Wood on Johnson and Hitchens

A couple of weeks ago I discussed Paul Johnson’s very brief volume on George Washington. In that review I noted:

Johnson’s take on Washington is popular history (see here for more). If one is looking for tightly argued scholarship and debates about the latest paper this is not the place.

This is apparently more true than I had thought. In the current issue of the Weekly Standard Gordon S. Wood reviews both the Johnson and the Christopher Hitchens bio of Thomas Jefferson. Wood, who is a brilliant historian and fully capable of writing engaging popular history himself, takes Johnson to task for repetition and historical inaccuracies:

With only 30,000 words or so to work with, the authors of these little biographies should not want to waste any. But unfortunately Johnson does. He repeats himself several times, telling us more than once that George III never left Britain and never saw the sea until he was 34, and doing the same with the story of Washington addressing his officers at Newburgh in 1783, fumbling with his glasses and telling them that he had grown nearly blind in service to his country. Such repetitions are nothing, however, compared with Johnson’s many mistakes and unreliable statements, which suggest that the book was hastily written and poorly edited and vetted . . . One or two serious errors might be forgivable, but with so many mistakes and exaggerated statements the reader’s confidence in the reliability of the biography is undermined.

Not being an expert on George Washington I obviously didn’t notice the errors, but I admit I am disappointed in Johnson for his sloppiness.

I don’t believe this is a fatal flaw for the genre used, however, because I didn’t turn to these works for facts. I see these works more like extended essays; one persons take on a historical figure or time periods. As such I try never to use them as stand alone teaching texts so much as food for thought (I read the American President’s Series volume on Washington for example and plan to read His Excellency as well). This is also why I try to read reviews by experts like Wood, to get a scholarly opinion of the work.

Wood accurately captures the nature of these type of works:

The idea behind this series is to have celebrated writers with strong sensibilities and sharp points of view take on notable persons in the past whom they especially admire and then hope that something exciting results.

It’s a tricky business having nonexperts write about famous individuals who have been studied to death by generations of biographers and historians. Presumably the non-experts bring something–freshness of perspective and passion, perhaps–to tired and overworked subjects; but being nonexperts, they also run the risk of making so many mistakes that the credibility of their account is brought into question.

Obviously, Johnson didn’t pull it off in regards to accuracy but Wood think the Hitchens’ volume succeeds:

Christopher Hitchens’s little biography of Thomas Jefferson is very different and probably what the series editor James Atlas ideally had in mind. Not only is it reliable, but it is interesting and insightful (and, it must be noted, a third again longer than Johnson’s book). It is not that Hitchens has discovered new information about Jefferson–that would scarcely be possible in this scholar-saturated world–but he does offer fresh perspectives and perceptive emphases on many aspects of Jefferson’s life.

I agree with Wood that works in this line are risky but I think the success reward the risk. That is why I keep reading.

BTW, in case you are wondering, I do plan to post some fiction reviews in the very near future. So don’t despair, if that has been your reaction, this isn’t turning into a popular history blog quite yet.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).