Johnson's Thousand Pages

Reviewed by NORMAN GALL
 For Commentary, July 1992

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From Paul Johnson's volcanic energies comes a vast and rich celebration of the ascent toward modern civilization in the 15 years after the Napoleonic Wars. From later wars, especially the World Wars of this century, we have learned that big wars accelerate ongoing innovation in organization and material technologies that expand the scale, complexity and logistical reach of those human communities able to recover quickly from these terrible conflagrations. The tragedy of World War I, unexpectedly long and destructive, showed us the exhaustion and disorder that big wars can leave in their wake, which the victorious powers were able to avoid in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars and World War II.

Johnson boldly argues that "the matrix of the modern world was largely formed" in those years between the battles of Waterloo and New Orleans in 1815 and the overthrow of the restored French monarchy in 1830. By then the world's first passenger railway (Manchester-Liverpool) was running. Nine daily newspapers were being published in London thanks to another major application of steam. By then the new technology had spawned gunboat diplomacy after the shallow-draft steamer Diana penetrated 500 miles up the Irrawaddy River in 1825 to chase a fierce fleet of oar-driven Burmese imperial praus until their thousands of oarsmen were exhausted and the praus sunk at leisure, one by one, by the Diana's guns, proving to one eye-witness that "the muscles and sinews of men could not hold out against the perseverance of the boiling kettle." Thus, according to a backer of a similar expedition up the Niger River in Africa, "the Amazon, the Niger and the Nile, the Indus and the Ganges," would be mastered "by hundreds of steam-vessels, carrying the glad tidings of 'peace and good-will to all men' into the dark places of the earth which are now filled with cruelty." In politics, Andrew Jackson had led the popular party to victory in America's first modern election, in 1828, heralding a new "democratic age" marked by "the growth of literacy, the huge increase in the number and circulation of newspapers, the rise in population and incomes, the spread of technology and industry, the diffusion of competing ideas --and, not least, by the actions of great men." According to Johnson, "modernity was conceived in the 1780s. But the actual birth, delayed by the long, destructive gestation period formed by the Napoleonic Wars, could begin in full measure only when peace came and the immense new resources in finance, management, science and technology which were now available could be put to constructive purposes."

The main limitation of The Birth of the Modern is that it celebrates more than it explains the enlargement and intensification of human society in this brief episode of human experience. Johnson's sweeping canvas, embracing heroic erudition, would have been more impressive and instructive had he done more justice to the long-term forces that bred the civilizational climax of 1815-30. Some readers may be disappointed by his failure, in a book of a thousand pages, to approach a more precise definition of modernity, which most dictionaries weakly define as being "up to date," without reference to qualitative changes embedded in the shift from agrarian to urban societies, from animate to inanimate sources of energy, from high to low mortality, from simpler to more complex forms of human organization, from artisan to industrial forms of production, from local to long-range transportation and communications and from illiteracy to common use of the printed word. The demographic historian E.A. Wrigley suggests that "the industrial revolution might be depicted as beginning in the early or mid-17th century rather than 150 years later." The development of the English coal industry illustrates the long gestation toward this climax. Between 1561 and 1668, three-fourths of all English patents were related to the coal industry's problems, and one-seventh to drainage problems as the pits went deeper, leading to invention of the first stationary steam engines in 1698-1702. The replacement of wood fuel by coal, the decisive technological change in modernization, led to expansion of iron, glass and pottery industries and to cheaper forms of bulk transport, first by coastal shipping, then by canals and railroads. Cheaper transport supplied London with food and fuel so efficiently that it could become Europe's biggest city by the end of the 17th Century. Johnson observes that "Europe was the first continent in which death rates began to fall substantially faster than birthrates," reinforcing the pressures that led to surging international migration and concentration of people in towns and cities. A debate still rages among academics as to whether living standards really did rise in England in the early 19th Century. In a book of this scope, Johnson might usefully have dealt with this issue, discussing the improvements in nutrition that reduced vulnerability to infections and lowered death rates by one-third in the 150 years after 1700, long before adequate medical treatment was developed for epidemic diseases.

The fulcrum and most brilliant chapter of The Birth of the Modern, on "Forces, Machines, Visions," depicts the rise of "matchless opportunities for penniless men with powerful brains and imaginations," who "saw art and science, industry and nature as a continuum of creation and the quest for knowledge as a common activity, shared by chemists and poets, painters and engineers, inventors and philosophers alike." These are the most compelling figures in Johnson's story. The chapter opens with a big coal mine explosion that killed 92 men and boys in 1812, shocking most of Britain and leading to invention of a new safety lamp by George Stephenson (1781-1848), "the greatest engine designer and builder of the age, but almost illiterate," born in the coalfields, son of an engine man and a descendant of poor shepherds, "an indefatigable man who worked on problems until he solved them." He developed the first steam locomotives in the coal pits where wooden rails were used since the 1580s and iron ones since 1738.

The Birth of the Modern is a pageant of New Men, rising in a "free trade in ability," coming from nowhere to achieve great things. The Duke of Wellington, born of an impoverished noble family in Ireland, was sent off to soldiering in India by a mother who thought her son "food for powder and nothing more." Like Stephenson, Thomas Telford (1757-1834), master builder and modernizer of England's basic infrastructure, came from a family of shepherds. He "loved to work with his hands, in iron as well as in stone, and his singular virtue was the capacity to combine superb craftsmanship, by himself and others, with a passion for the latest technology and massive powers of organization. He thus rose to build bridges, roads, canals, harbors, embankments and other public works on a scale not seen since Roman times, to create the first Institute of Civil Engineering and lay down its superlative standards and, at the same time, to remain an artist-craftsman, even a visionary." With the same enthusiasm, Michael Faraday (1791-1867), pioneer of electrochemistry, son of a poor blacksmith, wrote to a friend: "Time, Sir, is all I require, and for time I will cry out most heartily. Oh! that I could purchase at a cheap rate some of our modern gent's spare hours." Some of them, like Beethoven and Goya, sick men driven by their own vitality, embodied artistic suffering as a new form of heroism. Like many other artists of their age, both men were associated with technological innovations, Goya in aquatint and etchings, Beethoven with the Broadwood piano, both of which helped create a middle-class market for art and music. Son of a run-of-the-mill court musician and a chambermaid-mother who died of tuberculosis when he was 16, Beethoven "was a key figure in the birth of the modern because he first established and popularized the the notion of the artist as universal genius, as a moral figure in his own right --indeed, as a kind of intermediary between God and Man." Johnson adds that, working as a full-time performer since age ten without further schooling, Beethoven "could not even multiply, adding up endlessly instead --one reason why he got into such a mess over money. He read a lot --Homer, Schiller, Shakespeare, Goethe-- [but] often talked pseudo-intellectual nonsense....By age 21 he was already suffering from chronic colic and diarrhœa, accompanied by intermittent fevers and septic abscesses. His deafness first appeared when he was 27" and by age 34 "he could not hear the wind instruments in the tutti.... His death, at age 57, seems to have been caused by complications of jaundice, contracted seven years before. The autopsy revealed his liver to be in an appalling state....Beethoven, in short, was an increasingly sick man all his adult life and his maladies determined his behavior. He gave vent to the rages of the chronic sufferer from stomach pains and the frustrations of the deaf composer. By a supreme moral irony, his appalling conduct actually sanctified his status as an artistic genius and intermediary between the divine and the human. And that was a sign of the times."

The incipient order always was celebrating partial victories at the edge of turmoil and disorder. And so in our day as well. "The matrix of modernity was corrupt and flawed," Johnson writes, adding that "at this birth of the modern world, roamed by predatory men armed with increasingly effective means of killing and traveling at speeds which accelerated each year, most assaults on nature went unheeded, and crimes against humanity went unpunished. The world was becoming one, the wilderness was being drawn into a single commercial system, but there was as yet no acknowledged law." At the edge of this incipient order, settlement of new lands posed a challenge, still with us today in Latin America, Africa and the old Russian Empire. As defined by Richard Rush, the U.S. negotiator of the Treaty of Ghent (1817) and later Treasury Secretary: "The creation of capital is retarded, rather than accelerated, by the diffusion of a thin population over a great surface of soil." In Brazil and other Latin American republics, the open spaces bred confusion between the ideas of capital and credit, creating a floating world of chronic inflation, animated by a fantasy of infinite expansion peculiar to the frontier societies of the Western Hemisphere. In the international loan boom of the 1820s, treading the path of the new states of Latin America, "the United States was already creating for itself a reputation for massive borrowing against its limitless future," a robust cultural trait that resurged with the unprecedented credit expansion of the 1980s.

I am a very slow reader and do not tackle a book of a thousand pages lightly. I read The Birth of the Modern with great pleasure over five-months, usually four or five pages daily on rising early in my São Paulo apartment, after my morning ritual of sipping strong coffee and listening to music. The book's structure, with its masterful weaving of bite-size portraits and episodes into long chapters of an epic poem, lends itself to appreciation of its riches at the reader's own pace. My original intent in tackling it was to learn more of the craft of book-writing. I was not disappointed.

One of Johnson's achievements has been to extend the horizons of book journalism at a time when we hear much agonizing about the future of the printed word, when the magazine business is in the dumps and book sales are so bad that non-fiction can make the best-seller lists when only 20,000 copies are sold. That such a book can be written, published and sold profitably is a sign of underlying vitality and good taste that is not easily perceived in today's marketplace. Few academics would assume the intellectual and financial risks of producing a book of this kind, with such prodigious and fascinating detail, animated by the enthusiasm and passion for accuracy that distinguish first-rate journalists. There may be a few score or a few hundred serious journalists in the West who have tired of the routine of newspaper and magazine offices and who have the toughness, ability and love of their work to survive the financial and emotional stress of living mainly on publishers' advances from one book to the next.The Birth of the Modern has its idiosyncrasies and excesses, some of which irritate me --such as Johnson's endless pæans to the wisdom embedded in Jane Austen's novels and his immoderate fascination with dress and manners-- while others may irritate other readers. But these excesses are byproducts of a towering commitment that has enlarged book journalism as a literary form, going far beyond earlier classics like James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and John Hersey's Hiroshima just as, 200 years before, James Boswell enlarged the art of biography in writing of another Johnson (Samuel) that "he will be seen in this work more completely than any man who has ever lived. And he will be seen as he really was...." In the same way, illuminating his copious detail with drama and meaning, Paul Johnson has helped us understand the dynamics of modernization, even though its power and future thrust remains a mystery to many of us. Failure to sustain this thrust threatens the survival of many complex societies and reversion of their populations to more archaic forms of civilization and mortality. The Birth of the Modern celebrates the brilliance of its first great burst in the sky. May our courage, understanding and cooperation grow to sustain the Enterprise.



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