British historian Paul Johnson is one of those wizards of the typewriter who can put together very fat books fairly quickly. Plus, they're fun to read and at least 92 percent accurate in fact and analysis.
The most famous of his works is Modern Times, a searing and sweeping tale of an often-thrilling, often-tragic, finally-over century. Other of his fat books include The Birth of the Modern, which takes hundreds of pages to tell the story of fifteen historically jam-packed years; and, his latest, A History of the American People*, which annoyed some British critics who never got over the loss of 1783. They're annoyed that Paul Johnson likes the United States. (Bugs the hell out of some American critics too.)
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. America today, with its 260 million people, its splendid cities, its vast wealth, and its unrivaled power, is a human achievement without parallel....The great American experiment is still the cynosure of the world's eyes. It is still the first, best hope for the human race. Looking back on its past, and forward to its future, the auguries are that it will not disappoint an expectant humanity.
Johnson never converted to the word processor. He types up the main part of his manuscript on one machine, and the footnotes on another.
We like Paul Johnson because he used to be a raving left-winger who saw the light and now tells the story of mankind with passion and verve from a staunchly pro-freedom perspective. He doesn't insinuate his opinions in the guise of pseudo-detached pseudo-objectivity. He throws his spirit wholesale into the tale.
There are glitches. In Modern Times, the West's Christian heritage is posed too insistently as the premier alternative to the moral relativism for which Einstein's physics would serve as undeserving metaphor; though Johnson is right to focus on the benefits of the more individualist elements of that mixed heritage. And in A History of the American People, perhaps from annoyance over leftish pieties, he seems to pardon Nixon's high crimes and misdemeanors after a mere slap on the wrist.
But quibbles like that can't gainsay the fact that Johnson is one of the most readable, and most read, of today's historians, and an indispensable asset to the cause of reason and freedom. Which is what really bugs the opposition.
Copyright © 2000, The Daily Objectivist - Reprinted with permission of The Daily Objectivist and Davidmbrown.com.
23 Jan 2009