘noisome', since he was referring to the heart of a dead man, a silent object if ever there was one. ‘Noisesome’ can only be the creation of an officious, ignorant copy editor, too lazy to think about the sense of the passage, make a phone call to the writer or consult the dictionary.

This book was designed, typeset and printed in Britain. Books which are a pleasure to read, increasingly and by now almost invariably, are produced in Hong Kong. I hope that the agreement between Mrs Thatcher and Deng Xiao-Ping includes a provision for this system to continue when the place passes into the sovereignty of the People's Republic of China. Otherwise, I don't know what we shall do.

Colin Welch (review date 28 March 1987)

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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 rabbinic ancestor called Katzellenbogen—a missing ‘en’? Some Polish names too are oddly spelled, though they may be right enough, like Shaksper. I have only nits, if anything, to pick, not quarrels. I had thought I was reasonably well informed about the Jews in Biblical times, less so about the diaspora and the ghetto times, well aware of terrible aspects of the Holocaust, less ignorant than many about Israel and why it's there. I had thought these claims modest. I now realise they were not nearly modest enough. I am abashed.

Others may be less respectful. To write about the Jews at all is a perilous undertaking, not least if you are a Roman Catholic. Catholics have done the Jews so many injuries, told so many lies about them, none by Jews forgotten. Oddly enough, if I did not know Mr Johnson was a Catholic, I do not think I would guess it from these pages. His beliefs are not normally held back. Yet he does not even capitalise God's personal pronouns—He or His. He asks at one point, ‘Who did Jesus think he was?’ His answer is far from dogmatic. What is clear all the same is Mr Johnson's consuming interest in religion, without which his task would have been impossible.

Mr Johnson strives honourably to make amends. But he is writing, as he well knows, about a nation whose clerisy is, like himself, formidably knowledgable, ‘viewy’ and argumentative, about a religion moreover which regards as a sinner himself whoever sees another sinning without reproving and trying to prevent him. A certain officiousness in Jews is Torah-based. Mr Johnson will no doubt be keeping a wary eye on the literary and correspondence pages of Commentary and other élite journals of Jewish opinion. He is walking into a minefield.

If the book is a masterpiece, which I think it is, it must be in great part because of a profound affinity between author and subject, an absorbed sympathy amounting to love. It is based on many shared characteristics, so many that this book, much as it tells us about the Jews, also tells us, without the slightest immodesty or intent, much about Mr Johnson himself. Many of the qualities which he finds and values and admires in the Jews are ones which we have come to recognise in his own mature writing and thought. They were not always there. They are there now. Doubtless the Jews helped to shape the Johnson we now know.

To the Jews—of course throughout I am referring to some Jews, typical or influential Jews—history has a purpose, a moral meaning. So it has, as I have said, for him. Jewish literature was didactic; so is Mr Johnson's history. This separates him sharply from many modern academic historians, who think that history has nothing to teach except itself and that to draw moral or other lessons from it is to abuse or falsify it. He will not be favourably reviewed by such historians, who will also secretly envy his power, denied to them, of covering vast canvasses with animated life.

Jews have been from the very earliest days legal-minded. So is he. The Jews are different. So in a different way is he, shamelessly moralistic and religious in a secular and behaviourist age, caricatured thus in Private Eye for the young as Col. Bonkers, an outmoded figure of wrath and fun. The Jews have normally also been a highly rational people, a characteristic they sometimes abandoned in adversity in favour of kabbalistic magic, thus forfeiting Mr Johnson's approval though not his understanding. His own haughty rationality is perhaps something else which separates him from many of the ill-instructed young, who must watch his intellectual activities with total mystification, as savages might watch a surveyor at work with his theodolite. It is this rationality which he rightly values as favourable to economic advance, explaining in part the outstanding success of Jews in business and finance. From the mediaeval guilds Jews were excluded. According to Werner Sombart, they applied their rationality to the destruction by competition of the guilds and all they stood for—the fair price and so forth. In their place they introduced the whole modern economic world, with prices settled by supply and demand and money regarded as a commodity like any other. Thus the Jews prospered.

Another factor conducive to prosperity was the Jews’ hatred of dependence, their healthy admiration for the accumulation of wealth. Wealth they see as the necessary but not sufficient basis for the philanthropy which God enjoins. Mr Ian Aitken in the Guardian recently ridiculed Mr Tebbit for apparently regarding the good samaritan's wealth rather than his charity as the most important thing about him. Jewish morality would not think so ill of Mr Tebbit, if he was correctly reported. Nor I fancy would Mr Johnson.

Gentile prohibitions also forced the Jews into usury, which their rationality made them very good at. It made them rich, envied and hated. Their meek passivity, taught to them by religion and experience, made them objects of pillage and milking. Their large fortunes were transient. They never trusted those gentiles they lent to, had no cause to. Their passivity, last displayed during the Holocaust, has now almost disappeared. Mr Johnson can never have approved of it. He must be happier now that Jews are again subjects rather than objects of history.

In Jewish social and moral teaching rights and duties are very precisely balanced. So they are in Mr Johnson's thought, though not in the permissive, quasi-socialistic thought which he has abandoned. His long intellectual journey from left to right is an experience he has shared with many Jews, especially in America, especially in New York. Most have abandoned attitudes to the state excusable under Tsarist oppression. So has he. Together they now defend free institutions.

Does Mr Johnson's affinity with the Jews blind him to Jewish faults or mistakes? I think not. Anti-semites looking for ammunition, or anxious to prove that Mr Johnson dishonestly suppresses the disagreeable, will find nothing much ignored or distorted which ought to be here. His account of the massacre at Deir Yassin in 1948 is contentious; so is his explanation of why so many Arabs fled from Palestine at that time. But it is hardly possible yet to write of such matters and please all.

In the Holocaust, the greatest of all earthly tragedies was in store for this gifted and already tragic people. Mr Johnson does not disguise the extent to which some Jews may have brought this on themselves. Nobody could have expected Jews to cherish the old societies of central and eastern Europe which treated them in different ways so scurvily. Yet their own rationality should have reminded them that these societies were cherished or at least tolerated by others, that they were not in fact so irremediably evil as to be irreformable by peaceful means, that their violent overthrow might be succeeded by something far, far worse. Yet Jews everywhere, unbalanced by their own oppression and rejection, flocked in the 19th and 20th centuries into revolutionary parties and activities.

The Austrian Jewish playwright Schnitzler explained how hard it was then to be a Jew. He had to choose between being insensitive, obtuse and cheeky, or being over-sensitive, timid and suffering from feelings of persecution. According to Leon Pinsker, the Jew was ‘for the living a dead man; for the natives, an alien and vagrant; for property holders, a beggar; for the poor, an exploiter and a millionaire; for the patriot, a man without a country; for all classes, a hated rival.’ How then to behave? No wonder Jews made many mistakes.

The worst were perhaps to undermine Christian self-confidence by venomous satire and ferocious attacks; to wreck conventional morality by rash speculation in psycho-analysis and other fields; to frighten bourgeois society to death with the threat of Bolshevism.

The Jews became identified with Bolshevism. ‘For this', Mr Johnson admits, ‘the Jews bore some responsibility; or rather the particular type of political Jew which had emerged in radical politics during the second half of the 19th century: the non-Jewish Jew, the Jew who denied that there was such a thing as a Jew at all.’ Rosa Luxemburg was perhaps typical.

Conservative Jews must have shivered in their shoes to see Jews so prominent in every revolutionary party before, during and after the first world war—Trotsky, Bela Kun in Hungary, Kurt Eisner in Bavaria, Jews urging other Jews to frightful excesses bringing ruin to Jew and Gentile alike, making Jews everywhere hated and feared.

Conservative German Jews must also have shivered apprehensively when they read in the Weimar time Tucholsky's vicious attacks on all that right-thinking Germans held dear—on the bourgeoisie, the judiciary, the churches, the police, on Hindenburg, soldiers, social democrats and trade union leaders.

Time may have revealed dreadful defects in all these people. Better had it not, better had they not been so provoked. Tucholsky was only one of many Jewish ‘satirists', whose outbursts were all prominently displayed with relish in the anti-semitic and nationalistic press. Walter Lippmann is gently chided by Mr Johnson for deploring ‘conspicuous’ Jews who breed anti-semitism. Lippmann meant rich vulgar Jews: but Trotsky and Bela Kun were also lamentably conspicuous in their way.

Nothing can excuse the Holocaust. Nothing can even explain it, though Mr Johnson makes an honest effort. He does not to my mind attach enough weight to the possibility, clearly adumbrated in Mein Kampf, that Hitler committed crimes because they were crimes, not exactly for their own sake, but to draw every German, so far as possible, into an inescapable Nessusshirt of shared guilt, bound thus to him in a hideous compact till death.

One thing Mr Johnson strangely omits, though he must remember it and have been powerfully affected by it, as we all were. This was the wave of horror which passed through the civilised world when the death camps were finally opened. It should have marked the death of anti-semitism. It did not, though anti-semitism has in most places been forced to disguise itself as anti-Zionism. It also survives slyly disguised in various forms of socialism. Anti-semitism was described by Bebel as the socialism of fools. Paul Johnson mordantly characterises Marxism as the anti-semitism of intellectuals.

Geoffrey Crossick (review date April 1987)

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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 pawnbroker. If he does not take us far beyond the familiar, the sustained discussion of these subjects is welcome. It is not all familiar—he tells us much about the social composition of savings bank deposits and depositors and about the conflict in the cooperative movement between the ideals of the leaders and the aspirations of members primarily concerned with the dividend that became critical to the annual cycle of family finance. He indicates how much the aftermath of the liberal welfare provisions confounded the fears of those who had argued that public assistance would inhibit the will to save. Johnson's most important intention is to stress the distinctive character of working-class saving, which was directed to specific ends such as subscriptions for insurance, the purchase of a specific item, or a holiday. The contrast with middle-class saving patterns made outside observers reluctant to see much of this as thrift. Middle-class saving was essentially the accumulation of an unspent surplus. Lacking such a surplus, working-class families had to make savings an item of regular expenditure—hence the importance of clubs and contract saving, and hence the purchase of expensive items that could be pawned and resold when necessary.

Johnson's examination of these themes is valuable, yet I finished his book with a sense of disappointment. The book lacks systematic exploration and only occasionally penetrates beyond the conclusions of existing research in ways that change our understanding. This results in part from the shortage of data, which presumably explains the frequent descent into long discussions of institutions—such as those on cooperatives, savings banks, and pawnbroking—that leave the working-class users of the services somewhat out of sight. Above all, though, my disappointment is that Johnson fails to take us inside the working-class economy of his title. He provides little new insight into—or systematic examination of—the function of the working-class household economy or the organization of that economy, especially over the life cycle. We are told, in effect, far too little about income and expenditure within that household economy. Johnson has provided, however, a valuable survey of patterns of saving and borrowing.

Jacob Neusner (review date 19 April 1987)

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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 and at all times exhibited the same indicative traits, experienced a unitary and linear history, with a beginning, a middle, and, so far, a happy ending.

No such single group, with fixed traits, ever existed. I have nothing in common with “Abraham” (if there ever was the one we read about in Genesis) except for a circumcised penis and an aversion to pork. But then, Abraham ate milk with meat, and I don't. To Johnson, everything Jewish relates to everything else Jewish with only slight regard to circumstance and context. Johnson's notion of a single, linear “Jewish history,” which he can tell as story, is oversimplification or pure theology; I think the latter. It is the historical theology of blood and peoplehood, representing many groups as one and finding a single linear history where there has been none.

Since before 586 BC, Jews have lived in various countries. Each country and its Jews have worked out their own history, whether in the Land of Israel (Palestine) or in Babylonia, in Morocco or in Spain, in Iraq or in Tunisia, in France or in the United States. Each history hangs together on its own terms and tells its own distinct and distinctive story. Sewing them all together into a continuous story yields “First they went here, then they went there,” but the itinerary is one followed by only a few. A history of the Jews that leaves out most of the Jews in history is no history, and, alas, Johnson's history—splendid and engaging writer though he is—does just that. Professional historians don't write “histories of the Jews” any more, and with good reason.

Johnson gives us a cascade of discrete topics, the links among which he assumes we will all concede: They're all Jewish. But some Jewish turns out to be more Jewish than other Jewish. So we spend two of his book's seven chapters on the Jews of the land of Israel from “Abraham” to the 7th-Century Muslim conquest. Then we have two chapters on medieval history. Finally come three chapters on modern times. These latter five chapters center on the Jews in Europe, with only glances toward North Africa and the Middle East, mainly when someone wrote something philosophical or mystical.

Seeing the Jews as a single group, Johnson chooses particular Jews for each chapter in his history. The easy part comes first: the ancient Israelites of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). Then follows a potted account of Judaism, meaning a variety of Judaisms to be sure, from 586 BC down to the rise of Islam. Jumping thither and yon, Johnson moves through the Dark Ages, the Muslim conquest, Maimonides, mysticism, the Crusades, the High Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Thirty Years War, back to mysticism, then on to the Jews in England, the Jews’ arrival in New York, and so on—an absolute farrago of topics. Emancipation brings us to 19th-Century European Jewry, and, of course, we end with the Holocaust and the rise of the State of Israel.

The deepest problem with Johnson's book is his adherence to a conventional picture of just which Jews made history at any given time. To give three examples, he has slight interest, in composing his narrative, in the Jews of Egypt in Greco-Roman times, the Jews in Babylonia prior to Talmudic times, and the Jews in the far reaches of Islam in the Middle Ages and modern times.

The reason is that these enormous communities fit into no linear pattern; the first disrupts the flow of narrative; the second comes too soon to permit a one-dimensional tale of what was going on in the Land of Israel; and the third is not European (except when it produces a philosopher or mystic) and so does not really count. The theology of blood and peoplehood thus forms a selective criterion. Some blood, some people have more history than others. The ones who get their stories told are not so much representative of the whole as they are useful to the intended narrative. The upshot is a stunning imbalance. Of the book's seven parts, four bear the burden of history from Abraham to 1800, that is to say, 3,500 years or so, three—Emancipation, Holocaust, Zion—cover the last 200 years.

And if there are problems with the whole, there are also problems in the parts. Johnson's account of ancient Israel is determinedly unhistorical, beginning not with archeological or textual evidence but, uncritically, with the legend of Abraham. When he reaches the Hellenistic era, he presents as a single “Judaism” a variety of groups that, when they flourished, despised one another. His account of New Testament times (ca. 50–150) ignores 200 years of serious academic scholarship. His picture of Talmudic times (ca. 150–600) is worse. By and large, what he presents as a history of the Jews is an excruciatingly detailed paraphrase of modern and contemporary European Jewish history (which really was unitary and linear—alas!).

This history is an example of what happens when enthusiasm gets the better of a fine writer who wants to tell a story that never happened. The book is simply not history. It is, in the exact sense of the word, myth.

Harold Bloom (review date 24 May 1987)

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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 eyes of our contemporary Jewish Orthodoxy, but it can hardly be seen at all from a Roman Catholic perspective, since belief in the New Testament compels one to convert the Hebrew Bible into that very different and captive work, the Old Testament. Johnson amiably reads the Old Testament, and not the Hebrew Bible, which means that deep readers of the Hebrew Bible will have trouble recognizing the prophets from Johnson's account of them, and indeed will be puzzled at many of his descriptions and judgments. I admire Johnson's self-confidence as a reader, and I do not intend that ironically, but most of the Hebrew Bible is immensely difficult, in my own experience, and its relation to actual Jewish history is frequently very problematical. It was not written by historians, or for historical purposes, and indeed very little post-Biblical Jewish writing can be called history either; history writing among the Jews did not develop until the Romantic period.

Christian histories of the Jews are problematical in a different sense, since Christianity, from any Jewish perspective, seems at best a Jewish heresy, and at worst a fearsome resurgence of myth, magic and irrationality. In consequence, most Christian readings of Jewish history, however well-intentioned, are likely to begin with the assumption that all of Judaism, after the career of Christ, is an inevitable anticlimax. Johnson fights this tendency in himself, and largely transcends it. For him, the major Jewish drive, and therefore the Jewish teaching for others, is what he calls the rationalization of the unknown. As a process that produced monotheism (and Jesus); this renders Johnson grateful, but when it later turned toward the rationalization of the idea of God, it makes Johnson explicitly uneasy. The unlikely spiritual villain of Johnson's saga is Spinoza, whom he weakly misreads as a pragmatic atheist, a kind of involuntary ancestor of Karl Marx. Johnson ought to study Leo Strauss on Spinoza, if only so as to see better how subtle Spinoza was. Here, as elsewhere, Johnson's genial audacity issues in a certain lack of wariness when attempting to summarize and judge intellectual complexities.

The explicit theme of Johnson's book is what it means to be a chosen people, whether by God or by one's own vision. Simplistic as Johnson frequently is, he shows impressive verve and insight in carrying his theme into the 19th and 20th centuries, where he makes a strong case for the notion that Sigmund Freud is the representative or archetypal Jew, and not just of our time. The idea of a chosen people, or in theological terms election, Johnson argues, is crucial for the founder of psychoanalysis, which Johnson interprets as a severely intellectualized version of Judaism, or at least of Jewishness. Applying the same scheme of displacement to figures as diverse as Proust, Mahler, Schönberg, Bakst, Einstein, Kafka, and Walter Benjamin (here, as by others, inflated well past his actual cultural stature), Johnson arrives at the darker side of his book's quite Catholic theme. The Jews have gone beyond rationalization into the remorseless intellectualization of the unknown, and by doing so they have produced a modern Gnosticism, which threatens the monotheistic idea and ideal.

Johnson writes well, and with great sympathy, of the dilemmas that torment the state of Israel, and he has some shrewd pages on the complex condition of contemporary Jewish life in the United States. He sees what nearly all Israelis refuse to see, which is that the myth or metaphor of Diaspora has come to an end for American Jewry. I fear that his sense of Jewish culture in America is far more optimistic than my own knowledge or experience allows me to be. The American Jews compare sadly to the German-speaking Jews of this century in cultural and intellectual achievement, and there is little evidence that this is likely to change. Nor is Israeli achievement in thought or the arts particularly impressive, all propaganda aside. Prophecy long ago ceased in Israel (and Christendom), and I am not foolhardy enough to foretell further cultural and spiritual decline. Johnson concludes his book with a wistful meditation on the religious dynamics of the Jewish people and their sense of election. As a teacher, I find more of that sense of election currently in Asian-American than Jewish-American students. By the end of this century, if current tendencies continue, the Jewish spiritual enterprise may begin to appear sadly elegiac, which is not the burden of Johnson's humane work.

Martin Gilbert (review date June 1987)

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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 did not write books about Jewish history, replied: “There is no such thing as Jewish history, only Jewish martyrology—and that is not amusing enough for me.”

Paul Johnson does not neglect the martyrological aspects: Rome, the Crusades, the Inquisition, Chmielnicki, the czarist pogroms, all are here. He strives, however, and in my view successfully, to go beyond the grim episodes of destruction to the rich continuity of creativity. Indeed, from a study of that creativity in its widest aspects (in which Maimonides, Heine, Freud, and Einstein each have an honored and thoughtful place in his narrative), he seeks an answer to the central question of Jewish survival, of the continued existence of the Jews as a recognized group which, despite its relatively small size numerically, has retained its characteristics and identity throughout so many centuries of diversity and dispersal. Johnson veers away from the presentation of Jewish history as “a succession of climaxes and catastrophes.” Instead, he sees that history, and tries where possible to present it, as “an endless continuum of patient study, fruitful industry, and communal routine, much of it unrecorded.” The historian should bear in mind, he adds, that “Sorrow finds a voice while happiness is mute.” This is a salutary remark even for those who write exclusively about the Holocaust.

Johnson draws many universal themes from the Jewish experience. Yet he is careful not to exaggerate the unanimity or even the coherence of Jewish thought. In connection with the emancipatory and cultural revolution at the turn of the last century, for example, he points out that “There was no Jewish world-outlook, let alone a plan to impose modernism on the world.” It is therefore a pity, it seems to me, that in the section on the Holocaust Johnson portrays the response of the Jews as specific and unique to them: “Their history, their theology, their folklore, their social structures, even their vocabulary trained them to negotiate, to pay, to plead, to protest, not to fight.”

It could be argued with equal force that the Jewish response to Nazi rule was no different from that of all captive peoples: most were cowed, all sought to survive, and when survival by compliance or the passage of time proved impossible, all sought to resist with whatever limited means were at their disposal. The Jews in Warsaw, for example, did so sixteen months before the Poles of that same city, and did so because of the extinction threatening them. Both Jews and Poles knew the essential hopelessness of revolt. To say that it was the Jews who had “learned from long experience that resistance cost lives rather than saved them” is, in my view, too narrow a conclusion: almost every human being under occupation acted in this way. Jews had no special prescription on passivity.

Yet it would be churlish, as some reviewers of the British edition of this book have done, to pick up such errors of fact or interpretation, or to stress particular gaps in the facts, in order to seek to undermine or even to diminish the force and value of the book as a whole. It was Churchill who once said: “I do not come before you as an expert, but as one accustomed to listening to the views of experts.” Paul Johnson could certainly benefit from another decade of reading and debate—who could not? But in the time at his disposal since he completed his histories of Christianity, of the modern world, and of the English people—a remarkable trilogy—he has read as widely and absorbed as deeply as any man could, adding his own philosophical outlook as well as an enviable clarity of phrase and theme.

Of course there are mistakes of fact and emphasis; it is certainly untrue, for example, to write of Polish Jewry that by 1939, “the most energetic, adventurous, and above all the most militant, had gone to Palestine.” Such mistakes are minor, however, compared with the wider grasp of Jewish history which the author's humanistic outlook gives him. This outlook is philo-Semitic in its most profound sense. “The Jewish vision,” Johnson writes on his second page, “became the prototype for many similar grand designs for humanity, both divine and man-made. The Jews, therefore, stand right at the center of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of a purpose.”

After 580 pages of history, that verdict is upheld and enhanced. “No people has been more fertile,” Johnson concludes, “in enriching poverty or humanizing wealth, or in turning misfortune to creative account.” This capacity springs, he argues, from a moral philosophy “both solid and subtle, which has changed remarkably little over the millennia.” In past centuries, Johnson asserts, the great Jewish achievement was “the application of reason to divinity.” In recent, more secular, centuries, the Jews applied these same principles of rationality “to the whole range of human activities, often in advance of the rest of mankind.”

These “principles of rationality” mean much to Paul Johnson. They are the very principles which he has striven to follow during a thoughtful but often provocative career as a journalist and political guide. Thirty years ago, as editor of the New Statesman, he espoused with vigor the viewpoint of the Left in British politics; I was among thousands whose attitudes were molded and whose consciousness was sharpened by his journalism. More recently, he has become an eloquent apostle of the Right—or, rather, of the right of the individual and the rule of law, of self-help, self-assertion, and liberty; here too I have followed his advocacy, as have many others. It is therefore fascinating for me to see the part played by Jewish concepts in so much of our mutual journey, or at least the way in which Paul Johnson, himself a Catholic, uses these Jewish concepts and is inspired by them.

Every reader will form his own view as to the centrality of rationality in Jewish thought and practice, as portrayed by Johnson. The section on Maimonides, one of the longest in the book devoted to a single person, is essential to Johnson's perspective. “The more stable and peaceful we make our society,” Johnson writes in his two-sentence summary of the thought of Maimonides, “the more time and energy men have for improving their minds, so that in turn they have the intellectual capacity to effect further social improvements. So it goes on—a virtuous circle, instead of the vicious circle of societies which have no law.”

In Paul Johnson's world, the rule of law is a vital ingredient to society as it ought to be. That the Jews should have so embraced and indeed enhanced it gives him a feeling of closeness to them, first as precursors and then as maintainers of the one sane ideology. He is doubly drawn to the 12th-century philosopher because of what he sees as the principal desire of Maimonides “for the law, the sword and armor of the Jews, to become the working property of all of them.”

That this did not happen to all Jews, or attract all Jews, does not deter Johnson from his admiration of the rational mold of Jewish thought. He sees clearly, and describes clearly, the power of the irrational on medieval minds beset with fear and misery. (“For the mass of ordinary Jews,” he writes, “tales of miracles past, hope of those to come, was a surer comfort in time of trouble.”) Nor does Johnson mock Jewish mysticism; indeed, his pages about it are as tolerant as the pen that has written them. But in his perspective it is the virtue of the Jews to triumph over mysticism in the end.

Mistakes were made during the course of this triumph: Marx, according to Johnson, was the greatest of those mistakes. Still, in Johnson's panorama the Jews redeemed themselves by their own exertions, of which, for him, Zionism is the 20th century's most praiseworthy example. He thus describes with approval the dream of Moses Hess that the Jews would achieve their own redemption “not by Marx's negative proposal to destroy their traditional economic functions, but by the positive act of creating an ideal state.” The creation of that state is set out in considerable detail in its ideological, political, diplomatic, and military phases, and with due weight given to the critical forces within the Jewish world at the time of Zionism's birth, and in the Arab world two decades later.

Readers not well versed in the story may find the detail a little daunting, but it is well worth persevering. In the sections on Zionism Johnson impresses me most by the way in which he has dug out and breathed life into many figures now largely forgotten, among them Arthur Ruppin, who was, he writes, “a sociologist, economist, and statistician by training and he brought this somber but necessary combination of qualities, plus huge industry, persistence, and a grim understanding of Jewish failings, to the business of turning the Zionist idea into a practical reality.” More than anyone else, Johnson writes of Ruppin, “he was responsible for the nuts and bolts, the bread and butter, of the new home.”

One may certainly learn from this quotation, if only of Ruppin's existence and stature. But one may also see in it a perhaps inevitable weakness in such a vast and at times necessarily cryptic canvas: there is simply no space for further details of Ruppin's early work in Palestine, and no space for his later, changing, views of Arab-Jewish cooperation. Indeed, there are only two further brief quotations from Ruppin, the first about Herbert Samuel as British High Commissioner in Palestine (“a traitor to the Jewish cause”), the second a remark by Ruppin in connection with Jewish crime in America in the era of Prohibition (“Christians commit crimes with their hands, the Jews use their reason”).

Personally, I would have welcomed a substantial paragraph on Ruppin's “nuts and bolts” in Palestine. There can, however, be few, if any, accounts of Zionism written by a non-Jew which, for all their brevity, give so factually grounded an accolade to that once noble “ism” which the United Nations has declared a form of “racism,” and which is often condemned without trial, as in the recent London play Perdition. Against that play, incidentally, Paul Johnson wrote, at the height of the controversy in London: “The tragic Jewish past repeatedly shows that the fabrication of anti-Jewish myths nearly always, in the end, costs Jewish blood. That is why it was right to prevent the performance of this play in a famous and honorable British theater, and why it will continue to be right to forestall any similar affronts to truth and justice.”

Truth and justice are not mere catch-phrases for Johnson; they are his philosophical life blood and his link with the Jewish struggle. It is here that he sees Zionism as more than a mere nationalism. Yet he is no starry-eyed propagandist. The dilemma of the Jewish commonwealths in antiquity, he writes, was to try to combine “the moral excellence of a theocracy with the practical demands of a state capable of defending itself.” This dilemma has been “recreated in our own time in the shape of Israel, founded to realize a humanitarian ideal, discovering in practice that it must be ruthless simply to survive in a hostile world.” But is not this, he asks, a recurrent problem which affects all human societies? And he goes on to write: “We all want to build Jerusalem. We all drift back toward the Cities of the Plain. It seems to be the role of the Jews to focus and dramatize these common experiences of mankind, and to turn their particular fate into a universal moral.”

There then follows the final question of Johnson's book. “But if the Jews have this role,” he asks, “who wrote it for them?” His answer may surprise those who see, or who seek, a guiding hand over and above the human one. The Jews did indeed have a role, Johnson concludes, “because they wrote it for themselves”; they believed that they were a special people “with such unanimity and passion, and over so long a span, that they became one.”

Jacob Neusner (review date 14 August 1987)

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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 why what Johnson tells is not history but a fairy tale, a masque for ideology. For his beginning and his ending bear a message. This is the Israeli version of Jews’ histories: the history of those Jews who matter from the Israeli perspective. And that leaves out those Jews not living in the State of Israel today, and most Jews outside of Europe in times past.

The facts simply do not sustain Johnson's conception. True, in First Temple times, down to 586 BC, the Jews began all at once. But from the beginning of the writing down of their traditions in the Pentateuch, c. 450 BC they have lived in many places, spoken many languages, worked out their lives as a diverse set of social groups. What joins the history of Jews in Morocco to the history of Jews in Poland? Not language, not culture, not politics, not common patterns of historical events.

True, there was, and is, religion. But if you appeal to a common religion, then the single history to be written is not the history of Jews, it is the history of Judaism. Yet here, too, the facts intervene. For different groups of Jews have always defined for themselves each its own distinctive way of life and world view and definition of that social entity that, in its system, constitutes “Israel.” The conception of a single Judaism contradicts the facts of everyday life today and throughout the past.

Paul Johnson enthusiastically chose to leap into this mess of contradiction and conceptual confusion and to write a history of the Jews, viewed not from the perspective of theology as holy Israel, God's first love, but entirely in this-worldly terms. His book tells the story with fervor and high esteem, with the result that the ethnic-Jewish reviewers hail it as “good for the Jews.” And so it may be. But is it good history? I think not. It is ideology cloaked in colorful narrative, and masquerading as learning. Johnson begins with Abraham and runs through a potted history of Biblical times, then an uncertain and uncritical reprise of Second Temple times. From that point, the single, unitary line trails off. For, even in pre-Christian centuries, large numbers of Jews lived in Egypt and elsewhere in the Greco-Roman world, and still larger numbers in Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Iran proper, Armenia, and eastward to Afghanistan and India. But what is Johnson to do with these groups?

He solves this problem by deciding which Jews, at any given time, are the history-making ones—and ignoring the rest. But even then, he will pick and choose an occasional fact concerning a Jewish milieu otherwise ignored; that fact he tosses in, among any number of other equally adventitious choices. Thus, wild confusion marks pages that, in succession, cover anti-Semitism; the Jews in the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Counter-Reformation; then a leap to Eastern Europe, and a jump into the Thirty Years’ War; the court Jew; the massacres in the Polish Ukraine of 1948; then back to mysticism; then the Jews’ arrival in England, and their settlement in New York—a mishmash of topics that have only one thing in common: They involve Jews, here, there, everywhere.

But the linear story covers the confusion of individual chapters and paragraphs. The single, unitary history runs from Abraham through the destruction of the Second Temple—that is, the Jews in the land of Israel (“Palestine”)—then here and there, but mainly in Europe; and, finally, back to Zion, in our own time. So we may say that, for Johnson, the Jews’ histories really gain shape and composition in relationship to the land, and where the history is linear and coherent, it is because it takes place in the Holy Land. That explains the stunning imbalances of the book, with four of its seven parts devoted to the 3,500 years from Abraham to 1800, and three to the past two hundred years (emancipation, Holocaust, Zion). In the aggregate, those Jews made history who lived in the land, then went into exile in Europe, then came back to the land after the Holocaust.

This selectivity of vision identifies for us the ideology implicit in Johnson's history. It is the ideology of blood and peoplehood that sees unities of genealogy and national history, and that regards the “exile” of AD 70 and the “return” of 1948 as the beginning and the ending of the dark “middle ages.” Johnson's general scheme accords with the prevailing norms of Israeli historiography, as a comparison of this book with Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson's A History of the Jewish People will suggest.

It is understandable that Israelis should find Johnson's narrative appealing. But why distinguished American Jewish theologians should declare the book “good for the Jews” (an ethnic and private judgment, which I should have hoped they would have been embarrassed to make in public) when it treats as trivial and inconsequential the formation of a lasting, stable, strong, and culturally self-confident Jewish world in America and Canada, I cannot say. In any case, the book is a best-seller, so it must be telling people what they want to hear. But pseudo-history made up of facts selected to fit the case ill suits the ideological and apologetic task confronting Jews wherever they may live today. Given the state of Jewish cultural politics in America, Johnson was assured of acclaim for his meretricious exercise in pandering charlatanism.

Arnaldo Momigliano (review date 8 October 1987)

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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 fifteenth century. The point of conversion was still strong in the minds of the less liberal ecclesiastics of Italy in the years between 1938 and 1945, as many of us Italian Jews know by experience. How much this concern contributed to the silence of the Churches of Italy, France, and Germany during those years, and later, remains a problem.

The only legitimate historical approach to Judaism is of course to consider it the first national religion to have organized an ethical monotheism, at least since the ninth century BC: the morality of the ancient prophets, available to everyone in the Old Testament, is the morality the Jews have accepted throughout the centuries. This leaves two problems: 1) how much the Talmudic development, beginning around the first century AD, has affected and modified the prophetic foundations; 2) how far the teaching of Jesus himself has been separated from Judaism by later theological developments. The second point, just because it is a historical point, is of course a recent one to be discussed inside and outside Judaic circles. Less controversial is the fact that through the Talmud and centuries of study of other texts and commentaries, the Jews have acquired a passion for learning, for books and intellectual controversy, that has become part of the hereditary Jewish ethos.

So let us speak of the Jews as the members of a great and independent religion (no longer so national as it used to be) who learned ethics chiefly from the prophets and acquired scholarship, especially in Law, from their rabbis.

The author of A History of the Jews, Paul Johnson, is not a specialist in Jewish history. If anything he is well known for a history of our times. What matters positively to us is that Johnson has a strong, lay, interest in Jewish history and tries to see it without confessional criteria. The Jews in his view are not good or bad because they prepared the way for, or opposed, Christianity. Johnson, it seems to me, has put together in one volume an extraordinary amount of useful information, and talks realistically about the Jews of the last four centuries, to which he devotes more than half of his book. The forward-looking attitude of the book explains, though it does not justify, the limited interest in the mystical side of medieval Judaism, especially in Kabbala (though Johnson has more to say on later Hasidism). The excellent book by J. Dan, Gershom Scholem and the Mystical Dimension of Jewish History (New York University Press, 1987), appeared too late to help Johnson.

It seems to me that he has also committed a structural error about the nineteenth century, with which he is so familiar, by studying the Jews of each country in relative isolation. If he had described the Jews of Europe in the nineteenth century according to periods of twenty-five to thirty years, the different situations of the Jews in the different territories (not only Austria but, for instance, Hungary and Czechoslovakia) would have emerged more clearly. Italy and England exchanged Jews in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But the two most eminent members of the families Disraeli and Montefiore would never have worked out their careers in Italy as they did in England. Vice versa, whatever Sidney Sonnino and Ernesto Nathan might have learned from their English experiences and their English relatives, they adhered to what was after all the peculiarity of Italian Jews in the nineteenth century: to be important contributors to the creation of the new unified secular Italian state of the Savoy dynasty. In no other part of Europe (except perhaps in the early days of the Bolshevik Revolution) did the Jews contribute to the creation of a state. Johnson seems to overlook this peculiarity of the Jews in Italy in the nineteenth century, which naturally attracted far more attention than their number warranted. Isacco Artom was Cavour's secretary and confidant.

It is rather bizarre, moreover, that Johnson mentions only one name among the survivors of the Holocaust in Italy, and that is Bernard Berenson, who as an American citizen and a double convert to Episcopalianism and to Roman Catholicism was hardly a typical Italian Jew. I would rather mention the name of one of those non-Jews who in the confusion of 1938 unexpectedly gained from the anti-Semitic and pro-German currents of the time: Mariano D'Amelio (on whom there is now a fairly detailed biographical article in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, Vol. 32, 1986). D'Amelio, who as president of the Supreme Court of Cassazione for almost twenty years during the Fascist regime, was perhaps the most influential legal mind behind it, managed to combine strict Catholic principles, Jewish legal friends and allies, and enthusiasm for the Germans. His wife was the sister of the eminent Jewish lawyer Angelo Sraffa of the University of Milan and he was therefore also the uncle of the anti-Fascist economist of Trinity College, Cambridge, Piero Sraffa.

The situation in which D'Amelio found himself between 1938 and 1940 defies rational analysis and may well also be an example of what Susan Zuccotti in her recent The Italians and the Holocaust1 does not manage to see, notwithstanding her minute care for details: the combination of clericalism and pro-Nazism in making acceptable to Italians the German extermination of the Jews. Another case, even more complicated, of clericalism (of a typically Venetian variety), of continuous trading with international Jewish financiers, and of collaboration with Nazi, Germany, was illustrated a few years ago by Sergio Romano in his book on Giuseppe Volpi.2 Volpi, a Catholic whose second wife was Jewish, was one of the major organizers of the Italian industrial and colonial expansion between 1900 and 1943. Yet we have still to learn more of what passed through his mind during those years.

One cannot reproach Johnson, given the general orientation of his book, with having been very summary about certain aspects of Jewish society. One of these is the well-known contradiction that Jews have notions of the next world and yet in practice attribute little importance to them. The other is the equally well-known contradiction that Jewish women receive, or rather received, so little Jewish education, and yet the solidity of the Jewish household depends on its women. And perhaps it would have been useful to say something more about what the Jews thought about Christians and Muslims before the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries. But Paul Johnson has played his part, and we are grateful.

Notes

  1. Basic Books, 1987.

  2. Bompiani, 1979.

Avner Offer (review date October 1988)

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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 borrowing. Purchases of pianos and other prestige items often had the quality of ‘reverse saving', as assets which enhanced the social position of a household, and also provided a hedge against hard times. In conveying a mass of detailed information, Dr Johnson manages to strike the right tone: he is lucid, cool, concise and competent. While elaborate expedients allowed the workers to tide over the minor hazards of their weekly existence, saving and self-help were not adequate to cope with the big risks and inevitable crises of life. The author eschews formal economic analysis, but he shows the influence of the New Economic History. This North American school has striven to demonstrate the ‘rationality’ of past economic behaviour. Those with experience of the past decade in Britain are entitled to some doubts, but if this notion pervades the book, there is a good reason. Middle-class critics accused the working classes of improvidence, and Dr Johnson painstakingly demonstrates that most working-class institutions and attitudes made economic sense. This carries conviction most of the time. For example, state welfare actually increased working-class thrift. Other phenomena (expensive funerals, pawning Sunday suits) are explained by the need to present a respectable front. In other words, the household subsistence economy could be subordinated to the community's moral economy, and self-esteem often counted for more than material well-being. If such ends are given, then the means are indeed rational, but one may still question the mores of a culture of poverty without thereby diminishing its victims. This, however, is a matter of interpretation, which does nothing to detract from Dr Johnson's work. His book will take its place as a first-class contribution to working-class history.

Michael Wood (review date 7 October 1988)

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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 for truth; egocentricity, egotism; genius for self-publicity; hypocrisy; ingratitute (sic), rudeness; intolerance, misanthropy; love of power; manipulativeness, exploitativeness; quarrelsomeness; self-deception, gullibility; selfishness, ruthlessness; unselfishness; self-pity; paranoia; self-righteousness; shiftlessness, spongeing; snobbery; intellectual snobbery; vanity.

These are the only entries under this heading. You'll be surprised to see that one or two virtues have sneaked in there, but nobody's perfect, even in shiftlessness. Happily the virtues are quite marginal, concessions easily made. “Courage,” for example, is Hemingway and Tolstoy, and Tolstoy's courage turns out to be “arrogant carelessness.” The passion for truth is Edmund Wilson and George Orwell, but it led Orwell to take “a highly critical view of intellectuals as such.” Unselfishness was what people who didn't know better attributed to Shelley; Russell was “capable of unselfish gestures of great generosity,” but had an “exploitative streak.”

I take it Johnson and his indexer mean the above are characteristics of intellectuals rather than intellectual characteristics, but the slip itself is interesting. These are bad times for the life of the mind, good times for any prejudice at all that can wear the mask of common sense. Open season on writers, thinkers, impractical academics. “Marx was an academic,” Johnson says, “or rather, and worse, he was a failed academic.” The horror, the horror.

It is true that Johnson sometimes uses intellectual in a special sense, to mean a person who rejects established religion and attempts to concoct an ethical system of his own. There could thus be no such thing as a Catholic intellectual, which will come as a surprise to some theologians. This usage allows Johnson to concentrate on the defects of a number of notorious improvers of humanity, leaving aside any less clay-footed figures who might complicate, his case, but has the disadvantage of making his argument circular and private: intellectuals are simply people with the vices and ambitions Johnson keeps saying intellectuals have, the others don't count. Still, he is not narrow minded about this. When the special sense doesn't suit him, he drops it. His rather slack reports on the doings of Cyril Connolly, for example, or Norman Mailer, or Kenneth Tynan, are not about intellectuals in any coherent sense at all, just pictures of literary blokes falling into folly and decay.

Johnson's message is, “Beware intellectuals”—dogs in sheep's clothing maybe. He seeks to examine the “moral and judgmental credentials of certain leading intellectuals to give advice to humanity on how to conduct its affairs.” Needless to say, he finds these credentials very poor, and seems authentically alarmed by his own discoveries. The idea of checking anyone's credentials for giving is, of course, a wonderfully pompous idea. Not only do we (rightly) fear the Greeks bearing gifts, but we don't accept gifts at all from any but the certifiably pure in heart. And even then, the pure in heart can look pretty dodgy in the world of deeds. Think of Christ upsetting the market economy in the temple.

Johnson races through the careers of Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Brecht, Bertrand Russell, Sartre, Edmund Wilson, Victor Gollancz, Lillian Hellman and a package of more recent figures. At first he treads relatively softly. His Rousseau chapter is confused and shallow, but he has the grace to feel troubled about what he is doing. “Very few of us lead lives which will bear close scrutiny, and there is something mean in subjecting Rousseau's, laid horribly bare by the activities of thousands of scholars, to moral judgment.” Grace soon gives way to humbug, though, because Rousseau's “claims, and still more his influence on ethics and behaviour” mean “there is no alternative” to this scrutiny; and after this everyone gets frisked without apology.

Indeed, the chapters become tediously repetitive in their narrative movement: first an account of the achievements of the suspect, sometimes grudging, sometimes quite cheerful, then the bad news about the personality, introduced by a series of lame rhetorical shifts. “But what of Shelley as a man?” “How did Tolstoy come to feel about himself in this way?” Why was Ibsen always alone? “Whence his fierce, self-imposed isolation?” “There was something not quite right about this great humanist writer …”

Johnson's prose has livelier moments than this, and is sometimes funny—“Shelley's love was deep, sincere, passionate, indeed everlasting—but it was always changing its object”—and the list of horrors committed by intellectuals in their private life is pretty impressive, salutory even for anyone inclined to worship these folks. And there is some useful comment on, for instance, Marx's misrepresentation of facts. Generally, though, Johnson wants to convict his suspects of hypocrisy (not all that hard in most cases), and to unravel their ideas by implication, to wreck them by discrediting their origins.

There is a small truth here. Ideas arise out of messy lives, what Yeats called the rag-and-bone shop of the heart, and it helps to look at ideas and lives together. But the lives can't simply judge the ideas; can't even begin. To say that Shelley's treatment of those around him is “a testament to how heartless ideas can be” is both muddled and curiously innocent. Anything is heartless if you sacrifice people to it; and the notion that “people matter more than concepts and must come first,” as Johnson says in his conclusion, is itself an idea, and one that is heartlessly revoked in every war.

Intellectuals need to submit to the same moral judgments as everyone else. But like everyone else's their work asks to be judged on its merits, not on their flaws. I don't wonder whether my surgeon is sleeping with his secretary before I let him operate. Ah, but the surgeon is not preaching to me about the strenuous moral life. I agree the frequent cant of intellectuals is unpleasant, and must give us pause. But we should pause anyway. The thing about advice is that it counts as it is taken, not as it is given; and that good advice from a crook is better than ruinous advice from a saint.

Johnson's failure to grasp this elementary point is clearest in his chapter on Rousseau, whom he exposes as a scoundrel and fraud and the founder of totalitarianism into the bargain. These are old charges, people have been hacking at Rousseau's statue for ages, but they leave Johnson in a quandary. If Rousseau was such a phony, and known by his contemporaries to be such a phony, how could he inspire such reverence in the likes of Schiller, Mill, George Eliot, Hugo, Flaubert, Tolstoy? We might add Jefferson and a whole lineage of American liberals. A simple answer would be that Rousseau's ideas mattered more than he did, that people found in them not dubious or turgid advice but striking imaginative possibilities, ways of working out their own cultural or political projects.

Rousseau didn't invent the idea of the natural goodness of man, but it is most often associated with his name, a large part of what “Rousseau” means. We may prefer the thought of original sin, but ought not to miss the moral grandeur of the idea of natural goodness. Johnson does miss it, spotting only its secondary effect: the corruption of human life in society. He reads the sentence, “Man is born free, and is everywhere in chains,” but he can only hear Rousseau talking about the chains. And the best he can do with the list of Rousseau's distinguished admirers is to say it suggests that “intellectuals are as unreasonable, illogical and superstitious as anyone else.”

Do we need to pay serious attention to Johnson's book? We need to look at its stuffy pretentions; and between its lines we can find a handy guide to the old-fashioned virtues those gaudy intellectuals so relentlessly betray. They don't pay their debts; they don't look after their children, they're not nice to their parents; they tell lies, they are not modest; they don't hold down jobs or finish their work; they don't make good army officers; they are vain; they fornicate. Intellectuals is a naive book trying to look sensible and grown-up, something like the work of a pupil who has discovered that all his teachers are human, not a god or angel among them.

All is not lost, though, because Johnson thinks he detects—the cautious phrasing is his—“a growing tendency among ordinary people to dispute the right of academics, writers and philosophers … to tell us how to behave …” Note the “ordinary people” and the “us.” Johnson is not a writer, it seems, and he isn't telling us how to behave. “A dozen people picked at random on the street are at least as likely to offer sensible views on moral and political matters as a cross-section of the intelligentsia.” Of course they are; more likely perhaps. But only a lapsed and peculiarly blinkered intellectual would be stumbling on this insight at this stage.

What Johnson describes as a growing tendency looks like the same bit of good sense, but is actually something rather different, and more sinister; a thuggish tradition which has been thriving in the west since the death of Socrates. “They have no right to tell us how to behave” is a defensive travesty of any attempt to reflect on human affairs. Of course intellectuals have no special right to give advice, and when they claim it they are wrong. But advice is not their business, whatever some of them say. Their business is to ask questions and invite people to think.

“Ignorance has never helped anyone yet,” Johnson quotes Marx as saying in a tantrum, proof of Marx's thorough-going, bad-tempered unreasonableness. Johnson's implication is that ignorance does help, and in another context he says as much: “It is one of the characteristics of intellectuals to believe that secrets … are harmful.” One of their negative characteristics, he means, an addition to the index. But Marx was right, even in a rage. Ignorance doesn't help or rather it helps only those whose fear of thought is greater than all their other fears.

Ferdinand Mount (review date 8 October 1988)

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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 together the mental furniture of the modern world, he draws out from the standard biographies a dreadful catalogue of cruelty, selfishness and disgusting personal habits. What a bunch of hypocrites, thieves, bullies, drunks, lechers, and misers they were—foul-tempered, treacherous, mendacious egomaniacs to a man, or woman (Lillian Hellman is the only one of her sex to make it to Mr Johnson's Pandemonium, and she fully deserves her place).

Now of course we know that right-wing sages are not like that at all. They are gentle to their womenfolk, pure in thought, word and deed and indifferent to money or to worldly advancement; above all, they never ever take a drop too much. The offices of The Spectator and the Daily Telegraph are temples of austerity and spirituality. They are the sort of place Pascal and Cardinal Newman would have felt at home in. But even from such an unblemished standpoint, one may wonder what exactly this recital of personal flaws and failings proves. Does discrediting the theorist really disprove the theory?

Mr Johnson answers this doubt with characteristic robustness. From Rousseau to Sartre, these sages have savaged first the humbug, corruption and licentiousness of popes and pastors, then the avarice and meanness of the bourgeoisie.

Now, after two centuries during which the influence of religion has continued to decline, and secular intellectuals have played an ever-growing role in shaping our attitudes and institutions, it is time to examine their record, both public and personal.

The very common reader will be relieved to hear that the personal gets most of the attention. These are warts-and-all sketches, especially warts. ‘Whatever happens,’ Marx wrote to Engels, ‘I hope the bourgeoisie as long as they exist will have cause to remember my carbuncles.’ For the benefit of those who have forgotten, they appeared all over his body, including his cheeks, the bridge of his nose, his bottom, which meant he could not write, and his penis. Mr Johnson never neglects the penis. Rousseau's, he tells us, was malformed and he could only urinate through a catheter, which created social problems:

I still shudder to think of myself [he wrote] in a circle of women, compelled to wait until some fine talk had finished … When at last I find a well-lit staircase there are other ladies who delay me, then a courtyard full of constantly moving carriages ready to crush me, ladies’ maids who are looking at me, lackeys who line the walls and laugh at me. I do not find a single wall or wretched little corner that is suitable for my purpose. In short, I can urinate only in view of everybody and on some noble white-stockinged leg.

Victor Gollancz was also obsessed with his penis and was terrified that it was going to disappear and was constantly taking it out to make sure it was still there. Ibsen, on the other hand, refused to expose his sexual organ even to his doctor. Emerson was undersexed; Hemingway, Edmund Wilson and Norman Mailer were voraciously promiscuous. What precisely does this tell us about American intellectuals? Or about Norwegian playwrights or British publishers?

In the early stages of his mission, Mr Johnson does express some doubts:

Very few of us lead lives which will bear close scrutiny, and there is something mean in subjecting Rousseau's, laid horribly bare by the activities of thousands of scholars, to moral judgment. But granted his claims, and still more his influence on ethics and behaviour, there is no alternative.

And off he goes. Rousseau was indeed a ghastly man. The great humanitarian, pedagogue and worshipper of the innocence of childhood insisted that each of the five babies he had by Thérèse Levasseur should be dumped in the foundling hospital; he treated Thérèse like a skivvy; he screwed every penny he could out of his family; his Confessions are a masterpiece of deception and self-pity masquerading as honesty. But—and this is the bewildering crux—Thérèse told Boswell: ‘I have been 22 years with Monsieur Rousseau. I would not give up my place to be Queen of France.’ Most of Rousseau's lies and cruelties and hypocrisies were well-known at the time and denounced by genuinely great men such as Hume, Voltaire and Diderot. The same is true of Shelley, Marx, Hemingway, Sartre—in fact, of almost all Paul Johnson's targets. Yet their public continued to adore them and worship their ideals long after their death. The 50,000 admirers who followed Sartre's coffin to Montparnasse cemetery would probably, given the chance, have followed the coffin of any of the rest of them. The halos of these secular saints appear to be smirch-proof.

After quoting the undimmed adoration that Rousseau received from Kant, Shelley, J. S. Mill, George Eliot, Victor Hugo, Flaubert, Tolstoy and Lévi-Strauss, Mr Johnson confesses himself at a loss: ‘It is all very baffling and suggests that intellectuals are as unreasonable, illogical and superstitious as anyone else.’ How on earth could posterity have been persuaded to accept as a kind of crucifixion scene the ferocious and squalid squabbles with his wife which drove Tolstoy to leave home and crawl off to die at Astapovo Station? Yet this was what I myself was brought up to believe, although the truth was never hard to unearth. The Lillian Hellman industry continued serenely on its course for several years after her lies had been irrefutably exposed by Mary McCarthy and others. Brecht's craven antics in East Germany never disillusioned his admirers in the West. Mr Johnson ends by drawing an entirely sensible conclusion for practical purposes:

Beware intellectuals. Not merely should they be kept well away from the levers of power, they should also be objects of particular suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice.

For the heartless tyranny of ideas frequently leads, as with Stalin and Pol Pot, to real-life tyranny and mass slaughter. Ordinary people are just as likely to offer sensible views as the intelligentsia.

This is fine as far as it goes. But why do so many people fall for these charlatans? Why can't they see through their crude publicity techniques and their attention-grabbing fancy dress? Here I think Mr Johnson's analysis is a little slapdash, and this makes the book [Intellectuals] as a whole disappointing in a way which is not immediately apparent—although the materials are all assembled for inspection with the author's customary brilliance in handling and summarising.

The trouble, I suspect, starts with the title. Mr Johnson identifies the ‘intellectual’ as the man who, with Promethean arrogance, asserts his right to reject the existing order in its entirety and cure its ills with his own unaided intellect. Even if one wants to define ‘intellectual’ in this limited way, the definition would also encompass some eminently respectable liberal and socialist thinkers such as the founding fathers of the American Republic, John Stuart Mill and R. H. Tawney, who all had similar confidence in their intellectual competence to restructure society. What distinguishes Mr Johnson's targets is not so much their rejection of existing society and confidence in their own intellectual powers—though they had a basinful of that—as an intense and overwhelming egoism, sometimes argued out, sometimes merely acted out.

Self, self, self—that is what the peacock costume, the rhetorical swagger, the drenching self-pity, the trigger-happy paranoia all betoken, and that is what pulls in the fans. ‘Nature’ was invoked by them not as a pattern of balance and harmony but as a fancied realm free of constraint and inhibition. The real jump is from Pascal's assumption that the ego is detestable to Rousseau's assertion that the ego is loveable, so intrinsically loveable, in fact, that its actions justify themselves. Again and again, Rousseau had to defend himself against accusations of hard-heartedness towards his babies; they were an inconvenience, he claimed, he couldn't afford to keep them, they would have distracted him, he would have been forced to earn his living. Above all, a character as noble and generous as his could not have been capable of unkindness: ‘Never, for a single moment in his life, could Jean-Jacques have been a man without feeling, without compassion or an unnatural father.’

Titles like ‘guru’ and ‘sage’ are grotesquely inappropriate here, since such titles imply tranquillity, collectedness, distillation of thought, whereas our heroes pride themselves on their rampant, hyperactive spontaneity. For the same reason, ‘intellectuals’ is not much of an improvement, since they characteristically ratiocinate, often at appalling length, primarily in order to downgrade rationality. ‘Egoists’ would, I think, be a better title, since the intellect is the junior partner in the business, the front man sent out to justify the workings of instinctual desire. Students and intellectuals are enthusiastic customers because they like to have reasons for doing what comes naturally. Rousseau earned the devotion of generations of such people, because he turned the grubby gratification of self into a noble religion; he energised the idea of selfishness and romanticised and legitimised its practice.

It is this religion of the self, this deification of impulse that is so alluring, promising as it does a perpetual holiday from responsibility, an indefinite postponement of adulthood. Johnson brings out very well how many of his sages were babied throughout their lives, sometimes referring to their mistress or patron as ‘mummy’ and demanding more drink and more girls like a spoilt child demanding boiled sweets; their refusal to look after their children or pay their taxes belongs to the same pattern of childish behaviour.

The political corollary of this private childishness is a kind of wilful authoritarianism which recognises no other wills but its own. One common trait in virtually all these sages is their contempt for parliaments and the ‘little men’ who sit in them; ‘greatness'—that is, the solipsistic wilfulness of the child—has to be extra-parliamentary, maintained in a situation where its will can have a free play, unconstrained by the conversation of equals. The ghastly thing about parliaments is that one actually has to listen. And that is something none of the sages could do. Let us tiptoe away from these unstoppable windbags with John Huston's wonderful vignette of having Sartre to stay in Ireland to discuss a film script:

‘There was no such thing as a conversation with him. He talked incessantly. You could not interrupt him. You'd wait for him to catch his breath, but he wouldn't. The words came out in an absolute torrent.’ Huston was amazed to see that Sartre took notes of his own words while he talked. Sometimes Huston left the room, unable to bear the endless procession of words. But the distant drone of Sartre's voice followed him around the house. When Huston returned to the room, he found Sartre still talking.

Christopher Hitchens (review date Winter 1989)

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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 other side of the room and farting his way through a fitful doze for the rest of the meal. The combination of his choleric, lobsterlike complexion and his angry mane of ginger hair used to excite comment. ‘He looks,’ said Jonathan Miller after witnessing one of his many exhibitions of dementia, ‘he looks—like an explosion in a pubic hair factory.

Long before he made his much-advertised stagger from left to right, Johnson had come to display all the lineaments of the snob, the racist and the bigot. ‘The Portuguese are just wogs,’ he yelled at me during a discussion of the Salazar dictatorship. Feeling himself slighted at the seating arrangements for a dinner one evening, he marched towards the door, thumping his walking stick and shouting, ‘I won't have it. I'm going to my club!’ His customary difficulty in fighting his way across a room was compounded on this occasion by his wife, who intervened to persuade him to stay and who pointed out sweetly, ‘Paul, dear, you don't belong to a club.’ (He does now.)

‘Fear of hellfire', he told me, kept him in the Roman Catholic Church. He added that all the same he often broke the church's commandments. I already knew that, or thought I did until he added wolfishly, ‘You see, I quite often pray for people to die.’

He has terrible trouble spelling and must carry a dictionary. I remember when he was utterly caught out plagiarising a misquotation of Herbert Marcuse from Encounter—a sort of triple-crown howler. His knees, already weak, turn to a jelly of deference whenever a title or a country house is mentioned. Once at a cricket match he took out his displeasure at the arrangements on the family dog, Parker.

I really could go on (as he knows). But why drag up this wretched and distasteful stuff at all? I was quite prepared to go to my grave with it. Well, in his book Intellectuals, Johnson now rashly announces, Le style c'est l'homme. I wouldn't have done that if I were he. In a clanking, ill-carpentered sentence he begins: ‘This book is an examination of the moral and judgmental credentials of certain leading intellectuals to give advice to humanity on how to conduct its affairs.’ As he goes on, increasingly suffused with the odour of righteousness: ‘How did they run their own lives? With what degree of rectitude did they behave to family, friends and associates? Were they just in their sexual and financial dealings?’

Having granted himself this licence, Johnson proceeds to employ it with extreme vulgarity and, I would say, imprudence. Seeking to discredit the theory of historical materialism, for example, he writes:

One of Jenny's earliest surviving letters reads: ‘Please do not write with so much rancour and irritation', and it is clear that many of his incessant rows arose from the violent expressions he was prone to use in writing and still more in speech, the latter often aggravated by alcohol. Marx was not an alcoholic but he drank regularly.

The entire book breathes with that sort of surreptitious, furtive, prurient mentality. Take this introduction to the thinking of Rousseau:

His father Isaac was a watchmaker but did not flourish in his trade, being a troublemaker, often involved in violence and riots. His mother, Suzanne Bernard, came from a wealthy family, but died of puerperal fever shortly after Rousseau's birth. Neither parent came from the tight circle of families which formed the ruling oligarchy of Geneva and composed the Council of Two Hundred and the Inner Council of Twenty-Five. But they had full voting and legal privileges and Rousseau was always very conscious of his superior status. It made him a natural conservative by interest (though not by intellectual conviction) and gave him a lifelong contempt for the voteless mob. There was also a substantial amount of money in the family.

Notice how Johnson circles like some carrion bird, looking for the weak spot. If Rousseau had been born in poverty, he could have been accused of a lifelong envy for people more fortunate than himself. But the evidence on this isn't quite strong enough. So, a brisk en passant sneer at the father's difficulties before deciding to convict on the charge of premodern radical chic. If this simplistic method were pursued with the least elegance or discrimination, it might deserve to be called Johnson's Fork. As it is, it is merely Johnson's projection.

Or take the following, which shows the abyss of moral chaos into which Johnson's lurching footsteps have carried him:

In his ascent to power, Hitler consistently was most successful on the campus, his electoral appeal to students regularly outstripping his performance among the population as a whole. He always performed well among teachers and university professors. Many intellectuals were drawn into the higher echelons of the Nazi Party and participated in the more gruesome excesses of the SS. Thus the four Einsatzgruppen or mobile killing battalions which were the spearhead of Hitler's ‘final solution’ in Eastern Europe contained an unusually high proportion of university graduates among the officers.

This slipshod, hysterical, clumsy passage (Intellectuals marks Johnson's final break with any claim to style) is a distillation of every fault and crime in the book:

(1) It contains a stupid confusion between the notion of being educated and the notion of being an intellectual. This sort of lethal crudity was found among the cadres of the Khmer Rouge. (‘Oh, you wear spectacles, do you … ?’)

(2) It contains what elementary logicians call an ‘undistributed middle’: Certain intellectuals harboured illusions about Hitler, therefore intellectuals are Hitlerite. This puerile solecism is, in various forms, the whole scheme of the book.

(3) It represents a dishonest rewriting of a dishonest earlier volume. In his turgid and apologetic A History of Christianity, Johnson made use of the same rather questionable survey of SS members to show that an alarmingly high percentage of them had been practising and confessing Roman Catholics. On that occasion he wrote that although the fact was uncomfortable, it didn't prove anything.

(4) It is an insult to the exceptional number of German intellectuals, Jewish and non-Jewish, who went into exile or suffered gross persecution rather than compromise with the New Order. The most famous of these were secular leftists, the species of intellectual whose defamation is the principal purpose of this book. Still, in his witless hatred of the type, Johnson doesn't scruple to generalise, or to license the hatred of the intellectual and the university, which was the special contribution of fascism to modern discourse.

I haven't the least idea whether Johnson considers himself, or wishes to be considered by others, an intellectual. But there is an element of self-hatred in these clotted pages that prompts the question. I don't just mean his sly, semi-conscious elision in point (3) above. On page 283 he retells the old story of the New Statesman and the suppression of George Orwell's dispatches from Barcelona in 1937. As it happens, I wrote about this episode in the New Statesman about a decade ago, saying that the editor at the time, Kingsley Martin, had acted deplorably. It was Paul Johnson, by then a well-paid-up member of the barking, foaming British right, who wrote in to attack me, to defend Martin and to call his censorship of Orwell a perfectly defensible exercise of the editorial prerogative. Yet here he is in 1989 making it seem as if Martin's decision was a classic symptom of the decline of the West.

There is a slightly unsettling emphasis on the sex lives of the great minds in this book. Edmund Wilson, it seems, was another spanker. Karl Marx was worried about boils on his Johnson. Victor Hugo and Tolstoy just could not leave their Johnsons in peace. You know the sort of thing. But it is in one of the few sex-free sentences in the chapter on Bertrand Russell that Johnson gives himself away. Describing some of Russell's many self-contradictions on the nuclear question, he says that the old philosopher ‘tore off, following the howling banshees of logic’. I choose to regard this as a revealing criticism. Having condemned the educated, he despises the logical. What is next if not an attack on reason itself? And sure enough, we get it. Evelyn Waugh turns out to be the model intellectual and the model of personal probity, because he ‘was never a man to underrate the importance of the irrational in life’. Absurdly, Johnson tries to undergird this position by inept reference to the writing of George Orwell, already misrepresented and caricatured by him in an earlier passage. He suggests that Waugh, the friend of Franco and knee-jerk Jew-baiter (and, I must add, my favourite English novelist of this century) was on the way to annexing Orwell on his deathbed.

Well, facts are stupid things, as Johnson's favourite President once had the goodness to remind us. But on his death-bed, Orwell was actually working on a review of Brideshead Revisited. How I wish he had completed it. Still, the notes survive:

W's driving forces. Snobbery. Catholicism. Note even the early books not anti-religious or demonstrably anti-moral. But note the persistent snobbishness, rising in the social scale but always centring round the idea of continuity/aristocracy/a country house. Note that everyone is snobbish, but that Waugh's loyalty is to a form of society no longer visible, of which he must be aware.

For Johnson, who appears to be ignorant of this commentary, awareness comes in altogether different guises. As he says on page 72, in his flailing and pitiful account of the life of Karl Marx: ‘An unusually intelligent Prussian police agent who reported on him in London noted …’ And again, five pages later: ‘On 24 May 1850 the British Ambassador in Berlin, the Earl of Westmorland, was given a copy of a report by a clever Prussian police spy describing in great detail the activities of the German revolutionaries centred around Marx.’

It's difficult to know whom Johnson admires more: the Prussian police spy or the Earl of Westmorland, whose mere name is a magic caress to him. But this book is written by a would-be informer and stool pigeon, who would gladly sniff the sheets and snoop through the drawers and run lolloping drunkenly back to dump the trophy at his master's feet. On every page there is something low, sniggering, mean and eavesdropped from third-hand. How right that it should have drawn an enthusiastic endorsement from Norman Podhoretz, another moral and intellectual hooligan who wishes he had the balls to be a real-life rat fink.

Two words have, of course, been dishonestly elided from the title of this book. They are ‘secular’ and ‘left’. If an ‘intellectual’ is motivated by religious or conservative convictions, he or she is exempted axiomatically from Johnson's picknose inquisition. Writing his elegy for one whose emotions were conservative and spiritual, W. H. Auden observed with generosity that:

Time which is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives.

He went on rather suggestively to propose that:

Time which with this strange excuse
Pardons Kipling and his views
And will pardon Paul Claudel
Pardon him for writing well …

Auden had what Johnson cannot guess at, which is to say he had at least the ideal of the whole man, to be contemplated and evaluated with irony and complexity. (One can imagine Johnson replying with a sneer that Auden had excellent personal reasons to hope for forgiveness.)

The relationship between a personality and a set of ideas or precepts is, in other words, an important and delicate consideration. Most often, the relationship is disclosed by way of contradiction. (One thinks of Sir Isaac Newton's addiction to unscientific superstitions, or Evelyn Waugh's invitation to his friends to imagine how much nastier he would be if he were not a Catholic.) These contradictions repay study. But the study is made impossible if, like Johnson, you propose that personal failings are the essential clue to inquiry and analysis. Even at the philistine public schools which Auden satirised so beautifully, there is a handy injunction that the real gentleman tackles the ball, not the man.

Something occurred to me as I put Intellectuals on the chuck-out shelf. It is a book so sordid and comical that it discredits even its ridiculous author. Yet apparently nobody—family member, colleague, publisher, drinking companion—told Johnson to pull the chain on it. It seems, then, that he can't have a true friend in all the world. Perhaps it is this that makes his prose so hateful and lunging. ‘Look at me. I'm fouling myself again!’ Sorry, Paul. Now that I remember, I suppose I always knew that this was going to happen.1

Note

  1. An earlier version of this article appeared in The Nation, 10 April 1989.

John B. Judis (review date 26 February 1989)

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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 political quarreling, “There is nothing in the Stalinist era which is not distantly prefigured in Marx's behavior.”

Johnson writes a good sentence and parts of this book are fun to read, but his central argument is thoroughly tendentious and even contemptible. The book masquerades as a study of a defined historical type, the intellectual, and of the relationship between the intellectual's personality and his work, but the argument boils down to an attempt to discredit certain intellectuals’ ideas by linking them to their unsavory personal lives. Johnson's method is not that of the historian but that of the ad hominem debater and the supermarket tabloid.

The problem lies with how Johnson defines, or fails to define, the term intellectual. He claims that the “secular intellectual” has historically displaced the priest and witch doctor as the guardian of culture. He then confines these “secular” intellectuals to anti-religious and left-liberal thinkers like Marx or Bertrand Russell. But the point is misleading. What occurred historically was the detachment of church from state and of a state-sanctioned priesthood from the ruling elite. What has displaced the single priesthood is a heterogeneous group of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, atheists, liberals and conservatives, including Johnson himself.

Historical generalizations aside, what, then, of specifically liberal intellectuals? Is there, as Johnson suggests, some link between their personal misconduct and their ideas? Like the good debater, Johnson happens to choose only intellectuals whose personal lives were not models of middle-class sobriety—and he then proceeds to cast even their noblest acts in the most invidious light. For instance, James Baldwin (whom Johnson incorrectly describes as a “black nationalist”) began writing essays about civil rights because he discovered black rage was “becoming topical, fashionable and just.”

But even if one accepts Johnson's bilious characterizations of these liberal intellectuals, one must still reject his characterization of the type. There are many liberals and leftists whose personal lives were fairly humdrum—John Dewey, John Kenneth Galbraith, Eugene Debs, most of the Frankfurt School and most of the Bolshevik leadership, for instance. Were Galbraith's or Dewey's ideas necessarily sounder than—or dramatically different from—those of the philanderer Thorstein Veblen?

Of course, conservative intellectuals like Johnson have not always lived like Mother Teresa. But did Roy Cohn or Willmoore Kendall's enthusiasm for Joe McCarthy reflect their own peculiar lifestyles? Or did Albert Jay Nock's theory of education—later heralded by the young and socially correct William F. Buckley Jr.—reflect Nock's libertinism? Or must these individuals and their ideas be subjected to the same canons of objective judgment as their political opponents?

There is undoubtedly a connection between people's characters and their works and ideas, but it cannot be used as the basis for evaluating what they think or for evaluating a general category of thinkers and their ideas.

Johnson gives predictably short shrift to the actual ideas of his subjects. He is at his best discussing literary figures like Hemingway or arm-chair political philosophers like Russell or Mailer, but his discussion of Rousseau's, Marx's or Sartre's work—as opposed to their sexual or personal lives—is cursory and even ludicrous. “Capital is a series of essays glued together without any real form,” Johnson declares—a judgment that will certainly seem curious to anyone who has read that elegantly structured book. Johnson entirely ignores Sartre's difficult but brilliant Being and Nothingness. Readers expecting to learn something about Marx's concept of surplus value or Sartre's idea of bad faith will be sorely disappointed: these ideas are not even introduced.

The way Johnson dwells on his subjects’ personal lives is particularly reprehensible. Intellectuals reads like one of those back-alley books on sexual perversion whose ostensible purpose is to condemn but whose real motive is to titillate. Johnson excerpts at length and with no particular purpose Edmund Wilson's diary, which he describes (a private diary!) as “quasi-pornographic.” While condemning Kenneth Tynan's “self-immolation at the altar of sex,” he reveals in details about Tynan's masturbation and sadism.

In short, Johnson's book is not about intellectuals, but only about certain liberal ones he dislikes. And it is not about their ideas, but about their personal lives, particularly their sex lives. It is a book of questionable intellectual value.

Russell Jacoby (review date 19 March 1989)

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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 in 13 chapters: 12 are devoted to figures like Rousseau, Hemingway, Sartre, Brecht, Bertrand Russell; the last chapter takes up Norman Mailer, Kenneth Tynan, James Baldwin and others.

The verdict? Guilty, First Degree. From Rousseau to Lillian Hellman, intellectuals are sexual perverts, egotists, panhandlers; they are vulgar, dirty, grasping, financially incompetent or dishonest—and insulting to their mothers.

The sentence? Perpetual isolation. We should ignore intellectuals. “A dozen people picked at random on the street” offer more valuable views than a bunch of intellectuals.

To state that this book has problems is like reporting the Titanic had a mishap. Johnson's argument is flawed, at best, scurrilous, at worst. Why collect the misdeeds of a Hemingway or an Ibsen or a Brecht? Johnson does not seek to illuminate the work but only discredit the author and writings. Will the world be improved without Ibsen's plays or Brecht's poems? And does Johnson fantasize that his random people-from-the-street both live more virtuously and write more elegantly than sinning intellectuals?

The belief that a straight line connects cultural contribution and personal life verges on the fanaticism that incinerates culture in the name of moral purity. Why stop with the “intellectuals” Johnson selects? What about Kierkegaard? Nietzsche? Kafka? Certainly they lacked the human skills Johnson deems essential. What about Plato? Baudelaire? Proust? Joyce? Faulkner? Out with them all!

To be sure, aside from calling them modern secular priests who “tell mankind how to conduct itself.” Johnson keeps it secret how he identifies intellectuals. His list does not immediately enlighten. Many of those he denounces are poets, playwrights and novelists—Hemingway, Shelley, Ibsen, Tolstoy—who hardly instruct mankind on political issues.

Whom he skips, however, reveals the agenda. He neatly omits any mention of conservative intellectuals. Burke, Hamilton, Kissinger, Buckley, Podhoretz are all missing. Why? Aren't they intellectuals who advise mankind? Do we assume their personal lives, sexual practices and financial dealings are proper? And if their behavior is less than correct, are their ideas discredited?

Johnson scorns Sartre's conduct, but what about anti-Semitic intellectuals like Céline or Pound? Are their lives prim and proper? And because this is hardly the case, are their writings worthless? Conversely, what happens if some intellectuals, Freud for instance, whom Johnson dismissed in his volume Modern Times, pass the Behavior Test? Does that render their ideas valid?

To Johnson, intellectuals evidence little appreciation for tolerance and facts. Compared to Johnson, however, the Grand Inquisitor runs a mediation and fact-checking service. Johnson knows the Truth: everyone else is a liar. He upbraids James Baldwin for lying about his childhood. Johnson comprehends the recesses of Baldwin's past better than the black writer. Johnson knows that Baldwin's father dealt kindly with his son. Johnson, not Baldwin, knows what Baldwin's mother said to him at the father's death. If necessary, Johnson uses the gossip mode, the unattributed source; for instance, he trumpets Hellman's sex life. “It was said, for instance, that she attended all-male poker parties … the winner taking Hellman into a bedroom.”

On occasion, mainly with Marx, Johnson first exposes Marx's contribution as fraudulent before itemizing the personal deceits. Yet Johnson's language and scholarship bespeak jeering matches, not critical analysis. Calling Marx (and Engels) “collaborators in deception,” he lists Marx's four “crimes against truth.” They begin with Marx's use of “out-of-date material” and selection of “certain industries, where conditions are particularly bad, as typical of capitalism.” Even if accurate, these denote a weak argument, not “crimes against truth.” Marx compounds his “crime” by “ignoring the truth which stared him in the face: the more capital the less suffering.”

Johnson knows, or should know, that many of Marx's contemporaries ignored this “truth”; and that the human impact of the early Industrial Revolution remains an open question among historians. As usual, Johnson has simplified matters: There is Johnson's truth and the liars. End debate.

To clinch his case, Johnson states that “the audacious forger” Marx once “outreached himself” by “deliberately” falsifying a sentence from Gladstone's Budget Speech. This is a tiresome old issue; Marx claimed he cited the sentence from the daily press; the official transcript printed it differently. The argument dragged on for decades; Engels even wrote a booklet about the flap. Johnson revives the charges and, as usual, calls a spade a hoe.

If some intellectuals offer a thousand sins for Johnson to relish, for others he desperately scratches about. His effort to discredit Ibsen is pathetic. The young Ibsen was frequently depressed, broke, harassed by creditors and drunk, and when famous, he remained forbidding and “disgruntled,” sitting by himself in a cafe. Johnson is perplexed. Why didn't Ibsen smile and laugh? Why wasn't he a regular guy?

Johnson discovers that Ibsen was, well, weird. He had a “passion” for medals, which he sometimes wore. He was a vain and fussy dresser and, while not exactly a drunk, he gave some drunken speeches. He fought with other writers; he was unhappily married and liked young women—and even kissed one young lady. Moreover, he failed the Mother Test. “Quite unfairly, he held his father and mother responsible for his unhappy youth.” Ibsen, Johnson decides, felt rage and fear, not healthy love. Conclusion to this portrait? None.

Intellectuals who despise intellectuals are hardly new; at the turn of the century, a minor author, Max Nordau, wrote a celebrated book, “Degeneration,” arguing that artists and writers were biological “degenerates.” Johnson updates Nordau with this sensationalist account of intellectuals. “Read all about it! Hemingway lies to his mother! Lillian Hellman sleeps around!”

His small-minded effort to judge intellectuals by bedroom and bank account gives a bad name to Philistinism. Johnson prides himself on his logical consistency, basic humanism and truthfulness; he puzzles again and again how intellectuals could be so contradictory, spiteful and mendacious. He avoids, however, a striking case that sustains his argument: Paul Johnson.

Robert Gorham Davis (review date 20 March 1989)

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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 demands whatsoever. It is devoted to describing how secular intellectuals (“secular” is the key word) drink too much, tell lies, foment violence, betray their lovers, abuse their wives, sponge on their friends, neglect their children. Yet these are the types, Johnson says over and over again, who want to tell us how to conduct our lives, who want to reconstruct society from blueprints of their own design! “Beware intellectuals,” he warns at the end. “Not merely should they be kept well away from the levers of power, they should also be the objects of particular suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice.”

Every indiscretion is grist to Johnson's mill. Did you know that Rousseau displayed his bare bottom to young women in the dark streets of Turin? So much for the Social Contract! Did you know that Ibsen hated dogs and would thrust sticks through a fence—if the fence was strong—to enrage them? Now you surely wouldn't want to see A Doll's House again.

The major instances of cruelty and dishonesty occupying page after page of Intellectuals are far worse than this, as detailed as in a police report, and no doubt 90 per cent true. The “enemies” are Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Brecht, Bertrand Russell, Sartre, Edmund Wilson, Victor Gollancz and Lillian Hellman.

Although some of the imaginative writers targeted had ideas certainly, one may wonder whether Hemingway, for example, was an intellectual. But that is Johnson's term for those whose views he does not like. The author's acknowledgments of his sources give the clue to his choice of villains. He mentions Huizinga's “vigorous polemic” against Rousseau, Edward Crankshaw's “formidably critical account” of Tolstoy, William Wright's “masterly piece of detective work” on Lillian Hellman. What Johnson requires is a public figure of whose political ideas he disapproves, and whose private scandals have already been exposed by biographers or pathographers in a conveniently transferable form.

Gollancz is included not for his own writing but for his Left Book Club, which successfully deceived many people about Stalin. Johnson cannot resist one more itemization of Lillian Hellman's lies because he himself, as he says repeatedly, so loves truth. This makes mysterious, however, his inclusion of Ibsen when three of Ibsen's plays—An Enemy of the People, The Wild Duck and Rosmersholm—are all about truth-telling and its costs in an untruthful society. Is the playwright here, as we are told, because “long before Freud” he “laid the foundations of the permissive society,” or because the author wants to have fun with Ibsen's incredible vanity and strange relations with his wife?

Why take such a book seriously? We have to because of Paul Johnson, and because Intellectuals puts such a dangerous anti-intellectual or know-nothing stamp on the present return to religion.

Johnson was on the staff of the liberal British New Statesman and Nation from 1955 to 1970, and its editor for the last six of those years. Ten years later he turned up in Washington at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) to write a laudatory biography of the present Pope without a blink explaining John Paul II's obduracy about contraception. Obviously the Pope believes in absolute values, and the AEI does not harbor the “relativists” and “secularists” Johnson repeatedly cautions against. No danger if those intellectuals get close to the levers of power.

Johnson has an amazing number of books to his credit. Many are works of tremendous scope and have followed in fairly quick succession: A History of Christianity, Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties, A History of the English People, A History of the Jews. Of the titles cited, Modern Times has 832 pages, the others over 500; all are dense with facts, not ordinary popularizations. The history of Christianity contains a bibliography of 400 items, mostly of recent scholarship. Johnson does serious reading for us in areas where we might not venture. Even opponents agree that he is a master of the striking detail, the pertinent anecdote, the memorable quotation.

But decisive change occurred between A History of Christianity (1976) and the books that come after. In the volume on Christianity Johnson paints an unqualifiedly black picture of the surrender of the Protestant and Catholic churches in Germany as Hitler rose to power. In the summer of 1933 “Rome signed a concordat with Hitler, which in effect unilaterally disarmed German Catholicism as a political and social force, and signaled to rank-and-file Catholic priests and laymen that they should accept the new regime to the full.”

The Lutherans, in their hope of becoming the state religion again, behaved even worse according to Johnson. The Rightists among them made great play with Luther's anti-Semitism and hatred of democracy. “At the Protestant Church elections, with the help of the Nazi propaganda machine, the German Christians [the Rightist group] won an overwhelming victory. Their motto was: ‘The Swastika on our breasts, the Cross in our Hearts.’”

Modern Times devotes its chapter on “The Devils” to the ’30s, and to the “unprecedented ferocity and desolation—moral relativism in monstrous incarnation” that took such parallel form in Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany. But where Johnson in A History of Christianity described so fully and unfavorably the Vatican's pact with Hitler, in the later book, where it is even more relevant, he ignores it completely. He similarly ignores the courageous role of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the liberal German theologian who joined a plot against Hitler and was killed for it, though this too was included in A History of Christianity. Johnson boasts of his love of truth, but he can be selective in presenting it.

His attitude toward Tolstoy took a sharp turn as well. As late as Enemies of Society, comparing terrorism in our own time with that of Russian students in the 19th century, Johnson writes: “The theoretical justification of violence in the name of social justice drew from Tolstoy his last indignant protest against the prostitution of the human intellect in the real or imagined cause of progress.” Johnson praises and quotes what are “almost the last words Tolstoy wrote.”

Now in Intellectuals we are given the “bad” Tolstoy, whose “stormy life ended not with a bang but a whine” in circumstances of “jealousy, spite, revenge, furtiveness, treachery, bad temper, hysteria and petty meanness.” Tolstoy has become one more example of “what happens when an intellectual pursues abstract ideas at the expense of people.”

In Enemies Johnson attacks Paul Tillich for following Heidegger in existentialist apologies for violence that can “demolish Western civilization itself.” Then he goes on almost gratuitously to reflect that “of course violence has always played a significant part in Judaeo-Christian affairs ever since Moses, on the instructions of the Deity, instructed his captains to revenge Israel on the Midianites: ‘Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children who have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.’”

Johnson cannot resist such shockers even when they threaten his whole case for religious absolutes. Voltaire or Thomas Paine would have been delighted by large sections of A History of Christianity. Johnson is as scrupulously detailed about the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition as of the Nazi death camps. The Inquisition was self-supporting for centuries because it could seize for itself the estates of its victims, sent to the stake by the lies of paid informers. And he is meticulous in describing the burnings of heretics—deviant intellectuals—over obscure points of doctrine completely meaningless today.

Johnson blames fallen human nature for “the massacre and torture, intolerance and destructive pride on a huge scale” that his history of Christianity reveals to us. Yet without Christianity, he exclaims, “how much more horrific the history of these last 2,000 years [would] have been!” How can we know? That German Christianity supported Hitler after it was clear where his blatant anti-Semitism was heading is not reassuring.

Undoubtedly there is a return to religion now, the more orthodox the better. We know that human nature has not changed, and we know what religion is like in those parts of the world where intolerant sects go on killing each other. It is unlikely that a revivalist religion in the U.S., speaking in the name of absolutes, will resemble the Erasmian humanism that seems closest to Johnson's heart when he is not defending dogma or the mild nonsupernaturalist social religion Daniel Bell recommends in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.

American religion has been saved from doctrinal strife by a pragmatic emphasis on common morality rather than differing belief. But resurgent orthodoxy now demands strictness in both areas, and attacks liberal Protestant churches and liberals within Catholicism—nearly all intellectuals—for promoting permissiveness with a Leftist stamp. It presses our Republican Administration and a Rightist Supreme Court for explicit support.

Free inquiry and free criticism are essential to democracy, and so are free intellectuals, for all their faults. The universities, the sciences, even the government can hardly get along without them. But they can be reviled, censored and silenced if anti-intellectualism in fervent religious guise wins popular support.

Johnson's all-out denunciation brings back the painful realities of the Bush campaign. That campaign and the tactics of the antiabortionists should make intellectuals wary in the way they support religion as a cure for the ills of society or talk about absolutes without troubling to define them. There are likely to be tough times ahead.

Joseph Sobran (review date 21 April 1989)

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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 they do.

Nearly all of them created misery around them, especially in their treatment of the opposite sex; but this isn't the special prerogative of intellectuals. Hemingway was a terror, but this has nothing to do with his talent or his opinions: he got drunk a lot, and preferred the company of toadies who would put up with almost anything. Rousseau, Shelley, and Brecht were monsters of self-promotion, cynicism, ingratitude, and the heartless use of others; the same might be said of certain rock stars. Ibsen was rude and cold, but he never seems to have done anything he could be arrested or even divorced for.

Intellectuals, in short, is a bogus category. Johnson nevertheless moralizes freely about them—“This is typical of intellectuals”; “it is a characteristic of such intellectuals”; etc.—as if his peculiar selection of a dozen or so people he dislikes constituted some sort of inductive demonstration. It doesn't. I have no affection for any of his targets, and he persuades me that most of them are as despicable as he thinks they are. But this proves nothing about “intellectuals.”

The book has its virtues. Johnson writes with zest, and he provides excellent gossip. As in other and better books, he has a sure sense of what the reader already knows and supplies an endless stream of piquant facts few readers do know. Heaven knows this book is not boring.

But it is monotonous, in that Johnson's attitude of censure rarely lets up and eventually makes these disparate people sound more alike than they are. He is Will Durant with a beadle's whip. He dwells on his subjects’ sexual sins, sometimes beyond the call of duty, so that his criticism of Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloïse applies to his own book: “It is written with extraordinary skill to appeal both to the prurient interest of readers … and to their sense of morality.”

Johnson is shrewd about his subjects’ shrewdness: all of them knew their audience, and even their most “daring” ideas were pitched with great skill at a receptive public, while seeming to defy the powers that be. Insofar as he is debunking the pretensions of cultural icons who posed as iconoclasts, he is very good.

But he doesn't stop there. There is something wrong with a writer who arouses in me the impulse to defend Lillian Hellman. Bitch, slut, liar, tyrant, crypto-Communist, self-deluded fool, yes. But is it fair to pile on the rumor that she once made herself the prize in a poker game? Does the inductive method require such detail? Doesn't the beadle's arm ever weary?

On the East Coast, she was the queen of radical chic and the most important single power-broker among the progressive intelligentsia and the society people who seethed round them. Indeed in the New York of the 1970s she dispensed the same kind of power which Sartre had wielded in Paris, 1945–55. She promoted and selected key committees. She compiled her own blacklists and had them enforced by scores of servile intellectual flunkies. The big names of New York radicalism scurried to do her bidding. Part of her power sprang from the fear she inspired. She knew how to make herself unpleasant, in public or in private.

And so on. Sounds awful, but such characters could probably be found among people whose politics Johnson shares. Noam Chomsky is dragged in solely for his detestable radical views, with no evidence—apart from the very fact that he appears in this book—that his personal life is in any way defective. Mentioning him in this context seems unfair.

“What conclusions should be drawn? Readers will judge for themselves.” All this moralism, and no moral! Except this: “Beware intellectuals.” Yes, yes, but how do we spot ’em? Johnson's bag is mixed, but not mixed enough. He should have complicated it with a few unpleasant “right-wingers.” If he couldn't find them, he wasn't really looking.

Bernard Williams (review date 20 July 1989)

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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 have a more significant part in some societies than in others. In fact, he does not pretend that the book is anything more than it is, a series of unflattering short biographies of people identified as secular intellectuals. They are an odd assortment, ranging from Rousseau and Shelley to Kenneth Tynan and Lillian Hellman, by way of Marx, Tolstoy, and Hemingway, among others. He describes them all so as to bring out their bad behavior. According to Johnson, they all—this seems to be their defining characteristic—“preferred ideas to people.” Ruthless or exploitative personal relations are particularly emphasized: the well-known histories of Rousseau's treatment of his children, for instance, and Tolstoy's relations to his wife are rehearsed.

The chosen intellectuals are also represented as characteristically, if not universally, very unscrupulous about the truth, though this charge takes different forms, not always very carefully distinguished. Sometimes, as in the case of Russell and Sartre, it means that they made reckless and irresponsible political statements. With others, particularly Marx, it means that they would not admit it when proved wrong. With many, it means that they lied to their wives or their creditors. In the case of the left-wing British publisher Victor Gollancz, who is particularly picked on for sins against veracity, it paradoxically means, in several instances, that he stated with extreme frankness to authors that he would not publish material with which he did not agree.

One or two intellectuals are rather heartlessly mocked for practical incompetence: the aged Sartre became confused at a meeting; Bertrand Russell was unable to bring a kettle to the boil or adjust his hearing aid. A long paragraph devoted to the accidents in which Ernest Hemingway was involved makes a blackly comical catalog, but hardly a surprising one, granted the feats he was always attempting and the fact, firmly emphasized by Johnson, that much of the time he was drunk.

Above all, the writers in Intellectuals are shown as sexually unscrupulous and in many cases insatiable—and in almost every chapter (Ibsen is resistant to the treatment) there is a detailed rehearsal of the subject's adulteries, infidelities, and general sexual disorder. All the subjects but one are men; in the case of the exception, Lillian Hellman, Johnson is not content with the material he has about her sexual adventures and throws in a good deal more about those of Dashiell Hammett. The censorious and distinctly prurient tone of all this suggests that the Church's revenge on the secular intellectual has been shaped by the more dubious aspects of the confessional.

Much, then, is said about the less intellectual activities of the intellectuals. Not much is said about their ideas. The account of Marx is a standard caricature; the remarks about Rousseau's political theories would not pass a first-year exam. The little that is said about the technical work of Russell, Sartre, and Chomsky would have been better left out. The creative writers Johnson discusses he in fact admires, but he has nothing interesting to say about them. All the unlovely chatter about writers leaves in the end some sense of respect for only two of them: Ibsen and—interestingly—Brecht, who is represented as so unrelievedly and chillingly horrible that even an author who is prepared to patronize Marx and sneer at Tolstoy seems rather awed by him.

So the whole enterprise is quite useless. But it does raise two questions, at least. One is why an intelligent and hardworking writer with a sense of the past should have thought it worth doing. I have no idea. The other is the question of whether there was a subject to be written about, if Johnson had chosen to pursue it seriously. Is there anything interesting to be said about “intellectuals” as such? Who are they? What authority, if any, do their pronouncements have? It is these questions, particularly the last, that Johnson's book might have addressed, and perhaps was originally intended to address.

If there is a question worth addressing, certainly one would have to start with a less eccentric selection of intellectuals. One elementary improvement would be that they should not be selected just for being badly behaved. Johnson himself, as a matter of fact, undermines any general lesson to be drawn from his selection by several times mentioning other people who were nicer than his subjects, were exploited by them or at least were there to pick up the pieces, and yet had as good a claim to be secular intellectuals as the subjects had. In the tale of Tolstoy, there is Turgenev. Near Sartre at one time, there is Camus—though Johnson says he is not an intellectual, on the simplistic ground that he did not hold ideas to be more important than people. Above all, as friend and victim of the wretched Rousseau, there is Diderot. Diderot was an extremely sympathetic human being who was interested in a vast range of ideas and experience and as an organizer, an editor, and a writer of the great Encyclopedia did as much as any other single person, perhaps more, to form modern consciousness. If Diderot was not a secular intellectual, then there is no such person.

Johnson's principles of selection are partly formed by the notion, explicitly applied to Camus, that exploitation of other people is a defining mark of an intellectual, or at least of a secular one. This is an uninteresting conception and begs all the questions. But in addition to this, and indeed contrary to it, Johnson may have another idea. It may be that he is not claiming to produce a generalization about all secular intellectuals (the language of “typically,” “characteristically,” and so forth makes it hard to tell), but is rather saying that these examples serve in themselves as a demonstration of the truth he wants to bring home: that possession of the sorts of characteristics by which intellectuals are distinguished—an interest in ideas, perhaps, and a disposition to see the world, particularly the world of politics, in abstract and general terms—carries no guarantee at all of moral reliability or good judgment. So why should the intellectuals have any authority? Why should anyone take any notice of them?

If this is Johnson's question, as I think it is, his principles of selection still are inadequate. For one thing, there are still questions to be answered about nonsecular intellectuals. Why should anyone have listened to them, either—to T. S. Eliot, for instance, or to Claudel? He says nothing at all about this, but it is possible to imagine what his answer might be. From two very brief passages about the replacement of clerical authority by that of the secular intellectual, one might infer the opinion that if Christian intellectuals (in particular) are to be listened to, it is because they are Christian, not just because they are intellectuals. Or, rather differently: it may be they should be listened to because they are intellectuals, and their abstract and general formulations are what attract intellectual interest, but any authority they have is the authority of their Christian beliefs and derived from their religious tradition, and does not simply come from their status as intellectuals. With secular intellectuals, on the other hand, there is nothing to commend their views to people's attention beyond the fact that they are intellectuals.

This is some sort of an answer, but a very incomplete one. Many secular intellectuals do attach themselves to a tradition, as many among those reviewed in Intellectuals have attached themselves to Marxist traditions. Johnson thinks those traditions false and pernicious, and indeed sometimes proceeds in a peremptorily right-wing way (he counts the judgments of Commentary magazine as authoritative without further argument, and a statement about Sartre by the extreme right paper L'Aurore is unquestioningly accepted, although it is at the same time described as a sneer). But that should not be the point. Even if Johnson does not like the tradition in question, it will still be true that the authority that is claimed for these intellectuals’ judgments does not derive from a pure act of personality, but is attached to traditions of discourse that stand behind the thoughts of particular people, as the works of Hegel, Saint-Simon, Ricardo, and Feuerbach, to name only a few, stand behind the ideas of Marx.

Equally, it would be a great mistake to suppose that the authority of Christian intellectuals is just the authority of the Church. Their role as such intellectuals is not that of a priest; moreover they have in fact often been heretics. Nor are their characteristics as intellectuals at all simply related to their Christian belief, or to the Church, and there is much to be said about the questions of how much help or harm may be done to the Christian life by its expression in abstract terms and in connection with a wider range of ideas. “What is the authority of an intellectual?” is as good a question about a Christian intellectual as about a secular one, and has been recognized to be so by Christians: by Newman, for instance, to take one notable example about whom Johnson certainly knows a good deal.

There is another, quite different, respect in which Johnson's list of examples needs to be reconsidered if the right question is to be isolated. It is necessary to separate from the supposed authority of the intellectual something else, the authority of the artist. By including Shelley, Tolstoy, and others who were creative writers Johnson confuses the issue in several ways. One is that the self-centeredness, the exploitation of others, what he calls the “monumental egotism” of these people, tells us nothing special about intellectuals. It simply reflects the well-known fact that some creative people make ruthless demands on those around them. It is another, and in fact totally useless, question whether those people's achievements “excuse” their behavior. Their neglected children, abused wives, abandoned mistresses, unpaid creditors, and other victims needed an answer to that question, perhaps, and they can hardly be blamed if their answer was negative. But we scarcely need an answer to it. Moreover, this entire theme has very little to do with the authority of intellectuals. The authority of these artists lies in their works, not in the characteristics typical of intellectuals.

Johnson strangely neglects this point. He admires most of the artists he discusses—in the case of Shelley, perhaps too indiscriminately. (Is it because he does not admire his work that he did not take up Wagner, an artist who, one would think, was from all points of view ideally suited to his style of treatment?) But he does not try to understand, or relate to his theme, the hardly unfamiliar fact that work displaying great insight can go with a heartless life and ridiculous pronouncements. In one case he runs into critical trouble, since he both regards Tolstoy as “perhaps the greatest of all novelists” and yet claims to find in the novels what he finds in Tolstoy's life, an inability to sympathize with other human beings.

It is true that the respect awarded to artists because of their works may get extended, in the case of some of them, into a regard for, or at least an interest in, their pronouncements on political and other subjects. This may not be entirely rational, any more than it is when the same thing happens with scientists or entertainers. But it is hardly surprising: such people may well be remarkable, singular, interesting, with a talent for powerfully expressing feelings. In any case, this is not an issue of the authority of the intellectual. The intellectual, in Johnson's sense of a distinguished or well-known person, is someone who has a disposition and capacity to discuss and think in an informed way about ideas, and is thought to have some authority to speak about questions of immediate public concern, particularly about politics, in virtue of that capacity.

In some cases, the distinction between the authority of the intellectual and that of the artist is of course blurred. This is particularly so with the theater and with film, and there has been the tiresome phenomenon, for instance, of writers such as John Osborne or Arnold Wesker, whose awkward plays were thought better than they were because they expressed political ideas, which in their turn were better regarded than they should have been because they were expressed on the stage. But in the end, the authority of the intellectual, if there is such a thing, should be a purely intellectual authority. It is more than an expertise or scholarship, because it is applied outside the sphere of experts and scholars. It is the authority of a person to speak about the particular issues, above all political issues, derived from that person's capacity to handle ideas. Can there be such a thing?

The first requirement is that ideas should have something to do with politics. It is of course possible to pretend that they do not, and the present British government is a sustained exercise in pretending they do not. Its well-known anti-intellectual position of course includes its being against intellectuals, but that is only a small part of what it includes, since there are not many intellectuals to be against: intellectuals, as opposed to men of letters or academics, have never been a very common phenomenon in Britain. Moreover, a good number of those that there are find themselves somewhere on the left, and the government has good reason to be against them anyway.

But it is not much more encouraging to right-wing intellectuals. An example is to be found in a recent article in the London Times by Roger Scruton, certainly a right-wing intellectual, written to mark Isaiah Berlin's eightieth birthday and mostly devoted to an attack on him. The attack itself has no substance—it merely applies to one of the least appropriate targets conceivable the old line about liberals committed to free speech being soft on communism—but it does offer a glimpse of Scruton's own location on the right, when he says that he senses in Berlin “a dearth of those experiences in which the suspicion of the liberal idea is rooted: experiences of the sacred and the erotic, of mourning and holy dread.” What this might have to do with any politics now accessible to anyone is a question for Scruton, but, as he is well aware, it certainly has nothing at all to do with the politics of Mrs. Thatcher.

In one way, that is undeniably reassuring. On the other hand, the fact that Scruton's rhetoric, vapid as it is, has no conceivable relation to current political speech is an illustration of something more general and less welcome, that current speech has no room for any exercise of the imagination. In fact, although they are anti-intellectual, Thatcherian politics are deeply involved in ideas. They are, with their fixation on the competitive market and contempt for public assistance to the noncompetitive, more intensely ideological, as has often been noticed, than is usual in Britain. It is not that they have no ideas, but that they lack imagination, and those who develop the ideas are public accountants, publicists, and blinkered theorists of the market, rather than anyone who reflects more imaginatively on anything else. Certainly they are not intellectuals.

It is the intellectual imagination that gives intellectuals whatever authority they have. Of course it is true that the particular judgments of intellectuals may be impractical or poorly related to a given situation. But they are not meant to govern: that is the business of government, and to say that no one should comment on government except those in government is to say that there should be no comment. Of course, some intellectuals may be vain, self-important, and mendacious: that merely suggests that there should be more intellectuals who do not have such characteristics. Of course, the interest attached to the pronouncements of intellectuals may, in some cultures, be exaggerated. It is hard to deny that that used to be true in France, or at least in Paris; it is remarkable what intense scrutiny used to be applied to every shift of position, every analysis and rationalization, of certain Parisian thinkers who had never demonstrably shown good sense about anything.

But even such distortions raise questions that need answers. At the end of his chapter on Sartre, Johnson reports, in a bewildered tone, his funeral:

Over 50,000 people, most of them young, followed his body into Montparnasse Cemetery. To get a better view, some climbed into the trees. … To what cause had they come to do honour? What faith, what luminous truth about humanity, were they asserting by their mass presence? We may well ask.

If we may well ask, we should do well to answer. We need not suppose that the reputation of Sartre was entirely well-founded to acknowledge the truths to which it spoke: that politics necessarily involves ideas, and particularly so when it denies this; that political ideas need the surroundings, the criticism, and the life provided by other ideas; and that some people are able to bring those ideas imaginatively into the thoughts of those who are going to live under that politics. There is such a thing as the authority of the intellectual, and it is to be found in that capacity—an authority which, like that of the artist and unlike that of the clergy, depends on the uncommanded response of those it affects.

David Felix (review date Fall 1990)

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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.

Intellectuals is a collection of articles about more or less literary personalities, the less being represented by the late film director Fassbinder. Surely they had an idea or two in their heads, but the ideas were in the service of their art, an entirely reasonable operation even in the case of Fassbinder and surely in the cases of the poet and early democrat Shelley, the Communist playwright and lackey Bertolt Brecht, and Ernest Hemingway of the early splendor and the later self-parodies (who was right about Stalin aeons before the real intellectuals caught on). These aesthetically creative persons are far different from such skillful masters of intellection as Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Edmund Wilson. Some of Johnson's subjects, furthermore, are incidentally intellectuals but something else more significantly. Karl Marx was a revolutionary using organization and propaganda as well as ideas to reach mundane goals. The publisher Victor Gollancz was mentally equipped to be an intellectual, but was too smart to be one; Johnson shows him as businessman brilliantly exploiting the intellectuals he employed and published. Peopled by such disparate personalities, the book refuses to submit to any unifying definition.

The emphasis is on personality over idea. We learn too much about the sex lives of his people and not enough about their solid contributions to our culture and to humanity. Russell, we are obliged to remind ourselves, collaborated on the Principia Mathematica (1903) and helped lay the foundations of twentieth-century philosophy; Sartre placed his stamp on another significant moment in thought, whether or not it can withstand time's erosion, and attracted assassins by his support of Algerian independence; Wilson was a consummate American of letters, a rare and valuable specimen. Concentrating on the scandalous and the absurd—the womanizing of Russell or Sartre, the marital dramas of Wilson—leaves too little room for serious consideration of those elements in their lives that made these personae interesting in the first place.

At the same time Johnson rejects any psychological aids to understanding the people and their conduct. In Modern Times he dismissed Freud as a charlatan, but apparently seeks no replacement. Observing them from the outside, denying any human bond to them, he alienates absolutely and condemns all too easily.

Johnson inevitably places himself into competition with other writers attracted by his prominent cast. His Tolstoy demands comparison with Isaiah Berlin's Tolstoy of the classic work, The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953). Accurately enough Johnson shows us a man torturing his family with his inconsistent efforts to achieve saintliness. Berlin plunges into the depths of Tolstoy to show a powerful intelligence attempting an impossible comprehension of multifarious reality. Berlin has given us a portrait rich in selected detail and particularly illuminating on the travails of literary genius. If Johnson makes us sorry for Tolstoy's victims, Berlin makes us appreciate the character of a creative spirit of the highest order—and of his genuine suffering.

Johnson retroactively attempts to unify his book in the final essay, “The Flight of Reason,” which concludes, reasonably enough, that “intellectuals are no wiser as mentors, or worthier as exemplars, than the witch doctors or priests of old. … A dozen people picked at random on the street are at least as likely to offer sensible views on moral and political matters as a cross-section of the intelligentsia.” One can too easily agree. In his last sentence he concludes, “The worst of all despotisms is the heartless tyranny of ideas.” Again: agreed! But this is still not much of a book.

Asa Briggs (review date February 1991)

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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 collection. Indeed, the intellectual history of Britain since the 1960s, for Johnson a terrible and terrifying decade, is for the most part ignored. He himself has played a not unimportant part in it, and has discussed it in other places. As a result there is a petering out of the book at the end rather than a conclusion, with only a short final paragraph which gives as much advice as any intellectual possibly could. ‘Beware committees, conferences and leagues of intellectuals. Distrust public statements from their serried ranks. Discount their advice.’

In the first chapter of the book we are given a somewhat inadequate account of the eighteenth century, the century when, according to Johnson, it all began. ‘With the decline of clerical power in the eighteenth century', he begins, ‘a new kind of mentor emerged to fill the vacuum and capture the ear of society … He proclaimed from the start a special devotion to the interests of humanity and an evangelical duty to advance them by his teaching.’ This is in itself clear enough, although Johnson passes almost at once to what is his only real theme—‘the moral and judgmental credentials of intellectuals to tell mankind how to conduct itself’. As the detail in the book reveals, moral indignation is surely justified in relation to some of the stances and activities of the characters under review, and Johnson provides a rich anthology of quotable horror statements, some of them aphorisms. Moral indignation would be equally prompted, however, by a study in detail of the stances and activities of selected professional anti-intellectuals, many of whom have themselves professed to be working in the interests of their own people and sometimes, indeed, of mankind. The most memorable statements in the anthology are the ones which are not the most wicked, but the most stupid. Johnson was right to bring Orwell into his book. The credentials he demanded covered both categories.

Jeffrey Seheuer (review date 2 June 1991)

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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 first proposition is valid, but overly general; the second seems arguable, even after a thousand pages of evidence. But no matter; not far into the book, I absolved the author of responsibility for where we came out. For all its flaws, and despite my best initial intentions to dislike it, The Birth of the Modern is a profoundly, persistently, maddeningly interesting work.

We begin at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, where Gen. Andrew Jackson is clobbering the British forces, ending a conflict that already had been concluded at the peace table (news of the Treaty of Ghent hadn't reached the Mississippi Delta). The outcome of the War of 1812 was the enduring “special relationship” between England and the United States. Among other things, it ended French and Russian designs on this continent.

Now we swing over to Europe: Napoleon escapes from Elba, and three months later he's defeated at Waterloo by Britain and the Holy Alliance of Russia, Prussia and Austria. The Napoleonic Wars are over, and the Congress of Vienna opens the way for the Bourbon Restoration in France, a century of peace in Europe, and major advances in art, science and politics during the 1820s.

Much (but by no means all) of The Birth of the Modern could be described as a cultural history of England during that decade. Those sections alone would have made a more coherent book. But I'm frankly glad that Johnson chooses instead to jolt us back and forth between continents, making several forays each to France and the United States, and side trips to China, Japan, Russia, Australia and Latin America. One chapter recounts the brutal Russian conquest of Central Asia; another, the ambiguous legacy of Simon Bolivar; a third, Chinese politics and the opium trade.

We meet, on this long and somewhat chaotic world tour, an enormous gallery of brilliant, eccentric and (especially the poets) licentious characters; the monomaniacal Bonaparte; Jackson, whose penchant for dueling took a grievous toll on his body and perhaps his mind; Wellington, who concealed his Irish heritage, noting that “Because a man is born in a manger, that does not make him a horse”; Shelley, Byron, and Coleridge, Schubert and Berlioz, Faraday and Fulton. There are compelling portraits of Beethoven, Turner, Victor Hugo and Martin Van Buren; a memorable dinner party attended by Wordsworth, Keats and Charles Lamb; a chapter on Jackson's populist Administration, and the bizarre scandal, involving the wife of a crony, that marred his presidency.

If space is no stricture on Johnson's imagination, neither is time. While we lurch around the globe, chronological sequence is dispensed as a nuisance, making the narrative somewhat disjointed. (The procession of British statesmen, for example—Pitt, Peel, Canning, Castlereagh, Wellington, Palmerston—is never clearly established.) At times, Johnson wisely discards the 1815–1830 framework; elsewhere, by rigidly adhering to it, his chronicle becomes disengaged from the longer train of events. What animates the writing, however, is not argumentative thrust, stylistic grace or narrative flow, but a passion for the vivid minutiae of recorded history—anecdotes, facts, quotations.

Occasionally these are trivial. We're informed, for example, that when Castlereagh, the British foreign secretary, traveled to the Congress of Vienna, “Under his traveling cloak he wore a blue winter coat, red breeches and jockey boots, with a gold-banded fur cap on his head”; and that “Beethoven, at 5 feet 6 inches, was the same height as Bonaparte.” Johnson is likewise obsessive about numbers and statistics. We're given, as if to allay any doubt, precise figures on land prices in Argentina, and reminded that “by 1874, only two out of 858 British members of Parliament were beardless.” There is scarcely a paragraph that doesn't contain a superfluous date, amount, weight, cost or dimension.

Despite such arcana, one has to appreciate Johnson's determination to enliven, concretize and humanize the past. At times—as when recounting obscure details of Andrew Jackson's ruthless campaign against the Creek Indians—he seems to lose sight of modernity altogether. But just as often the details help to make a telling point; for instance, the impact of advances in road-building on daily life and public safety, or the emergence of the piano as a common household item, “proof that the middle class was taking over the cultural leadership from the old nobility.”

There are many arresting examples of the social consequences of technology, the effects of gaslight on the London theater; how the cotton gin boosted slavery in America when it was losing ground elsewhere; the incalculable impact of the steam engine, which opened great rivers (such as the Yangtze, Irrawaddy, Amazon and Nile) to the Royal Navy's gunboats. Steam power also led (in 1835) to the railroad, with commercial and social implications perhaps more profound than the advent of flight.

A paragon of the “great man” school, Johnson provides ample evidence that the early 1800s were “an age of great men.” He takes particular delight in emphasizing that it was an age when men and women of humble origins—including Thomas Telford, the great designer of bridges and canals, and many other Scots—rose to become great artists, inventors and engineers.

But in merely exalting genius, Johnson betrays the prejudices of the modern conservative intellectual. He brings us into the drawing rooms, studios and laboratories, but not into the factories, prisons, asylums, poorhouses or urban slums, where millions of less fortunate wretches were left behind by the Industrial Revolution.

Likewise, Johnson portrays Britain's role overseas as almost wholly benign. As he would have it, the main tasks of the Royal Navy were “promoting trade and suppressing slavery.” Knowledgeable readers may receive this news with some skepticism. He does, however, suggest the cruelty of the European conquest of primitive cultures, and the “tragic irony” that famine and overpopulation in the Old World, and the enclosure of land, helped to produce the “surge of European settlement which was subjecting the Indians of North America to a similar process of eviction and exile.”

Johnson is hostile toward the nascent trade-union movement (without considering the conditions that occasioned it); toward almost all radicals, and toward intellectuals as a class—the subject of a previous book that I'm now less inclined to read. He makes foolish remarks about the seeds of totalitarianism in the thought of social visionaries such as Bentham, Fourier and St. Simon, and betrays his ignorance of philosophy in dismissing Hegel, the century's most profound thinker, as a “proto-totalitarian ideologue.”

So what is the modern? On one level it is the cultural and economic integration that Johnson posits. Trade, transatlantic migration and technology (primarily electricity and steam) certainly accelerated the process between 1815 and 1830. Other signs of modernity included the Romantic celebration of the self, and of nature, borne of a sense that the wilderness was about to disappear; a new sense of the past, along with the rise of archeology; the emergence of distinct international scientific and artistic communities; the waves of populism and political reform in France, England and America, circa 1830, concurrent with the rise of mass journalism. “Public opinion,” Johnson writes breezily, “was the great new fact of the dawning modern world.” Well, one of them.

The central modern development, correlative to all these others, is the emergence of a large, stable middle class. Johnson documents and celebrates the rise of that class, and there is much about it to celebrate. Yet what makes this elephantine work an unexpected pleasure is not its themes but the author's sheer enthusiasm for making the tiniest fragments of recorded history burst with light and color.

If he neglects the darker side of the picture—the failure of that middle class, down to the present, to absorb the rest of society—well, nobody's perfect.

David Caute (review date 9 June 1991)

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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 Gulf War here, with Saddam Husseins breaking treaties along the Barbary Coast, until a calm British admiral runs out of patience. When fully engaged, Johnson unleashes a blitz of statistics: We learn that the biggest capital ships consumed 900 acres of oak trees, were driven by 50,000 square feet of canvas, carried 11 square sails on three masts, plus three jibs, four staysails, 10 stunsails and a spanker, not to mention 34 miles of rope, much of it six inches thick. There are three pages of this.

Johnson's cultural searchlight swivels towards continental Europe when musical and philosophical geniuses require walk-on appearances: Beethoven is found strolling with Goethe and vainly urging the poet-minister not to step aside for approaching aristocrats. Rossini, like Byron, races all over the place, Johnson alerts us to the ominous totalitarianism lying latent in the German supremacist philosophy of Fichte and Hegel—the book is alive with Thatcherite warnings.

Johnson also lightens the load with social history: Jane Austen's admiration for the Post Office leads naturally enough to the hazards of coach travel in America and the prevalence of deaths from horse falls. Gas lighting couples with phantasmagoric innovations in entertainment. With Napoleon gone, British tourists flock to Paris to observe the exposed ankles of women whose sexual behavior inspired Mark Twain's quip some decades later: Lucky the Frenchman who knows who his father is.

Stable Britain suffered its social upheavals, its Luddite machine-breaking, its assassinated Cabinet ministers. Johnson views the radical demagogues of that era with distaste. They loathed each other and were accommodated in privileged comfort within Newgate prison. Indeed, Leigh Hunt need not have gone to prison if only he had foresworn further printed attacks on the prince regent. The “mob” features prominently in the narrative—it keeps appearing, but the cool nonchalance of the ruling class is much admired: The Duke of Wellington is found laughing off the dangers of traveling across London.

Although only 313,000 British male subjects were entitled to vote, with electoral bribery massive and many elections uncontested, Johnson regards this system as “probably more representative of national opinion than modern democrats are prepared to allow.” The rebel poets earn few marks for good conduct. Shelley “smacked his lips over words like atheism, anarchy and assassin, which were among his favorites.” Later he and Byron are both caught committing incest or “technical incest.” This leads to general promiscuity in Italy, the wreck of Coleridge's marriage, Byron's sex life and the general mess within what Southey, quivering with conservative indignation in the Lake District, called “the satanic school.” There follows a long section on George IV's contentious divorce from Caroline which “opened the age of public opinion politics.”

For long sections Johnson loses himself in the minutiae of British political life—its connection with “the birth of the modern” is obscure. On the other hand he strikes hard on the anvil when he observes that during the 1820s the “disadvantages of ladies not wearing drawers became apparent”; as a result “the basic components of modern women's underclothes were in place.” Equally significant was the advent of modern trousers “so male calves gradually lost their appeal.” The decline of dueling slots in here, Johnson describing a nice scene at the White House when President Monroe indignantly stepped between the swords of the French and British ministers.

“The Masques of Anarchy” section runs from Bolivar crossing the high Andes to the Monroe Doctrine, then to Byron embracing Greek liberty from Ottoman rule. On to exercise, sport, the dramatic reduction in infant mortality, population explosions, schools—but we remain mainly in England. Coleridge's (happily kicked) opium addiction carries us to China where Johnson finds “that worst of all systems: a society run by its intelligentsia.” Coleridge emerges as one of the model conservative thinkers, balancing duties against rights, individualism against society. (Unfortunately, Burke is already dead.)

The British, meanwhile spread their red ink stain wider across the map, winning battles called Yandaboo—but not really wanting an empire. However, faced with “societies that were sunk in squalor and apathy,” and feeling the “itch to reform these iniquities” they embark on reforms that, for better or worse, but clearly for better, result in a policy of annexation “or taking the native princes under British supervision.”

Johnson is very good on banking, finance and the great American leap forward of the 1820s, but chronology pulls him back to the Bourbon regime on its last legs. Victor Hugo, having discovered Shakespeare, deserts the Bourbon cause and back comes “the mob,” featuring prominently in Delacroix's “meretricious” painting, “Liberty on the Barricades.” According to Johnson, the July Days of 1830 were the first occasion that “the media overthrew the government.”

One might call this form of history a “lateral epic”—it expands sideways, and it dovetails, its narrative hooks, owe something to fictional technique. Despite the massive indulgence in sheer wordage, Johnson always writes well and has a keen eye for detail and anecdote; a Thatcherite journey through early Thatcherism is in any case both instructive and entertaining. Yet it's a curious enterprise. Despite the justifiably heavy emphasis on science and industry, the title, The Birth of the Modern, looks like a highway robbery on the slow, hesitant coach of history, bucking through the ruts. Indeed, from the European perspective, the years 1815–1830 can equally be regarded as the last stand of the 18th century, with mass political parties, democratic elections, organized labor and the birth of socialism still of-stage.

Joseph Sobran (review date 24 June 1991)

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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 ambitious book, to say the least. It runs to a thousand pages of text, plus notes and index. It covers hundreds of topics, from piano sales in Europe to Malay piracy. European and American politics are dealt with in detail; the main narrative is interwoven with dozens of subplots and essays, on Beethoven, landscape art, the semaphore, coach travel, the era of cheap land, the crushing of the American Indian, Islamic fundamentalism, the cotton industry, the Royal Navy, the changing status of the sexes, dueling, scientific advances, Spanish politics, secret societies in Italy, Byron's sex life, the rise of cricket, child prodigies, medical progress and body snatching, Turkish reform, Chinese corruption, the rise of international banking, and dozens of other matters, all more or less related to Johnson's central thesis.

What emerges from it all is a portrait of the rising middle class in the West, and of the incipient Westernization of the rest of the world. In Europe and America, there was unprecedented prosperity, which raised the condition of ordinary people. Infant mortality fell; birth rates soared; education thrived; the common people acquired new influence and political rights; women gained a measure of independence; the press became a major locus of power. The arts became democratized too: the piano became a household “altar,” as Johnson puts it, of the middle-class home, a symbol of the new availability of culture.

Consider the episode of George IV's attempted divorce from his wayward wife, Caroline. When he succeeded to the throne in 1820, they were already so bitterly estranged that he didn't want her to share the royal honors. But when he schemed to get a divorce, he found several unexpected obstacles, among them popular sympathy for her. As early as 1813, Jane Austen had written: “Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, and because I hate her Husband.” In 1820, the 14-year-old Elizabeth Barrett wrote: “At this period, when the base & servile aristocracy of our beloved country overwhelm with insults our magnanimous and unfortunate Queen, I cannot restrain my indignation, I cannot control my enthusiasm—my dearest ambition would be to serve her, to serve the glorious Queen of my native isle.”

“For the first time in English history,” Johnson comments, “an issue had arisen in which the entire country became emotionally involved and everyone felt they had a right to an opinion. In its own way it was an important landmark in the road to democracy and a tribute to the new power of the press which made such national participation possible.”

We take participation for granted, but it came as a surprise to George IV. The same thing was happening in France, which saw “the growth of the printing industry and the increase in reading,” along with “the growth of a large professional class of writers”—all of which together made possible what Sainte-Beuve would call la littérature industrielle, culminating in Alexandre Dumas's famous “fiction factory.” Today, public opinion has become almost an artifact of mass production.

Meanwhile, the Western powers were exploring and colonizing the whole world. “Perhaps the most important single aspect of modernity,” Johnson writes, “was the way in which, almost imperceptibly, mankind was transforming itself into a single global community, in which different races and civilizations, now touching at all points, simply had to come to terms with each other.” Profoundly true, but also a little fuzzy. It wasn't as if everyone was in touch with everyone else; the real common denominator was Western contact with all nations. “Coming to terms with each other” generally meant Western dominance, thanks to superior Western science, technology, and, most specifically, weapons. The Sioux and the Maori didn't meet each other; they met Western artillery.

The “single global community” of the twentieth century was effected by a good deal of slaughter in the nineteenth, about which Johnson provides much less detail than he does about other topics, though he tells a fairly chilling amount about the fate of American Indians. He is right to point out that the non-Western world wasn't a set of Edens before the white man came. Western explorers and traders were honestly indignant about the backward and often savage societies they encountered. And the whole experience shouldn't be reduced to indignant homilies about Western imperialism; in the long run Westernization has been accomplished less by raw force than by the power of Western ideas. Still, it's a pity that so inclusive a book should give so little attention to how it all felt on the receiving end. The arrival of the West must have struck most natives as awesome, unimaginable, terrifying, and sometimes wonderful—like an invasion from Mars.

Thanks to the changes that gathered such momentum in this period, the ancient relation between civilization and wilderness has been nearly reversed. Human society used to be a set of unconnected islands in the ocean of nature; now society encloses nature and in some ways threatens its existence. Very little on the earth's surface is impenetrable any more, for better or for worse.

Johnson is certainly right to see the years 1815–1830 as an age of stupendous change, and he has done his best to convey the magnitude of it all, seeking, as he says, “to portray international society in its totality.” He is less successful in conveying the sense of chronology he says he aims at; the ratio of digression to narrative is even higher in this book than in his others, though in the nature of the case that was probably unavoidable.

Some of the book's faults are harder to excuse. It is very nearly humorless; and this can be tiresome, not only because so much of Johnson's material seems to invite a smile, but because his tone is monotonous. He says everything with a sort of relentless finality, without doubt, irony, or degrees of knowledge. He addresses all topics with what might be called equicertitude. Nothing amuses him, nothing puzzles him; the meaning of it all seems too pat, too much an expression of Johnson's own attitudes. Surely even recent history has its mysteries. But his narrative lacks drama, not only because the outcome seems fore-ordained by Johnson's approach, but because he rarely gives the reader a vivid sense of the stakes in any given struggle. There is a dull sense of obviousness about it all.

The Birth of the Modern is nevertheless an impressive feat of learning. Readers who don't want to plow through it from cover to cover may still find it useful as an encyclopedia of its period. It has an index, that indispensable device that can turn any book into a reference book; and this is a case where the parts are better than the whole, as far as reading pleasure is concerned.

Partly this is a tribute to Johnson's immense range of interests; not many readers will share it, though few will begrudge it. But it's also a reflection on his style. He never writes a bad sentence; but he never writes a brilliant one, either. He is intellectually far superior to another great popular historian, Will Durant; but Durant is charming to read at any length.

Worse yet, Johnson's understanding of “modernity” is superficial. He seems unaware of it as a fundamental form of knowing that has caused deep dislocations within the West itself. Though he is called a conservative, his outlook is essentially very Whiggish and progressive, and the category of the “modern” holds no terrors or even problems for him. It is merely associated with such evidently good things as a higher standard of living, improved medical care, and democracy. He isn't troubled by the tension between the modern and the sacred, or by modernity's powerful tendency to reduce everything to the measurable. He lacks empathy with the pre-modern societies whose encounters with the West have not only left them subjugated but have shattered their confidence in their gods.

Modernity is above all a drama in the soul, not a clash between primitive and complex technologies. That drama occurred in the West first. It's a great story, one that The Birth of the Modern fails to tell.

Richard D. Wolff (essay date Summer 1991)

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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 liberties. In the era of celebrating markets as the solution for economic problems, social criticism may properly reduce again simply to identifying and denouncing interferences in markets by anything other than individual buyers and sellers. When voting has become the standard of political freedom and democracy, social criticism may need only to identify and denounce whatever or whoever interferes or tampers with individual voting. Indeed, when individualism reigns, perhaps social criticism can and should commit suicide by recognizing that no one has any right to tell others anything about how to organize social life. Paul Johnson's Intellectuals, as we shall see, takes this last position even further, arguing that the entire history of social criticism from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Lillian Hellman and Noam Chomsky is an unrelieved demonstration of the sick and destructive arrogance of leftist social critics.2 For the likes of Johnson, the very existence of such social criticism provokes intense anxiety and an accompanying fury.

Contrarily, for others, recent social changes provoke a heightened concern and support for leftist social criticism. Yet they, too, express considerable anxieties about it. Russell Jacoby's Last Intellectuals warns us that badly needed social criticism from the Left is dying out as critics are co-opted and silenced by their absorption into academic irrelevance.3 In The Company of Critics, Michael Walzer agonizes over what he defines and measures as the disabling distances that separate social critics from the people whose social structures and behaviors they criticize.4 His concern is that critics tend to grow too distant (i.e., too different, too alienated) from the societies they criticize, thereby “losing effectiveness” or becoming destructive and evil. Evan Watkins's Work Time argues that leftist social criticism must now foreground the analysis of its own changed social situation so as to redirect its activity.5 His concern is that unless such a difficult self-analysis and reorientation are undertaken, leftist social critics will fail to contribute to the social changes they seek.

These books represent often contradictory kinds of anxious responses to the problems confronting social critics and criticism today in the United States and elsewhere. They offer different evaluations of past leftist social criticism and very different agendas for its future. They display bluntly the politico-theoretical crosscurrents agitating all intellectual work today, not only that of leftist social critics. Their contradictions both reflect the contentious ideological conjuncture today and play a role in shaping it. …

CRITICISM AS MALICIOUS GOSSIP

Paul Johnson's Intellectuals astonishes by the grotesque contents inside the book's traditional packaging. The jacket blurb identifies him as an editor and writer with solid establishment credentials: he has produced five books, was assistant editor of Réalités, staff writer and editor for the New Statesman from 1955 to 1970, and has had bylines in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. He is credited with making “more than forty television films.” Here is a mature, influential British intellectual who has written a book, published elegantly by no less than Harper & Row, with no less inclusive and lofty a title than Intellectuals. But between the covers, a right-wing tirade of rage is vented against left-wing social critics, intellectuals in general, Jews, women, and most of the others who compose the usual targets of such mentalities.

The table of contents immediately signals that the title is falsely inclusive, since the book is exclusively devoted to the more or less leftist social criticism of the following twelve, in order by chapter: Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Brecht, Bertrand Russell, Sartre, Edmund Wilson, Victor Gollancz, and Lillian Hellman.6 Since this sort of work is best criticized by quotation, I shall string a few together to suggest the book's flavor. On page 4, Johnson offers the following unelaborated description of Rousseau's father: “He was a troublemaker, often involved in violence and riots.” Of Rousseau himself, the following: “His most marked personal characteristic [was] self-pity” (I, 5); “He was the first intellectual systematically to exploit the guilt of the privileged” (I, 11); “He was a mentally sick man” (I, 14); “He saw his family in terms of cash” (I, 18); “By a curious chain of infamous moral logic, Rousseau's iniquity as a parent was linked to his ideological offspring, the future totalitarian state” (I, 23). This last point is so promising for Johnson that its elaboration brings the opening essay on Rousseau to a close; Rousseau's work is judged to be “an early adumbration of Lenin's ‘democratic centralism'” (I, 24), his planned state for Corsica “anticipated the one the Pol Pot regime actually tried to create in Cambodia” (I, 25) and “anticipates Mussolini's central Fascist doctrine” (I, 25). His conclusion about Rousseau's life's work: “Rousseau's reputation during his lifetime, and his influence after his death, raise disturbing questions about human gullibility, and indeed about the human propensity to reject evidence it does not wish to admit” (I, 26).

Johnson generally treats his other subjects far more hostilely. Shelley “put ideas before people and his life is a testament to how heartless ideas can be” (I, 31). Karl Marx's concepts and methodology “have a strong appeal to unrigorous minds” (I, 52); moreover, Marx

developed traits characteristic of a certain type of scholar, especially Talmudic ones: a tendency to accumulate immense masses of half-assimilated materials and to plan encyclopedic works which were never completed; a withering contempt for all non-scholars; and extreme assertiveness and irascibility in dealing with other scholars.

(I, 53)

Engels's “deceit is clearly intentional” (I, 65), and “From start to finish, not just Capital, but all his work reflects a disregard for truth which at times amounts to contempt” (I, 69). Brecht strikes Johnson as a “mysterious figure”: “This was the deliberate choice both of himself and of the Communist Party, the organization he served faithfully for the last thirty years of his existence” (I, 173). Sartre “had little respect for the truth” (I, 226), while “Lillian Hellman seems to have been one to whom falsehood came naturally … she never admitted her errors and lies” (I, 288). Hellman “did everything in her power, quite apart from her plays and scripts, to assist the CP's penetration of American intellectual life and to forward the aims of Soviet policy” (I, 295). “It was said, for instance, that she attended all-male poker parties at the home of Frederick Vanderbilt Field, the winner taking Hellman into a bedroom” (I, 294).

What unifies Johnson's twenty-five-page assessments of major social critics is not attention to their arguments—there is little of that. Rather, he has scoured the available literature, usually written by personal or political enemies of his subjects, to assemble denunciatory accounts of their alleged sexual, financial, or psychological misdeeds. His central theme is that the social critics he surveys are to be judged as individuals in terms of their personal qualities. If these are found wanting, then they lack the credentials to do social criticism; the social critic and social criticism should be dismissed. Johnson's achievement is to have delved beneath their flowery pronouncements to a totally disqualifying depravity at once political (they are leftists) and moral (they are personal monsters). Consider these summary findings on leftist social critics as types of individuals. “This last thought—better dead than anti-red—is a striking example of the priorities of archetype intellectuals” (I, 310). “Hitler consistently was most successful on the campus. … Many intellectuals were drawn into the higher echelons of the Nazi Party and participated in the more gruesome excesses of the SS” (I, 319). “Sensible” people should ignore and reject social critical intellectuals and whatever they say. “Above all, we must at all times remember what intellectuals habitually forget: that people matter more than concepts and must come first. The worst of all despotisms is the heartless tyranny of ideas” (I, 342). These are the final sentences of this book.

Major establishment publishers, editors, and television producers have approved Paul Johnson's work; therefore it has to be taken seriously. It represents a contemporary position on leftist social criticism, namely that it is an evil, destructive, undesirable activity that society would be better off without. It denounces intellectuals per se, as if it were a foregone conclusion that any intellectual drawn to social criticism would necessarily produce leftist forms of it. That his notions are ideas and indeed an example of social criticism by an intellectual (clearly anti-leftist) apparently occurred neither to Johnson nor to anyone else associated with this book. In any case, his proffered solution to the anxieties raised by leftist social criticism is to convince potential audiences never to listen to and rather to hate intellectuals as profoundly immoral individuals. Johnson's is one way to extend the individualist ethic currently hegemonic in many circles. …

Notes

  1. See the work of leading members of the “Analytical Marxism” school, such as Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), and John Roemer, Free to Lose (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988). Writers working within both old and new theoretical paradigms within the Marxist tradition have criticized the methodological individualism of Elster and Roemer: Jack Amariglio, Antonio Callari, and Stephen Cullenberg, “Analytical Marxism: A Critical Overview,” Review of Social Economy 47, no. 4 (Winter 1989): 415–32; Michael Lebowitz, “Is ‘Analytical Marxism’ Marxism?” Science and Society 52 (Summer 1988): 191–214; Andrew Levine, Edward Soper, and Erik Olin Wright, “Marxism and Methodological Individualism,” New Left Review 162 (March/April 1987): 67–84.

  2. Paul Johnson, Intellectuals (New York: Harper & Row, 1989); hereafter cited in my text as I.

  3. Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (New York: Basic Books, 1987); hereafter cited in my text as LI.

  4. Michael Walzer, The Company of Critics: Social Criticism and Political Commitment in the Twentieth Century (New York: Basic Books, 1988); hereafter cited in my text as CC.

  5. Evan Watkins, Work Time: English Departments and the Circulation of Cultural Value (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989); hereafter cited in my text as WT.

  6. The thirteenth and final chapter covers a large group of recent leftist social critics, but their treatment so duplicates that of the twelve previously discussed that no separate discussion is needed.

Lawrence Stone (review date 12 August 1991)

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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 United States was about to be signed. Johnson seems to think that if the British had won, they would have been in a position to cancel the Louisiana Purchase and hand it all back to Spain. Never mind that Louisiana was already a formally constituted state, and that the Americans were already inexorably exterminating the Indians and pushing them farther and farther West beyond the Mississippi.

From the battle in 1814, Johnson hops back to the causes and the processes of the War of 1812. But this is interrupted by long disquisitions on the inventor of the submarine, Robert Fulton; on the inventor of rockets, C. W. Parsley; and on the character of the British admiral Alexander Cochrane. When we do finally arrive at the Treaty of Ghent, it is described mysteriously as “one of the great acts of statesmanship in history.” But hyperbole, as we shall see, is common coin for Johnson. He sees the treaty as the direct antecedent to the Anglo-American “Special Relationship” of World War I and World War II, which he believes is still alive and well today, “the cornerstone of the modern democratic world order” and “a mighty civilizing friendship.” There follow a rambling twelve pages about this American-British connection, allegedly cemented by travel and intermarriage, the idealization of America as the New Athens, the egalitarian American passion for shaking hands, and America's espousal of “liberty” and “improvement.”

The next chapter is called “The Congress Dances.” It opens with an account of the day when Napoleon escaped from Elba to try to recoup his fortunes. On that day, Johnson informs us, Byron was bored, Jane Austen was writing Emma, Shelley had just run off with Godwin's daughter, Turner was painting Crossing the Brook, Rossini was writing The Barber of Seville, Beethoven was composing his piano Sonata opus 110, and Davy was busy inventing his miner's lamp. The relevance of all this to Napoleon is, to say the least, obscure. In any event, Johnson does not like Napoleon. He blames him for inventing the police state (apparently he knows nothing, or wishes to know nothing, about the role of the French police in the ancien régime), for plundering Europe, for brutalizing Germany. Napoleon was “a plebeian tyrant,” and his armies spread “instability and moral degeneration” wherever they went. Johnson occasionally likens Napoleon to Stalin, but more often to Hitler.

The story then winds on to the Treaty of Vienna. There are some lively pen-pictures of the principal actors, Castlereagh, Metternich, and Talleyrand—the good guys—and of Czar Alexander I—the bad guy. Apart from this classification, Johnson has nothing to say about the treaty that Harold Nicolson had not already said better thirty-five years ago in The Congress of Vienna. The chapter then shifts abruptly to culture, as the Age of Reason makes room for the Age of Romanticism. We are rushed through the “zeitgeist” by means of brief references to Chateaubriand, Byron, Rossini, Schubert, Madame de Staël, and of course Beethoven. After a six-page description of the court of Louis XVIII, Johnson gets in another dig at Napoleon by describing Ingres's official portrait of him of 1806 as “perhaps the most ridiculous portrait ever painted by a great master”—another fine example of Johnson's hyperbole. From here we hurry on to Victor Hugo as the embodiment of Romanticism, although all we are given is a detailed account of Hugo's sex life, including his claim that he made love to his wife nine times on their bridal night. What this alleged virile prowess has to do with Romanticism, or with “the modern,” is left unexplained.

After a vivid account of the perils of travel, Johnson moves to the mass migration of the growing surplus population from settled agricultural areas into territory that was hitherto wilderness or the preserve of roaming pastoralists. Johnson interestingly links together the Europeanization of all the temperate zone, North and South America, the West Indies, Siberia and Georgia, Australia and New Zealand. But he fails to examine carefully the causes and the scale of this demographic explosion, which leaves his reader unsatisfied. It is not enough merely to catalog the atrocities against the natives committed everywhere by these invading hordes, or to point out that the latter were the carriers of death in the form of smallpox, measles, and other new diseases.

The next chapter, about “The World's Policeman,” deals almost exclusively with Britain, as indeed do much of the remaining eight chapters. It starts, like the others, with a minor anecdote, this one about the bombardment of Algiers by a British fleet, “at 2.30 p.m. on a blazing hot afternoon, 27 August 1816.” This leads to an account of slavery in the Americas, and to a section on the increase of serfdom in Russia, where servile status applied in theory to all the inhabitants. Johnson has no time to stop and to examine whether reality matched theory, nor to explain why serfdom was withering away by 1860 as an economic system. Slavery, on the other hand, was flourishing in the American South, thanks to cotton. Johnson nicely describes how technological inventions had reduced the price of cotton to a fraction of what it had been, thus making slavery more profitable than ever. Cheap cotton was “one of the best things that ever happened in the world.” (Johnsonian exaggeration again.) He explains how public opinion in Britain, enforced by the world's policeman, the British navy, had put an effective stop to the slave trade by 1834.

From this triumph of Britain's moral authority and military power, Johnson moves on to a discussion of unrest within Britain itself. The chapter is characteristically titled “Can the Center Hold?” For Johnson, Britain is the center of the world. The chapter starts with the usual minievent: in December 1817 “the poet William Wordsworth … was involved in a bit of awkwardness, at one of the most memorable dinner parties in the history of English literature.” Johnson rightly believes that in Britain the French Revolution merely rallied popular support around the government, the propertied classes, and the church as the defenders of law, order, and property. Archbishop Howley, an archaic and unmodern figure if ever there was one, used to say that “the revival of religion in England sprang from the horrors of the French Terror.” The radicals were left out on a limb, and unable to exploit the recurrent periods of hard times for the laboring poor.

Johnson is right, moreover, to point out that the ruling class and the men of property were relatively restrained in the use of force, that the poor were very slow (by European standards) to resort to violence, and that their radical leadership was fissured by personal hatreds. As a result, Britain was spared the torrent of blood that flowed in France in the 1790s. Even in the postwar crisis years of 1815–16, rioters did some property damage, but they killed nobody, despite blood-thirsty Jacobin toasts such as “may the last of the kings be strangled with the guts of the last priest.”

Then, suddenly, apropos of nothing, there appear an excellent four pages on how the great men of the time, from the Duke of Wellington in England to the American presidents in Washington, went about their business in the streets totally without security: there could not be a greater contrast with the “modern” situation, when all the world's leaders go in constant fear of assassination, and are in practice the prisoners of their armed security guards. Next Johnson rambles on through aspects of the English political scene, always enlivened by a mass of striking personal anecdotes.

The discussion of the British House of Commons is erudite and informed, as is the discussion of the electoral system, although as usual Johnson prefers the particular, citing telling and dramatic but possibly atypical personal examples. He then drifts off into the rivalry between the Whig Edinburgh Review and the Tory Quarterly Review, and from there via Sir Walter Scott to the literary and artistic scene. This wandering chapter ends with these ominous words: “Thus began the Queen Caroline crisis … from which the nation emerged transformed beyond recognition.” And so, in the next 100-page chapter, we are plunged deeper and deeper into the intricacies of English politics and society, centering around the scandalous quarrel between the Prince Regent and his adulterous wife. By this point we have lost all possible connections with “the birth of the modern,” except as an early demonstration of the power of the press.

Another chapter starts with the British seizure of all India and Burma, and notes the isolation of Japan as a portent of “an ominous future.” These few pages contain the only reference to either Japan or China in this entire gargantuan study of “world society.” On the other hand, seventeen pages are devoted to “totalitarian oppression” in Russia, a country that Johnson nowadays has given up as hopeless. His penultimate chapter, called simply “Crash,” deals with the bank failure in Britain in 1825 following “the upsurge of the first modern trade cycle.” There follows a wholly irrelevant diversion into the plumbing of English country houses, where bathrooms and WCs are said to have become “common,” which was not true, alas, even of the rich.

Johnson's last chapter, “The Coming of the Demos,” turns back to America. There we learn that Jackson put together the Democratic Party, which was “to become one of the great and enduring instruments of the modern age.” In Britain, however, things were in a bad way, according to Johnson, for Luddites were destroying agricultural machinery, sometimes with the consent of their landlords. And with the cheering thought that “there is a March of Science,” The Rise of the Modern at last comes to an end.

This is a book with some virtues, not least that it is very readable, if one is prepared to accept its unbelievably rambling organization. Since Johnson is obsessed with individual human beings as actors in history, he has read extensively and profitably in diaries, memoirs, and autobiographies, and lively and illuminating quotations from these personal sources are by far the best part of the book. Thanks to this wide reading, moreover, some topics are treated with real brilliance. If anyone wants to know, for example, about the full horrors of traveling in the early nineteenth century, and about how things improved, he could not do better than read Johnson's forty pages on the subject. The account is lively, personalized, sensible, and well informed—and for once it is fairly well arranged. This is not to say that Johnson is an elegant writer. He is, rather, an author in a hurry, careless enough to throw off sentences such as, “The amount of inshore boat traffic, as a study of the paintings of Turner, who loved to paint it, reveals, was enormous” or to write that Byron was “consternated” by the behavior of the Hunt children. Still, the prose is usually workmanlike.

And yet a series of extremely serious defects undermines the value of Johnson's tome. The first is his failure at any point to define what he means by “modern.” The reader is left to guess by examining those persons, innovations, events, or ideas that he considers to be “modern.” Let us start with persons. It is argued that at “the dawn of modernity” there was no conflict perceived between art and nature on the one hand and science and technology on the other. Thus Turner stood “at the threshold of the modern age” and was “the ultimate progenitor of the modern movement in art.” William Cobbett, the radical conservative, is “the noisy herald of the modern world,” without any explanation except that he was fed up with his wife. Beethoven is “a key figure in the birth of the modern,” since he represented the emergence for the first time of the artist as genius, whatever that means. Bolivar was “a true child of the modern in some ways,” but those ways are not described. The Ottoman Emperor Mahmud II is “in some ways more of a modernizer than Ali,” the ruler of Egypt, because he introduced compulsory elementary education, and in other, often absurd, ways he aped European habits and practices. Forgetting the Holy Alliance, which also policed Europe to prevent revolution after 1815, Johnson makes Canning's intervention for the liberation of Greece also into “one of the great milestones toward modernity,” apparently referring to the combination of great powers to keep the peace. (But Johnson finds the results of Greek liberation disappointing, and therefore concludes that “the matrix of modernity was corrupt and flawed.”)

Hazlitt is “perhaps the first truly modern writer,” the only evidence put forward being his pronounced sexual taste for lower-class women. Almost all we learn about Géricault is that he was homosexual and studied horses. Byron's desertion of his wife and his subsequent frenetic sexual activity is described at length, and it is labeled “in a sense the first modern scandal,” although just what was modern about it remains obscure. Among the aristocracy, surely, there was nothing very “modern” about adultery or reckless promiscuity, nor even incest or sodomy.

Johnson seems more than a little obsessed with sex, which he seems to regard as “modern.” He tells the reader twice that Napoleon, after the disastrous retreat from Moscow, ordered Paris music-hall dancers to remove their underwear, in order to divert the attention of the populace from his own colossal blunder. This seems a rather farfetched notion, although he gets it from Wellington's friend Mrs. Arbuthnot. Johnson is also fascinated by transvestites, such as George Sand, who is held up as a symbol of “the dawn of modern ideas and habits,” as if there had been no transvestites in Elizabethan and Jacobean society and theater.

This obsession with sex is part of a wider and more serious methodological defect. Not only does Johnson personalize all of history, he insists on embroidering his lively pen-portraits with wholly irrelevant detail, frequently erotic in nature, that bears no relation whatever to his argument. When he describes the handful of great aristocratic patrons of the arts still surviving in the 1820s, for example, he focuses on the Beaumonts. We are told that “a childless couple, the Beaumonts were both hypochondriacs, consuming a vast number of pills.” Such anecdotal trivia enliven the text, and they do fix the Beaumonts in the reader's mind, but they tell us nothing at all about their motives or their policies or their successes in patronizing the arts.

By looking at the personalities singled out by Johnson as “modern,” in sum, it is impossible to find out what he means by “modern.” Let us inquire, therefore, of technical innovations, ideas, and institutions. The invention of macadam for roads is rightly described as “one of the magic keys to modernity.” Improvements in transportation were indeed “a process of unique importance in bringing the modern age into being.” It is doubtful, though, that the magic lantern provided “new ways to see the world.”

But these are not the only reasons why it was the 1820s that saw “this birth of the modern world.” In America 1823 marked “the first modern election campaign,” 1828 saw the “first modern election,” and the transfer of the presidency to John Quincy Adams in 1825 was “the spark which ignited the powder-keg of modern democracy.” All this seems a little forced. Still, one can see the drift of the argument, for Johnson considers mass democracy to be a distinguishing feature of the modern world. He is forced to admit, on the other hand, that ruthless dictatorship is “the modern revolutionary pattern,” and in a gloomy moment he describes his chosen period as witnessing “this birth of the modern world, roamed by predatory men, armed with increasingly effective means of killing and traveling at speed.”

Why other institutions or innovations are labeled “modern” is even more difficult to understand. Johnson claims that the 1820s were modern compared with the 1780s, since earlier people had stressed reason, while now they stressed feeling—an unprovable proposition if ever there was one. He also claims that “one of the infallible signs of modernity was the decline of dueling.” This is reasonable enough, except for the fact that Johnson goes on to spend the next nine scintillating pages showing how the militarization of Europe during the long wars with France from 1792 to 1815 caused a revival of dueling, which lasted until 1840. French politicians were still fighting duels over women or insults well into the twentieth century.

The shady aspects of early nineteenth-century horse-trading are made out to be “modern,” since cheating about auto repairs by garages in the twentieth century is implausibly seen as the end of “an unbroken tradition of fraud.” More remarkable still is Johnson's claim that slavery is “very much part of the modern world.” In fact it is only today, for the first time in 3,000 years, that official slavery has ceased to exist, even among America's recent allies in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. One of the things that makes the twentieth century “modern” is the total disappearance of legal slavery.

All that it is safe to conclude is that Johnson does not really know what “modern” is. As a result, it is not clear to which camp of thinkers about modernization Johnson belongs. Does he hold that modernization is a monolithic and universal process leading inexorably to a single predetermined outcome, known as “the modern”? Or does he believe that each particular culture to some extent modifies and shapes the outcome? There can be little doubt that the second is historically correct; but Johnson appears to cling to the first.

And even if we pass over his complete failure of definition, we cannot ignore the fact that his book is based on a preposterous thesis—namely, that “the modern” (the modern what?) was born in the fifteen years that followed the battle of Waterloo. To be sure, there is such a thing as modernization; and there is a huge literature on the subject, which is why today we feel comfortable in dividing the globe into First, Second, and Third Worlds. But it is quite absurd to suggest that any mere fifteen years saw the birth of it.

The world we live in today emerged, rather, in fits and starts, stretching over a 300-year period. If we were seriously to seek the origin of the modern world, we would begin with its intellectual foundations, laid down by the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, from which emerged a few dominant ideas, such as a belief in scientific and technological progress, individualism, rationalism, secularism, and religious pluralism. Its technological base was laid in the fifteenth century by the invention of the printing press, which slowly revolutionized the communication of ideas; of gunpowder, which for the first time made it possible to kill people in very large numbers; and of the magnetic compass, which at last made it possible to navigate across the vast oceans of the world. All these were discovered, however, before the end of the fifteenth century. Nor can the period 1815–30 be said to have laid the basis for a surplus of food that saved the growing population of Europe from a major Malthusian crisis: the Great Plains of the United States, after all, had not yet been brought under the plow, and the flood of wheat from Chicago across the Atlantic began only in the 1870s.

The democratic political ideas of the modern world derive remotely from fifth-century Athens, and more directly from the English Revolution of the seventeenth century and the American and French Revolutions of the late eighteenth century. In practice, however, there was precious little democracy anywhere outside America before 1880. In Europe, ancient aristocratic oligarchies and monarchies continued to rule until at least the late nineteenth century, and elsewhere around the world the norm until very recently has been brutal and lawless tyrannies based on military force and police terror.

It was in the late nineteenth century that the Industrial Revolution took hold, the factory system became common, and urbanization transferred the bulk of the population from the countryside to the city, a development that was made possible by the mechanization of agriculture. The transforming technologies of electric, steam, and gasoline power, jet engines, the internal combustion engine, radio, and television were all invented or developed in the twentieth century. And only in the last fifty years has there occurred the rise of modern medicine, the world population explosion, the pollution of the environment, the invention and spread of nuclear weaponry, and the abrupt collapse of one of the two great powers. The same is true of the sexual revolution, feminism, and the flood of married women into the work force, which are still busy transforming family life. There is no period of fifteen years in history, in short, which could reasonably be argued to have been a time when “the matrix of the modern world was formed.” Johnson's model collapses before it is even off the ground.

From time to time, moreover, there emerges in this book glimpses of sheer reactionary prejudice. This is perhaps not surprising from the editor of The New Statesman in the 1970s, a professional man of the left, who swung abruptly in the 1980s to the New Right. Only a paranoid late convert to free enterprise like Johnson would see the pathetic attempts of the Luddites in the 1830s to stop technological change not only as a restrictive practice, but also as “portents of her [Britain's] long-term relative decline.”

Johnson blames Rousseau, with his “totalitarian notion of the General Will,” for the sorry history of post-independence Latin America, but he also blames “a political clergy preaching abstract justice and revolutionary change,” a group that he regards with undisguised scorn. He has nothing but contempt and hatred for Russia and Russians, both before and after the Revolution. He also has little time for the poor, whom he talks about as little as possible. Indeed, almost his only memorable comment about them is that “in the modern world sport came to mean more in the lives of most people than anything else, after home, family, jobs, peace and war—more even than religion.” Johnson's complacent comment on the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, when a peaceful and orderly mass meeting in Manchester was brutally broken up by gunfire from the yeomanry, is that “the dead bodies left on St. Peter's field probably saved many more lives.” I cannot think of any historian of the period who would support this view. He sneers at “the court of world opinion” as “beloved of progressives from that day to this.” And he ends his gigantic book by quoting, evidently with approval, Charles Lamb's conclusion that “it never was good times in England since the poor began to speculate on their condition.”

Johnson's vision of what constitutes “world society” is extraordinarily limited. It is, for a start, hopelessly Anglocentric. His book is primarily British history inadequately disguised as world history; it evinces little respect for, or interest in, any civilization except that of the Anglo-Saxon peoples of England and America. And Johnson's vision is exclusively focused upon the political and intellectual elite, largely ignoring not only the poor but also the middle class. Indeed, his view of “world society” is so Anglocentric, so elitist, so masculine that it gives political incorrectness a bad name.

My final objection is to Johnson's equally narrow vision of how history works. Johnson's passion for the particular and the personal makes for lively reading, but again and again he quotes the exceptional and takes it as proof of the commonplace. As we have seen, the book is really about a tiny elite, consisting of high political figures, brilliant scientists and technicians, and famous writers and artists.

The pitfalls of such a personalized and elitist view of history are well displayed in Johnson's rare ventures into demography, where he provides false data and completely incoherent explanations. Thus he cites cases of families with thirty, twenty, thirty-six, and twenty-two children, presumably because he regards them as typical. (If they are not typical, why does he cite them?) On one page he talks of a rise in birthrate and fertility, and on the next page about the decline of the birthrate in France. Worse still, he alleges that “there had been, by the 1820s, a revolution in infant mortality, of a kind never before experienced by any society. In 1730 three out of four children born in London failed to reach their fifth birthday. By 1830 the proportion had been reversed.” But there was no such revolution in mortality (as E. A. Wrigley and R. Schofield have shown in The Population History of England 1541–1871), and if there had been, Johnson offers not a hint of what caused it. Similarly false statistics mar the discussion of literacy.

Absorbed in his reading of biographies, memoirs, and diaries, Paul Johnson seems utterly incapable of getting a grip on the broader forces of history. Even when he mentions the Industrial Revolution, the spread of empire, the rise of the middle classes, the demographic explosion of the West, the growth of Romanticism, the rise of literacy and the press, the communications revolution caused by paved roads and railways, he must always trivialize and personalize. Nothing much of substance can be deduced, I am afraid, by such thoughtless, pointillist historical methods. The Birth of the Modern is a mine of gossipy information about famous personalities, but it is structurally incapable of asking any profound questions. And since the descriptive passages, however fascinating, are largely limited to elite white Anglo-Saxon males, it is pure hokum to label its subject “World Society.”

It is a sign of the times, perhaps, that this monstrous, prejudiced, and incoherent book is becoming something of a best seller. Let the reader be warned. If he tries to read this cozy-looking book in bed, it will crush his ribs, addle his brains, and fill him with much misinformation about the birth of the modern world.

Douglas Johnson (review date 6 September 1991)

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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 does not believe in “restoration,” either in France or elsewhere. Rather, he sees 1815 as the beginning of a new era, and his massive book explores the fundamental changes which took place once Europeans had rid themselves of the burdens and illusions of revolution and Bonapartism.

However, within these thousand pages there lies a contradiction. Johnson recognizes, and proclaims, that the world that opened in 1815 was new, more complex and more invigorating than the world that had been closed down by the Revolution and the Empire. It was more cosmopolitan and more mobile. Everything now changed, whether in science, literature, sentiment or daily life. But although Johnson revels in his lengthy and highly informative accounts of the processes by which change took place, he does not believe that there was a Zeitgeist, expressing a burning desire for change. After two decades of war and revolution, most people, he claims, wished to return to the civilized values and the absence of violence which they, or their parents or grandparents, could vaguely remember. Those who wanted the sort of change that was demanded by Spanish liberals or by Italian carbonari were easily put down. He thus contradicts Shelley, who said, “we are many, they are few”; the contrary was the case.

In his conclusion, Johnson speaks of those who found that the new world was detestable and that the Industrial Revolution was a disaster for civilization. He seems to approve of Wordsworth, who feared that the Liverpool-to-Manchester railway would eventually intrude into Westmorland, and associates himself with Caspar David Friedrich who, in his paintings, used the device of the halted traveller, who stops to gaze down to the valley below, as if to ask, like Charles Lamb, “Can we unlearn the arts that pretend to civilise and then burn the world? There is a March of Science. But who will beat the drums for the retreat?” To this question, we are told, there is no answer.

Perhaps this contradiction is resolved by the role that the United States plays in these crucial years. The Birth of the Modern does not begin with the Battle of Waterloo, as one might have expected (although there is a good description of it later), but with the Anglo-American war of 1812 and the Treaty of Ghent, which was signed in December 1814, recognizing the United States as a legitimate national entity in international politics. It is clear that America had a great appeal in 1815 and that Johnson is susceptible to it. His encyclopaedic book contains a wealth of quotations, and is all the better for them, but one crucial quotation is missing: Tocqueville wrote that two things were astonishing about America, the great changeableness of most human behaviour there and the singular fixity of certain principles. As he put it, “Men living in democratic societies are forever varying, altering and restoring secondary matters, but they are very careful not to touch fundamentals. They love changes, but they dread revolutions.” It must be this that Johnson admires.

Perhaps he admires, too, Alexander Hamilton's decision to reject the idea that agriculture was the natural foundation of the economy and the natural school of civic virtue. Industry, Hamilton said, provided greater scope for the diversity of talents that discriminate men from each other. Johnson chooses as his own hero the British engineer Thomas Telford, suggesting that he was the most remarkable man of all in an age of great men. Between 1795 and 1835 Telford. Macadam and their followers built the finest road system that the world had ever seen. By such and other means (which are also described here), travel was revolutionized, the wildernesses of Europe were subdued and the world shrank.

When Napoleon escaped from Elba, Jane Austen was writing the final chapters of Emma, Shelley had just deserted his wife and run off with Mary Godwin, Turner was painting “Crossing the Brook,” Rossini was writing The Barber of Seville and Beethoven his piano sonata Opus 101, Humphry Davy was working on the first miner's safety-lamp, and Byron was saying that he was bored. Throughout this book, Paul Johnson seeks to show that many things were happening at the same time in every corner of the world. Thanks to his vast knowledge and perception, he has succeeded in what was a most ambitious project.

Stephen Howe (review date 20 September 1991)

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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 biographies of such people. This provides leeway for some familiar Johnsonian obsessions; notably the sexual misdeeds and general foolishness of radical intellectuals. “World society,” though, it isn't.

Outside Europe, Johnson's period witnessed Muhammed Ali's revolution from above in Egypt, Jean-Pierre Boyer's in Haiti, and the Nguyen dynasty's in Vietnam. There were failed attempts at modernisation in China and resistance to European penetration in Japan, the formation of Shaka's Zulu empire in southern Africa, and the dramatic Fulani expansion in the west. Britain conquered the Marathas, invaded Burma and colonised Singapore. Most of South America became independent, the Javanese rose against the Dutch, and the pioneer nationalist ideas of India's Rammohan Roy were being formulated. A true global history of 1815–1830 would have events like these at its centre. How does Paul Johnson treat them—those he mentions at all?

He presents Muhammed Ali's system entirely through the eyes of European travellers, with almost exclusive emphasis on its corruption and brutality. The rise of Shaka is evidence for Johnson's extraordinary claim that Boer racial oppression merely “followed the laws of their continent—laws which applied equally to animal and human species, to blacks, whites and coloureds.” Haitian and Vietnamese events are of interest to Johnson only insofar as they attracted the attention of contemporary European diplomats, or as a whetstone on which to grind some more political axes of the 1990s.

Thus the remarkable and erudite Haitian Baron de Vastey becomes “the first black supremacist.” China and Japan too have only one story to tell: their leaders’ irrational hatred of all things western. The crushing of the Marathas is shown wholly from the viewpoint of their conqueror, Mountstuart Elphinstone; and the British conquest of Burma explained as a response to the monstrousness of the Burmese King Bodawpaya.

Westerners, we are told in a comparison that reveals more about Johnson's mindset than about the facts, “saw him rather as we see Saddam Hussein of Iraq or Muammar Qaddafi of Libya.” British India by the 1820s was for Johnson a “benevolent paternalism,” and the Java revolt a consequence of the lamentable Dutch failure to follow Britain's liberal example in their colonies. Fulani expansion merits not a mention (after all, it didn't—yet—directly impinge on European interests); and neither Rammohan Roy nor, indeed, any other non-western intellectual or artist gets a look-in. All these topics combined are dealt with in less space than is devoted to the English Romantics.

In the past decade or so, there has been an unprecedented upsurge of historical writing that genuinely does take “world society” as its object: the work of Eric Wolf, Immanuel Wallerstein, Janet Abu-Lughod, and a myriad of others. In its wake, it simply should not be possible to write what purports to be global history in the old Eurocentric/Atlanticist ways.

But, if one continues, like Johnson, to read only the most traditional and primarily literary kinds of sources; or if one encounters the critique of Eurocentrism only through the sillier posturing of Black American cultural nationalists—the insubstantial froth on the wave of historical revision—then one can blithely carry on as before. So Johnson does, at the cost of producing an intellectual dinosaur of a book. Perhaps he might ask Weidenfeld to retitle future editions in the style of the period.

“Some Observations on the Manners of Polite Society in England, Together With Reflections on the Improvement of Commerce, the Iniquities of the Muscovites and Mussalmen, and Our Nation's Special Relationship with the Americas: By a Gentleman of Somerset” would just about cover it. Not very snappy, perhaps, but accurate. Renamed thus, The Birth of the Modern could be appreciated and enjoyed for what it is.

Alethea Hayter (review date 21 September 1991)

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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 1830 gave birth? The developments of this period which are described as having shaped the world of today were: population growth, colonial expansion, the appearance of new nations, scientific and technological discoveries and inventions, international peace-keeping initiatives and conference procedures, the upsurge of democratic force, the increase in literacy and the power of the press, the stirrings of coming trades-union might, the establishment of both regular and secret police, Romanticism in literature and the arts, the rise of competitive sport, and a mass of other trends and tendencies, benign and malign. To squeeze all these disparate elements into 15 years, and to make them responsible for everything that is happening today, is a tight fit, which leaves some awkward loose ends which had started to show before 1815 or have frayed away by now.

It would be possible to construct a convincing birth date for ‘The Modern’ from the 15 years round many other historical events—the invention of steam power, the French Revolution, the publication of The Origin of Species or Das Kapital or The Interpretation of Dreams, the splitting of the atom or the Holocaust, even perhaps Magna Carta or the Black Death. The attempt to make 1815–1830 an exceptionally significant slice of history has led to rather too many claims that events were turning points. Not only the Battle of New Orleans, the development of the Mississippi Valley and the Decembrist Conspiracy qualify as decisive and durable in their effect, but also the adoption of trousers for men and William Moorcroft's purchase of horses in Central Asia. 1815–1830 saw the first organised strikes, the first youth movement, the biggest population increase in world history, but also more gambling than ever before or since, more infant prodigies, and the world's first clean and healthy kitchen. The period can even, it is suggested, boast the worst writer who ever lived, Auguste Comte. Paul Johnson's fondness for stimulating paradoxes sometimes tempts him to make ‘first in world history’ claims which border on the realm of the Guinness Book of Records and of that young curate of Dover whose 42 wides in one over ‘had never been done, By a clergyman's son, On a Friday in August at Dover.’

Paul Johnson forestalls objections to his chosen design by the disclaimer that he is not attempting to prove a case, but to present history in a new way which will

bring back to life a remarkable epoch in world history, rich in grand and bizarre events and in human characters.

It is not so much for startling new historical insights into the nature and development of ‘The Modern’ that this huge and absorbing book will be admired and enjoyed. Its sub-title is more accurate than its title. This is horizontal history; the reader is irresistably invited to be present, not at a birth, but at a Round-the-World-in-Eighty-Days balloon tour, from which he can look down on to the weird, intimate, fascinating lives and contraptions of early 19th-century man. Paul Johnson is a sort of Jules Verne among historians: enthralled by invention and technology, by natural science, by eccentricity. Vast researches must have been undertaken to produce this treasure-house of anecdotes, statistics, maxims, bright, brief biographical sketches of such diverse personalities as Canova and Telford, Andrew Jackson and George Sand. The digressions are almost Coleridgean, but they are generally manipulated to wind back to the main theme. The chapter ‘The Congress Dances’ starts regularly enough with descriptions of negotiations and diversions in Vienna, but in its last 50 pages the mesmerised reader is drawn along the by-paths of born-again sects in Russia, Beethoven's otosclerosis, Victor Hugo rebuking Adèle Foucher for revealing her ankles, improvements in piano manufacture, Wellington tying the Garter ribbon round Louis XVIII's fat leg, a Swedish theatre audience gaping at Madame de Stael's short sleeves, and the four-and-a-half hours it took Schubert to compose the first movement of his B-flat string quartet. The central themes of chapters are tellingly initiated by illustrative anecdotes: Wordsworth, the Lowthers and Brougham introduce developments in parliamentary elections, the divorce of Queen Caroline starts off a survey of marriage, sex relations and the position of women. Too physically heavy for a bedside book, much too scholarly and comprehensive for a coffee-table one, this book will nevertheless be enjoyed above all as a sort of anthology or encyclopaedia compiled by a historian with an unerring eye for significant and picturesque details; a book to dip into and come up with some eerie and compelling fact: that the mortar and joints for an aqueduct were layered with syrup and bullocks’ blood; that skates and warming-pans were hopefully exported to tropical Brazil; that the going rate paid to body-snatchers in London was between £4 and £9 per corpse; that Sumatran cannibals liked a sauce of lime and chillies with their ‘long pig’. The perhaps inevitable result of such a sumptuous wealth of detail, such a roll-call of seminal but little-known pioneers (which sometimes reads almost like a telephone directory) is a good many misprints and misspellings of proper names, or slips such as Wordsworth's sailor brother John being called Jim, or the painter William Collins being confused with his son Wilkie.

The Birth of the Modern will be unpopular in some quarters for its demolition of cherished myths. Imperialist conquest is shown as having been practised by the Zulus and the Burmese as well as by Europeans; genocide by the Russians in Central Asia as well as by the British in Tasmania and the Americans in the Middle West. Revolutionary heroes such as Bolivar are ruthlessly de-glamourised. The status quo, even under despotic régimes such as that of the Turks in Greece or the Spaniards in Latin America, is seen as perhaps causing less unhappiness than the revolutionary periods of war-lord violence and chaos which succeeded it. It sometimes seems as though the right emblem for this book would have been, not the Caspar David Friedrich ‘Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog’ which adorns the dust jacket—an enigmatic figure confronting the cloudy future—but Turner's ‘The Fighting Temeraire Towed to Her Last Berth to be Broken Up', in which the golden obsolete glory of the great sailing ship is defaced by what Kenneth Clark called a ‘little tug with an impudent black funnel’.

But Paul Johnson sees the inevitability, even the dignity, of the little black tug. Gradual constructive change, by consensus, without violence, without utopian delusions and coercions, is the ideal of this book. Its heroes are inventors and scientists like Faraday, Davy, Volta, Ampère, Stephenson, Brunel, Daguerre, who extended the ‘empire of knowledge’; statesmen like Castlereagh and Peel who were reasonable upholders, in Coleridge's phrase, of ‘a continuing and progressive civilisation’. If these are the book's heroes, Jane Austen is its patron saint. As ‘the most balanced commentator’ of the day, she is quoted constantly, providing illustrations for themes as diverse as prize money and the education of girls, assizes and cosmetics, divorce, duelling and new seaside resorts. The Lyme Regis events in Persuasion are a paradigm for the underlying moral of this book: that it is better, for nations and governments as well as individuals, to have an open-minded ‘persuadable temper’ like Anne Elliot's than an obstinately impulsive insistence, like Louisa Musgrove's, on jumping violently down stone steps, only to fall on one's head.

Roger Draper (review date 4–18 November 1991)

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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 of those,” as he was in the old days, albeit on the opposite side of the barricades: the watchful guardian of its purity, ever-vigilant to detect hints of compromise and betrayal. The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815–1830 is extreme. It is unfair. I half wish I could also call it uninteresting and unreadable. But triumphing over its chaotic organization, reactionary prejudices, and insufficiently thought out ideas, it succeeds in its declared aim of bringing “back to life a remarkable epoch in world history, rich in grand and bizarre events and in human characters.” Occasionally, Johnson himself is bizarre.

Forgetting his insistence (in the Preface) “that chronology forms the bones of history on which all else is built,” the author almost abandons any chronological structure after the beginning, an overoptimistic description of Anglo-American relations before and after 1815. (He asserts that the settlement of the War of 1812 put the Special Relationship on a firm foundation; in reality, the United States and Great Britain almost came to blows as late as the 1890s.) Moreover, despite titles implying that the chapters are at least structured thematically, this too is not quite the case. The second chapter, for example, is called “The Congress Dances,” but after an account of the Congress of Vienna (ending the Napoleonic Wars), it goes on to examine the development of the Austrian secret police; Beethoven's politics, personal behavior, cultural impact, and sources of income; the mass production of pianos; and a variety of additional topics—all lurching back and forth in time.

The connections among some of the topics are fascinating, however. The secret police, it appears, investigated Beethoven and his followers. (“Two factions,” it reported, “are now forming, for and against” him. “A large majority of connoisseurs … do not want to hear anything composed by Herr van Beethoven.”) To be quite fair, the investigation was not so absurd as it may seem. Beethoven was a known republican, and his contemptuous treatment of aristocrats and even members of the imperial family, admirers included—he was really an awful fellow, Johnson shows entertainingly—helped to create the Romantic notion that true artists are properly rebels against society. The composer could act upon these principles because he worked mostly for the market, through publishers, rather than for traditional aristocratic patrons; and the market chiefly demanded piano music, which became popular as those instruments were manufactured in greater quantity.

The author does end both on a chronological and a thematic note. In “The Coming of the Demos,” he takes up the story of Andrew Jackson's election as President of the United States in 1828, the emergence (at the same time) of the democratic Catholic Association in Ireland, and the revolutions of 1830 on the Continent. Everything between the first chapter and the last is held together, very loosely, by Johnson's belief that during the years 1815–30, “the matrix of the modern world was largely formed.” He has been widely criticized on two grounds. Almost everyone thinks he concentrated unduly on the Anglo-American world. To me, this decision is partly excused by his focus on modernization. He has also been accused of failing to propose any real definition of “the modern.” I would say that, on the contrary, Johnson has an excess of definitions, none of them very original, and never brings them into a consistent scheme.

At one point, Johnson suddenly (and without further explanation) suggests that the development of new techniques of raising capital in peacetime was “perhaps the key factor in the birth of the modern world.” Elsewhere, he asserts that “Public opinion,” and, by inference, democracy, “was the great new fact of the dawning modern world.” This is a frequently recurring theme, yet so is Johnson's contention that “Perhaps the most important single aspect of modernity was the way … almost imperceptibly, mankind was transforming itself into a single global community, in which different races and civilizations … simply had to come to terms with each other.”

Although Johnson never bothers to sort out these different claims, it is the creation of a global community that appears to capture his interest. Trade routes and financial crises were coming to link the advanced countries, and a majority of the backward ones. Liberalism, Romanticism and competing cultural ideals were inspiring behavior from Buenos Aires to Siberia. Most important of all, thinks Johnson, the period 1815–30 opened the greatest era of immigration: It was during those years that Europe seized, and began to populate, the remaining sparsely inhabited areas of the world in North and South America, Australia and the Russian Empire.

We do not ordinarily connect the last with colonization, but Johnson persuades me that it is “the fundamental fact of Russian history, to which all its other features are related.” Most of Russia's territory was relatively infertile, he notes. Cold was an obstacle to farming practically everywhere, and rainfall was distributed poorly. Erosion and soil depletion continually forced the peasantry to seek new land; hence the need to maintain a huge military establishment and a militarized society—and their acceptability to a large number of Russians. In spite of Johnson's conservatism, he emphasizes (to my mind, very plausibly) the continuity between Imperial Russia and its Communist successor.

Johnson's advocacy of this powerful theory is curious in two ways. First, it is strongly materialistic; Marxists might easily hold such views. Second, attributing Russian imperialism and despotism to pressures for colonization is exactly the kind of argument Johnson, in this very work, derides as “typical of moral relativism,” of the tendency to see “society, not individual wickedness,” as the source of evil.

In his overall discussion of colonization, emigration and immigration, the author makes an effort, largely absent in the rest of the book, to tell both sides of a story. These were not, he readily admits, wholly beneficial events. The emigrants, forced by economic change out of the Scottish Highlands, Ireland, the Alps and other backward parts of Western Europe, were “dispossessed clansmen, the progeny of hunters and warriors, pastoralists and herdsmen.” Arriving in the United States, they subjected “the Indians of North America to a similar process of eviction and exile.” Thus “men and women from one failed form of primitivism were leaving to pass the death sentence on another.” Johnson nonetheless warns that improvements in transportation and an exploding population in Europe “made huge movements of people not only possible but inevitable, and the historian should avoid making neat sums in moral arithmetic about the rights and wrongs of it all.” Perhaps—though Johnson, who makes his own neat sums about a lot of issues, absurdly claims to be a moral absolutist.

A further inconsistency is the author's willingness to accept, in conservatives, certain attitudes that move him to contempt when they emanate from the Left. Of Karl Marx, he sniffs disapprovingly—and incorrectly—that he “saw only the evils of industrial capitalism.” Yet two of Johnson's heroes, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, really did see only its evils, and he appears to be quite sympathetic: The conservative poets “identified themselves with what Coleridge called ‘the hopeless cause of our poor little White-Slaves, the children of the cotton Factories, against the unpitying cruel Spirit of Trade, and the shallow, heart-petrifying self-conceit of our political economists.’ It was, above all, the exploitation of children that drove Southey to hate industrialization so bitterly.”

Johnson himself blames the problems of industrialization mostly on trade unions: A “spirit of appeasement,” he insists, “was evident in industry,” where faint-hearted businessmen were prone to accept “long shopping lists of [labor] requirements, each of which tended to lower productivity, raise manufacturers’ costs or restrict the employer's right to run his business.” Suppose this accurately describes the demands. In a society whose mainspring is self-interest, why should we expect workers threatened by changing production techniques to respond more selflessly than proprietors? Since all of a manufacturer's costs—and prices—may rise, why not the cost of labor? And does an employer actually have a “right to run his business” without external control? What a pity Paul Johnson uses his storytelling abilities so tendentiously. Like a great many others, he has changed his politics, not his extremist temperament.

Norman Gall (review date June 1992)

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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 technology had spawned gunboat diplomacy after the shallow-draft steamer Diana penetrated 500 miles up the Irrawaddy River in 1825 to chase a fierce fleet of oar-driven Burmese imperial praus until their thousands of oarsmen were exhausted and the praus were sunk at leisure by the Diana’s guns, proving to one eyewitness that “the muscles and sinews of men could not hold out against the perseverance of the boiling kettle.” In politics, Andrew Jackson had led the popular party to victory in America's first modern election, heralding a new “democratic age” marked by

the growth of literacy, the huge increase in the number and circulation of newspapers, the rise in population and incomes, the spread of technology and industry, the diffusion of competing ideas—and, not least, by the actions of great men.

The fulcrum and most brilliant chapter of The Birth of the Modern, “Forces, Machines, Visions,” is about some of these figures, the most compelling of whom were “penniless men with powerful brains and imaginations” who “saw art and science, industry and nature as a continuum of creation. …” The chapter opens with a big coal-mine explosion in 1812 that killed 92 men and boys, shocking most of Britain and leading to the invention of a new safety lamp by George Stephenson (1781–1848), “the greatest engine designer and builder of the age, but almost illiterate,” born in the coal fields and a descendant of poor shepherds.

Like Stephenson, Thomas Telford (1757–1834), master builder and modernizer of England's basic infrastructure, also came from a family of shepherds. He

loved to work with his hands, in iron as well as in stone, and his singular virtue was the capacity to combine superb craftsmanship, by himself and others, with a passion for the latest technology and massive powers of organization. He thus rose to build bridges, roads, canals, harbors, embankments, and other public works on a scale not seen since Roman times, to create the first Institute of Civil Engineering and lay down its superlative standards and, at the same time, to remain an artist-craftsman, even a visionary.

The Birth of the Modern is a veritable pageant of such New Men, rising in a “free trade in ability,” coming from nowhere to achieve great things.

Some of the New Men, like Beethoven and Goya, sick men driven by their own vitality, embodied artistic suffering as a new form of heroism. Like many other artists of their age, both were associated with technological innovations, Goya in aquatint and etchings, Beethoven with the Broadwood piano, both of which helped create a middle-class market for art and music. Beethoven, the son of a run-of-the-mill court musician and a chambermaid-mother who died of tuberculosis when he was sixteen, “was a key figure in the birth of the modern,” writes Johnson, “because he first established and popularized the notion of the artist as universal genius, as a moral figure in his own right—indeed, as a kind of intermediary between God and Man.” And Beethoven embodied the spirit of the age in another way as well, for he

was an increasingly sick man all his adult life and his maladies determined his behavior. He gave vent to the rages of the chronic sufferer from stomach pains and the frustrations of the deaf composer. By a supreme moral irony, his appalling conduct actually sanctified his status as an artistic genius and intermediary between the divine and the human. And that was a sign of the times.

To generalize from this, the incipient modern order was always achieving its (inevitably partial) victories at the edge of turmoil and disorder—or, as Johnson puts it. “The matrix of modernity was corrupt and flawed. The world,” he continues, “was becoming one, the wilderness was being drawn into a single commercial system, but there was as yet no acknowledged law.” At the edge of modernity's incipient order, settlement of new lands posed a challenge, still with us today in Latin America, Africa, and the old Russian empire. In Brazil and other Latin American republics, the open spaces bred confusion between the ideas of capital and credit, creating a floating world of chronic inflation, animated by a fantasy of infinite expansion peculiar to the frontier societies of the Western Hemisphere. The United States itself was hardly immune. In the international loan boom of the 1820’s, the U.S. “was already creating for itself a reputation for massive borrowing against its limitless future,” a robust cultural trait that reemerged with the unprecedented credit expansion of the 1980’s.

With its masterful weaving of portraits and episodes into long chapters, The Birth of the Modern takes on some of the qualities of an epic poem. And indeed, one possible criticism of the book might be that, like an epic, it celebrates more than it explains. Johnson's sweeping narrative, based on prodigious amounts of research, would have been even more impressive had he done greater justice to the long-term forces that bred the civilizational climax of 1815–30.

The essence of modernization has escaped clear definition, not only by Johnson but by most historians and social scientists. The long view is given by the demographic historian E. A. Wrigley, who suggests that “the industrial revolution might be depicted as beginning in the early or mid-17th century rather than 150 years later.” The development of the English coal industry illustrates what Wrigley has in mind. Between 1561 and 1668, three-fourths of all English patents were related to the coal industry's problems, and one-seventh to drainage problems as the pits went deeper, leading to the invention of the first stationary steam engines in the years 1698 to 1702. The replacement of wood fuel by coal, the decisive technological change in the process of modernization, led to the expansion of the iron, glass, and pottery industries and to cheaper forms of bulk transport, first by coastal shipping, then by canals and railroads. Cheaper transport supplied London with food and fuel so efficiently that by the end of the 17th century it could become Europe's biggest city. As Johnson himself observes, “Europe was the first continent in which death rates began to fall substantially faster than birthrates,” reinforcing the pressures that led to surging international migration and the concentration of people in towns and cities, another sign of modernity.

But to ask Johnson to have dealt fully with these long-term issues is to require too much of one who has already done an almost unbelievably great deal. One of Johnson's achievements here, as earlier in Modern Times and in his histories of Christianity and of the Jews, has been to extend the horizons of serious journalism at a time when we hear much agonizing about the future of the printed word, when the magazine business is in the dumps, and sales of serious books are held to be at an all-time low. That a book like this could be written, published, and sold profitably is itself a token of underlying cultural vitality and good taste. More to the point, however, is that few academics today would assume the intellectual (and financial) risks of producing a work of this kind—and few, one is compelled to add, can command the intellectual resources, the enthusiasm, or the narrative gifts displayed in this book.

Two hundred years ago, the great biographer James Boswell wrote of another Johnson (Samuel) that “he will be seen in this work more completely than any man who has ever lived. And he will be seen as he really was. …” In the same way, illuminating his copiously detailed story with drama and meaning, Paul Johnson has helped us understand the dynamics of modernization as they really were—even if its power and future direction remain a mystery. What is clear today is that failure to sustain the thrust of modernization imperils the survival of many complex societies and threatens a reversion of their populations to more archaic forms of civilization and mortality. The Birth of the Modern celebrates the brilliance of modernity's first great burst in the sky; reading it should make us aware of how much courage, understanding, and cooperation will be necessary if the modern enterprise is to be sustained and to develop.

Edward Pearce (review date 20 May 1994)

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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 business, though so cautious a polity deserves more intelligent comment than his masochistic vision of a federalist nightmare. But when he urges democracy through referendums in response to Maastricht, it will not do to contrast virtuous Denmark with wretched, non-referring Britain.

The Danish referendum rejected Maastricht chiefly because of the whopping hysterical lie that Danes would be conscripted into a European army. Yet Johnson speaks of there being no limits “to which Euro-fanatics would not go.” The latent dementia of the Euro-army scare and Norman Tebbitt's “jackboots in Whitehall” suggests that legitimate concerns with bureaucracy burn lower in anti-European hearts than nostalgic nationalism and an open-bowelled terror of bogies.

Johnson is heavy with both. His account of the British past is like Sir Arthur Bryant without the cynical reservations. The British empire is pure enlightenment—wise administration, bridges, hot-and-cold running good sense. Arthur Harris bombing villages in Northern Iraq, the systematic creaming-off of Indian wealth by British nabobs, the charmless Happy Valley British in Kenya do not appear.

There is a case for the British empire, though not for its retention, but Johnson in his Furnace mode is the very last man to put it. He also gives his game away. Contrasting the poltroons “throwing away the largest empire in history” with Salazar's staunch Portugal, he concedes that, in consequence, “Angola and Mozambique are perhaps the most ravaged and stricken of all.”

Nostalgia stops Johnson seeing history straight. At one point, he praises the old knights of the shire coming to parliament with legislation already prepared by their own constituents—none of these scheming long-haired lobbyists in King George's time! Wasn't there something called enclosure and didn't very rich constituents help draw up bills for taking over common land, with the costs made ruinous to poorer neighbours?

But Johnson is to the right of Merrie England. A Christian gallows-fancier, he finds public executions “offending the sensibilities of the intelligentsia” and looks back warmly to “the catharsis whereby society as a whole atoned to God for the fact that one of his creatures had been wantonly destroyed.” Not just “string'em up,” but “string'em up where we can all see.” To all such poisonous tosh one can only murmur “Stefan Kiszko.” Johnson found abolitionists: “Sidney Silverman, Victor Gollancz, Gerald Gardiner and the like, almost without exception, strange and highly emotional people.” That, coming from Johnson, is chutzpah in tights.

The nostalgia is thick underfoot when it comes to the monarch, that “special creature of quasi-religious value, a focus of glitter and glamour.” He adores Victoria, Edward VII and especially George V, who said: “I thought men like that [homosexuals] shot themselves.” “It will delight people if [the Queen] is a keen sportswoman with a spirit of adventure … but what is essential is that she should be good.” She should “exhibit the qualities of simple morality and decency her subjects hold dear. They want her, above all, to set an example.”

Interesting, that; because Johnson elsewhere speaks of “the Irish who flock across the Irish Sea to exploit Britain's welfare state, which they regard as a kind of patriotic duty.” The Irish “corrupted the Caribbeans (sic) in the art of social security fraud. [They] in turn passed the word to West African immigrants and visitors who proved apt pupils”. Then, naturally, EC nationals “especially Spanish, Greeks, Portuguese and Italians, rejoice in the easy opportunities.” And for 40 years, the example-setting queen paid no taxes. Comic racism then has an exalted moment: “The fall of Margaret Thatcher in 1990 was an exercise in levelling by grey men with fear of an outsize personality. Most of them I note, had their origins in South Wales, an area notorious for resentment towards the successful, for grudge-bearing and back-stabbing.”

As a socialist long ago, Johnson was apocalyptic, favouring the arming of the miners against de Gaulle. As a Tory, he sees predatory foreign claimants, a many-tentacled European conspiracy, criminals not decently flogged and hanged, wretched proletarians not working because they won't: “the wasters, the corrupt, the incompetents, the arrogant, the self-righteous … all these pests who infest the entrails of an overfed and obese modern government.” They stand where once Raleigh, Nelson and George V stood.

This is the man in the pub—in the pub rather too long. The history is infantile, the opinions enraged and sometimes downright malignant, the work a certain hit with bad-tempered people over 65 in Reigate. It is un-English, a failure of imagination, a drought of sympathy, an annihilation of perspective and the profoundest imaginable disservice to Conservatism. The egg stinks.

Stephen Haseler (review date 3 June 1994)

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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 precise, and somewhat surprising view as to the cause of decline: instead of concentrating exclusively on a denunciation of the liberal-leftist elite, Johnson blames “an insufficiency of democracy.” He argues that “the transformation of Britain, externally and internally, was not an act of national suicide. It was never willed by the people.”

As he warms to this theme, Johnson takes some uncharacteristic side-swipes at a whole range of traditionalist institutions. The House of Lords is depicted as “sleazy” (which seems closer to reality than the standard derogatory term “privileged”). The royal family is chided for its financial excesses and for its hollow post-war “happy families” public relations exercise. The honours system is denounced for its “absurd gongs and false distinctions.” It begins to seem as though Johnson, the apostle of the “British Way of Life,” may be on the verge of yet another intellectual career-move. But any hope that he might be about to take up the cudgels in favour of the long-overdue democratization of Britain is soon dashed. For, although he favours referenda, he only does so in order to provide a strong dose of “vox pop,” which would put the hated secular elites in their place. He suggests no systematic agenda for democratic change.

Ultimately, it is not Britain's lack of democracy which moves Paul Johnson, but rather its lack of independence, as well as the looming end of national sovereignty as the country becomes increasingly absorbed and integrated into a new Europe. The pomposities and provincialism of Britain's rulers would be an excellent target for Johnson's forensic talent, but it appears that he is less hostile to the still largely unreformed Establishment (and its ancien régime constitution) than he is to the Establishment's policy decision to engineer Britain's entry into Europe which he inveighs against.

But if the EC group of powerful, prosperous countries had not been prepared to take Britain in, the country's loss of empire, and of a world role, would, almost certainly, have left it in a political and cultural cul-de-sac. What Johnson sees as “the end of an island story” can also be seen as a “lucky country” story, of a nation rescued at the last moment from a Third World, offshore fate. What Johnson sees as the end of identity, I see as the opportunity to reinvent our tired selves.

Yet Johnson has a strong point when he argues that a federal Europe poses very real problems for democrats. How can the individual have a say in such a huge polity? Is not the Maastricht Treaty a bureaucrat's delight? Unfortunately, instead of getting to grips with these issues—it would be interesting, for instance, to read Johnson on the European Parliament, on how it might be able to improve its position vis-à-vis the Council and the Commission, or on how the European Court of Justice can be used to protect individual freedoms. But he rests his case on what amounts to a generalized distaste for Continental politics. For instance, he asserts that “France has remained a bureaucratic oligarchy punctuated by popular reigns of terror.” Of course, a polemicist should be granted some licence to roam freely, but this total disregard for the importance of the French republican experience (and its contribution to Western democracy, even that of Britain) diminishes Johnson's argument.

By comparison, Johnson gives Britain a full “sceptred isle” treatment. The country is “the cradle of democracy,” the people, compared with those from less fortunate lands, are “sound,” British life is based on notions of “honour, decency, prudence and self-restraint.” And “to be born English is to draw the first prize in the lottery of life.” None of this (I think) is written in jest. It is part of an honest belief that to be British (even now) is to inhabit a uniquely stable and democratic experience, one which we are about recklessly to put at risk.

There is nothing here that even acknowledges that British lives in the late twentieth century have been so (relatively) pleasant precisely because Britain has not been an independent nation. The fact is that Paul Johnson's generation has hitherto enjoyed unknown prosperity and stability not because of sovereign independence but because of the country's “integration” into a Western post-war boom engineered by American capital and culture and consolidated by the multinational Western trading and financial system. Johnson, like the rest of his generation, is a child of the Marshall Plan as much as of the Maypole. And, of course, it was the post-war Germans who, through the IMF, helped to rescue Britain's economy in 1976.

The essential problem with Johnson's polemicism is that it lacks vision. Any anti-federalist propagandist who fervently rejects a European future for Britain must surely propose an alternative view of an independent, off-shore Britain, and of how it would function in the twenty-first century. Heavy on history, Johnson is light on the future. But it is not enough for him to rest his case on perpetuating myths about Merrie England. Unfortunately, Wake up Britain! is little more than a reactionary cri de coeur against a changing world.

Peter Stanford (review date 15 March 1996)

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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 pornographer-in-chief.”

The second is a charming, erudite scholar with a dazzling breadth of knowledge which he has successfully distilled into several memorable works, such as his unrivalled History of Christianity. This Johnson is expansive, unafraid to tackle huge subjects that span millennia. Indeed, his back-list would suggest that he feels drawn to them—histories of Judaism, ancient Egypt, the English people. His prose distills the otherwise inaccessible material of academic textbooks into a readable, and enjoyable, format.

In intention, The Quest for God belongs with this second Paul Johnson. It is a powerful, colourfully argued and intensely personal study of humankind's desire for something “other” than the here and now—for a remote, often indiscernible power that created and now guides our world.

Religion has been one of the few constants in Johnson's otherwise itinerant life. A cradle Catholic, almost 70 years later he remains convinced that the Church of Rome, with its moral certainties and elaborate rituals, is the best of all worlds. A constant theme of this book is that Catholicism has got it right, that Pope John Paul II is a prophet and that those who attack the authoritarian aspects of Vatican teaching are rejecting proven codes of belief and practice.

However, The Quest for God, being the product of the historian rather than the polemicist, balances what could sound like a missionary's shrill appeal to take the Pope's shilling. It has kind words about Anglicanism, plus insights into Judaism rare in Christian writers.

Though Johnson begins by admitting the gaps in his own knowledge of God—he has been, he writes with commendable Christian humility, “disturbingly ignorant and uninstructed” and “insufficiently curious”—this is an odd quest, more a package tour than a pilgrimage. Its destination is never in any doubt from the first page, where the author describes a Godless world as akin to “moral anarchy.” The only real surprise is that the final chapter is taken up with a collection of prayers for various occasions.

Michael Grade might not recognise this budding guru. He will perhaps take comfort in Johnson's conviction that “even the worst of us has redeeming qualities, often positive virtues.” And, I suspect, he will nod in agreement when Johnson admits in the second sentence that the needs help.

But this is no account of a long dark night of the soul. A confident and combative Johnson is aiming to bring his readers back to God. The urge to do good is part of all of us, atheists and believers alike, he concedes. However, he goes on, any explanation that tries to omit God fails to locate the roots of such altruism. Science has no answer as to why “an ineradicable part of (our) self-consciousness is … our conscience, this moral mentor, instructor and castigator.” Without moral education, by which Johnson means religious education, conscience is unguided and unrefined.

The arguments of those who would challenge such a position are given ample space in The Quest for God. But Johnson is never impartial in his presentation. Rather like the God he describes, he always has the last word. The case for God is made by damning all other alternatives. The most fertile ground for this technique proves to be the 20th century. The book is littered with examples of modern disasters, all of which are put down to the onset of secularism and the rejection of God. Communism, feminism, modernism and—in Johnson's eyes, “the cardinal sin of the 20th century”—moral relativism are all summarised and then torn limb from limb.

Johnson's skill as a writer stops this becoming a sermon. Every page drips with information, history and anecdote. One minute we have Johnson wandering around the Sistine Chapel in the regal presence of a bedazzled and speechless Margaret Thatcher. The next, H G Wells, a self-proclaimed atheist who crops up repeatedly as an Aunt Sally, is debating God with Arnold Bennett while watching the Oxford-Cambridge boat race.

The Quest for God manages in its own eccentric fashion to move smoothly in the space of a few paragraphs from Lord Peter Wimsey's maxim on the need to know who as well as how, through Thomas Aquinas’ medieval insights into science, on to the cruelty of Nazi death camps. You feel as if Johnson is addressing a well-watered dinner party of old chums, and even showing off a little. Entertaining as this undoubtedly is, it does contribute to a lack of continuity and a feeling of getting nowhere.

There are also disturbing hints of the other Paul Johnson, the newspaper hatchet man. Attacks are thrown in willy-nilly on such curious targets as Liverpool's Catholic Cathedral—derided as a “hovel” that causes its congregation to “hang their heads in shame”—and the “fact” that Britain can no longer stage a decent state funeral.

Such lapses are counterbalanced by moments that are almost moving. Johnson admits that he can no longer bear to swat flies because he considers it an outrage to nature and a denial of the wonder of God's creation. “Perhaps it is because I am growing old,” he writes, “and coming closer to the day when I must say farewell to my own life and body.”

This impression of a man genuinely searching, but thwarted by his inability even momentarily to put aside his own Catholic upbringing and faith, pervades the whole of The Quest for God. Johnson can see the unanswered and potentially unanswerable questions. But, rather than explore them, he reacts almost angrily with Penny Catechism orthodoxy and attacks those who are brave enough to express doubts. This stout defence may win Johnson a papal medal, but it means that The Quest for God will appeal only to traditionalist Catholics and not that broad constituency that is openly looking for a supernatural meaning to life.

Rosalind Miles (review date 30 March 1996)

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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 self-satisfied, ‘Told you so!’

This is so pervasively the methodology of this book that it is hard to extract discrete episodes. But this gives a flavour, from the very first paragraph:

If God does not exist we have no duties or obligations except to ourselves, and we need to weigh no other considerations except our own interests and pleasures … In a Godless world, there is no obvious basis for altruism of any kind, moral anarchy takes over and the rule of self prevails.

But even among the godless, Johnson observes, this ‘logic of Godlessness’ does not apply. So God must exist. So there.

On the jacket of the book, Johnson is described as ‘one of Britain's leading historians’. We could be kind about that (every author should be a hero to his own blurb-writer) but for the fact that The Quest for God is so massively a-historical, indeed anti-historical in its determination to recast the way things are in the way Johnson would like them to be. During the 20th century, he avers, ‘science and religion ceased to be enemies. In some modest way they became friends.’ Science, in fact, substantiates biblical truths, says Johnson. I don't think that the Oxford Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, Dr Richard Dawkins, would be very happy with that.

De heretico comburendo. Hang the label around the heretic's neck, and burn him, now. Johnson's ‘old friend’ Kenneth Tynan is pictured dying of ‘sexual liberation'—‘it was his religion and sex was his god'—his career in ruins, his private life a wreck, ‘sad, lonely and hopeless’. His widow thought he died of emphysema, after smoking too many cigarettes; same difference, Johnson would doubtless reply. From small things to large, the historical fictions swell and grow.

Our distant ancestors lived in a world where brute strength was important, and where the greater physical power of men, their skill and courage in hunting, and their superior risk-taking and daring, gave them an unassailable predominance. They were the masters. They had to be.

From this old Boys’ Own version of early human societies, Johnson segues easily into equally banal reflections on monotheism and ‘old goddesses’:

When first the Ancient Egyptians, then the Ancient Hebrews, started to worship a single god, it did not occur to them that this god could be anything but masculine.

So to write betrays a truly awesome ignorance of the last 50 years’ work in the fields of ancient and modern history, archaeology and anthropology, all of which has been fully discussed and documented in areas where Johnson clearly never looks, or even thinks of looking.

But for Paul Johnson, history only starts with God, and his God is the only God that is. And of course, God isn't interested in history, He's interested in Paul Johnson.

When I am thinking about God at all I do not doubt for one second that he is privy to all my thoughts … and that everything about me is important to him.

This note of naive and childlike self-absorption breaks out constantly in everything he does. ‘I have a great fancy for visiting cathedrals', Johnson confides. Well, fancy.

Passages like this betray a self-regard, as Tom Stoppard puts it, ‘that would glaze the eye of Narcissus’. And as gods go, the narcissistic impulse seems to be what is glorified here, not any recognisable version of the Deity, from the savage Jehovah of the Israelites to the go-for-it Jesus of the happy-clappy low-church brigade of today. St Paul, it turns out, is the true god of Paul's idolatry.

And God himself? Between everything else Johnson has to worry away at, He doesn't get much of a look-in. Those in search of philosophical enlightenment, spiritual comfort, or any sense of the shekinah, the visible glory of God, would be better off with one poem of Henry Vaughan or George Herbert, than this whole oeuvre. Truly was it written, ‘As a man is, so is his God: this word / Explains why God so often is absurd.’ If you enjoy arrogance for an appetiser, muddle for main course, dullness for dessert and absurdity for afters, this is the dish for you.

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

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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 impervious to rationalist objections.

What people do with their faith is another question. Johnson discerns in the modern world a hunger for God, but he does not take into consideration the indifference of Western society to metaphysical imperatives. Many conscientiously practise their faith; but many more do nothing about it; there is no lack of evidence of an apathetic response to faith's demands. In that lies the modern distaste for organized religion.

Johnson writes from a secure Roman Catholic position. He comes from a Lancashire Catholic family and was educated during the Second World War by the Jesuits at Stonyhurst. His father, who died when he was thirteen, was an artist much involved in building a monumental Catholic church. These early influences contributed to Paul Johnson's religious certainty and partly explain the assertive conviction of his faith in God. For him, God is no mere abstraction, God is a fact. He investigates the nature and gender of God, the problem of evil, the God of beauty, and God in creation. Most of what he writes is orthodox, but his solution of the problem of evil as a state permissible because of God's curiosity will not help its victims to love him better. Misfortunes are not necessarily evils. Such losses, transmuted by God's love, frequently lead to greater goods, but the trials of this life are not made any more bearable if they are seen in terms of divine inquisitiveness.

God is seen in severe terms. Johnson firmly believes in hell and delights in quoting vivid passages from Redemptorist sermons describing eternal torments. He is convinced that many are destined for damnation; but he does not take into consideration the notion that sin is ignorance, or that we will be judged according to our lights. The centrality of hell in Dante's imaginative universe is cited, but Johnson neglects to mention that the deepest pit is a place of ice, a concept more compelling in its horror than that of fire.

The implications of the Incarnation are not fully considered. Judgment is not merely a matter for moralism, robbed of that hope and joy which are, in Christ, the very breath of life. It is not God the Infinite, the Unknown, the Eternal who judges. He has handed over that responsibility to Jesus, who knows human existence from inside and has suffered. Therein lies the Christian expectation of divine mercy.

It is the chapter on the Church, its dogma, authority, order and liturgy that will, I suspect, most exasperate. It will offend liberal Catholics for reminding them of a Church they hoped had ceased to exist; it will not please their secularist counterparts for its refusal to see the authority of the Church in authoritarian terms. Johnson recognizes the Church as a “fallible human institution which has been capable of great enormities, which is still liable to misjudgments and even folly, but none the less in some way radiates the divine.” He deplores relativism and loves the Church for its certitude in faith and morals. He thinks in terms of absolutes and admires Pope John Paul II for the “absolute clarity” of his teaching on birth control, abortion and divorce; yet believes that within his lifetime he will see the ordination of women and even a female pope. Catholicism holds no terrors for him because he is “used to it as a much-loved old teddy bear or a favourite armchair or a smelly old favourite dog.”

Johnson's love for the Church is the salvation of what could easily be dismissed as a bigoted rant. At the centre of his life are prayer and the Mass. He kisses the crucifix before starting work and makes a daily visit to the Blessed Sacrament. He believes that nothing is too trivial for God's notice. He has no illusions about the monotony of liturgical worship:

I often think its chief function, in most lives, is simply to repeat itself, to function endlessly, from one day to the next, from one year to the next, in order to provide a reliable framework of normality in religious life.

It is unlikely that Paul Johnson's faithful quest will make many converts, but it will clarify areas of uncertainty and reinforce the tired but committed, whose faith needs to be borne up. He does not write for intellectuals or theologians. It is because of its idiosyncrasy, its hurried and, at times, unconsidered writing and artless sincerity, rather than arrogance, that his book will be helpful. If he sometimes fails to convince, he succeeds in sustaining, simply for writing about what is in his reader's mind.

Andrew Thorpe (review date July 1996)

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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 socio-economic questions. The list of contributors is impressive, ranging from long-established authorities like Pat Thane and Tony Mason to some of the brightest young stars of modern British history, such as Andrew Davies and Jon Lawrence. The book is well illustrated, and its numerous tables will no doubt be a boon to students who often find statistical material elusive. Inevitably, there are gaps; for example, Pat Thane contributes two excellent essays on women, both before 1914 and after 1939, but a piece on the important period in between would have been welcome. Still, it would be churlish to make too much of this. The editor and his contributors are to be congratulated on producing such an absorbing book, as are Longman for producing it so well and at such a relatively reasonable price. This is a book worth the attention of all those who teach and study modern British history at undergraduate level and for A level. Finally, if the proof of the pudding is in the eating, it is quite clear that this book is a success: this review could have been completed sooner had the book not spent so much time on loan to the students on my own ‘Twentieth-Century Britain’ course.

David Klinghoffer (review date 15 July 1996)

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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 moral order” against gay marriage, though without mentioning God. To the extent that other conservatives have raised their voices, they have offered lame pragmatic arguments about the effects on straight marriage and on children raised by gay parents.

This is merely a symptom of a more pervasive shyness. Conservative politicians and intellectuals speak impressively about the need for a moral, even a religious revival in this country, and about their schemes to ignite such a revival, designated by such jargon terms as “communitarianism,” “Victorian virtues,” or “Civil Society.” In fact they will expound on every possible catalyst but God Himself. Which is why, so far, our words have been in vain. As Rabbi Daniel Lapin points out, the most effective way to get other people to take God, and thus morality, seriously, is to talk about Him in a serious way yourself, in public. That we will not do.

To this rule, Mr. Johnson emerges as a welcome exception. His main point is that, although the history of the past century or so has been in large part the history of men trying to find substitutes for God, there is no satisfactory substitute: not because, as hedge-betting conservatives seem to think, inherently violent, chaotic man needs to believe in a fictitious Lord who will rein in his evil impulse; but because God lives. Johnson recalls a chilling conversation he overheard between a journalist and an Oxford philosopher. The journalist had invoked the “sanctity of life” and the philosopher had asked her to “Prove it to me. Why should human life be sacred?” A “number of beliefs to do with behavior and morality and civilization” which we consider self-evident today, writes Johnson, may not seem self-evident as the next millennium progresses. That self-evidence needs to be re-established, and the useful-fiction God favored by media-friendly moralists can provide no help in re-establishing it.

Once the decision has been made to talk about God as a living entity, what does one say about Him? Johnson has several good ideas. He tries to clear away some of the rubble that has been thrown down in the street on the way to God.

Take the problem of theodicy, of justifying God's goodness despite the worldly triumph of evil. This is a tough challenge, to which Johnson offers an appealingly modest answer: “Our understanding, compared to God's infinite knowledge and wisdom, is so puny that it seems to me hazardous to set ourselves up in judgment over God's righteousness. … I am content to believe that no one who innocently suffers here on Earth will be without full and ample recompense in Heaven.”

Johnson himself came to God because he was properly educated on the subject: above all by his father, a sturdy English Catholic who taught art and who taught his young son that we can know God through His works. Johnson became an amateur artist himself and when, with great effort, he had mastered the challenge of drawing trees, the accomplishment had a spiritual reward: “at long last I began to understand how God designed them, and how it was their functional efficiency which made them works of natural art.”

But those who cannot draw need not despair. As a route to the experience of transcendence, Johnson recommends prayer, and includes an inspiring summons to pray daily, especially the Psalms. Imagine that: a conservative intellectual advocating prayer for adults.

Throughout, Johnson writes with his usual stout, unapologetic relish, with a clarity and a concreteness that never fail to please or to inform. Anyone who has a hard time understanding why a man would love God, or love an institution devoted to God, should read this book. In a beautiful image, Johnson pictures God as a Being so devoted to His creation that the fate even of a blade of grass concerns him.

As for the church in which Johnson learned to worship this Deity, his affection toward it could not be more warmly expressed. He comes from a part of England, north Lancashire, that never went Protestant, so Catholicism for him is an exceedingly old family possession, like “a much-loved old teddy bear or a favorite armchair or a smelly old favorite dog.” He is not one of those Catholics who think their church evacuated its history and calling at Vatican II. What matters most to him remains firmly in place:

The sheer mechanical activity of the liturgy, its endless whirring and clattering, its muttering and singing and chanting, its tinkling and incensing, provides a wonderful and, if we stop to ponder a second, meaningful support and daily nourishment for our spiritual life. It baptizes us into the church, it punctuates our days throughout our life, it confirms us and marries us, and, eventually, it buries us. I could not do without it, and I rejoice that I am part of an immense multitude of a billion believers who cannot do without it either.

Sometimes Johnson's relish gets out of hand, especially on the subject of Hell, which he speculates about with a pleasure and confidence in his hunches and instincts that are justified neither by what we know from any revealed text nor by what we know about God, who is the definition of justice but also of benevolence. Johnson will, for example, state authoritatively that if anyone is in Hell, it is Promethean artists like Beethoven, Picasso, and Matisse.

The problem with The Quest for God has to do with this enthusiasm for imagining things beyond the scope of revelation. There is a flaw in fundamentalism, which asserts that individuals can read the Bible and determine on their own the meaning of that highly mysterious work. The Bible does not present itself as a straightforward instruction manual. Like the Constitution, whose concepts and vocabulary emerged from English law, it requires a tradition to help us understand what it means. That is why Roman Catholics, like Jews, depend on an ancient oral tradition which they believe explains Scripture and bears the authority of revelation. Johnson notes this concept, which Roman Catholics call the magisterium, and accepts it.

But for someone who prides himself on his orthodoxy, he is a little too eager to think matters out on his own. He calls for female priests, and for vegetarianism. Of the latter he predicts that we will all one day regard eating meat as “no more acceptable than cannibalism.” Less silly, but more dangerous, are his thoughts on Biblical authorship: “the Scriptures were written by men (and sometimes by women). Yes: I know we are taught they are divinely inspired: ‘So have I heard and do in part believe,’ as Horatio says in Hamlet. It may be that God indicated what was to be put down, and the writer placed his own construction on it.” Johnson speaks of the “authors of Genesis.”

Our pride in modern scholarship urges us otherwise, but on this point the fundamentalists must have it right. If we cannot trust that what ancient holy texts say God said, He really did say, then we lack a crucial basis for belief in Him. How credible is a God who plants a vague “inspiration” in the mind of some pious man but then leaves it to chance to ensure a) that the man will correctly transcribe the content of that inspiration, and b) that, if the man gets it right, future generations will not fool around with the words so that divine instructions become hopelessly lost among human imaginings?

It was, after all, the first “higher critic” of the Bible, Baruch Spinoza—ex-communicated by the Amsterdam rabbis in 1656—who started the West down the road at the end of which we find ourselves today, the road to secularism and disbelief that makes Paul Johnson's book an important event. It is a signpost on the road back to God.

Jonathan Keates (review date 27 December 1996)

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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 to step from the spacecraft of rational intelligence on to an exotic, incalculable planet of unreason, a terra infirma of topsy-turvydom which Lewis Carroll or W. S. Gilbert might have devised, whose weirder, more robust vegetation is nourished by Johnson's quite unfathomable wellsprings of bile, fury and the occasional violent enthusiasm.

The selection is preceded by a useful “how to” introduction, divulging the mysteries of filling allotted column inches to maximum effect. The author's professionalism matches his fecundity, more especially where calculating an appropriate tone is concerned. This is not the garish medieval parish-church Doom painting of his why-oh-why jeremiads for the net-curtain Middle England of the Daily Mail, but something more along the lines of an Italian baroque fresco, abundant with detail and allusion, flattering its readers’ sense of social context and historical perspective, its demons no less virulent but more grandly accoutred, as befits a magazine that advertises Italian suiting and Jermyn Street shirts.

There is a good deal, therefore, of that harmless name-dropping in which experienced, clubbable and socially inquisitive journalists indulge as they get older. In an essay entitled “Thoughts on Turning Sixty-Five,” which is as good an introduction as any for those unfamiliar with Johnson's sui generis manner to the quality of the book as a whole, this sort of hobnobbery is given free rein. He has, so he tells us, asked Kerensky why he didn't have Lenin shot, smoked cigars with Sibelius and Castro, made Churchill cry and the Pope laugh, and chatted up Ava Gardner. Even if, as we are asked to believe, age is making him more crabby and misanthropic, there is no sign, on the evidence of this book, that his pleasure in leading the kind of life which easily generates such reminiscences will ever diminish.

For, in essence, To Hell with Picasso is Johnson's self-portrait, a far better one, in its present form, than anything more solemn and considered he might embark on in advanced old age. How much in these pieces, indeed, depends on his abhorrence of any consideration or second thoughts can be gauged from the most extraordinary of them all, entitled “It's Always Tea-Time in Chile.” Several readers, when this first appeared in the Spectator of June 18, 1994, imagined that they might have stumbled on a rare example of the writer indulging in self-parody. Paul and Marigold are visiting Chile, where his fondness for superlatives riots headily:

Chilean women, peasants and grand ladies alike, have an elegance you find nowhere else in the Spanish-speaking world, and the men of all classes a noble dignity. They all laugh a lot, however sad life may be. The food is delicious, the wines sublime and the courtesy impeccable.

Memories of tea with Salvador Allende are supplanted by the presence of a figure more congenial to the Johnsonian Weltanschauung, General Pinochet, who invites the Johnsons to a sumptuous afternoon spread at his headquarters with “some of his most brilliant officers.” As a result of the General's reluctant political intervention some years earlier, we are told, Chile has now become the envy of her neighbours.

The tea party's surreal dimension, with Mrs Johnson apparently offering useful advice on anti-terrorist strategies, over the apricot ice-cream and pistachio cake, to a blood-stained dictator, the last person on earth we might imagine needing it, evidently fails to strike the author, whose sense of humour does not extend to an awareness of the ridiculous or the grotesque. Such unconsciousness ironically enhances the book's fascination. Paul Johnson has rarely written a dull line, though he may have produced thousands whose sentiments are disgraceful, common or downright stupid. What sport Matthew Arnold might have made of him, this George Augustus Sala de nos jours, harrumphing for England, quaint in his self-importance, appalling in his uncharity, yet always such a fearless voyager to a moon made of Christmas pies!

Walter A. McDougall (review date 21 November 1997)

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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 most historians would find idiosyncratic (for example, architecture but not literature, jazz but not rock n’ roll), while ignoring such cynosures of American history as the impact of the baby-boom generation and computer revolution; and that the book has more than its share of minor errors and typos. (I was going to pass over that niggling complaint, until I discovered my own name in the notes rendered MacDouglas.) Still, Johnson has managed to avoid almost all of the historical myths one might expect a novice to swallow. Thus, he rejects American isolationism out of hand and exposes hagiographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy for the humbug they always were. Above all, he understands something most academics today do not know or want to admit, to wit, that the social and political history of the United States has been driven largely by a peculiar religiosity that in time made Americanism itself into a civic religion.

Slavery and the contract theory of government, the first two themes sketched by the author, demonstrate the moral tensions bred in the bone of Americans, who settled the New World in hopes of material gain, individual freedom and a more perfect society, and whose experiment was to try to reconcile those disparate hopes. Thus, Sir Walter Raleigh is the proto-American with “certain strongly marked characteristics which were to be associated with the American archetype. He was energetic, brash, hugely ambitious, money-conscious, none too scrupulous, far-sighted and ahead of his time, with a passion for the new and, not least, a streak of idealism.” Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony is the First American, and his authoritarianism demonstrated the ambivalent relationship between religion and liberty. Roger Williams, the First Dissident, simply founds a new colony more to his liking, thus illustrating how the virgin continent could host a “huge, experimental theatre of liberty.” And Cotton Mather, the First Intellectual, identifies the dilemma at the heart of that experiment: “Religion brought forth Prosperity, and the daughter destroyed the mother. … There is danger lest the enchantments of this world make them forget their errand into the wilderness.

But what was the errand? Inasmuch as the theology shared by most colonists was based on an Antinomian belief that knowledge of God came directly to men through the study of Holy Writ, every man was free to define his own American errand. So it was, writes Johnson, that by 1760 the colonies were already something new under the sun: a middle-class democracy. But such a frontier democracy might breed disunity, even anarchy—unless those thousands of individual errands could themselves be made the stuff of a single civic religion, which is just what the First Great Awakening did. That phenomenal religious revival, which swept across sectarian, regional and social boundaries in the early eighteenth century, was the proto-revolutionary event, the formative moment that created an “ecumenical and American type of religious devotion.” It conflated emotion and reason, identified America as a Providential dispensation, and stressed that “Man was born in the image of God and could do all—his capacities were boundless.” What it did not stress was human incorrigibility, and so began to drain from American religion the humility intrinsic to the Catholic, Anglican and original Calvinist faiths. Americans gradually ceased to think of their errand in the Promised Land as heroic but ultimately futile (thanks to original sin), and began instead to view it as heroic and ultimately certain (thanks to Providence). In short, America itself became the historical agent of divine purposes, and, according to Johnson, the marriage of the Great Awakening with Enlightenment Reason “enabled the popular enthusiasm thus aroused to be channelled into the political aims of the Revolution.”

The implications of this are profound, but Johnson appears not to have sorted them all out. He is at pains to explain why, if this civic religion was the inspiration for 1776, the Constitution drafted for the new nation was so strikingly secular—and yet, being secular, was rooted in the old Christian assumption of a corrupt human nature (hence the need for checks and balances in government). Johnson calls it merely a “historical accident” that the Constitution happened to be drawn up just as Enlightenment rationalism peaked, and just before the extremes of the French Revolution provoked a spiritual backlash, and he cites evidence that the Founding Fathers, including the deists and sceptics, all named religious faith a sine qua non of liberty. He might otherwise simply have said that the old Christian gospel and new American one were still struggling for the nation's soul. Thus, Thomas Paine was still a radical in his day when he cried, “My country is the world and my religion is to do good,” but he anticipated the universal crusade that the American gospel was to become.

Johnson skillfully weaves telling statistics and descriptions of trends together with cameo lives of representative persons. His portrait of Chief Justice John Marshall, for instance, explains how American law came to buttress a system of private property and individualism, industry, commerce and capitalism. His depiction of Andrew Jackson is splendid, and explains in novel fashion why the Battle of New Orleans, which occurred after the treaty ending the Anglo-American War of 1812–14, was in fact a watershed. It not only forced Europe to recognize the American purchase of the Louisiana Territory, it deprived the Indians of their last hope for outside help against the tide of Yankee settlers, and it made Jackson a national political figure. Thus a straight line led from New Orleans to Jacksonian Democracy, Indian Removal and the triumph of Manifest Destiny.

The boisterous, anxious, expansive America of the 1830s and 40s also gave birth to the Second Great Awakening, another outburst of emotive revivalism that completed the metastasy of American Christianity into a civic religion. Unitarians and Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson had already jettisoned traditional dogma in favour of a religion of social reform. American education, too, was informed by a “lowest-common-denominator Protestantism” that hitched the Ten Commandments to the wagon of American patriotism. What the chiliastic Second Awakening did was to invite all Americans to reform themselves and the nation—chiefly by abolishing slavery—and thus make America worthy of its millenarian calling. As Johnson puts it, the Second Awakening “sounded the death-knell of American slavery just as the First Awakening had sounded the death-knell of British colonialism.” Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America was published in 1832, understood. According to Americans, “The gradual development of the principle of equality is a Providential fact,” and religion was “indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.” Hence the two quintessential American creations of that era were the Abolitionist movement—and the astounding Church of Latter-day Saints. Johnson shows terrific insight when he spies in the Mormons, not a deviant cult, but the purest expression of what American religion was about: “In no other instance are the creative nation-building possibilities of evangelical religion so well illustrated.”

Johnson's sensitivity to America's missionary impulse also allows him to grasp the great departure in US foreign policy occasioned by the Spanish-American War in 1898. “American Christianity was acquiring an imperialist persona,” and its crusades in Cuba, the Philippines, Hawaii and China were born of the same reformist impulse that propelled the Progressive Movement at home. Thus, Woodrow Wilson, far from reacting against such Yankee imperialism, took it to its full-blown conclusion. Johnson has no sympathy for Wilson's sanctimony and damns the Versailles Treaty as “the impulse behind Adolf Hitler's rise to power, the pretext for his aggressions, and the ultimate cause of World War Two.” The domestic counterpart to Wilson's diplomacy was the Prohibition of alcoholic beverages, another moral experiment that blew up in Americans’ faces.

Though America's civic religion is his major theme, Johnson by no means ignores material civilization. His explanations of America's rapid industrialization after the Civil War and Great Depression of the 1930s are lengthy, learned, and (to me) persuasive, and his digressions in such matters as urban planning are evocative. (American towns always mandated broad boulevards, hence, unlike those in Europe, they accommodated the automobile with no strain.) He also makes due reference to the history of women, immigrants, blacks and Indians, and does so without the breast-beating cant that has become de rigueur for US historians. But the prominent people he puts on display invariably illustrate those American traits he is concerned to isolate. For instance, the fact that Walt Whitman was a despicable self-promoter only shows him to be an “all-American American”: a P. T. Barnum of poetry. Andrew Carnegie, the Scots-born industrialist and founder of scientific management, became the richest man in the world, only to give $350 million away in pursuit of social uplift and world peace. His agnosticism, entrepreneurial drive and philanthropy make him the “archetypal” American hero. The indiscriminate nature of American democracy is even invoked by the ease with which Johnson fits the likes of Louis Sullivan, designer of skyscrapers, Asa Griggs Candler, the Coca Cola mogul, and Scott Joplin, a founder of jazz, into a single argument.

But always he returns to America's dream of immanentizing the eschaton in the form of a free and egalitarian society for all Americans and indeed all the world. Wilsonianism and Prohibition seemed not to bode well for that dream, and as the author moves deeper into the twentieth century, ill tidings proliferate. Herbert Hoover, the Quaker engineer and perhaps the most competent man ever to preside in the White House, is overwhelmed by the Depression. FDR appears as a frivolous, dishonest tinkerer, and his New Deal at home and insouciance before Fascism and Communism abroad equally foolish. During the Second World War, the American people fight against tyranny only to succumb to a “Jupiter Complex,” a form of hubris that persuades them, inasmuch as they are both moral and omnipotent, that they may hurl thunder-bolts at all who dare to defy them. Johnson goes so far as to cite Joseph Goebbels's judgment that the firebombing of Dresden in 1945 was “the work of lunatics.” He affirms the US Cold War effort, and considers the Marshall Plan the “biggest single act of national generosity on record.”

But his portraits of Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson are devastating. Joseph Kennedy, we learn, hired writers to produce his son's two books, paid a publisher to print them, purchased tens of thousands of copies himself to make them best-sellers, and cavorted with mobsters and crooked political bosses to secure Jack's elections to the Congress, Senate and Presidency. Jack himself was even more of a satyr than is generally known, and his medical condition was not only suppressed, but confided to a quack who turned the President into a drug addict. Lyndon Johnson was almost as corrupt, and his Great Society programmes and Vietnam War policy were debacles. The treatment of America in the 1960s, in fact, recalls Suetonius’ account of Imperial Rome. And yet, Johnson's treatment of Richard Nixon is remarkably gentle, depicting his forced resignation after the Watergate scandal as the product of a Congressional assault on the imperial presidency.

For Johnson, Ronald Reagan is a burst of fresh air, but even he could not reverse America's downward slide, as evidenced by the rates of divorce, abortion and illegitimacy, the subversion of law and democracy by activist judges, the explosion of litigation and crime, the reprise of Presidential corruption under Bill Clinton, and the transformation of the civil rights and women's movements from traditional campaigns for equality and a share of the American Dream into multicultural campaigns for group rights, entitlements and coercive Political Correctness in education and government. The author is especially struck by the decline of the mainstream Protestant Churches since the 1960s, which he believes is the cause of “the decisive single development in America during the second half of the twentieth century: the decline of the family and family life.”

To be sure, the American economy has continued to be the greatest engine for the creation of wealth and expansion of opportunity known to man, and Johnson's last vignette describes how women have conquered the professions and workplace and achieved equality. But is that all that the American civic religion, the noble experiment, amounts to in the end? Where does Paul Johnson come out on all this?

Back at the start of the book, he tells us what American history means: “The creation of the United States of America is the greatest of all human adventures. No other national story holds such tremendous lessons, for the American people themselves and for the rest of mankind.” That story in turn raises three questions. “First, can a nation rise above the injustices of its origins and, by its moral purpose and performance, atone for them?” Second, “can ideals and altruism … be mixed successfully with acquisitiveness and ambition?” Third, have Americans made good on their claim to be “designing a republic of the people, to be a model for the entire planet”?

The reader expects Johnson to return to those questions after his story is done. Instead, he just stops in midstream and appends a short paragraph that praises Americans for remaining a problem-solving people, “of essential goodwill to each other and to all.” They will never cease to attack the ills in their society, and they remain “the first, best hope for the human race.” This clipped, Pollyannaish view of America would seem to suggest that Johnson himself is a convert to the American gospel. But the evidence of his last 300 pages suggest rather that the United States lost its way over the course of this century, that its civic religion was either betrayed or was not so benign after all, and that in any case the unique geographical and spiritual conditions that gave rise to America rule it out as a model for others. It seems, in short, as if Johnson dared not follow the logic of his own powerful argument to its conclusion, which is that Americanism contained within itself a utopian heresy that could only end in the negation of true religion and liberty alike. Or perhaps he believes in the end, as he wrote in reference to Hoover, that “there is no logic and justice in history—only chronology.”

When Truman Capote was asked his opinion of the writing of James Michener, the prolific American novelist, he famously replied, “Th-that's not wr-writing, that's t-typing.” Paul Johnson may be styled non-fiction's Michener. Sometimes it appears as if he writes or thinks too fast. But his zesty, irreverent narratives teach more history to more people than all the postmodernist theorists, highbrow critics and dons put together.

Norman Stone (review date 20–27 December 1997)

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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 Washington National Airport after him, as Paris employed de Gaulle's name (who knows, one day we might ourselves be landing, not at Heathrow, but at Princess Diana).

This does not seem to have suited Ambassador Seitz at all, nor did it suit Harvard which, for its tercentenary, invited all surviving former Presidents, including poor little Carter, but issued a very guarded invitation to Reagan. The American Establishment—State Department, media etc—really do not like him. Some hysteria built up. I have kept, on and off, unsystematically, various articles, and they include some lengthy remarks made by the learned and imposing Felix Rohatyn on the terrible debt that the United States were building up in the middle of the Eighties. Doom and gloom were forecast. In fact, notoriously, the United States in these years created 18 million new jobs. The Bush administration suited them much better; but we can see at this moment the consequences of one of its major decisions, to halt before Baghdad at the time of the Gulf war. Saddam is still there, able to cause great trouble. Reagan, of whom they said that he owned more horses than books, had a sure instinct for something. He knew at least which books he ought to be seen to be reading, and had a copy by the side of his bed of an earlier book of Paul Johnson's, although the bookmark had not changed position, apparently, from one year to the next. Johnson, who tells this story, does not mind.

The ultra-modern part of Paul Johnson's book does in fact something rather valuable, whatever your political perspective: it tells the story, gives you a side to argue for or against, and presents evidence which, though it may be wrong, can be tested.

The narrative is not one-dimensionally political, either: one of the book's great strengths is that it can (sometimes at a tangent) wander into architecture, or film, or the decline of the main American Protestant churches, before getting back to its main themes. His Modern Times had the same quality, and it attracted the same hostile reviews in some quarters. There are, no doubt, errors of fact: they are inevitable in a book of this size, but there is no point in harping on about these things unless you truly wish to convict an author of not really knowing what he is talking about, which, in the case of Johnson's book, no one could ever claim. He has done a huge amount of work, and if you try to write this sort of book with too many qualifications, you become, sadly, unreadable.

More and more—I have an interest to plead—I test books in terms of their usefulness for an intelligent British 15-year-old and intelligent Turkish university students, who are desperately anxious to know what on earth makes the West, and especially America, tick. This book is of airport bestseller size, but it also takes up the time of an aircraft journey (a long return one), and an empty night in a foreign hotel splendidly. Paul Johnson is very, very rude about American universities, quoting at length the inanities of censorship and witch-hunting that they practise, and I doubt if his book will figure on their booklists. But it will have a powerful effect on influential thinking about the United States while all the politically correct tome-producers lie howling.

A great gulf opened between the presidency and the intelligentsia under Reagan, but in fact it had been developing ever since the later Fifties, with Eisenhower (Norman Mailer called these years ‘the worst decade in history’). In the Sixties, there was Vietnam, one well-meant blunder after another; in the Seventies, as Nixon was trying to sort out the consequences, and opening up to China, he was undermined by the business of Watergate; there followed a dismal era in which the President simply drifted, without prestige. In the Eighties came the Reagan recovery, and the intelligentsia were baffled, resentful, and, when it all resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union, almost bereft of speech. Why this gulf between government and intelligentsia, which was not characteristic of the United States before? Johnson takes it back to the Thirties, and money: books did not sell in the Depression, he claims (actually they did, provided that enlightened publishers such as Penguin took the right openings). But the problem of the intelligentsia is not just one of money. There is, partly, the shift in communication technology towards the visual: television (or even book-reviewing in a newspaper) can pay sometimes extremely well—certainly much better than poor old academe—and there seems to be something about such media that shifts people to the left-liberal side, sometimes naively so. I wonder what the answer is. It is an observable phenomenon in all countries that I know. They used to say that you could tell a communist by his or her face, regardless of national or racial origin. I reckon I can now tell a media person in much the same way.

I wish that Paul Johnson had talked rather more about this, because one of the great weapons of American domination in the world today is médiatique. This goes together with another theme that Johnson might have discussed: how on earth a first-class economy gets by with such an appalling (and well documented) level of popular ignorance and diseducation. A Russian observer remarked, why is it that we, with an educational system five times better, have an economy ten times worse (or words to that effect)? The Economist produced a table, some weeks back, of countries’ educational ratings as compared with per capita GNP. The correlation was, almost, indirect—the better the maths and physics, the worse the money. Is it that modern economies and societies actually reward ignorance? Or is it just that the American elite institutions survive by sucking in money and talent that, in other countries, would be spread around more evenly? The late and much-lamented Christopher Lasch had some thoughts about this, and I wish that Paul Johnson had paid him, somewhere, a tribute.

Some other grumbles. The American economy is praised, again and again, but this is not Johnson's strong point. He can list the technological wonders, of course, but he tends to skip over things that obviously bore him—for instance, why, despite the public money and the New Deal, unemployment remained so high in the Thirties, whereas the same public money, during the second world war, resulted in such an economic boom that America accounted, in 1945, for fully half of the world's production? He is very good on the failure of the pre-Roosevelt administration to deal with the Slump—in his account, President Hoover was himself too much of a money-wrecking public spender—but he is clearly too contemptuous of FDR to give credit to the New Deal. Was it really such a failure? The New Dealers, after all, appeared in Western Europe after the second world war, when they set up the Marshall Plan, and there, at least, they had a prodigious success. On this, I believe that a book of this kind should have more.

On the other hand, the good things in the book far outweigh the inadequacies. On one point in particular, I have a personal note of gratitude. As you go about Russia today, they will tell you that, awful as things are, at least they were just as awful in the days of the 19th-century American boom, when Rockefellers and Vanderbilts shot up the workers, and did shady deals, while the gold rush Wild West massacred Indians and murdered each other. Russians, schooled in a sort of two-dimensional account of western capitalism and imperialism, often repeat this, in extenuation of the troubles through which they are going. It is not a credible account: in the United States, there always was a rule of law, and there always was a conviction, especially among the rich, that social cohesion required a very high degree of charitable donations, including some spectacular ones, such as the Frick collection in New York (of which Johnson wonders how on earth a simple steelman could have had such artistic discernment: but money often did have such discernment, as with, say, the textile industrialist Shchukin in Moscow). At any rate, the United States cannot be used as an excuse for the abuses of money and power in modern Russia.

I could go on and on. If you want to know the details of the present-day American crime rate (still frightening) they are here; Johnson ends on a very up-beat note, but he does indicate the severe down-sides of it all, when you consider social and racial matters in the great American cities. I also noted that he said very good things about Phoenix, Arizona—a place in dreadfully hot desert country, which, irrigated and air-conditioned, is one of the great boom towns of the country, amazingly well run, with black faces that are cheery and welcoming. I should very much like to go there again. However, a 22-hour journey, without a cigarette brings me almost to a nervous standstill. Why, in the United States, do a quarter of children under the age of 12 try ‘crack', while respectable citizens are forced to make fools of themselves if they want a cigarette? Fascinating as the country is, much as we all owe to its existence, greatly as I believe in its future, I am not going there again. Prohibition (another Johnson strength) wins.

Esmond Wright (review date 8 March 1998)

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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 material that in themselves require 90 pages of text. And he is versatile in that he is the author of many quite unrelated books (Modern Times, Intellectuals, A History of the Jews and The Quest for God). Moreover, he sees Americans as a problem-solving people, bothered in recent years by issues like racism, Vietnam, political correctness, the growth of litigation and the rise of women but overcoming difficulties by intelligence and skill, by persistence and by courage.

Johnson handles and uses statistics well and “translates” them vividly into human terms. A History of the American People is a fresh, readable and provocative survey. He is full of opinions, for which he offers quite unnecessary apologies (for his views are usually well justified). But he is wise to quote Shakespeare: “Be not afraid of greatness.”

Is this book then a work of distinction? Well, only just. He writes well and to the point. Consider the origins of the North and the South. “With remarkable speed, in the first few decades, the fundamental dichotomy of America began to take shape, epitomized in these two key colonies—Massachusetts and Carolina. Here already is the North-South divide. The New England North has an all-class, mobile and fluctuating society, with an irresistible upward movement pushed by an ethic of hard work. It is religious, idealistic and frugal to the core. In the South there is by contrast a gentry-leisure class, with hereditary longings, sitting on the backs of indentured white laborers and a multitude of black slaves, with religion as a function of gentility and class, rather than an overpowering inward compulsion to live the godly life.”

And Johnson can be very wise. When summing up the story of the Great Awakening, on which he writes well, he concludes: “The Revolution could not have taken place without this religious background. The essential difference between the American Revolution and the French Revolution is that the American Revolution, in its origins, was a religious event, whereas the French Revolution was an anti-religious event. That fact was to shape the American Revolution-from start to finish and determine the nature of the independent state it brought into being.”

And he adds later when writing about the Civil War: “The Second Awakening, with its huge intensification of religious passion, sounded the death-knell of American slavery just as the First Awakening had sounded the death-knell of British colonialism.”

Johnson's strength, which is also his weakness, is in his sketches of people; he treats them in quixotic fashion. To some, he is kind; to others, he is cynical, prejudiced, even savage, as he is in his treatment of JFK and LBJ (one finds his assessments of these men unduly savage because Kennedy, one must remember, held office for only a short time, and Johnson's presidency was filled with great social change and promise, though everything was eclipsed by the shadow of the Vietnam War.) He is always diligent and can be informative. The book is certainly an engaging series of pen portraits: Sir Walter Raleigh, the first great man in the story to come into close focus from the documents, is described: “Raleigh was, in a sense, a proto-American. He had certain strongly marked characteristics which were to be associated with the American archetype. He was energetic, brash, hugely ambitious, money-conscious, none too scrupulous, farsighted and ahead of his time, with a passion for the new, and not least a streak of idealism which clashed violently with his overweening desire to get on and make a fortune.”

He is equally vivid when writing about the young Jim Fisk, premier robber baron of the Gilded Age, and Jay Gould and “Commodore” Vanderbilt and Andrew Carnegie and J. P. Morgan. And of the Roosevelts, the Oyster Bay branch and the Hyde Park branch, he writes: “The two branches were highly competitive and jealous of each other. They occasionally intermarried—FDR's wife Eleanor was from the Oyster Bay branch and TR's nephew married FDR's niece—though generally relationships were malicious, even hostile. But the presidential Roosevelts were gifted Populists in politics and had much in common, including enormous energy, especially under physical affliction, and a zest for life. TR was a radical conservative, whereas FDR was a conservative radical. A preference for one over the other is a touchstone of American character.”

There are admirable summaries of the careers and achievements of John Adams, Hamilton, Washington (“[I]n the war he nothing common did, or mean, or cruel, or vengeful. He behaved, from first to last, like a gentleman.”), Franklin, Madison, Jefferson (he recognizes was “a mass of contradictions”) and Tom Paine, whose tract “Common Sense” he salutes as “the most successful and influential pamphlet ever written.” He writes a deft portrait of John C. Calhoun, “the Iron Man” and the coming of the Civil War. To spend an evening with Calhoun in his mansion Fort Hill was “like spending an evening in a gracious Tuscan villa with a Roman senator.” On the Civil War, his best and most detailed studies of people are of Jefferson Davis, Lincoln and Jackson. Nor are the biographical sketches confined to humans: Witness the profiles of Indianapolis, Chicago and Los Angeles, of Coca-Cola and jazz and Washington, D.C., the nation's new capital, which “then as now specialized in giant cockroaches.”

But amid all the sparkle, there are weaknesses. Columbus, the first portrait we encounter, is described in part as Genoese and Venetian, but there is not a word on the fact that he had made his home in the Azores and first approached Portugal to finance his voyage. Or, if Jefferson is properly saluted, Madison is seen—particularly in the War of 1812—as an incompetent president. Johnson is more interested in Jefferson, whose activities were varied as president, than in Madison, the father of the Constitution, who was burdened by war and could not be the constitutional specialist that he was by nature.

Johnson does not attempt to retell the story of the war between the states and, no doubt, space forbids it. He recognizes that it is the “central event” in the American story. He confines himself, however, to a chapter of comment—and some asperity: “The new President [James Buchanan] was a weak man, and a vacillating one. He was lazy, frightened, confused and pusillanimous. … The leaders on both sides were righteous men. … Lincoln was a case of American exceptionalism, because in his humble, untaught way, he was a kind of moral genius, such as is seldom seen in life and hardly ever at the summit of politics. … By comparison, Davis was a mere mortal. But, according to his lights, he was a just man, unusually so.”

Johnson's portrait of Davis is the fuller and the more attractive of the two. Of the battles of the Civil War and of the contrasting economies, he says less. But what he says is all too apt. On the decision to secede, “697 men, mostly wealthy, decided the destiny of a million people, mostly poor.” He is laconic but effective on the cost of the war: “More arms and legs were chopped off in the Civil War than in any other conflict in which America has ever been engaged.”

The industrialization of the United States and the development of the cattle country, railroads and the coming of the skyscrapers, Carnegie and Morgan, and the coming of the trusts, Henry Ford and the Model T (selling for $850 in 1908) are all duly recorded. With them the simultaneous flowering of American literature is discussed: Cooper, Melville, Poe, Irving, Longfellow, Twain and Whitman. The Information Age that has now transformed America is left unremarked, and Hemingway and Faulkner need more than a single reference.

Johnson's forthrightness, however, is to be condemned if that is why he is so scathing about all the 20th century presidents after Woodrow Wilson—until he reaches Ronald Reagan. And here, in singling out Reagan, it is most clear that he is a historian whose conservative judgments often affect the narrative. Reserving judgment is certainly difficult, yet it is important that one writes the story of the past as its events were understood at the time: One should enter into the spirit of the past rather than impose contemporary verdicts or what other scholars have made of it.

Of Wilson, he is lyrical: “There was indeed a streak of selfish egotism in Wilson, a self-regarding arrogance and smugness, masquerading as righteousness, which was always there and which grew with the exercise of power. Wilson, the good and great, was corrupted by power, and the more he had of it, the corruption bit, like acid in the soul.”

He is especially culpable, however, in his scorn for the New Deal. He is probably correct in seeing Hoover, “the Engineer of Prosperity,” as the author of the first New Deal and in seeing the Depression end only with the advent of World War II. But he is unnecessarily ruthless in his handling of FDR. It would be more accurate to describe FDR as the greatest president in U.S. history, and as the man who won World War II.

A History of the American People is a vivid and highly readable portrait of the way in which the United States has emerged, but students of its history will need to do some additional reading on the Roosevelt years. They can well begin by using Johnson's detailed and extremely helpful list of sources.

Michael Lind (review date 9 March 1998)

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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 nationalists believe that all Americans, except for unacculturated immigrants and enclave minorities like the Amish and the Navajo, belong to a common, extra-political cultural nation, defined by language, culture, and customs. American nationalists do not confuse our inherited caste categories (of which the most important are the arbitrary divisions of “white” and “black”) with “cultures,” which individuals may or may not share with other Americans of similar ancestry.

That confusion is at the heart of a second viewpoint, multiculturalism, which treats “race” and “culture” as synonymous. Multiculturalists think of racialized cultures or culturalized races (usually five of them—white, African American, Hispanic-American, Asian-American, and Native American) as the components of a multinational America.

A third school of thought is represented by democratic universalists, who have a purely political definition of American identity. According to this view, the U.S. is a post-national or non-national idea-state—a purely political entity whose members have nothing in common except for a commitment to the liberal-democratic ideals of the Founding Fathers.

This debate over American identity has obvious implications for the historian. A multiculturalist cannot write a history of the American people—at most, he can write parallel histories of the five or six American peoples (in the plural). A democratic-universalist history of the United States would be a history of constitutions, parties, and political philosophies. Only someone who subscribes to the nationalist school can tell the story of the American nation as a nation.

The choice of a theory more or less dictates the point at which the historian will begin. A universalist historian should start a history of America in 1776—when the liberal-democratic American state was founded. Since the American nation is older than the Federal Government, a nationalist history of this country should begin in 1607, when the Virginia colony, the first permanent Anglo-American settlement, was founded, or earlier.

Johnson proves that he belongs to the nationalist school of American history when he begins his narrative with the Middle Ages. “The mixture of religious zeal, personal ambition—not to say cupidity—and lust for adventure which inspired generations of Crusaders was the prototype for the enterprise of the Americas.” This is a typical Johnsonian observation—at once strikingly original, and strikingly obvious, now that he has pointed it out.

Rebuffed in the East by Islam, the Portuguese, Spanish, and French move into the Western Hemisphere. Appropriately the English, who were latecomers to the European conquest, colonization, and exploitation of the Americas, do not show up until we are well into the first chapter. The key figure in the English colonization of America is Sir Walter Raleigh—for whom Virginia is the second frontier, after Ireland: “In the American enterprise, Ireland played the same part for the English as the war against the Moors had done for the Spanish—it was a training-ground both in suppressing and uprooting an alien race and culture, and in settling conquered lands and building towns.”

It has always struck me as weird that we celebrate the founding of our Federal Government rather than the “plantation” of our nation. Before there could be a Washington, there had to be a Raleigh. The genuine “Founding Fathers” were not the Patriots of 1776 and the Framers of the Constitution of 1787. They created the government, not the nation. The true founders were the impresarios of the colonial era, who “planted” the first British settler populations—Raleigh and Captain John Smith and their Virginians, Penn and his Quakers in the Delaware Valley, John Winthrop and his Puritans in New England. Johnson does full justice to this neglected subject; he describes Winthrop, for example, as “the outstanding figure of the Puritan voyages, the first great American.”

Most of the readers of this magazine presumably know how the story of America turned out, and I will not presume to summarize in a few paragraphs what Johnson takes nine hundred pages to describe. A colossal undertaking like this requires a rare combination of scholarly Sitzfleisch and literary skill.

Inasmuch as history is a branch of social science, a first-rate historian must be able to marshal divisions and battalions of data; at the same time, as history is also a literary art, he must be able to direct the maneuvers of his legions by means of banners and flags, in the form of judicious quotes or memorable anecdotes. I am not qualified to check all of Johnson's scholarship (who is?) but his treatment of a subject which I know quite well, Alexander Hamilton's financial reforms, unites sound scholarship with insightful analogies, personality profiles, and vivid detail in just the right proportion:

His disloyal and acerbic Vice President, Adams, might call him Old Muttonhead, but Washington knew very well what he was doing. And the first thing he had to do was to get the national finances in order. That meant appointing Hamilton the first Secretary of the Treasury, and giving him a free hand to get on with the job. The financial mess into which the new nation had got itself as a result of the Revolutionary War and the subsequent failure to create a strong federal executive can be briefly summarized. … The market price of government paper (that is, proof of debt) had fallen from 150 to 30 cents on the dollar, depending on the relative worthlessness of the paper. The consequence of inflation and improvidence was precisely the kind of disaster which was to hit all the Latin American republics when they came into being in the next generation, and from which some of them have never recovered to this day. Somehow, the United States, which sprang from the stock of England, whose credit rating was the model for all the world, had to pull itself out of the pit of bankruptcy.

Note how Johnson turns what might have been a dreary passage about eighteenth-century fiscal policy into a suspenseful narrative, enlivened by a reference to the present (when “debt crisis” has usually been modified by the phrase “Latin American”—although the Asian currency crisis may change this).

Here is Johnson on Henry Clay, whom he describes as “probably the most innovative politician in American history, to be ranked with Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison as a political creator”:

Clay was six feet … and could fight with the best of them. He was slender, graceful, but ugly: “Henry's face was a compromise put together by a committee” and was distinguished by an enormously wide mouth, like a slash. He used this mouth often, to eat and drink prodigiously, to shape his superbly soft, melodic, caressing voice, and to do an extraordinary amount of kissing. As he put it, “Kissing is like the Presidency, it is not to be sought and not to be declined.” His opponents said his prodigiously wide mouth allowed him an unfair advantage: “the ample dimensions of his kissing apparatus enabled him completely to rest one side of it while the other was on active duty.” If women had had the vote Clay would have experienced no difficulty in becoming President every time he chose to run.

This is vivid and memorable writing, as well as an object lesson in the artful use of quotation. A mealy-mouthed American academic or popular historian would have cut the last line, for fear of offending politically correct feminists, just as he would have dropped the line about Latin American debt, for fear of being accused of racism.

On the Civil War, Johnson writes that it “constitutes the central event in American history.” Here Johnson follows the consensus opinion. However, while the Civil War was the most violent event in American history, was it really the most important? If you take the distinction between the American nation and the Federal Government seriously, then the wars that determined where English-speaking Americans lived in North America were more consequential, in the final analysis, than the wars about what the capital (or capitals) would be. The French and Indian War ensured that the language spoken in most of Canada and what is now the eastern United States would be English, not French. The Texas Revolution and the Mexican War extended the territory of the Anglophone Americans into Texas, California, and the Southwest. Was the war to keep Alabama really more significant, in the long run of history, than the war to gain California and Texas—today the two most populous states in the Union? If the U.S. had crumbled in the 1860s into two or more confederacies, world history would have been quite different, but the ethnonational division of North America between English-speakers, Spanish-speakers, and French-speakers would have been pretty much the same, though the South and West might have expanded into the Caribbean and Mexico. (To his credit, Johnson devotes a lengthy section to “Polk and the Mexican War.”)

In his discussion of the Civil War itself, Johnson is admirably even-handed. “Only two states wanted a civil war—South Carolina and Massachusetts.” (They still do.) Johnson points out that Jefferson Davis was progressive in many ways, and that Lincoln hoped that freed blacks could be shipped out of the country. When it comes to Reconstruction, though, he goes badly wrong. Johnson repeats the old Southern Redeemer view of Reconstruction as the tyrannical rule of “blacks, guided by Northern Army officers, a few Northerners, and some renegade whites.” This makes it seem as if only blacks (who needed to be “guided” to oppose the ex-Confederate Democrats!) supported the Reconstruction state governments. In reality, significant parts of the Southern white population—particularly Highland Southerners and German immigrants in Texas—despised the Confederacy and welcomed the federal armies and the Republican regimes.

Fortunately, the remainder of the book shows Johnson at his combative, iconoclastic best. With an uncanny sense of timing, he provides titillating details about the sex lives of liberal Presidents and their wives. “It was widely believed by Eleanor's many enemies … that she became a lesbian. If so, she was bisexual.” “Jack, in turn, used his political glamour to secure political trophies from the movies, including Gene Tierney and Marilyn Monroe, the latter first shared with, then passed on to, Bobby.” LBJ “was an inveterate bottom-pincher, especially in swimming pools.” Repeatedly Paul Johnson portrays liberal Presidents as adulterous cads who betray their long-suffering wives. He may be onto something.

Much more interesting is his attack on what he regards as inflated reputations—including the biggest of them all. He criticizes FDR and also Eisenhower for failing to wage the war in Europe so as to deny as much territory as possible to the Soviets. “Eisenhower refused to countenance the proposal of his chief British subordinate, General Bernard Montgomery, to throw all the Allied resources into a single, direct thrust at Berlin.” Before we congratulate the British on their foresight, however, we should remember that it was the casualty-conscious British government that wanted to delay the invasion of the Continent; an earlier invasion might have ended the war sooner, with Soviet armies further in the east. There is a bit of the confident armchair general in Johnson.

His historical revisionism reaches a crescendo in his attempt to rehabilitate the image of Richard Nixon. His boldness is impressive but his timing in this case is unfortunate, given the recent release of hitherto-secret Nixon tapes which portray a self-pitying bully and corruptionist. Nevertheless, Johnson may be ahead of his time in insisting that Nixon's crookedness be seen in the context of the behavior of other Presidents, especially the sleazy Kennedys.

The subject of Nixon raises a serious problem with Johnson's entire project of revising the reputations of American leaders in the twentieth century. Nixon, after all, was denounced by the Right as a Rockefeller Republican—and he has been claimed as something of a progressive by liberal historians like Stephen Ambrose. Should conservatives defend Nixon's memory, or calumniate it?

Johnson has equated the Republican Party with conservatism and the Democratic Party with liberalism, and then gone back through the history of the twentieth century, painting mustaches on the portraits of Democrats and providing the Republicans with haloes. But the conservative Republican/liberal Democrat dichotomy really does not work before the 1960s, when the two parties exchanged constituencies. Before the Sixties, the Democrats were the party of socially conservative white Southerners and Northern Catholics (particularly Irish Catholics). Today those groups tend to vote Republican. The GOP used to be the party of Greater New England Protestants and blacks—the very groups that are now the core constituencies of the Democrats. In 1964, more Republicans than Democrats in Congress voted for the Civil Rights Act. The young Hillary Rodham was a rock-ribbed Republican.

Johnson has failed to realize that the real continuity is found in constituencies, not parties. A comparison of Truman's and Nixon's electoral bases shows that they were almost exactly the same. The continuity is not just regional and ethnic; it is found in policy, too. Yankee Progressives—Democratic and Republican—were disproportionately opposed to U.S. intervention in World Wars I and II and to the Cold War. Southern conservatives ardently supported U.S. intervention in all three conflicts. As for the much-reviled New Deal, Reagan and his successors have been careful not to slash entitlement programs that benefit their white Southern and white ethnic constituents—only those identified with blacks (like Aid to Families with Dependent Children) or favored by elite Yankee mainline Protestants and Jews (like the National Endowment for the Arts). If Johnson wanted to denounce the precursors of today's Democrats, he should have assaulted the memories of Yankee Progressives like TR and Hoover.

When it comes to subjects other than partisan alignments, Johnson understands the importance of regionalism in American politics. “The shift of America's center of gravity, both demographic and economic, from the Northeast to the Southwest was one of the most important changes of modern times,” he observes. “The economic-demographic shift brought changes in political power and philosophy. Since the mid 1960s, all America's elected Presidents have come from the South and West: Johnson and Bush from Texas, Nixon and Reagan from California, Carter from Georgia, and Clinton from Arkansas. The only Northerner, Ford, was never elected.”

In debates over American art and culture, Johnson takes the sides of Westerners, Midwesterners, and Southerners against Northeasterners. He quotes Van Wyck Brooks in 1919 telling Waldo Frank to “never forget that it is we New Yorkers and New Englanders who have the monopoly of whatever oxygen there is in the American continent.” Johnson disagrees. To expatriates such as Henry James and T. S. Eliot he prefers artists and intellectuals who stayed at home to shape a new American culture. He writes admiring descriptions of jazz: “It was genuine melting-pot because the left-hand bass performed a steady 2/4 Western march time while the right-hand treble did the Afro-syncopation.” As if there were any doubts about Johnson's populist aesthetic, he follows the architect Robert Venturi in praising Las Vegas hotels as the quintessence of American culture: “Characteristically American, they followed in the tradition of the gargantuan, paddle-wheeled Mississippi gambling steamers, with their Babylonian luxuries and rococo decor, which outraged and fascinated Americans between the Age of Jackson and the Civil War.”

Johnson brings the story of America to a rather abrupt end with a pep talk: “It is appropriate to end this history of the American people on a note of success, because the story of America is essentially one of difficulties being overcome by intelligence and skill, by faith and strength of purpose, by courage and persistence.” Well, maybe or maybe not, but Johnson's reader can only be impressed by his ability to overcome the narrative historian's difficulties with intelligence, skill, faith, strength of purpose, courage, and—not least—persistence. Johnson's major competitor in this genre of popular history is himself, and despite some lapses and longueurs inevitable in such a book—he lives up to his reputation as a scholar and a writer.

Of the two roles, the latter is the more important. In the final analysis, the historian is like a dramatist or novelist retelling a familiar story in a fresh way. Macaulay portrays William of Orange as the savior of Britain and civilization; Hilaire Belloc portrays him as a morbid figure who set Britain and the West on the path to ruin. Only one of these historians can be right, but both can be great. A History of the American People proves that history can still be literature.

Jonathan Yardley (review date 15 March 1998)

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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 experience,” Johnson believes, is to be found in Revelation 21:5: “Behold, I make all things new.” This, with many variations, is the central element in Johnson's interpretation of this country and its people. He places strong emphasis on its religious origins—“It was a government of laws but it was also a government of morals”—and laments the decline, in the late 20th century, of “mainstream Protestantism.” Though he is scarcely the first to do so, he sees the United States as “a materialistic phenomenon unique in history, a Promised Land which actually existed,” and he celebrates it as a meritocracy in which it is believed “that all were entitled to the best if they worked hard enough, that aiming high was not only morally acceptable but admirable.”

In this as in much else, Johnson displays an impressive, as well as nuanced, understanding of the American character. He has read his Tocqueville and profited from it, but he always paints the picture in his own words. Early on, in Walter Raleigh, he finds “a proto-American … brash, hugely ambitious, money-conscious, none too scrupulous, far-sighted and ahead of his time, with a passion for the new and, not least, a streak of idealism which clashed violently with his overweening desire to get on and make a fortune.” Later, in the original settlers of Virginia, he locates one important strain in the American character—“the sturdy English empirical tradition of fair-mindedness and freedom … a useful, moderate and creative element, good for all seasons”—that he contrasts with another, found among those aboard the Mayflower: “the zealots, the utopians, the saints … immensely energetic, persistent and courageous … creative too but ideological and cerebral, prickly and unbending, fiercely unyielding on occasions to the point of self-destruction.” Then:

By the end of the Civil War, the United States and its people were beginning to take on the characteristics with which we are familiar at the end of the 20th century: huge and teeming, endlessly varied, multicolored and multiracial, immensely materialistic and overwhelmingly idealistic, ceaselessly innovative, thrusting, grabbing, buttonholing, noisy, questioning, anxious to do the right thing, to do good, to get rich, to make everybody happy.

As these extracts suggest, Johnson nails down the American character with subtlety and complexity. He has a similar grasp on other aspects of our history. The “immensity of the land” is impossible to overestimate. It made the place from the outset “a huge, experimental theater of liberty,” a land of “grandeur” and “mystery.” It was, and still is, a land in which people can roam, in which restlessness is pandemic in ways Europeans can barely begin to imagine. Not merely is the country vast, but “the basic economic fact about the New World was that land was plentiful; it was labor and skills that were in short supply.” Forced by necessity, long before it became a nation America was “a do-it-yourself society” that “had a powerful attraction for skilled men” who in time became an army of “enterprising polymaths.”

Johnson is exceptionally good on the founding of the country. He lays out in lucid terms the conflict, there from the outset, between “representative institutions, leading to democratic freedoms, and the use of slave labor, the ‘peculiar institution’ of the South”; the divide that was thus immediately established between North and South, with all of its ghastly implications; the establishment of religious freedom, especially in Maryland and Roger Williams's Rhode Island; the early understanding that education would be essential to a successful and egalitarian democracy and the formation of a school system to propagate it; the quite elaborate process by which John Locke's notions of meritocracy were modified and enhanced by Jeffersonian principles of liberty and individual rights.

At times Johnson cannot escape the temptations of hyperbole. “If one man can be said to have wedded the United States indissolubly to capitalism,” he writes, “it was [John] Marshall.” Or: “If success in any one field has made America the world's greatest nation, it is transport and communications.” He is also given—peculiar, this, when one considers that he is a touch minded Tory—to sentimentalism about “ordinary Americans” and “the nation they were continually making and remaking.” His depiction of American painting is limited almost entirely to the Hudson River School (as it happens I share his affection for this) and the magazine illustrations of Norman Rockwell, “windows into the nation in its normalcy, crises and exultation, comedy and tragedy, laughter and sadness.” In a statement that will send most students of American art into orbit, he goes so far as to claim that “it is now possible to predict [Rockwell's] emergence as an Old Master, like the Dutch genre painters …” He glorifies Ronald Reagan as “a Rockwell archetype,” and of the 1950s he writes:

The Eisenhower decade was the last of the century in which the traditional elements in American society held the cultural upper hand. Eisenhower's America was still recognizably derived from the republic of the Founding Fathers. There were still thousands of small towns in the United States where the world of Norman Rockwell was intact and unselfconsciously confident in itself and its values. Patriotism was esteemed. The flag was saluted. The melting pot was still at work, turning out unhyphenated Americans. Indeed the ‘American Way of Life’ was a term of praise, not abuse. Upward mobility was the aim. Business success was applauded and identified with the nation's interests.

It is here that A History of the American People loses its way. Up to this point in his narrative Johnson has always been measured in his appraisal of the issues with which the country wrestled and the people who did the wrestling—his treatment of Woodrow Wilson and Andrew Jackson, for whom one would expect him to have little except contempt, is remarkably fair—but with the departure of Eisenhower and the arrival of the 1960s, Johnson goes berserk. This is no exaggeration. Though he claims that Benjamin Bradlee, the executive editor of this newspaper during Watergate, was “hysterical” about the Nixon administration, in fact the hysteria is all Johnson's.

It is quite impossible to overstate the looniness of the last section of this book. It begins with the observation that “the Sixties were one of those meretricious decades where novelty was considered all-important, and youth peculiarly blessed,” and then veers off into a long rant. It is a rant against Kennedy and Bill Clinton, a rant in celebration of Reagan and Richard Nixon. Everything that the first two did is found to be phony and self-serving, everything the latter did is noble and public-spirited. “By all historical standards, Nixon should have been an American media hero.” He was “in the grand old tradition of self-help.” His life “was dominated by a passionate desire to serve in public office, sometimes masquerading as brutal ambition, and by his patriotism and love of country, which knew no bounds.”

Those are absolutely extraordinary statements. Even as one who shares many of Johnson's biases—for they are biases, not judgments—I find this characterization of Nixon utterly appalling. The “Southern strategy” by which Nixon helped propel the nation toward racial animosity in the service of his own political interests goes unmentioned. As one who came to The Washington Post nearly a decade after Watergate, I cannot speak with personal knowledge about its management of its news coverage then, but to dismiss Watergate as “a media putsch” by “a triumphalist press” is a willful misreading of the recent historical record. It carefully avoids detailed scrutiny of the charges against Nixon, and it subjects his opponents, whether fair-minded or self-interested, to ad hominem attack. This isn't history, it's pamphleteering.

So the best advice is to stop reading A History of the American People at page 841. Not merely is its final section ill-tempered and vituperative, but it utterly fails to confront some of the broad social and cultural developments that have taken place since 1960. Johnson's consideration of television is limited to attacks on the elite of its news departments; there is nothing here about how it has radically changed America, bringing the entire country into the fantasy world of entertainment. The automobile is treated, to the extent it is treated at all, as a manufacturing matter; there is nothing here about how it forever altered the American landscape and American society—indeed the Interstate highway system goes unmentioned. The civil rights movement is treated dismissively, with a carping disregard for its unintended side effects and little sympathy for the conditions out of which it arose; whether there is any connection between this and Johnson's surprisingly offhanded treatment of Reconstruction is not clear. Johnson does not know America half so well as he imagines. His affection for our country is touching, but it turns out that in writing about us be has bitten off more than he can chew. In the end, A History of the American People is deeply disappointing.

Chris Appy (review date 27 March 1998)

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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 was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities under Lynne Cheney. Cheney was appalled by the outcome, describing the guidelines in a Wall Street Journal review as a “grim and gloomy” portrayal written by left-wing ideologues with a “hatred of traditional history.” Rush Limbaugh called the standards “a bunch of p.c. crap.” And once again the Senate voted to condemn a history that was not sufficiently celebratory.

With the publication of Paul Johnson's A History of the American People, it's time for the right wing to declare victory and withdraw. For here is celebration galore and you won't have to defer your gratification. The title page epigraph sets the tone: “Be not afraid of greatness.” If that's not ingratiating enough, turn to the dedication: “To the people of America—strong, outspoken, intense in their convictions, sometimes wrong-headed but always generous and brave, with a passion for justice no nation has ever matched.” To spice things up along the way Johnson has included many gratuitous observations on that new mainstay of right-wing inquiry—the presidential sex life (Wilson was “highly sexed,” LBJ had a “voracious sexual appetite,” and Eisenhower may have been “impotent” during an adulterous affair).

Johnson is a prolific and erudite British journalist (Modern Times, A History of Christianity, Intellectuals) whose interest in American history began in earnest during the 1950s, and it may occur to the reader that most of this volume was conceived in that dawn of the American Century. Not only does Johnson blithely ignore much of the scholarship written since about 1968, he shares the '50s' penchant for national history written from the top, about the top. Here is a history of generals, diplomats, inventors, industrialists, and every single president. “Great events in history are determined by all kinds of factors, but the most important single one is always the quality of the people in charge.” How tidy. No need to muck around in the flotsam and jetsam of ordinary lives.

It would be less exasperating if Johnson offered a more penetrating analysis of the “quality” of those leaders. Despite some glancing jabs at Jefferson, the “humorless” “hypochondriac,” the nation was founded by the “Enlightenment made flesh” and it passed the torch to the real heroes of the story—the capitalist system and the men who provided it legal, technical, financial, and political maintenance, men like John Marshall, Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, and Calvin Coolidge. The villains are those who lack faith in the marketplace. Here's a quiz. In the nineteenth century what was “the one mortal sin America committed against the virtuous creed of laissez-faire?” Slavery? No. Government bankrolling of railroads? No. Answer: high tariffs! And had it not been for the “meddlesome activism” of both Herbert Hoover and FDR, the Great Depression would have been solved by a “natural recovery.”

Apparently the great contribution of women in American history has been provocative party chatter. Johnson gleefully treats us to a half dozen of Dorothy Parker's bons mots (for example, “If all the girls at a Yale prom were laid end-to-end, I wouldn't be at all surprised”). But there are still a few really serious women to deal with, so he offers three derisive pages on the suffragists under the heading “Women Stroll onto the Scene.” Then they stroll off for three hundred pages and reappear miraculously on the final two—“The Triumph of Women.”

Oh, perhaps I'm not being fair. We do get a few kind words about that great American Margaret Thatcher, and there's Harriet Beecher Stowe who writes “to make ends meet and give her children a few treats” (I guess that business about slavery was just a plot device). And don't forget Julia Morgan who designed William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon castle. Johnson regards this as a truly major contribution and I'm sure he's sincere given his special fondness for the country homes of the obscenely rich. Eventually they become museums—one of the many ways “the American plutocracy ultimately benefits the American democracy.” Why, then, did he have to spoil it all by calling Morgan “the epitome of fierce proto-lesbianism”? This is particularly objectionable because Johnson promised at the outset that he would not “acknowledge the existence of hyphenated Americans.” Red, yellow, black, and white, we're all precious in his sight (“I love them and salute them”). But there you have it, a whole new category of hyphenated Americans: proto-lesbians.

Professions of multiracial love aside, white folks do all the talking. In 1956 it was a small sign of racial progress that Kenneth Stampp ended his book on slavery by actually quoting a former slave. Now, more than forty years later, this history of the “American people” grants not a single sentence to one of the millions who experienced enslavement. Frederick Douglass does not even stroll onto the scene.

It is no surprise by now to learn that Johnson finds little to criticize in the white conquest of the continent. He documents some examples of white brutality against Indians (especially Andrew Jackson's), but believes Francis Parkman “shows the Indians as they were: improvident, unreliable, sometimes treacherous, vacillating, above all lazy.” There's no p.c. crap in this history; only ample doses of the real thing.

Nor do Johnson's sympathies enlarge as he moves to the twentieth century. Far from extolling the nonviolent convictions of the early civil rights movement, Johnson makes the ludicrous claim that sit-ins and freedom rides “almost inevitably involved the use or threat of force, or provoked it.” As for Malcolm X, he warrants just two words—“black racist.” And what about the poor who are always with us? Not to worry. They suffered for approximately one paragraph at the turn of the century and then moved to the burbs.

I'm not primarily troubled by Johnson's uncritical celebration of capitalism and authority. It is probably preferable to the mind-numbing neutrality of many textbooks. At least readers can identify a point of view. What's more disturbing is the fatuous claim that this is a history of “the American people” that honors a “passion for justice.” It is nothing of the sort and that is unfortunate because we still need books that have the power to inspire us toward more daring conceptions of our common past and possibilities.

Hadley Arkes (review date April 1998)

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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 frequent, urbane visitor; it is a sweeping history, which begins with the Portuguese and Spanish explorations of the New World, and culminates with the age of Clinton, White-water, affirmative action, and “political correctness.” It contains, then, not only broad brush strokes, but portraits of figures rendered quite precisely. Johnson also brings to this project the tastes of a man anchored in the world, among them a taste for facts, even more precise, on the structure of things: on the way buildings were built, on the number of railroads, on the manner in which people made their livings. But he would also encompass those motives that run beyond the prosaic ways of making a living and point to the ends of human life. There can be no accounting for America without an appreciation of these religious understandings that animated the early Americans, or of the principles of politics that framed the American “regime” and that impart to its national life another level of moral significance.

Johnson's history of America is offered by a British friend of this country who is seasoned in the ways of the world and of statesmen, a writer matured now in years, and in his sense of how to gauge persons and events. He was evidently moved to this project out of a sense that there was clearly wanting a basic historical account of America—knowledge which is apparently missing from the education of ordinary people, not only in Europe but in America as well. My own former student David Eisenhower has devoted himself to explaining the understandings that shaped the career of his grandfather in the military and in politics, and he remarked a while ago on some recent signs that World War II has now slipped into “history.” His wife, born Julie Nixon, was driving to a board meeting, and, after turning off the turnpike in Pennsylvania, she checked into a motel. The eighteen-year-old girl behind the counter seemed to have uncommon trouble spelling Julie's married name. But then recognition broke in from another angle: “It's the same name as that boulevard down there.”

Johnson seems moved, too, by the awareness of a lack that runs beyond a need for basic information. There is a sense in which the “history” of the country has been filtered in a tendentious way and hijacked by people in the academy. In their hands, history has been converted into a series of fables that fit the temper and the agenda of the Left. In our own day, students are more likely to learn that the American founding was corrupted: that the founders were hypocrites who postured over “natural rights” while they accommodated slavery and denied the vote to women. In this construction, the unfolding of American history leads, on its best plane, to the age of “multiculturalism” and to new, liberal entitlements based on race and gender.

Against this trend, Johnson leans decisively in the other direction: in the face of writers who doubt that there are stable truths or facts, he would fill in facts, he would tell the story accurately. But he would also tell it with a sensibility quite removed from the ethic of political correctness in our own time. And so the reader is persistently apt to encounter items quite unlikely to be found in the texts written these days by academics. For example, it is not commonly known that Franklin Roosevelt, when he was assistant secretary of the Navy, approved a project of entrapment, directed at homosexuals, for the purpose of breaking up a circle of homosexuals at the naval enclave in Newport, Rhode Island. When he was confronted, at an official inquiry, FDR lied. His performance was later exposed and condemned by a committee in the Senate as “immoral” and “an abuse of the authority of his high office.” Nor is it widely known that FDR had directed the Internal Revenue Service in a campaign to persecute Andrew Mellon, and FDR later intervened, in 1944, to protect his devoted protégé, Congressman Lyndon Johnson, from being prosecuted for tax fraud.

There was apparently ample evidence for Lyndon Johnson's involvement in the capers that sent his aide Bobby Baker to jail for seventeen months. LBJ was protected from investigation by a phalanx of senators that included Sam Ervin and Daniel Inouye; and, of course, Ervin would gain lasting fame for striking high moral stances and driving Richard Nixon out of office.

In fact, according to Johnson, Nixon should have been seen as a “hero” in American politics, and Kennedy as the “anti-hero.” Nixon had sprung from a poor family, with no advantages; he had attended a second-rate college, and made his way in politics through his own discipline and effort. Kennedy had become the affable beneficiary of his father's fraud from an early date, beginning with the hiring of ghost writers to write his senior thesis at Harvard. The full stories of his misadventures, with the landing at the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis, are yet to be written, and they become more and more discreditable with each unfolding. Paul Johnson does not bother to shade things with the moral equivocation of the academics, and so he draws out quite sharply the estimate of Kennedy as amoral, feckless, stunningly unserious.

The same angle on the world leads him to judgments quite as discordant with the reigning orthodoxies as they bear on some of the men ranked as chief villains in the nineteenth century. Johnson is disposed, on the whole, to take a rather benign view of those buccaneers in business who have been stamped as “robber barons.” Men such as Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and Harriman left school in their teens and made their ascent not by energy alone but through sound judgment and no small measure of genius. Carnegie had the wit to see that the promise of capitalism was to make luxuries into necessities. He grasped the notion of measuring unit costs of production for the sake of lowering them, and in lowering them he managed to reduce the cost of items that could be dispersed to a wider public, thereby vastly raising the standard of living. By producing steel more cheaply, he could make it profitable to put up the new skyscrapers, or to lower the expense of shipping by rail, which, in turn, lowered the price of everything shipped by rail. Harriman would never be held back in his maneuvers by any notions of propriety that were overly strenuous. Still, there is no gainsaying the level of his achievement in putting together the Union Pacific railroad. These men enriched themselves in the style of capitalism by producing, in their exertions, the most palpable material benefits for the country.

In Johnson's reckoning, these men contributed far more to the welfare of the nation than most of the men who occupied the presidency in the balance of the nineteenth century after Lincoln. Many businessmen, such as J. P. Morgan and Andrew Mellon, extended their gifts to the country by establishing new museums of art based on their own collections. That is to say, they gave the public the added benefit of collections assembled with a more exacting taste—far better than the collections that were likely to have been arranged by any equivalent, at the time, of the National Endowment for the Arts.

It is in the commentary on our own age that Johnson's account acquires its distinct edge, for it is sharpened there by his own acquaintance with the leading political men in America and Britain. A reader may encounter some unfamiliar and arresting lines struck off by Harold Macmillan or Richard Nixon, for example, and find in the notes that they were conveyed in letters addressed to Johnson himself. Hence, Nixon on Eisenhower: he was “the most devious man I ever came across in politics. … he always applied two, three or four lines of reasoning to a single problem, and he usually preferred the indirect approach.” Or far better, Harold Macmillan, asked for his impressions of Washington under the Kennedys: “Oh, it's rather like watching the Borgia brothers take over a respectable North Italian city.”

This proximity to political men seems to have given Johnson a certain sobriety in forming his own estimates. Even his friends are subject to a certain discounting; he is not taken in by the hyperbole that grips the admirers who have viewed these political men from afar. That no doubt accounts for his slight deflating of Ronald Reagan. Of course, he credits Reagan with a certain common sense; a state of being anchored, or “centered,” in the world; and with seeing things as they are. But Johnson has a vivid sense of Reagan's gaffes, his occasional misspeaking, and he is inclined to regard Reagan as “sometimes confused in his thinking.”

The defining merit, or virtue, of Reagan he finds in “a consistent and coherent style, that of light comedy.” With that touch of art, he could harmonize all of his functions, high and low, in a lilting way. But the executive, seen by others, the man with a photographic recall of memos, did not seem to come within Johnson's sight. Nor did he witness, in action, the chief who could deftly fend off attempts to deflect him from his agenda, or the man who would impart to his aides a certain backbone. Perhaps, in seeing Reagan up close, Johnson did not see the presence of a “design” in his actions that became evident to others after a while.

But Johnson does know that there are different levels of intelligence. Hillary Clinton mastered the intricate set of rules that described that work of rare genius, the health plan she devised with the help of Ira Magaziner. Ronald Reagan would have listened for a minute and a half and recognized that the plan made no contact with the world that the rest of us inhabited. That is a different kind of intelligence or worldliness, and with that sense of things he could grasp some primary truths of this kind: in the scheme of arms control, the advantage would lie with a totalitarian regime, which could keep a closer rein on information and suffer few inhibitions about the breaking of laws. But with a high-tech arms race for “strategic defense,” with lasers countering missiles, the advantage would lie with a country that fostered inventiveness and quick technical breakthroughs. Reagan came down decisively for the Strategic Defense Initiative (though he never moved seriously to build the system), and, as Johnson recognizes, it was SDI that finally cracked the Soviet system. In a desperate attempt to cope, the Soviet leaders sought to reform their economy, and “in the process they lost control of the system as a whole, saw the Evil Empire disintegrate.” Vladimir Lukhim, who later became the Russian ambassador to the United States, admitted in 1992 “that SDI accelerated our catastrophe by at least five years.”

None of this came as a surprise to Reagan, any more than the discovery that he could put the Russians under considerable strain through the simple expedient of supplying shoulder-held missiles to the resistance in Afghanistan. As Johnson recognizes, Reagan managed to undermine the self-confidence of those men who ruled the Soviet Union. He did it in part by raising the costs for them, but even more thoroughly by conveying his contempt, his deep lack of respect, for the moral character of their regime and what he called their “Mickey Mouse economy.” The same discrete moves managed also to restore the confidence of the American people, for it became clear, even to the dimmest characters in the academy, that the United States still had ample levers for making things happen in the world. That simple demonstration exposed the emptiness of those high-flown theories—much favored by the Carter administration—on why the United States could not expect to control the currents at work in the rest of the world. Johnson is nowhere more cutting than in his estimate of that crowd and its furnishings of mind:

Cyrus Vance [the secretary of state] thought that to “oppose Soviet or Cuban involvement in Africa would be futile.” “The fact is,” he added, “that we can no more stop change than Canute could still the waters.” … Feeling impotent, the Carter administration took refuge in cloudy metaphor, for which [Zbigniew] Brzezinski had a talent. … “There are many different axes of conflict in the world,” he noted, “[and] the more they intersect, the more dangerous they become.” West Asia was “the are of crisis.” But “the need is not for acrobatics but for architecture.”

Dressed in academic language, this sounds like a knock-off of the late Al Kelly, announcing gravely that “the forsyt is connected to the franadort.” But in Johnson's estimate, this is also what George Bush tended to sound like when he left the tethers of a text and sought to expound his thoughts in free form. An endnote records that “the author first drew Bush's attention to this weakness in 1984, when he promised to remedy it by sticking to prepared texts, but did not do so.”

Johnson rarely slips into such self-inflating, but, in this relative diminishing of Bush, it might have thrown off Johnson's judgment a shade, as in the case of Reagan. Johnson faults Bush with a lack of thoroughness and follow-through as shown notably, he thinks, in Panama and in the Gulf War. Apparently lost here are the thoroughness of Bush's diplomacy as he steered through the unification of Germany, and the deftness with which he put together the coalition that fought the war in the Gulf. The evident inability of his successor to reassemble that coalition may demonstrate again that this achievement was the product of art rather than nature. Part of Bush's art was in its own concealment, but it is curious that Johnson, quite attentive to the ways of statesmen, should have missed it, fastening instead on Bush's fumbling with texts. Still, I am inclined to think that Johnson largely has it right: Bush was elected because he promised a continuation of the Reagan administration, and the attachment of the people withered as it became clear—and as Bush himself oddly wished to make it clear—that he was not Ronald Reagan.

Johnson has the merits that Plato identified with the man of “right opinion”: he may not always be able to give an account of the deep principles, or the governing reasons, but he has the right sense of things, and he is able to find his way when the landmarks are down. With the statesmen of his acquaintance, however, he courts the slight mistakes that arise from knowing his subjects too closely. And with the statesmen more distant in time, and especially with the generation of the founders, he runs the risk of not lingering long enough on the understandings that shaped their minds and supplied the grounds for their judgments. He knows men like John Marshall and Alexander Hamilton mainly through the popular biographies. But those biographies were written for the most part by writers who no longer took seriously the principles of natural right that genuinely influenced Hamilton and Marshall. To give an account of those men, detached from those principles of understanding, is to put the accent on their tempers and characters and on the immediate objects of their policies. But it is to miss the way in which these men understood themselves, the jurisprudence they established, and the regime they built.

Johnson knows John Marshall as a “nationalist” who favored the expansion of a capitalist economy. But even as a dedicated amateur he may not know Marshall through his writings, through those carefully crafted opinions that provide the legacy of his teaching on the Supreme Court. In one notable case, Fletcher v. Peck (1810), Marshall and his colleagues struck down a move by the legislature of Georgia to revoke a grant of lands. The court could have settled the matter simply by invoking the Contracts Clause of the Constitution and found that the legislature had “impair[ed] the Obligations of Contract.” Instead, Marshall did something far more elegant: he showed that the Contracts Clause could be drawn deductively from a deeper principle of jurisprudence, the principle that barred “ex post facto laws” (laws that imposed or deepened penalties “after the fact”).

That principle was understood as necessary to any regime of law. And so Marshall could draw his conclusion in this way: Georgia was “part of a large empire; she is a member of the American union,” but the act of the legislature was so deeply wrong that it would still be wrong even “were Georgia a single sovereign power”—even, that is, if Georgia were outside the Constitution, and outside the coverage of the Contracts Clause. With this remarkable move, Marshall managed to teach a powerful lesson: the provisions of the Constitution, or the basic law, have the claim to stand as basic law because they are grounded in propositions that do not depend for their validity on their mention in the Constitution.

To be drawn back in that way to the principles of law was to be drawn back to the principles of natural right, which stood, as truths, even before the Constitution. Johnson recognizes the language of natural rights, and he attaches a real significance to the claims of “natural justice.” But he tends also to put it aside, as though it were not really central to the story he was telling. Yet Lincoln forced the famous debates with Stephen Douglas, and brought us to the crisis of the “house divided,” where the center of the argument was precisely the meaning of the Declaration of Independence and the logic of “natural rights.” For Lincoln, the Republic did not begin with the Constitution, but with the articulation of that “proposition,” as he called it, which was the “father of all principles” among us: that “all men are created equal.” In denying the truth of that proposition, Douglas had to fall into the grooves of what we could call today cultural relativism. He had to insist that there were no truths grounded in the “nature” of human beings, truths that became the source then of distinctly “human” rights in all places where human nature remained the same.

But Johnson treats the Declaration more for its stylistic qualities than for its substance. He does not, then, prepare the ground for Lincoln's argument with Douglas, and, continuing in this way, he passes by the core of Lincoln's statesmanship. He also misses the depth and range of Lincoln's genius in expounding the principles of the American regime. It is curious and revealing, in this respect, that in his copious reading on Lincoln, he seems not to have encountered Harry Jaffa's Crisis of the House Divided (1973). That work must be counted as the best book on Lincoln because it treats Lincoln at the highest level of his being and his work, in his moral and political teaching. As Jaffa shows, Lincoln, untutored, managed on his own to retrace the paths of argument taken by Aristotle and Aquinas. Jaffa's book on Lincoln is a rare work, which combines a historical account with the exposition of a philosophic teaching. Jaffa's paramount concern is with that philosophic understanding, and a book so ordered can be seen as a work in political philosophy. A book directed to a wider audience, such as Johnson's, forces the writer to adopt the discipline of the political man addressing the multitude, which will not be composed mainly of philosophers. As Lincoln understood, the task of the political man at that moment is to impart “the central idea.” And that is what Johnson has handsomely done in this book; he is the man of “right opinion” telling the story.

The “central idea” of America pervades Johnson's pages. He makes it evident to his readers that he sees that idea as the driving force behind, for example, the Homestead Acts in the 1860s: the government sold land in vast amounts, on the principles of a free market, to preserve a free market in land, and that arrangement helped to produce in record time a vast settlement of owners. “Never in human history, before or since,” writes Johnson, “has authority gone to such lengths to help the common people to become landowners.”

Even the advent of modern marketing and mass production is touched, for him, with this spirit. The Sears catalogue managed to push down prices on things like sewing machines; it became a force then in making luxuries affordable and improving the standard of living for a broad public. The same animating principle is seen, by Johnson, in the accomplishment of Henry Ford: 5,986 Ford automobiles sold in 1908 at a price of $850; 577,036 cars sold in 1916 at $360. Years later, in the Second World War, the Battle of Midway was won, in part, because the carrier Yorktown was restored to the American fleet. But it was restored only because a regimen of repairs, estimated to take three months, was carried out in forty-eight hours by twelve hundred technicians working continuously. Johnson, with his knowledge of the world, recognizes that this was the kind of exercise likely to be produced, at the time, only in America. There was a clear connection between that extraordinary effort and the prodigies of production that would be orchestrated in wartime by Henry J. Kaiser. These feats cannot be detached from the “ethic” of America, or from the kinds of institutions that permitted such inventiveness and energy to flourish.

Johnson does not exactly hit his readers over the head with the point, but he does manage to convey the sense that the motivating force here, through these episodes, bore a distinct “moral” character. And as he nears the end of his account, he puts the accent on the most recent trends that mark the “demoralizing” of America: the rise of violent crime, the decline of academic standards, the turning away from marriage as the framework for the commitment of partners and the begetting of children. By 1991, as he notes, 68 percent of all births for blacks were illegitimate.

But with an uncommon turn, Johnson extends his concern here to take in the expanding powers of the courts. As the judges have come to rule the country on matters of moral consequence, they have gravely diminished that part of our public life in which citizens deliberate with one another on the terms of principle by which we are governed. On the matters of abortion, pornography, and homosexuality, the judges have managed to impose laws quite at odds with the moral sentiments of the American people. In the case of abortion, the judges have produced a culture of abortion that has resulted in the taking of more than thirty-five million lives since the decision in Roe v. Wade. The “success” of the judges may be measured in these melancholy findings: that about 60 percent of the public is opposed to about 90 percent of the abortions now permitted under the laws, but they are not inclined to object or to disturb the law created by the judges. For they have apparently absorbed the notion that matters of moral consequence should no longer come within the reach of the law or of politicians.

Johnson has no trace of doubt that America finds itself in a moral crisis, and that this kind of crisis has been overcome in the past mainly through a resurgence of religion. He finds it, then, a perverse turn in our current politics that the courts have been moving strongly in the other direction and purging religion from our public life. In Europe, the intellectuals have long seen religion as a barrier to progress or liberation. And yet, Tocqueville recorded that among the Americans religion was “indispensable to the maintenance of free institutions.” Intellectuals in America now pride themselves on taking a view of this matter more in keeping with cosmopolitans abroad. And in falling into that groove of fashion, they seem blissfully unaware of losing the understanding described by Tocqueville. This witlessness of the courts and of the intellectuals has been marked in the public discourse by shifts in our language. As Johnson observes:

The usual, normal, habitual, and customary moral beliefs of Christians and Jews were first verbally isolated as “traditionalist,” then as “orthodox,” next as “ultra-orthodox,” and finally as fundamentalist (with “obscurantist” added for full measure) though they remained the same beliefs all the time. It was not the beliefs which had altered but the way in which they were regarded by non-believers or anti-believers, not so much by those who did not share them as by those who objected to them.

Still, Johnson strikes, at the end, a note of hopefulness, for it is only decorous to hold out at least the possibility of a happy ending. He is convinced that the “American republican experiment” remains “the first, best hope for the human race,” and “the auguries are that it will not disappoint an expectant humanity.” But his upbeat finish is belied by the account he has sketched in so precisely. For what he has described is a people utterly persuaded that they are the bearers of vast, new bodies of “rights,” but they are not quite capable any longer of giving an account of the moral premises on which those rights are founded. People speak commonly of the “sanctity” of human life, but they can no longer explain why any of us has a “nature” with an intrinsic moral significance—or even a touch of the sacred—that anyone else should be obliged to respect.

And yet, that sense of “sanctity” and “rights” will not be dislodged from our vocabulary because it is rooted, as it used to be said, in “the constitution of our natures.” It is simply in the nature of human beings to speak of right and wrong, and to experience outrage. Kant had it right when he suggested that we carry a metaphysic within ourselves, as did Plato when he suggested that it was a matter mainly of unlocking what is already within us. The central idea of America will not be dissolved, then, even in this age of postmodernism. But whether we continue on the path of vulgarity and moral coarseness will depend on whether we can summon the wit to unlock what is within us, and whether we can remember then, as a people, the things we used to know.

John O'Sullivan (review date April 1998)

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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: “It's not the writing; I can just about see how he manages the writing. But how does he manage the reading?”

His latest book [A History of the American People] is not his bravest—that, surely, must have been his History of the Jews, which risked the scorn of ten thousand Talmudic scholars. But it is a courageous enterprise nonetheless because it presents the story of the American people as overall one of achievement and inspiration. Not that it ignores such warts on America's face as slavery or the destruction of the Indians; quite the contrary, Johnson devotes a great deal of space and historical sympathy to both. But his whole approach challenges the present consensus of academic historians that history (pace Gibbon) is a register of the crimes and follies of dead white males and of the misfortunes of women, gays, and people of color. He depicts the history of America as the advance of a great civilization—like the rise of Islam or the spread of the British Empire—which showers benefits and curses on the peoples in its path and allows its own citizens to participate in great achievements but also in great crimes. He sees the Big Picture, but from both sides.

That being so, the question a historian must ask—and answer—is that posed by Little Peterkin in Southey's After Blenheim: “But what good came of it at last?” Johnson has been attacked by some reviewers for answering this question with a naïve, uncritical, conservative (or, Heaven help us, even “Thatcherite”) boosterism of America. What his critics really dislike is that the answer he gives is both positive and sophisticated. He sees America itself—and most of the great Americans he depicts in a series of sharp, witty, pen-portraits in the style of Macaulay—as an endless and productive counterpoint between idealism and self-interest. Both are essential to America's success; idealism usually wins out, but not without epic struggles from which it benefits; but when one triumphs entirely, it usually leads to trouble.

This fruitful tension between puritan idealism and swashbuckling self-interest—which Johnson identifies respectively with Governor John Winthrop and Sir Walter Raleigh (“a proto-American”)—existed from the very birth of the American nation, which he dates not from 1776 but from the Roanoke landing in 1584, or at least from shortly thereafter when the Virginia and Massachusetts colonies had established themselves and begun to develop their own distinctive cultural and political institutions.

As Michael Lind has argued in National Review, this has significance for America's current national debate over its national identity. By starting his historical narrative in 1584, Johnson implicitly accepts that an American people existed prior to the United States. He therefore sides with American nationalists both against multiculturalists (who would replace his national story with multiple histories of the American peoples) and against those philosophes who see American identity as an allegiance to the liberal political ideas outlined in the Declaration of Independence and embodied in the U.S. Constitution. Johnson himself occasionally spouts cloudy rhetoric of this “creedal nation” variety. But the whole drift of his narrative tells a different story: namely, that the Americans who seized their independence in 1776 were English colonists and their descendants who had been remolded by the experience of opening up a vast—and, for practical purposes, limitless—continent. The freedom they prized was an English political idea that had flowered to its full potential in the geographical and economic space of the New World. America's bigness, as Johnson repeatedly underscores, was itself a political and philosophical fact of the first importance. It meant that land was cheap, labor expensive, and government distant, and that for all these reasons a man might earn a family farm by hard work in a few years, enjoying a practical independence that made Locke's philosophy seem simple common sense. Seventeen seventy-six won the American people full political independence as a nation. But it was a coming-of-age rather than a birth. The principles in the Declaration of Independence were the distillation of the free way of life that Americans had already created for themselves in the previous 200 years. That way of life subsequently assimilated millions of southern European Catholics and Eastern European Jews to its essentially Anglo-Saxon Protestant outlook (and was, of course, enriched by them in its turn). But Americans became a distinctive people quite early in the colonial period (as, incidentally, did Australians 200 years later). And any pantheon of American heroes must make room for Raleigh and Winthrop alongside Washington and Lincoln—something Ronald Reagan recognized through his frequent invocation of Winthrop's ambition to build a “shining city on a hill.”

In writing the history of a people, however, Johnson is tackling a far larger subject than merely the record of a political system. He is promising to cover the full range of the national experience—economic, cultural, social, technical, scientific, philosophical, and religious as well as the merely political—from 1584 to the present. This is a daunting task by any standards. Yet it is one for which Johnson's method of writing history, developed in A History of Christianity and The Birth of the Modern, is ideally suited. That method is to break the overall epoch he is covering into large chronological blocks which coincide with (and are shaped by) some great historical development—a war, a technical innovation like printing—and within each of these periods to show how different aspects of life were altered by it.

Thus A History of the American People is broken into eight successive chapters: Colonial America, 1580–1750; Revolutionary America, 1750–1815; Democratic America, 1815–1850; Civil War America, 1850–1870; Industrial America, 1870–1912; Melting Pot America, 1912–1929; Superpower America, 1929–1960; and Problem-Solving, Problem-Creating America, 1960–1997. There is plainly some arbitrariness in these divisions—surely superpower America begins with Pearl Harbor rather than with the Wall Street crash? But the logic underlying them is plausible and helps us make sense of a vast mass of otherwise confusing historical data. They also suggest a cyclical interpretation of American history in which periods marked by idealism (Revolutionary America, Civil War America) tend to be followed by periods of self-interest (Democratic America saw the seizure of California under President Polk, Industrial America produced the Gilded Age—of which more below).

It is within each categorical epoch, however, that Johnson's method really shows its breadth and flexibility. Take, for instance, Industrial America 1870–1912. This begins with a disquisition on America's size and how it was seen by American and European artists after the Civil War (Walt Whitman: “Stand up, tall masts of Manhattan! Stand up, beautiful hills of Brooklyn!”); it then segues into America's early town planning which, taking advantage of that size, laid down rules for wide streets and pavements in new spacious cities like Omaha and Topeka; this leads naturally into the rise in America's population fueled by mass immigration (“between 1886 and 1915 … the United States gave a home to 25 million people”); who, of course, needed feeding by America's farmlands, still expanding in this period, benefiting from new technology like barbed wire (“shipped into Texas by the trainload, it enabled the west of the state to be developed rapidly”), and home to a vast new industry of cattle-ranching and the “golden age of the cowboy [which] lasted barely a quarter of a century”; for the railroads were already transforming America into the world's first industrial superstate—and not by policies of laissez-faire (“it is calculated that total direct aid of government to railroads in the years 1861–90 was over $350 million”); understandably, the prospect of this loot attracted some dubious characters like crooked speculator Jim (“nothing has been lost save honor”) Fisk but also some genuine pioneering entrepreneurs like Commodore Vanderbilt, who is the beneficiary of one of Johnson's pen portraits (“He was not elegant. He always took twelve lumps of sugar in his tea. Though not an alcoholic, he liked a tumbler of gin to drink. Parson Weems, mythologist of Washington, said he met him in the street in tears, saying ‘I've been swearing again, and I'm sorry.’ It was his new young wife, more elegant than he was, who did not like the swearing”); and that in turns makes an obvious connection to such topics as corrupt speculation by Grant's administration in the gold market, a (largely favorable) assessment of the “robber barons,” and an appreciation of their patronage of the arts, in particular of painting and architecture, made all the more impressive by the love and knowledge Johnson (who himself is a painter) shows of the artists they encouraged—all this in less than thirty pages, with another sixty pages to go to the end of the chapter. This is comprehensive history—great men and ordinary people, statistical trends and bloody battles, stolen elections and new domestic appliances, kind hearts and coronets—but it has a thoroughly unstatistical zip and zest. Reading it is rather like getting through forty years worth of American daily newspapers, both the yellow and the gray, in an afternoon. Not for nothing did Johnson begin his career as a journalist.

In the course of such lively narratives, Johnson delivers a constant stream of historical judgments with superb intellectual self-confidence. This has irritated those of his reviewers who, when not timid by nature, are timid on principle, and like Berlin's fox would prefer a thousand qualified conclusions to a single firm declaration. But there are no good grounds for this irritation. Johnson may be a millionaire in opinions—he is perhaps the most opinionated man in London—but he has earned them honestly by mastering the data.

Besides which, many of those judgments are conventional. He thinks highly of the Founding Fathers and Lincoln; believes John C. Calhoun was brilliantly on the wrong side and helped to ruin it with his brilliance; regards Henry Clay as the ablest American never to become president and likes him for his wit, generosity and ugliness overcome (“Kissing is like the presidency, it is not to be sought and not to be declined”); admires the pugnacious Andrew Jackson but thinks his financial policy a crass failure and his treatment of the Indians cruel and genocidal, and so on, and so on. When it comes to America's greatest historical dilemmas, he argues that the treatment of the Indians was often abominably cruel but almost certainly an inevitable result of Manifest Destiny (itself inevitable); that slavery (though embedded in American life) was doomed to be destroyed by a kind of constitutional manifest destiny; and that the opening-up of America was the result neither of government, nor of laissez-faire, but of both in different combinations at different times. This is a book that achieves much of its originality not by discovering new truths, but by reviving and brilliantly reworking forgotten ones.

Some of his unconventional judgments, moreover, compel if not agreement, then at least serious consideration. He is surely right to regard President Polk as underrated, given his success in consolidating the taking of Texas from Mexico and contriving by war and cunning the conquest of California. He persuades me that the Gilded Age was perhaps more important than the opening up of the West because it secured the Western lands by linking them to the new industrial heartland by a vast network of railroads. And today's art markets endorse his belief that the art of the Gilded Age, denounced shortly afterwards as vulgar and immoral ostentation (Teddy Roosevelt contemptuously ordered a Tiffany glass screen in the White House to be broken up), is both technically and artistically brilliant.

Even those of his judgments that are undeniably controversial—his high view of Nixon, his low one of FDR—are the stuff of contemporary politics almost as much as of history. Ask most liberal historians about Reagan and all you will get is an articulated spluttering. Johnson is able to make a much better case for his politico-historical preferences, not least because he is better read in recent economic history than are most political historians. (Is that Norman Podhoretz we hear sighing?)

But it is Industrial America and the years 1870 to 1912 that are the fulcrum of Johnson's history. They saw the transformation of America from a still-small agricultural republic into the industrial and economic superpower of modern times. Yet, as he points out dryly, the period was one of mediocrity in politics. Presidents between Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt were mainly nonentities. The dynamic leaders were to be found in the economy—industrialists like Andrew Carnegie, inventors like Thomas Edison, financiers like J. P. Morgan, and towards the end of the period, muck-raking journalists like Lincoln Steffens. Here was an age in which swashbuckling self-interest clearly dominated, and religious idealism took a back-seat—to the great material benefit of the American people who saw technological innovation and improved business efficiency dramatically lower the price of their everyday comforts and necessities. As the period came to an end, however, the pendulum swung back; the muckrakers roused public opinion against trusts, monopolies and even, laments Johnson, the very (American) notion of Bigness itself; and the Progressives emerged to deliver honesty, efficiency, and regulation. In short, idealism struck back. Indeed, with the arrival of Teddy Roosevelt and the Spanish-American war, idealistic America emerged from behind its moats to put the whole world to rights.

Johnson's last three chapters leave no doubt that this exercise has been overwhelmingly successful. Without the United States as the policeman of last resort, most of the world would be in much worse straits than it is in reality. Europe in particular would be governed either by genocidal Nazis, or by genocidal Communists, or perhaps by both in bipartisan cooperation. Self-interest has played its part in these rescues, of course; America now dominates the world economy and international institutions. But America's idealistic impulses are plainly the main explanation of our present peace and prosperity, and Johnson pays full tribute to recent presidents, notably Nixon and Reagan, for winning the Cold War, often with little help from lukewarm allies.

Still, the nearer he approaches the present day, the more Johnson sees American idealism as having become perverted and harmful in domestic matters. It has, for a start, become anti-religious in effect, seeking to drive religion from schools and indeed the public square in general. This perverted idealism—sometimes in alliance with commercial self-interest—has removed legal barriers to crime, encouraged divorce, illegitimacy and sexual vices of every kind, winked at corruption by Democratic presidents, weakened the morale of mainstream churches, justified judicial usurpation of legitimate congressional authority, fostered multiculturalism and the “disuniting of America,” and damaged the social fabric in a dozen other ways. These accusations strike me as gloomy but reasonable. Still, it is a fair criticism that they are better classified as current events than as history since they lack one important quality that history possesses: we do not know how they turn out in the end.

Besides which, Johnson effectively dismisses his own fears for the Republic by ending on a high note of enthusiasm that America “is still the first, best hope for the human race” and that “Americans will attack again and again the ills in their society until they are overcome or at least substantially redressed.” With which History's curtain falls—for the moment.

If Johnson can end on an optimistic note, it is because he believes that the American people are better than their corrupted elites, and that in good time they will restore the right blend of idealism and self-interest to the nation's affairs. That reflects his knowledge of America's recuperative powers, but also his own temperament. In Paul Johnson America has a biographer extraordinarily like itself—monstrously energetic, greatly imaginative, large-minded and generous-hearted, occasionally grotesquely unfair, but almost always pointing in the right direction.

John Ray (review date 26 November 1999)

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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 political correctness here, though equally there is a refusal to fudge or patronize. As it happens, the Ancient Egyptians were perfectly capable of thinking in the abstract; they were simply in the process of concluding that, not only was it impossible to divide the average length of a lunar month into the precise solar year, but it was irrelevant as well. The result was a notional month of thirty days, making a twelve-month cycle of 360 days with an added five at the end which belonged to no month, but were for celebration. The result (a feat of considerable abstraction, one would have thought) is the only rational calendar ever devised, at least in the Old World. Paul Johnson makes this point eventually, which goes to show that you do not have to be balanced or circumspect to get things right. Things like this are never boring; The Civilization of Ancient Egypt is Egyptology with a difference.

Since much of this book has an iconoclastic tone, it is a pity that some old chestnuts are allowed to get through which would have made an excellent blaze on the bonfire of Johnsonian irreverence. Thus we are told yet again that the right to inherit the Pharaonic throne was handed down in some way through the female line. This is shown to be untrue simply by one of the best-known cases: the accession of Akhenaten to the throne of his father, Amenophis III. Akhenaten, even in his early and relatively orthodox phase, must have been viewed by the intelligentsia as a source of heresy, and in all probability serious trouble. They also knew that his mother, admittedly not a lady to be trifled with, was a provincial, and not of royal birth. Yet nobody challenged Akhenaten's right to succeed his father to the throne. He was the divine son, Horus, to his deceased predecessor, Osiris, and that was all that was needed. The author could have reserved one of his choicest put-downs for this pseudo-feminist idea.

Paul Johnson, true to his day job in journalism, cannot resist anecdotes culled from as far away as possible, such as Lord Curzon's advice to his new wife on how English ladies should approach marital relations, immobility in such a case being de rigueur. The author gets away with this by relating it to the stuffy protocol which features in Diodorus’ account of Egyptian kingship. Some of these parallels are illuminating, and almost all are entertaining. He breezes along, even in sections where most writers would be prepared to make room for tedium. There are some small errors of the type which all authors make, but an editor should have picked up. Queen Hatshepsut's temple, for example, is at Deir el Bahri, not at Medinet Habu, and the historian Hexataeus ought to be Hecataeus.

But these are not of much significance, and they are put into the shade by the greatest virtue of the book. The Civilization of Ancient Egypt is one of the best illustrated volumes this reviewer has encountered, even in a field where fancy artwork abounds. It is likely that those looking for camels, sunsets behind the Great Pyramid, or Howard Carter poking a hole through Tutankhamun's sealed doorway will be disappointed, but instead they can turn to the haunting photograph of the light playing over the sacred lake at Dendera, or the wind blowing in the trees and the cattle grazing from the reliefs of Hatshepsut's expedition to the land of incense. There are decorated papyri which are rarely seen outside specialist literature, and even the familiar objects, such as the Book of the Dead of Ani or the geese from the tomb of Nebamun, somehow manage to look different. Alongside the treasures of Tutankhamun are those from the royal tombs at Tanis, which deserve to be better known outside francophone circles.

Visually, this book is a delight. Parts of the text may enrage professionals, but this is one of the things that professionals are for, and few of them have the courage to range the whole field in the way that Paul Johnson does. What we have here is a highly personal guide to an ancient civilization by a gruff but absorbed headmaster, and his Head of Art has excelled himself.

Carole Haber (review date December 2000)

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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 the threshold to great age at sixty or seventy. Second, many of the writers argue that attitudes about old age have always been ambivalent. There never was a golden age for the elderly, during which they were treated with unquestioned respect. Literary portrayals of the old often rested on the conventions of the genre; physical depictions of the aged body served metaphoric purposes. Finally, several of these essays illustrate that assumptions about the increasing isolation of the old cannot be supported. Throughout time, the family has remained a key factor in the lives of the old, providing support and an exchange of resources.

According to the introduction by Johnson, the articles in the book are organized around three key issues: economic well-being, participation, and status. Obviously, these are important issues that have shaped much of the work done in the history of old age since the late 1970s. Yet readers searching in this volume for articles that show the links among these themes will be rather disappointed. The best of the articles, such as David Thomson's “Old Age in the New World” or Christoph Conrad's “Old Age and the Health Care System in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” demonstrate well the relationship among the key themes and the impact they had on attitudes toward the old, and their role in modern society. For Thomson, the demographic, economic and intellectual realities of frontier New Zealand society clearly affected welfare attitudes about the old as well as the elderly's participation in society. For Conrad, institutional and medical beliefs about the old and the care of disease changed their involvement in the medical system and their treatment by physicians. Other articles in the book direct themselves more to a single theme: Tim G. Parkin (in “Ageing in Antiquity”) and Shulamith Shahar consider the issue of status; Richard Smith, in “Ageing and Well-Being in Early Modern England,” looks more closely at impoverishment, and Johnson, in “Parallel Histories of Retirement,” and Thane in “The Families Lives of the Old,” focus on labor and family participation respectively.

A second and somewhat less well-acknowledged debate also shapes many of the articles in this volume. When historians first wrote on the history of aging, they generally looked at issues of status and perception; cultural narratives dominated the field. Many then turned their interest to the social realities of aging. They explored such issues as labor force participation rates, family structure, and economic well-being. According to Johnson, the two approaches often led to “a tension between relativistic and positivistic approaches to the history of old age, but there is no obvious reason to privilege one approach over the other. The experience of old age in the past was not just the result of ‘social construction’ of categories by regulatory agencies, nor was it simply a ‘natural’ response to physiological aging” (p. 1). Yet, despite Johnson's admonition, articles in the book still weigh the relative merits of these approaches and favor one over the other. The tension that he claims need not exist continues to shape the dialogue. In “Balancing Social and Cultural Approaches to the History of Old Age and Ageing in Europe,” for example, David Troyansky argues that in pre-nineteenth-century society cultural factors best illuminate historical understanding: “Although the categories of participation and well being are clearly appropriate for studying the nineteenth century and twentieth centuries … in early modern society, participation and well-being may best be understood in moral rather than economic terms” (p. 97).

What these essays reveal, then, is the need to take the next step in aging history: to form the bridge between cultural perceptions and social realities. As several of the contributors show, the realities of aging often did not meet cultural assumptions. Despite the repeated pronouncements of social scientists concerning the increasing isolation of the old, the aged remained integral parts of their family networks; although welfare roles often listed the elderly as ideal pensioners, not all aged persons were impoverished or alone. Why, then, did cultural assumptions and social realities often diverge so sharply? How can we understand individual perceptions of old age that often differed so significantly from economic actuality? While the essays in this volume illustrate the great range of approaches and themes to the history of old age, the editors might well have addressed some of these key themes in a concluding chapter. As it stands, there is little attempt to weave the strands of old age history together or to resolve several of the internal arguments that the authors have with each other.

In addition, the book would have profited from an expanded bibliography that invited the reader to dig more deeply into the field. Although the book does include a fine chapter on New Zealand, its focus is almost entirely on Western Europe. Space may have limited contributions on aging in other areas, but references that allowed the reader to have reached beyond the notes of the individual chapters would have served to illuminate the range of the field.

Despite these criticisms, this book is a valuable contribution to the growing study of old age in the past. In addressing a broad range of subjects, both in terms of periods and approaches, it demonstrates both how far the field has come in twenty-five years and the numerous challenges that now confront it.

Theodore K. Rabb (review date 15 December 2000)

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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 Grazie in Milan as “a monumental concoction of apsidal recesses based on huge square piers”? Johnson does as well as he can by his masterpieces (though it is curious that his one picture, the Botticelli on the cover, gets no mention), but the publisher might have considered adding £5 to the book's price in order to provide a lively author with the visual support he needed to make his arguments more convincing.

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