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May 16, 2010


From Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar to Churchill and De Gaulle
Paul Johnson - 9780061143168

Johnson's prior works in this series are Intellectuals and Creators. Both are outstanding and informative. I'm a great fan, and in his newest work he does not disappoint.

He defines heroes and heroines as people who are independent of mind, and--having made up their mind--act consistently, with resolution; they ignore or reject what is thrown at them and hew to their course, finally acting with personal courage at all times, regardless of consequences. Tough list to make, that.

As usual he writes with an encyclopedic knowledge, distilled eloquently into brief essays which serve his purpose. His judgment of characters about whom to write is interesting. He picks--for the most part--prominent people from history: Sampson and David; Alexander and Caesar; Boudica and Joan of Arc; Thomas More, Lady Gray and Mary, Queen of Scots; on to Elizabeth I, Raleigh, Wellington, Nelson and Washington; he includes Byron, Dickinson then Lincoln and Lee, working toward his finale with Churchill, De Gaulle, adding last Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Reagan, Thatcher and John Paul II. His essays are thought provoking, informative and a delight to read as he points out things of import which are well known and others which are not. Along the way he salts his stories with a lot of fringe characters who fit nicely into his narrative.

He observes that many are worshipped as gods by some, some by many; others are present in living memory, their future to be determined by unknown events; many are studied historically as still others are largely forgotten. He makes a point to include many who are neither politicians nor warriors, indicating that hero status must not be limited to those who compete only in those arenas; many, indeed, are not especially heroic because of their debauchery in said endeavors, even if they prevailed.

His characters are "creatures, recognizably human but of great capacity and accomplishment, who stood halfway between deities and the rest . . . people recognized as powerful individuals doing challenging things in difficult times."

Some characters, he opines, have improved with age, while others haven't weathered well. Genghis Khan was reviled for a millennium but is now resurrected in Central Asia; Lincoln was considered a bumpkin in his time, yet is now revered; Wilson was a hero in his time, but his image is currently under attack as he shrinks by the day. Clive of India, Cecil Rhodes and Lawrence of Arabia are also suspect. Such is the pantheon he portrays with his own special aura in Heroes.

As with the afore mentioned books in the series, his style is superb, his delivery variably hilarious or indignant as he lauds and dissects his subjects, pointing out pomposity, malice, hubris as well as competence, compassion, accomplishment and more. It is an informative, entertaining, insightful, and wholly delightful book . . . as you'd expect from this writer!

Posted by Curmudgeon at May 16, 2010 11:21 AM