A History of the American People
by Paul Johnson
All of my sympathies tend toward the original thinker. I know that the Aeneid is a masterpiece, but Virgil’s complete disregard for originality makes me disinterested in him. William Shakespeare—with apologies to Harold Bloom—could never initiate a paradigm-shift. To me it seems obvious that you would rather find yourself on a slow boat with G.K. Chesterton, Henry David Thoreau, or William Wilberforce than with Virgil or the Bard.
And yet I like Paul Johnson. Johnson is a historian and a good writer, which is no common combination—but he also doesn’t mind pointing out the obvious. His interest is not in providing original observations, but in getting the story right, in emphasizing the right details.
And although he doesn’t sparkle or dazzle like Chesterton, his strong conservative common sense allows him to get the stories right. It’s a commonplace to say that drugs will destroy you—but they will destroy you, and Johnson never loses sight of that because he has an agenda that requires he emphasize something else.
Perhaps what makes A History of the American People so good is Johnson’s unwillingness to chase originality while there’s an elephant in the room. Johnson sees the elephant, and he knows that it matters. He wants to talk about it even if you see it too. You’ll probably both draw the same conclusion—the elephant doesn’t belong there—but Johnson wants to be sure you don’t overlook the elephant in your haste to make interesting conversation.
Here, for example, is Johnson writing about something quite obvious, Ernest Hemingway’s hatred of his mother: “He was still hating her in 1949 when she was nearly eighty, writing to his publisher from his house in Cuba: ‘I will not see her and she knows she can never come here.’ His loathing for her exceeded the purely utilitarian dislike that Marx felt for his mother, and was emotionally akin to Marx’s attitude to the capitalist system itself. For Hemingway, mother-hatred attained the status of a philosophical system.”
None of this is shocking news for students of Hemingway. We knew about this elephant in the room. But Johnson is undeterred by the fact that many people already knew Hemingway hated his mother; he understands that this might be the most significant key to understanding Hemingway, and he won’t invent new “keys” just for the sake of originality.
by Jeff Baldwin