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Books: Pro-American history

Books | British historian Paul Johnson loves America

Issue: "Just say clean needles," May 9, 1998

If I ever meet the British historian Paul Johnson, I will choose my words carefully. I will not ask him open-ended questions. He might just give an answer. His newest book, A History of the American People, is full of a grand candor we simply aren't accustomed to. Mr. Johnson doesn't mince words; he does not equivocate. Here's how he starts the book: "The creation of the United States of America is the greatest of all human adventures." Here is how he ends it: "It is still the first, best hope of the human race." And everything in between has the same self-assured spirit. The candor is due mostly to necessity, I think. Anyone writing a one-volume history of the United States has no time for the squishy evasions of many historians. Mr. Johnson writes of Thomas Jefferson, "His inconsistencies are insurmountable and the deeper they are probed, the more his fundamental weaknesses appear. Jefferson suffered from what were clearly psychosomatic migraines all his life-and many other ills, real and imaginary, too; he was a monumental hypochondriac." Of Sir Walter Raleigh, he writes, "[He] was, in a sense, a proto-American.... 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 which clashed violently with his overweening desire to get on and make a fortune." That candor-not to mention his skewering of liberal sacred cows in earlier books like The Intellectuals and Modern Times--has helped make Mr. Johnson a favorite of conservatives. In fact, the New York Times book review dismissively refers to him as a historical revisionist of the Right. He knows what the sniffing intelligentsia think of him and doesn't waste his time and his readers' trying to win them over. "This book has new and often trenchant things to say about every aspect and period of America's past, and I do not seek, as some historians do, to conceal my opinions." The tome is not light reading; it has nearly 1,100 pages, and each page is stuffed full of facts, figures, names, dates, and an occasional jolly anecdote. It's like a huge portion of a very rich dessert. You can't take very much at one sitting. Neither is it entirely adequate as a standard reference work. Few subjects get more than a few paragraphs of explanation; the Statue of Liberty, for example, gets about a page. Although he covers everything from Cotton Mather to Civil War surgery to cola wars to Clintonomics, his is not the definitive word on any single subject. This work could find a niche, however, in the tight libraries of homeschoolers. It is well-indexed, and Mr. Johnson draws appropriate comparisons to help readers understand the past. With Johnsonian candor, I will recommend this one as a great book worth every cent.

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