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Paul Johnson, RIP; Objective History, Too
History Is a Map of the Past, and a Map Is Not the Territory
¶ Historian, journalist, and critic Paul Johnson died last week at 94. I’ve read several obituaries so far. With more than fifty books to his name, none have failed to call him prolific. “His stream of books was almost torrential,” said Theodore Dalrymple in a reflection for City Journal. The adjective applies to all his writing. Indeed, several obituaries mention what economist Tyler Cowen would call Johnson’s “production function.”
His daily output often consisted of a book review before breakfast, a column in the morning, an essay in the afternoon and then work on the index (which he always did himself) for one of his books in the evening. Scholars perhaps had reservations about his work for this reason, but he set a daunting example to others in the writing trade.
Still, it must be said: He seems to have fallen a little short of his own writing goal. “I hope before I pop off,” he said a decade ago, a speaking with CSPAN, “I will have written and published sixty.”
¶ “When in harness.” It’s an expression he would have appreciated. Indeed, while known for firehose output, he was also noted for his lively style. “He could turn out a polished column on almost any subject full of apt examples and pithy phrases,” said the Guardian. And he valued the work of writers who wrote as if they honored the title.
Johnson was, as the Times of London put it, “a brilliant, if sometimes brutal, book reviewer.” Among his fifty-odd books, he wrote many short biographies—Napoleon, Churchill, Socrates, Washington, Jesus, and others—yet in 2012, the same year his slender profile of Darwin released, he praised another slim volume, Arthur Bryant’s Macaulay as “the best short biography ever written.”
Originally published in the 1930s, it barely exceeds a hundred pages. NYT honed in on Johnson’s large estimation of the tiny book, along with the skills required to produce it. Said Johnson,
What is required for this kind of work is a combination of ruthlessness and elegance. Ruthlessness in discarding everything but the essential; elegance in concealing your brutality behind a flow of prose in which not a word is wasted, room is found for wit and the telling anecdote, and the reader never gets an impression of hurry.
¶ It seems as though Johnson did most of his writing in a space not much bigger than Bryant’s little book. Journalist Jacob Weisberg visited the author’s home some twenty-five years back. “Johnson eventually leads the way into a small study,” he says, narrating the house tour, “a closet really, where he produced these books.”
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¶ Another unavoidable adjective in retrospectives on Johnson’s life: conservative. As all the obits attest, Johnson wasn’t just a historian he was a conservative historian. Indeed, characterization of his work and life tends breaks along ideological lines. While the left-leaning Guardian noted “he lacked the character of a real scholar,” the right-leaning Wall Street Journal said he “became an intellectual icon for political conservatives in both the U.S. and Britain.”
Johnson’s work and the many reflections on it highlight the fact there’s no such thing as objective history—at least not in the sense that many people use that word, meaning without slant or bias. I talked about this in my review last year of Richard Cohen’s Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past. This excerpt makes the point:
“When did historians stop relating facts and start all this revising of interpretations of the past?” The question was posed to Columbia University historian Eric Foner by “an eager young reporter” several years back. Foner’s answer? “Around the time of Thucydides.”
Interpretation and revision have occupied historiography since the start. Indeed, a 2009 study uncovered blatant biases in Thucydides, inadvertently validating Foner’s gibe. The ancient historian “was a passionate man trying to write soberly, torn between what he wanted to believe and what he knew had taken place,” says Richard Cohen in Making History; “yet his respect for the evidence means that one can see where his judgments go astray, by using the very accounts that he himself provides.”
A common conception insists that history simply tells the past. It’s what happened. You can see this view in the question posed by the reporter—history is little more than “relating facts.” You can also see it gently mocked in Foner’s description of the questioner as “eager” and “young.” But what’s wrong with such a view?
This: It fails to differentiate between what happened and what we say about what happened. Discovering what happened requires establishing facts by finding and weighing evidence. For the historian that can mean sifting through gobs of conflicting reports or, at the other extreme, scrutinizing paltry but precious scraps.
Developing something worth saying about that evidence compounds the challenge. Linking other relevant data, establishing context, proposing causal relationships, drawing conclusions, and presenting the whole package in a compelling, cohesive narrative: It’s tougher than it looks on YouTube.
And of course the entire enterprise is influenced by the individual skills, background, training, interests, purposes, perspectives, convictions, limitations, and presuppositions that each historian brings to this difficult job of finding relevant facts and arranging them into meaningful accounts of the past.
As a result, history unavoidably assumes the character of the particular historian who crafts it. Thucydides, for instance, spun a different yarn than Herodotus. Polybius focused on patriotism, while Livy emphasized moralism over accuracy and even admitted as much.
History is not the past. It’s a map of the past. And the map—as Alfred Korzybski said—is not the territory. Topographical, weather, and transport maps all cover the same ground with different purposes, and mapmakers include or exclude, highlight or downplay, detail or distort data to serve those purposes. It’s an unavoidable feature of human limitation; we’re not omniscient and our opinions and goals diverge, sometimes wildly.
Every history is partial, peculiar, and provisional. Practically speaking, what that means for the discipline is that within agreed-upon rules and standards determined by the discipline there will be wide perspectival and interpretive diversity. Even when certain interpretations take on universal acceptance in one age, they are prone to falter in the next. History is the product of historians, and as they die their commitments and agendas die with them, making way for different commitments and agendas.
As such, it’s safe to say—even if a little scandalous to some—that all history is revisionist history. Writes James M. Banner Jr.,
All written history is—in one respect or another, on one scale or another, and with one impact or another—revisionist in intent or consequence. Revisionist history is a universal phenomenon. Historians’ debates and shifting views of their subjects are the principal means by which they approach, while never reaching, their goal of understanding the extraordinary complexity of human life in times before their own. In fact, their arguments about the past and their varied ways of going about their work should be celebrated as signature characteristics of a democratic culture.
To the extent historians adopt or display a recognizable worldview—conservative, Marxist, neoliberal, anarchist, whatever—their work will be labeled as such. As consumers of history, our task is to find what’s valuable or useful in a historian’s take, regardless of the labels attached.
¶ History’s path from utterly foreign to overly familiar in four quotes.
The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
—L. P. Hartley1
An isolated event has no meaning. Placed in a historical narrative, an event, one in a series of events, gains meaning.
—Frank Moore Cross2
Every age necessarily re-interprets—and rewrites—the past in accord with its own interests, ideals, and illusions.
—David Bentley Hart3
In any historical inquiry there is always the risk that a brilliant and innovative idea begins as being possible, and then, by endless repetition, it imperceptibly mutates into probable, and then the appropriate caution seems to drop away, and what remains becomes accepted as true.
—Christopher de Hamel4
¶ So, then, what is history and what value does it have? Four historians weigh in on that double question:
“History is the study of people, actions, decisions, interactions and behaviours”
“I have a preference for historians who probe into the ‘why’ and the how’”
“History is fundamentally a problem-solving discipline”
“Histories are useful for telling us how we got ‘here’”
Read their answers in full here. There’s a trajectory in those statements that drives toward a conclusion: Memories of the past are always constructions of the present and serve present concerns.
“I suppose there are many justifications for studying history,” writes Steven Johnson at, “but surely two of the most essential are: 1) to understand the events from the past that shaped the conditions of your own life and experiences, and 2) to recognize patterns from past events that might be relevant to the issues we face as a society today and in the near future.”
¶ The last word. One thing I appreciated in reading Paul Johnson’s obits was this snippet from an article in 2010, showing the wisdom of a man who recognized fighting in books and newspaper columns, an activity that forged his reputation, wasn’t always worth it.
“My view increasingly is,” said Johnson, “that if I don’t have anything good to say about somebody, I don’t say it.”
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L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between (New York Review of Books, 2002), 17.
Frank Moore Cross, From Epic to Canon (Johns Hopkins, 1998), 244.
David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions (Yale University Press, 2009), 31.
Christopher de Hamel, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (Allen Lane, 2016), 461.