Sunday, August 9, 2020


by Paul Johnson
Recommended Ages: 14+

This book of essays spotlights several people whose wit – sometimes refined, sometimes downright bawdy – illuminated (mostly) English-speaking society from the 18th century to the 20th. Some of them told jokes; others brought smiles, chuckles and flashes of clarity (mingled with a touch of hilarity) to their subject matter by delivering pithy sayings, drawing antic pictures or cartoons, writing inimitable books and creating gags for the stage and screen. Paul Johnson distinguishes between comedians of chaos and of character and even finds sources of merriment in people who were not, personally, barrels of laughs.

His main subjects include authors Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton, Damon Runyon (Guys and Dolls) and Nancy Mitford; artists Hogarth, Rowlandson and Toulouse-Lautrec; comedians W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx Brothers; such multi-disciplinary geniuses as Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, Noel Coward and (by virtue of being both a cartoonist and a writer) James Thurber. He also touches on Shakespeare, P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Dorothy Parker, Charles Addams, Charles Lamb, the "U" (as in "upper class") vs. "non-U" class politics of mid-20th century Britain, the gender warfare humor that made The New Yorker a success; and many other figures, acknowledged in passing. (I find Mark Twain to be a bizarre omission; maybe I've missed something about Johnson's central thesis.)

Johnson writes engagingly, not only assimilating what appears to be an enormous amount of research but also, in a surprising number of instances, able to report that he personally spoke to some of the characters named – from Jean-Paul Sartre to Coward, Mitford and Groucho Marx. He doesn't overtax you with thoroughness, though; for example, I had examples in mind from Dickens' works that he could have cited, but didn't. On the other hand, he digresses freely, sometimes abandoning his initial subject (as in the case of Thurber) and moving on to other people by casual association. At the same time, he draws attention to a golden vein of humor running through modern arts and letters that you might never have previously noticed, and will now most certainly be interested in seeking out.

Johnson's introduction even furnishes us with a reasoned essay about the history of laughter, concluding that his study of comics may be more valuable even than those of history's great creators, heroes and intellectuals, because
The world is a vale of tears, always has been and surely always will be. Those who can dry our tears, and force reluctant smiles to trembling lips, are more precious to us, if the truth be told, than all the statesmen and generals and brainy people, even the great artists. For they ease the agony of life a little, and make us even imagine the possibility of being happy.
Judging by the author's preface, this book is part of a series of collections of essays about cultural figures organized under such titles as Creators, Heroes and Intellectuals. A long-time journalist and a prolific author, he has (I understand) moved from the left to the right in his politics, which figure in his appraisal of his essay subjects. So, I suppose you'll have to check out the dates of his works if you want to know what angle he's coming from. Anyway, a very incomplete list of his books includes Enemies of Society, To Hell with Picasso and Other Essays, Civilizations of the Holy Land, A History of Christianity, The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830, The Renaissance, The Papacy, and many works of history and biography. Whether his biographies and histories are at all important might be guessed, perhaps, from the soundness of his judgment on other authors' books about the people portrayed in this book. Whatever else you may say about him, though, Johnson provides an intriguing list of recommended reading about his subjects.

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