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A Confusing Jumble
on May 30, 2015
Paul Johnson's usual beautiful writing caused me only occasionally to stop and scream out, "What the hell is he talking about, and why?" This book is a confusing and rambling jumble that has no coherence or theme other than of England's contributions to the early 19th century.
I don't understand why the subtitle of this book is "World Society 1815-1830", as the focus is almost entirely on England. After a first chapter on the War of 1812 and the emergence of Andrew Jackson in the US, the following six chapters (more than half the book) are focused almost exclusively on England (with a little of Scotland thrown in) before a chapter on South America and the Mediterranean that returns yet again to the subject of England. Then the next chapter again devotes itself to England. When he writes a chapter about China, India, and Asia, half of the account is of English commerce and wars in those areas.
Johnson gives us long essays on obscure English writers, English poets, English painters, English sculptors, English philosophers, English footballers, cricketers, boxers, and distance walkers, and even English opium addicts (I don't know why we need a lengthy section on Samuel Coleridge's addiction starting in 1801, clearly outside the claimed timeframe of this book). The only long discussion of another country is of Russia under Alexander I and then Nicholas I.
He intersperses a section on Liszt, Mendelssohn, and Weber (all focused on their tours in England) with discussions of tuberculosis, smallpox, and malaria, and body-snatching! Who other than Paul Johnson can take you in quick order from Russian autocracy to the Bank of England and the second Bank of the United States to English labor unions to prostitution and pornography? But fear not: he transitions quickly to the invention of the ice house and house and garden parties. Johnson titles a chapter "The Policeman of the World", touches briefly on the Royal Navy, then writes at great length about slavery in the US and serfdom in Russia.
As in previous books, Johnson makes factual errors when it comes to the United States. He writes about the state of Maine commissioning a ship in 1776, when there were no states in 1776, and the territory that would become Maine belonged to the Massachusetts colony until the Missouri Compromise in 1820. He claims that Andrew Jackson left the left bank of the Mississippi undefended at the Battle of New Orleans, though the battle actually took place on the left bank, and it was the right bank that was undefended.
He seems to have lifted whole sections from his other books.
Toward the end, he comes back around to the United States, again focusing almost exclusively on the rise of Andrew Jackson to represent the emergence of popular democracy. But the majority of his discussion of Jackson is on the Peggy Eaton affair, which seems like a strange and largely irrelevant tangent. And then, as usual, without even a new chapter, he switches to a discussion of the (English) press and "journalists". A survey of Polish politics in the 1820's to 30's returns to English politics. The threads that Johnson sees to tie these odd topics together defy my mind's ability to discern. The book finally ends not with a bang, but with a whimper