Eden without the Serpent

Eric Foner

  • A History of the American People by Paul Johnson
    Weidenfeld, 925 pp, £25.00, October 1997, ISBN 0 297 81569 5

Paul Johnson is one of the most indefatigable writers on either side of the Atlantic. In the past twenty years, the former editor of the New Statesman turned ardent Thatcherite has produced, among other books, The Birth of the Modern (weighing in at more than a thousand pages), Modern Times, a massive chronicle of the 20th century, and lengthy histories of Christianity and Judaism. If succinctness is not his forte, neither is modesty. Johnson’s latest book opens with the claim that it ‘has new and often trenchant things to say about every aspect and period of America’s past’. No one who knows his earlier writings is likely to be surprised by its strengths and weaknesses. For better or worse, A History of the American People is vintage Johnson.

Johnson proudly asserts that he makes no effort to ‘conceal’ his ‘opinions’. What this means is that his approach to history is polemical, one-sided and prone to gross oversimplifications. An excellent storyteller, he describes very well those figures from the past whom he admires, from George Washington to Ronald Reagan. Those he dislikes, on the other hand, are little more than caricatures: Thomas Paine, for example, was ‘a man with a grudge against society, a spectacular grumbler’. No one seeking a fair-minded account of the American past will find it here. On the other hand, anyone who has wondered whether the history of the United States can be forced into a Thatcherite mould may well find the book of interest.

Johnson announces at the outset that he comes to American history ‘completely fresh’, with no qualifications other than a love of the country and a willingness to immerse himself in the literature of its past. It’s true that he has read widely, but far too many of the works on which he relies are long out of date, in part because he feels current scholarship is distorted by ‘political correctness’. Thus, in discussing the impact of the early settlers on the North American environment, he cites not William Cronon’s Changes in the Land (1983), now the standard work on the subject, but Civilisation and Climate by Ellsworthy Huntington, published in 1925. His account of the Reconstruction era after the Civil War rehashes long-discredited myths: that Congress was motivated by ‘hatred’ of the South when it enfranchised black men, that black office holders were mostly illiterate, that by distributing poor relief, the Freedmen’s Bureau discouraged former slaves from engaging in honest labour (a charge not levelled against the thousands of whites who also received Bureau assistance).

In attempting to fashion a conservative account of American history, Johnson has fearlessly entered a debate about the presentation of the past, one strand in the United States’ ongoing ‘culture wars’. In past decades, American historians have tended to concentrate on recovering the experience of groups neglected by earlier scholars – African-Americans, women, labourers etc. This focus on the ‘subaltern’ has made it impossible to treat American history as an unambiguous saga of national progress. Of late, conservative politicians and intellectuals have called for a return to a more patriotic history, to rekindle a sense of national pride among schoolchildren and adult citizens in need of uplift.

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