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Book Review: A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE (by Paul Johnson) : AH

Originally published on Published Online: August 11, 2001 
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A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE, by Paul Johnson, HarperCollins, 1,100 pages, $35.

British journalist Paul Johnson has undertaken as his latest project nothing less than a massive history of the United States–a country he calls "endlessly varied, multicolored and multiracial, immensely materialistic and overwhelmingly idealistic, ceaselessly innovative, thrusting, grabbing, buttonholing, noisy, questioning, anxious to do the right thing, to do good, to get rich, to make everybody happy."

Johnson, essayist and popular author of The Birth of the Modern and Modern Times, is well known for his conservative views and makes no attempt to hide them here. His take on events is heavily biased in favor of large-scale capitalism and against what he calls "meddlesome activism" and "social engineering" like Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society.

The author has, as he puts it, "new and often trenchant things to say about every aspect and period of America's past." What some Americans call the Age of the Robber Barons in the late nineteenth century, for instance, Johnson sees as a great cultural flowering. Yet he makes little mention, for example, of the labor struggles of the early twentieth century or of conditions inside one of Andrew Carnegie's great steel mills.

Most contentious is his treatment of U.S. history from the Great Depression onward. He attacks Roosevelt's policies, criticizes the Kennedy and Johnson legacies, and asserts that Richard Nixon "became in due course one of the most respected American elder statesmen since Jefferson."

And yet, despite his unabashed prejudices–or perhaps because of them–Johnson still has a gift for making history a lively and readable adventure.

Scott Stolnack is a Seattle-based freelance writer.

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