At the Hinge of History A Journalist Explores the 19th Century Origins of the Modern Period

Article excerpt

SINCE history began, people have always felt they lived in "modern" times - whether they saw their own era as an improvement on previous ones or a sorry decline from some ancient Golden Age. From our own late-20th-century perspective, the past 70 years - the 1920s and after - strike most of us as indubitably modern, and many of us would extend the term further back.

Fixing a date for the birth of the modern is an engaging historical game. If modern means machine age, we might start with the invention of the steam engine. If modern implies the kind of thinking that led to the Industrial Revolution, we might locate its beginnings as early as the Renaissance or as late as the Enlightenment. If modern means the questioning of traditional beliefs and institutions, we could look to the Protestant Reformation - or the French Revolution.

In his earlier book "Modern Times" British journalist and historian Paul Johnson examined "The World from the Twenties to the Eighties" with a focus on the ideologies and practices that made this century a time when totalitarian nightmares came true.

A former socialist turned Tory, Johnson deftly illustrated the ways in which the totalitarian regimes of the right and the left learned new techniques of coercion and control from each other.

Subsequently, Johnson turned his brilliant, ambitious, sometimes overly tendentious pen to "A History of the English People" and "A History of the Jews." And most recently, he wrote a much shorter book called "Intellectuals a scathing group portrait of left-wing thinkers like Rousseau and Marx, all caricatured by Johnson as a veritable rogues' gallery of hypocrites who talked about human rights while abusing their friends, wives, and children.

Considering that Johnson traces the political evils of our century to the ideologies formulated by the romantics and revolutionaries of the previous century, one is a little surprised to find him nominating 1815 to 1830 as the focal period for "The Birth of the Modern."

Johnson himself seems surprised: We might have expected him to choose the 1780s, as he remarks in his introduction. But instead, he has skipped over both the American and the French Revolutions and chosen to concentrate on a period of reaction, retrenchment, stabilization, material growth, and renewed attempts at reform. The period opens with the seeming triumph of the forces of reaction but ends with the return of what Johnson calls the "Demos": the age of Andrew Jackson in the United States, the Reform Bill in England, and mass meetings in Ireland.

Although Johnson's strongly held views are still in evidence, "The Birth of the Modern" is less strident - and finally more persuasive - than some of his more recent work. True, he still takes an excessive, unseemly relish in magnifying the character flaws of 19th-century cultural heroes like Beethoven, Byron, Shelley, and Hegel - not to mention the heroic arch-villain Napoleon. …