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HEROES by Paul Johnson

HEROES

From Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar to Churchill and de Gaulle

By Paul Johnson

Pub Date: Nov. 27th, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-06-114316-8
Publisher: HarperCollins

In a companion volume to Creators: From Chaucer and Durer to Picasso and Disney (2006), prolific English historian Johnson offers a highly idiosyncratic selection of his favorite extraordinary mortals, male and female.

The conservative world view evident in works like Intellectuals (1989) was slightly muffled in Creators, but it's back with all flags flying here, especially in a bizarrely reactionary final chapter on the “heroic trinity” of Reagan, Thatcher and John Paul II. (Not that the incongruous essay that precedes it, “Heroism Behind the Greasepaint: Mae West and Marilyn Monroe,” is much more enlightened.) Safely dead for millennia, Alexander the Great and Caesar are less surprising choices, though their ruthless quest of vast empires and boundless self-ambition gives Johnson some pause. Churchill, naturally, wins a solid place as a “generous hero,” while de Gaulle is grudgingly included as “a heroic monster.” The Hebrews “made full use of the brains and courage of their women,” declares Johnson in a chapter on the biblical feats of Deborah, Judith, Samson and David. Though the author believes that “when performed by women [heroism’s] element of hate and inhumanity appears particularly savage, he nonetheless lists British Queen Boudica, who led a surprisingly successful revolt against Roman rule in 60–61 A.D. Medieval nationalist figures Joan of Arc and Henry V are cited, along with the predicable pantheon of Elizabethan heroes honed “in the age of the axe.” Superhumans fashioned “in the roar of the cannon’s mouth” (Washington, Nelson and Wellington) are followed by Civil War leaders Lincoln and Lee. Johnson offers some terrific choices in Jane Welsh Carlyle, stuck in a torturous marriage, and reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, whose life was a “successful struggle against fear.” Wittgenstein warrants a long, tedious chapter, though the author perks up while discussing famous hostesses throughout history.

The author’s vast stores of scholarship and reading keep this jaunty trek from becoming corny.