Kirkus Reviews QR Code
THE BIRTH OF THE MODERN by Paul Johnson

THE BIRTH OF THE MODERN

World Society, 1815-1830

By Paul Johnson

Pub Date: June 5th, 1991
ISBN: 0060922826
Publisher: HarperCollins

A gargantuan panorama of the 15 transforming years immediately after the Napoleonic era, when "peace came and immense new resources in finance, management, science and technology which were now available could be put to constructive purposes." Johnson (Intellectuals, 1989; A History of the Jews, 1987, etc.), a past editor of the New Statesman and the Spectator, is a master of vigorous narratives on epic topics. Astoundingly, he writes with fascination about events and movements in virtually all fields of human endeavor, whether the subjugation of Native Americans by Andrew Jackson, the scientific discoveries of Humphrey Davy, the compositions of Beethoven, the transparent innovations of George Stephenson and John McAdam, or such social phenomena as dueling, adultery, illegitimacy, and animal protectionism. He also throws an unexpected light on how artists and scientists formed a "conjunction of minds" by drawing on work in other fields (e.g., how intuitive speculations by Coleridge and Shelley about atomic and electromagnetic theory inspired the experimental science of Davy and Michael Faraday). Johnson's narrative and analytical skills even compensate for many dubious passages when his conservatism leads him to stretch for parallels between 19th- and 20th-century politics--for example, when he sees the genesis of the US-British "special relationship" at a moment when both nations continued to be wary of the other's attention, or likens Romantic admirers of Napoleon such as Shelley, Hazlitt, and Byron to intellectuals enamored of Stalinism in the 1930's. Maddeningly long and highly opinionated, but a lively and readable history of a world "exhilarated and sometimes bewildered by the rapid changes which were transforming it.