Paul Johnson passed away a few days ago, at age 94. Theodore Dalrymple, in the City Journal, writes:
He coined striking phrases—Hitler’s views, for example, were “the syphilis of antisemitism in its tertiary phase”—and he could never be accused of mealy-mouthedness. His views, though somewhat changeable, were expressed with vigor approaching dogmatism, though they were always well-informed. You knew where you stood with him.
It is customary to say of remarkable men that we shall not see their like again. Whatever may be the case with other remarkable men, this is likely to be true of Paul Johnson. It is unlikely that anyone will tackle so huge a range of subjects again with such knowledge and verve.
This rings quite true to me. Not only because Johnson was a forceful and passionate polemicist, something which goes less well in times like ours, that prize political correctness over clarity and sincerity. But also because Johnson’s breadth of knowledge was absolutely remarkable. The Intellectuals,
for example, is often dismissed as a “pamphlet”: yet it brings together short portraits which do not lack intellectual rigour or sound information, besides often demolishing quite a few portrayed writers or prophets (the collection starts with an unforgettable essay on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but also includes Ernest Hemingway, Bertrand Russell and Victor Gollancz). His history books (Modern Times or the History of the Jews are the first to come to mind) are certainly readable works, accessible to a wider circle than scholarly historians. Yet they are accurate in facts and original in perspective.
In later years, Johnson has been remarkably prolific, with books like his biographies of Napoleon, Darwin and Socrates, an inevitable Churchill book, or Creators. The style kept impeccable, yet these are certainly less memorable works. But if a writer that never falters exists at all, she is unlikely to be a prolific one.
My gut feeling about Johnson is the following: he was more famous at the times of his great work than he was lately, and perhaps that is for two reasons. First of all, to be utterly simplifying, his great books are “right wing” but came out of the pen of a writer who was considered “left wing” before Thatcher rose to power. Indeed, Johnson was the editor of the New Statesman, which was playing a pivotal role within the intellectual left. In recent years, he was seen instead, by a younger generation, as “right wing.” Period. Few remembered his being a “convert”, and people who read tend to find “right-wingers” off-putting and may make an exception only for converts, i.e. people who at least were left-wingers at a certain point. To put it in more serious albeit equally lapidary words: people on the right read less or by all means buy fewer books and are a less dependable audience than left-wingers, or centrists with left leanings. Second of all, while right-wingers, particularly in the United States, used to be enthusiastic about Johnson, they were far less so in more recent times. For one thing, his conservatism was unmistakably “Thatcherite” and had free market undertones, which are less popular now than they used to be. For another, Johnson was a polemicist but his books (and his understanding of history) are rich with nuances. And that doesn’t go very well with the Zeitgeist, left or right.
When a great mind leaves us, the world is poorer. But we may become richer, if we develop a curiosity and read more of her. Let’s go back to Paul Johnson’s books.