A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE
By Paul Johnson
1088 pp., $35.
Paul Johnson has written an audacious celebration of America. Audacity comes easily to Johnson, author of such other large-scale works as "The Quest for God," "Modern Times," "A History of the Jews," and "A History of the English People."
The preface is required reading, for it contains his refreshingly forthright refusal to conceal his trenchant opinions. It is easy to see where Johnson stands: America's destiny has followed one true path, paved with enthusiastic and unadulterated capitalism, Protestant moral values, assimilation of both immigrants and natives into the melting pot, and government smart enough to keep hands off.
When America has strayed from this path and betrayed its own nature, he says, especially the religious underpinnings of its civic ideology, disaster has resulted.
For the first half of the book, whether you agree with Johnson's conservative views or not, his acerbic style and sweeping vision are engaging. The book is impossible to put down (despite it being, at more than 1,000 pages, hard to pick up), rich with 400 years of fascinating trivia and intriguing personality sketches.
But halfway through, many readers will find themselves turning the pages with exasperation as much as appreciation. Johnson's story degenerates into a diatribe against anything he sees as impeding laissez-faire progress and innovation.
This is definitely Great (White) Male History: Johnson asserts that the most important single factor determining the course of history is the quality of the people in charge. He even enumerates his heroes at first: John Winthrop is "the first great American," Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, "the second great American to emerge."
We even learn the names of all of George Washington's 15 hounds, including Sweetlips and Vulcan. There are also delightful vignettes of inanimate historical actors - Johnson tells the stories of tobacco, Coca-Cola, and Tiffany glass with a true appreciation of material culture. These quirky, almost gossipy details are what brings this history to life.
However, Johnson's overt political agenda leads him to laud some historical actors overmuch. Richard Nixon is exonerated as an honorable man hounded by vindictive leftist news media, in the end becoming "one of the most respected American elder statesman since Jefferson." Meanwhile, other American luminaries get lukewarm treatment.
While most American religious figures are celebrated for their faith and moral purpose, Martin Luther King Jr. comes across as a power-seeking militant who "played the religious card for all it was worth."
Readers of the Monitor will be pleased to see it called "one of America's greatest newspapers," but Johnson's treatment of its founder is less generous. Mary Baker Eddy is mistakenly said to have created her own system of spiritual healing from the relief given her by the mesmerist P.P. Quimby rather than a fundamentally different spiritual discovery, based on a lifetime of Bible study, after a physical healing. Johnson observes that Christian Science represented a "new American phenomenon - the way in which religious belief ... produced hugely creative movements with a strong cultural and educational content."
Aside from Johnson's injudicious treatment of some of the people and episodes of American history, his story neglects the rich experience of the non-elite. On slavery, for example, Johnson describes the economic necessity of slavery for the tobacco and cotton-growing Southern planters. He goes into great detail about the legal arguments over slavery and Northern concessions like the three-fifths clause. The actual lived experience of the slaves themselves is passed over.
For a book about the American people, too often "the people" get short shrift.
Johnson consistently throws down the gauntlet at the feet of the women's movement, in academe and politics. He argues that the suffrage movement was unimportant to the majority of women and that they were happier exercising their control on their husbands behind the scenes. Much to our surprise!
Furthermore, the gains that "ordinary" women had made by the 1980s were in spite of, rather than because of, the feminist movement, he says. Their real savior was their participation in entrepreneurial capitalism and the business world, where, he argues, the glass ceiling is a myth.
Paul Johnson likes some Americans a lot more than others, and solves his problem by simply defining those who represent less desirable characteristics - any government regulation of big business or the economy, affirmative action, women's rights, identity politics, and "do-gooders," to name a few examples - as un-American. Even those who agree with his political values will regret the immoderation of his harangue.
* Barbara Petzen is a PhD candidate in history at Harvard University.