Paul Johnson RIP

A couple of weeks ago, while reading a splendid new biography of the nineteenth-century English landscape painter John Constable, I pulled off the shelf my go-to guide on all things about art, Paul Johnson’s incredible work, Art:  A New History.  I have relied on this volume to boost my own meager knowledge of art more times than I can count over the past 20 years. 

I hadn’t thought about or heard anything about Paul Johnson in a few years. I knew that he had not published anything in some time, so as we are all wont to do, I Googled him and went on Wikipedia. When I saw that he was still alive, I breathed a sigh of relief.

My relief was sadly short-lived. Just last week, I saw the notice of Paul Johnson’s passing.  A great journalist and a world-renowned historian has left us.  But what a legacy and body of work he has given us.  The impact he has had on so many over these past 50 years is incalculable. 

The range of subjects about which Johnson endeavored to write exceeds measure.  There is simply no one in his league when it comes to the prolific nature and broad scope of his work.  If an historian can count one book as being a groundbreaking and hugely impactful work, then that person can be considered blessed.  But Johnson didn’t just write one hugely influential book; he wrote several.  Everyone has their favorites of the over 50 books he authored, but I will count three as magisterial.

The already mentioned Art: A New History surely belongs on that list. It is a magnificent 800-page guide to all things about art; the history, the great artists, and providing an historical context to art over the sweep of the centuries that is unsurpassed.  

Johnson, a Roman Catholic, can count as one of his other great achievements the writing of A History of the Jews, still one of, if not the best, history of the Jewish people written in the past couple of hundred years.

For all his abundant and wide-ranging areas of scholarship, there is little disagreement on which work is Johnson’s most influential book: Modern Times:  The World from the Twenties to the Eighties.  I read that book when I was in my mid-twenties, and it changed everything I had ever thought or learned about history.  I have probably gone through three or four copies of that book, the dog ears, the notes, the pages torn from wear. No other book, outside of perhaps, Whittaker Chamber's Witness or Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago had such an influence on me.  I know I am not alone in making such a statement. 

I could go on with examples from Modern Times ad infinitum, but just one will suffice here.  After being educated in the public schools of America in the latter part of the 20th century, who would think that Calvin Coolidge was a great president?  Paul Johnson, more than any other historian of his time, was responsible for resurrecting the image of one of our greatest presidents and one of our most misunderstood decades, the 1920s. 

I hesitate to call Johnson a conservative, though he was.  But then history is history, it isn’t conservative or liberal.  Not all historians appear to understand that fact. Howard Zinn was made famous, with no small help from Matt Damon and the movie Good Will Hunting.  A good movie, but Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States, was nothing but left-wing claptrap, a screed of leftist propaganda.  We have lost so much ground to the Left in the war over our history and culture over the past half century, but a bulwark against that tide has been the efforts and yeoman work of the giant Paul Johnson, who with Modern Times and The History of the American People should be and hopefully will be, ranked at the top of last century’s historians of America, as opposed to the likes of Howard Zinn.

I never had the honor of meeting Paul Johnson; we only corresponded a few times.  Back in 2004, as part of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, we planned a trip to Florence, Italy and I invited Paul Johnson to lead us on the tour.  He accepted and I was thrilled at the prospect of spending a week in Tuscany with him.  Unfortunately, just a short time before the trip, he fell and broke his hip.  He was unable to make the trip, so we scrambled and invited Victor Davis Hanson to lead us. 

He did, the trip and Victor were spectacular, and as they say, the rest is history.  Hanson is one of the great historians that we have been blessed to have read over the past decades, with Martin Gilbert and Anthony Roberts being just two more amidst a plethora of great writers.  Paul Johnson certainly stands among them, his impact being second to none. May he continue to influence us for decades and centuries to come.

Image: Alan Davidson

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