Paul Johnson has done it again: he has written a book so huge in scope that it fairly begs to be challenged by academics as a cursory treatment of history.

In the course of one thousand pages, The Birth of the Modern: World Society covers subjects as diverse as the treatment of animals by human beings; the origin of the modern conception of artists; the repercussions of the Napoleonic Wars on the West; literary and political rivalries among the intelligentsia of America, France, and Great Britain; the growing abolitionist movement; the treatment of criminals; the development of technology; the political ramifications of industrialization; the widespread use of opium; the evolution of painting, music, and fashion; the state of transportation; and the growing place of women in society. This eclectic approach is normally an object of derision among “serious” historians, who tend to regard exhaustive detail restricted to a particular time and place as a sign of genuine scholarship.

Johnson has never been prone to restraint in his choice of subject matter. Some of his previous gargantuan efforts have included a history of the world from the 1920’s to the 1980’s, a history of Christianity, and a history of the Jews. If this monster of a book is a departure from previous form, it is because in it he has limited himself to a smaller time frame, and a more explicit theme: the intellectual and technological origins of the modern world. It therefore demands a greater cohesiveness than the others, and although The Birth of the Modern world is always in his sights, the chronicle often wanders so far and wide that it is hard not for the reader to become lost in the mountains of data and the continual digressions. But that is all right. The digressions usually take the form of minibiographies of eminent men and women of the era, and that happens to be what Mr. Johnson does best.

Indeed, the most memorable passages in the book are the strikingly vivid portraits of individual statesmen, inventors, and artists of the period. Johnson is a master at using contemporary diaries and correspondence to bring great men to life. The volatile General Jackson with his history of dueling and insubordination (his totally unauthorized expulsion of the Cherokee from Georgia and his conquest of Florida); his opponent in the first popular presidential contest in American history, the brilliant and misanthropic John Quincy Adams; that punctilious opponent of modernity, the poet Wordsworth, fighting to maintain the old English political system and the pastoral countryside of his youth in the face of the “radicals” (who included Byron and Shelley); the prude-turned-revolutionary, Victor Hugo, leading the cultural war between age and youth; the consciously bohemian prototype of the artist as romantic, Ludwig van Beethoven, proudly flaunting protocol in the presence of the aristocracy—all make for fascinating reading.

What becomes tiresome is Johnson’s relentlessly empirical approach to history, in which everything is quantifiable, all judgments are definitive, and all motives are crystal clear. Johnson himself represents a peculiarly modern notion of the study of history, which pretends to scientific accuracy as well as disinterested objectivity. But this concept ultimately produces a bloodless art because it does not so much tell a story as solve a puzzle. While the pieces of that puzzle may be fascinating in their size and shape, still you know that they will invariably be made to fit. Pre-modern writers had more respect for the mysterious nature of history, which they saw as a story with more loose ends than pat answers. There was more reverence for the astonishing development of incidents that make up any account, an appreciation that the drama of the events can only be properly communicated by the methods of the fiction writer.

Perhaps this explains the popularity . of historical novels when compared with that of academic history. Without allowing their work to degenerate into mere chronicle, the better authors use their comprehensive knowledge of the period to unobtrusively fill in the narrative with authentic physical detail. But the main thing must be the story itself: knowledge of the era and its customs is what allows the story to flow gracefully, while giving the reader a genuine feel for the texture of contemporary life. In this way, characters in a wellwritten historical novel take flesh and pass before one’s eyes.

Johnson takes almost the reverse approach. He hits on a subject—say, dueling—and then exhaustively chronicles contemporary attitudes, practice, fatalities, the technology of weaponry, and so forth. Along the way, he may-provide an anecdote that he feels is particularly illustrative of the facts he relates. “The story lines that weave among the one thousand pages become somewhat disconnected interruptions of a continuous chronicle. In effect, the book comes off as more of an encyclopedia than a history of the era.

But it is quite an encyclopedia nevertheless. As Johnson says in the preface, “The book deals with the whole world and has no one angle of vision,” although he concedes that “a specially prominent place is accorded to Britain, for during these years Britain was the most influential of the powers.” Indeed, at a time when Western cultural influence and intellectual dominance is generally decried in the universities, it is refreshing to read a book that reminds us of all the material and ethical benefits that have resulted from Western dominion. Johnson veritably celebrates the British Empire at the height of its authority.

Unfortunately, though, Johnson does not wrestle with the more troubling aspects of the birth of “modernity,” which have brought Christendom to its current advanced state of decadence. The liberal ideology of progress that, by Johnson’s account, conferred so many benefits on mankind, also conferred a smug self-reliance and a terrible alienation from the Creator, the frightening consequences of which were not played out until our own unhappy century. The belief in the inevitability of progress, with its attendant faith in science as a panacea for every ill, is at the root of our moral and social decay. One wishes Mr. Johnson showed a bit more ambivalence about it.


[The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830, by Paul Johnson (New York: HarperCollins) 1,095 pp., $35.00]