What constitutes a good hero? Someone brave and loyal, sure, but how about folks who throw good parties? Author-historian Paul Johnson casts a wide net and includes both in his new book, Heroes: From Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar to Churchill and De Gaulle (HarperCollins, 284 pages, $25.95).
There are a couple chapters dedicated to female heroes in particular ("Feminist Fire and Slaughter," Tortured Heroism in a Man's World"), but I like the fact that Johnson includes women all over this book, not favoring either gender in other chapters, such as, "Exemplary Heroes."
My favorite chapter has to be "The Heroism of the Hostess," where he gives hostesses with the mostest their due:
"It was the story of Ottoline Morrell which first made me see the hostess as a potentially heroic figure," Johnson writes. "She and her husband were not rich. She was a hard worker and devoted immense amounts of energy, both physical and nervous, to presenting Garsington as a place where writers and artists could be at their creative best. The tiniest details were important to her in making her guests feel loved: timing and serving of meals (especially breakfast); masses of comfortable furniture and well-chosen books in the bedrooms, and perfect bedside lighting; the selection of fellow guests to make a creative mixture; and the wide choice of activities and expeditions to keep them occupied when not writing or talking."
And do you know what this "good woman" got in return? Apparently, according to Johnson, the literati who enjoyed her hospitality gossiped about her behind her back.
I found one review, from the Associated Press, that disagrees with me on the importance of the aforementioned chapter:
By MICHAEL HILL
Joan of Arc, the French farm girl who charged into battle, had little in common Queen Elizabeth I or the iconoclastic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. But they were all heroes, in author Paul Johnson’s view.
Johnson, the hyper-prolific British historian, gives the trio and other famous heroes the same book-length treatment he did for historical figures in Intellectuals and Creators. This is essentially a quick tour of Western hero history by biographical essay — more than 3,000 years in 299 pages. The lens is made even wider by Johnson’s definition of a hero as someone who over a long period is ‘‘enthusiastically regarded as heroic by a reasonable person, or even an unreasonable one.’’
That generous definition allows him to include Marilyn Monroe in the chapter after Winston Churchill. But really, it could have allowed him to include Alan Greenspan and Kelly Ripa, too, if he wanted.
The pleasure in this book comes not from any grand theory of heroism, but from good short sketches. Johnson nicely describes Walter Raleigh using his thumb to judge the sharpness of the executioner’s ax about to swing through his neck and Mae West cagily accruing power in misogynist Hollywood.
Johnson has a keen eye for character details (literally true in the case of latter-day subjects he met, such as Ronald Reagan) and sprinkles the book with fun tidbits: Wittgenstein was a superb whistler; Margaret Thatcher worked hard to keep her hair just so.
Truck loads of books have been written about Abraham Lincoln, but Johnson is gifted enough to capture him in nine words: ‘‘He was a good man on a giant scale.’’ And of Scotland’s bloody past, he writes ‘‘we have to imagine a tartan version of Afghanistan.’’
Johnson’s theme is so loose he jumps the rails occasionally. The chapter titled ‘‘The Heroism of the Hostess: Lady Pamela Berry et al’’ can safely be skipped unless you see lunch service as transcendent. And here’s a sentence from his profile on Marilyn Monroe: ‘‘If she had been conceived in the twenty-first century, she would, without much doubt, have been aborted, and that remarkable body would never have come into existence.’’
Heroes is the literary equivalent of a smart, opinionated guy talking to you at a party. It’s informative and interesting, but prepare for the digressions. And readers wanting to learn about heroes such as Confucius or Nelson Mandela will be disappointed. Johnson’s idiosyncratic gallery is very white, and very British.