Book Review: The Praise Singer

Book Review: The Praise Singer

7 Mins
March 17, 2011

January/February 2007 issue -- Paul Johnson. Creators: From Chaucer and Dürer to Picasso and Disney. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006), 310 pp., $25.95.

Critics are of two sorts, it has been said: Those who make you want to read the work they are analyzing; and those who make you want to read more of their own work. In his new book, Creators, Paul Johnson manages to be both types at once.

But he has not always been so. Eighteen years ago, Johnson published Intellectuals, dealing with a few of the most famous radical writers, such as Rousseau, Shelley, Ibsen, Brecht, and Sartre. It was not a pleasant work. Johnson was out to show that the people he discussed were evil and dangerous—and dangerous because they were evil. As he put it in an online discussion sponsored by Time magazine: “I argued that if there was a leading ideas person like Marx or Rousseau or Ibsen, if such a person's private life was seriously disturbed and even evil, the likelihood is that his public doctrine would be seriously flawed too”

Christopher Hitchens called the book “a foul-minded assault on the Enlightenment,” but that was not true. Rather, it was a high-minded assault on that post-Enlightenment line of thinker-libertines, beginning with Rousseau, who have brought so much misery into the world, first for their families and friends, and then for humanity at large. Occasionally, Johnson would express admiration for the literary works of his “intellectuals,” but it was only in passing. I cannot imagine the book inspired anyone to seek out their works.

Now, with Intellectuals behind him, Johnson has returned to what he does best: praising the people he admires. His considerable talent for judicious praise was previously demonstrated in two of his famous “door-stopper” books: A History of the American People (1088 pages) and Art: A New History (777 pages). At a mere 310 pages, Creators is no such sweeping survey. Instead, Johnson’s Creators was conceived as a follow-on to Intellectuals, a second small collection of mini-biographies in what promises to be a three-book series. In Creators, Johnson says: “If I live, I hope to complete the trilogy with Heroes, a book about those who have enriched history by careers or acts of conspicuous courage and leadership.” Though Johnson is approaching eighty, and though his life has not always been temperate, we must hope he lives to complete the project.

Meanwhile, we have Creators. Unlike Daniel Boorstin’s 1992 work called The Creators, which sprawled over 811 pages and more than three millennia, this is a very selective book. A mere seventeen creative artists are named in the Table of Contents: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dürer, Bach, Turner, Hokusai, Jane Austen, A.W.N. Pugin, Viollet-le-Duc, Victor Hugo, Mark Twain, Tiffany, T.S. Eliot, Balenciaga, Dior, Picasso, and Walt Disney. Accorded a few pages of praise along the way are George Eliot, Richard Wagner, and, most surprisingly, the Third Dynasty architect Imhotep. Clearly, Johnson enjoys inviting an unusual mixture of artists to his salon and introducing his reader-guests both to those they have heard about and to those they have not.


One example of a creator few readers are likely to know is the great Japanese painter and printmaker Hokusai Katsushika (1760−1849). Everyone in the West has seen at least one print by Hokusai, for his “Great Wave” has become iconographic around the world. And many people may have seen a few more prints from the same set, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. Yet only a small minority of Westerners, I imagine, are deeply familiar with Hokusai’s life and work, even though his art was popular in Europe shortly after his death.

Johnson’s technique for introducing readers to an artist they do not know has three parts, well exemplified in his treatment of Hokusai. Typically, he begins with a burst of enthusiasm. In this case, for example, he writes: “Hokusai, in effect, created Japanese landscape painting from nothing, but he also portrayed Japanese life in the first half of the nineteenth century with dazzling graphic skill and an encyclopedic completeness that have never been equaled anywhere, throwing in Japan’s flora and fauna for good measure.” Then, drawing on his seemingly endless reservoir of knowledge, Johnson pours forth specific details of the artist’s output: “His instructional drawings, of which fifteen volumes eventually appeared, are known as Manga, ‘random sketches.’ . . . The volumes contain not only human figures but animals, birds, insects, flowers, fish, landscapes, water views, ships, and rafts. . . . The range of subjects is unique in art. There is a great deal about craftsmen. There is a startling drawing of a man attacked by an octopus, and another of men carrying a sorceress across a stream.” Last comes the unforgettable anecdote: “It is a fact that the only erotic print of Hokusai’s which sticks in the mind is his notorious study of a woman pearl fisher being pleasured by two octopuses.”

Johnson is marginally less successful in praising creative artists whose lives and work are very well known to his readers, perhaps because his intense enthusiasm is no longer so arresting. When he declares A.W.N. Pugin to be the best architect produced by the English-speaking world, we pay attention. But we yawn when he begins his chapter on the Bard by saying: “Shakespeare is the most creative personality in human history.” Well, we knew that. Likewise, we can only nod when he says that “Bach was the most hardworking of the great musicians, taking huge pains with anything he did.” We knew that, too.

But if Johnson does not add to our esteem for the greatest artists, he does add to our knowledge of their lives and eras, drawing on his amazing store of information. In the chapter on Shakespeare, for instance, we get a small lecture on the musicality of the plays, something readers of the canon naturally miss:

Shakespeare . . . had a wonderful ear for sound and that he loved music is unquestionable—it runs in and out of his plays at every available opportunity, not just in the hundred songs but at almost every part in the acting. Elizabethan theater companies included actor-musicians and professional instrumentalists who could play different instruments like hautboys (oboes), horns, and trumpets in a variety of ways.… Shakespeare’s own passion for music and his ingenuity in working it into his scenarios and verse meant that music played an increasing role in his work, especially in his last plays.


Despite the many virtues of Johnson’s Creators, I could not help feeling a lack while reading it. I kept hoping that the author, with all his knowledge of his subjects’ lives, would shed some light on the question of what makes a person creative. In particular, I wondered if his mini-biographies would tend to confirm or rebut a suggestion made by Nancy Andreasen in her book The Creating Brain, which was reviewed in the March 2006 New Individualist by my brother, Walter Donway. That review said: “What—aside from being bright—are the attributes of the creative personality? This has been explored in many case studies of many fields. An important study by Andreasen herself looks at writers associated with the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The creative personality is characterized by openness to experience, adventuresomeness, rebelliousness, individualism, sensitivity, playfulness, persistence, curiosity, and simplicity (singleness of vision and dedication to the work).” My first thought when reading about Andreasen’s study was that, though people participating in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop may be creative, I would hardly number them among history’s creators. Surely, I thought, the truly great creators must be marked out more precisely.

Regrettably, Johnson never takes up that issue explicitly, although he touches on it here and there. Certainly, he gives the impression that Andreasen’s last characteristic, singleness of vision, is indispensable to reaching the highest peaks of creativity. But if Creators shows anything, it is that singleness of vision has many sources. It need not mean an ironhanded perseverance, although in some cases it does: “My old friend V.S. Pritchett, the best critic of his day and a short-story writer of genius, told me in his eighties how he had to drag himself ‘moaning and protesting’ up long flights of stairs to his study at the top of his house, Primrose Hill, without fail every morning after breakfast, to begin his invariable stint of work—and this continued into his nineties.”

The case of J.W. Turner was quite different. He began painting at the age of three and was able to sell his work while still a boy. Painting was “in his blood,” and he simply never imagined doing anything else. Bach, too, clearly benefited from a genetic predisposition; between 1550 and 1850, eighty-five Bachs were distinguished musicians. But the intense perseverance that brought unrivaled greatness to Sebastian Bach was not genetic or dour; it came from an exultant desire to serve God through musical composition.

Paul Johnson has returned to what he does best: praising the people he admires.

Shakespeare represents yet another case. His family evinced no innate disposition to literature, and he started on his career late in life (in his twenties). Nor are his works flawlessly crafted oblations. In his case, single-mindedness apparently resulted from a perfect match between his work and his adult personality. As Johnson says: “If there is one area in which Shakespeare lacks moderation, it is the world of words. Here he is, in turn, excitable, theoretical, intoxicated, impractical, almost impossible. He lived in a period drunk with words, and he was the most copious and persistent toper of all.”

Beginning with the Romantic era, we find a new source of single-mindedness—ego—and with that the lives of many of the creators become as twisted as those Johnson documented in Intellectuals. Among Johnson’s list of creators, we see the pattern beginning with Victor Hugo. “Hugo always thought of bringing himself fame through literature,” Johnson writes. But the ways in which Hugo employed his fame were often unpleasant. Once, for example, he used his status as a peer of France to beat a charge of adultery while abandoning his paramour to a six-month jail sentence, a flaunting of inequality so gross that the king had to intervene on the woman’s behalf. By the time we reach Picasso, artistic egotism has become truly psychopathic: “He lacked two things that ordinary people take for granted: the ability to distinguish between truth and falsehood and the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. This lack was one source of his power. At the center of his universe there was room only for Picasso—his needs, interests, and ambitions. Nobody else had to be considered.”


Whenever a book like Creators is published, some reviewer is sure to sneer at the author’s “potted history,” meaning that his accounts are summary and abbreviated. This time, it was Washington Post reviewer Sara Sklaroff (April 30, 2006). But such criticism is utterly beside the point. The object of these quick portraits is not to provide an in-depth understanding of the person profiled; it is to fire an admiration that will prompt further investigation. Personally, I shall begin by investigating the architecture of A.W.N. Pugin, through the two biographies and four art books that Johnson recommends. Thousands of other readers, I hope, will be prompted to similar investigations by Johnson’s Creators—and his Heroes, if it is written.

Yet even more, I hope that Creators will prompt dozens of authors to follow Paul Johnson in reviving the genre of the encomium. Today, countless articles and myriad books offer to cure us of our naïvete through their cynical accounts of men’s lives. But if naïvete is a lack of worldly understanding, then the cynic is the most naïve of men. For it is precisely the world—the world that great men have created during the last ten thousand years—that the cynical philosophy can never explain.

Once upon a time, there were authors who could explain that world and who could inspire readers to join in creating it. In 1862, Samuel Smiles published his massive Lives of the Engineers in three volumes, and motivated a generation of young men to become civil and mechanical engineers. In 1926, Paul de Kruif wrote the fabulously popular Microbe Hunters and stimulated a generation of students to become bacteriologists. Compared to these works, Johnson’s Creators is a scattershot collection and thus less rousing with regard to any particular creative art. But when it comes to the creative art of honoring great men, the book could not be more inspiring. Let us hope that a new generation of authors will be moved by it.