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Creators: From Chaucer to Walt Disney [Paperback]

Paul Johnson
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

5 July 2007

In his book INTELLECTUALS (1988) Paul Johnson asked whether intellectuals were morally fit to give advice to humanity (no, was the usual answer). In contrast, this book is about the creative and heroic side of outstanding individuals.

There are many themes but no typical creator. Courage is always required, and self-confidence. Some never lacked recognition or sales, like Turner and Victor Hugo, Picasso and Durer. For others, like Bach or Jane Austen, the scale of their achievement was unrecognised in their lifetime. Luck can play a crucial part - as in Worsdworth's meeting with Coleridge and T.S. Eliot's with Ezra Pound (Eliot needed strong martinis too). Fashion made some, like Tiffany, rich and famous before dumping them (although now, again, his pieces are worth a fortune). Ruthlessness is important too - Mark Twain was not even his own pseudonym, he pinched it from another Mississippi-pilot-turned-writer who he savaged so severely he gave up writing. If there is no one typical creator, there is a common theme: putting excellence before any other consideration. Walt Disney and Christian Dior did this in their own way as surely as Chaucer or Shakespeare, William Morris or Turner.



Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Phoenix; New Ed edition (5 July 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0753822016
  • ISBN-13: 978-0753822012
  • Product Dimensions: 19.2 x 12.8 x 2.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 505,237 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

the author is agreeable company... He has a fluent style, wide-ranging curiosity and an extremely well stocked mind. (SAM LEITH, LITERARY EDITOR, THE DAILY TELEGRAPH SPECTATOR)

This book is agreeable and continuously interesting. (ALLAN MASSIE DAILY TELEGRAPH)

At its best Creators effortlessly mixes flavoursome biographical considerations with a committed historicism that makes one reach immediately for the work of the creator in question. (SCOTLAND ON SUNDAY)

an informed meander through different examples of human creativity... a splendidly idiosyncratic book, brooking no compromise and bristling with opinions... an extremely entertaining read. It helps that Johnson has a nicely zippy and fluid style, but his judgements (up with Disney, down with Picasso) are thoughtful and provocative, and there are some lovely touches of colour. (EVENING STANDARD)

The essay on Disney and Picasso [is] the best in the book, and beautifully crafted... highly intelligent. (THE SCOTSMAN)

"as distinguished a journalist as any in his generation... seldom not worth reading this, his latest offering, is certainly not one to be laid aside lightly (LITERARY REVIEW)

The book comes into its own when it moves from creators to creativity... Johnson is good on the notion of creative capital - the resources on which creators draw throughout their lives. (FINANCIAL TIMES)

...his prose is consistently enjoyable, and he has a genuinely popular touch, always quick to disdain intellectual snobbery.... I unreservedly recommend this book: it is sheer delight to spend time with such a fine mind. (MATT THORNE CATHOLIC HERALD)

It's an endearing book.... While being commendably cosmopolitan, Johnson is ineffably and unashamedly proud of English culture. (THE GUARDIAN)

Book Description

Wonderfully readable portraits of outstanding creators

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IN 1988 I PUBLISHED A BOOK called Intellectuals. Read the first page
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Reader From Bangkok, Thailand. 20 Feb 2008
By Ning
Format:Paperback
I have been a great fan of Paul Johnson and this is the most entertaining book. I like his style which is always gossipy (he compares Jane Austen's writing in the corridor similar to President Clinton's 'couplings' and that when hearing noises he was forced to zip up his trousers just as Jane Austen had to conceal her work) as well as academic. While the reader may not agree with many things he wrote, one cannot doubt his knowledge about various fields such as literature, art and fashion. His stock of knowledge makes his opinions most interesting although one may not agree with all of it e.g. when he refers to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, "to many, though not to the most discerning, her greatest achievement." Also, he believes that London should have been the world's fashion centre if Queen Victoria had been fashion-conscious.

What is most useful to me is that I know more about artists I did not before like Hokusai and Pugin. Whenever I am in England, I shall look forward to appreciating Pugin's works and in Japan, Hokusai's. Overall, it is an interesting read. It gives the reader an idea about what has been going on the areas of art, literature and fashion many centuries back.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Erudition with Attitude 15 April 2006
By Robert Morris TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
This is a companion volume to Intellectuals (first published in 1988) in which Johnson focuses on a number of prominent as well as diverse intellectuals who include Rousseau, Shelley, Ibsen, Brecht, and Sartre. He proceeds in the same manner in Creators. With his focus on an equally diverse group: Chaucer, Bach, Austen, Eliot, and in Chapter 14, on Picasso and Disney. Most of those who have already read one or more of Johnson's other works probably disagree with several of the opinions he offers but no one can (or at least should) question the scope and depth of his erudition. Of course, the appeal and value of this book will depend almost entirely on each reader's own interests but I presume to suggest that this book be read in its entirety because several lesser known people (A.W.N. Pugin and Viollet-le-Duc, for example) are far more interesting than I (at least) anticipated.

The title of the first chapter (i.e. "The Anatomy of Creative Courage") could well have served quite well as the book's subtitle. Each of the 17 whom Johnson rigorously examines demonstrated throughout their lives and careers extraordinary courage when pursuing their visions despite all manner of barriers. "What can be said is that creation is always difficult. If it is worth doing at all, we can be sure it is hard to do. I cannot think of any instance in which it is accurate, let along fair, to use the word 'facile.'" Johnson also that "courage and creativity are linked, for all creation requires intellectual courage." Also when overcoming physical disabilities, as well as severe poverty, alienation, voluntary or involuntary isolation (often resulting in severe loneliness), and constant awareness of hardships which one's loved ones have been forced to share and endure.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
A follow up to Paul Johnson's momentous work, Intellectuals, in which Johnson pointed out the hypocrisy and moral degeneration of the those who claim to be the great custodians of human justice and morality, an 'intellectual' is according to Johnson's definition someone who believes that ideas are more important than people.

In this highly readable and interesting volume, Johnson traces the lives and works of writers, architects, writers and designers. We learn of their lives and the ins and outs of their work.
In his introduction, Johnson refers to the Ancient Egyptian, Imhotep ((2650-2600 BCE), believed to be the first stone architect. Johnson takes us through the linguistic skill and alliterations of Chaucer, and examines two characters of Shakespeare's Falstaff and Hamlet.
He informs us how Victor Hugo was motivated to write Les Miserables, on the injustices he believed himself to have suffered despite his own callous disregard for the women he used and discarded.
He compares Hugo to Dickens, who unlike Hugo was true humanitarian and philanthropist. While Hugo thundered about injustice in general, dickens worked in specific instances to remedy it.
In his chapter on the great designers of the 20th century, Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga he describes the motivations of those who shaped beauty and elegance . He describes the 1960 as 'that disastrous decade'. Lastly he compares Pablo Picasso, revered by the av ant garde left, to be a brutal and sadistic egomaniac who beat women unconscious and supported the worst excesses of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, Spain and elsewhere.
By contrast Walt Disney rejected Leftist ideals, struggled against those artists who aimed to turn cinema into a Marxist political tool and as a result was and still is demonized by the left wing thoughts and ideas establishment
A lively testimony of those who create and are inspired, and their lives and characters. A good read.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
By Donald Mitchell HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover
If you've never read about the work and lives of these creators, you will like this book better than I did. For the most part, Mr. Johnson provides superficial details and makes very general judgments. If you read a standard biography of any of these people, you'll be more satisfied than with this book. But this book may give you an overview to find out which people you want to read more about.
For me, the most interesting parts came in the descriptions of Chaucer, Durer, Bach, Cassatt and Wagner. Who knew that Wagner used to beg money from people so he could live in luxury? Otherwise, he apparently had trouble writing operas. The characterization of Chaucer's contributions to language is inspired and intriguing. The book is filled with other similar dribs and drabs of fascinating details from the lives of monumental creators in the arts.
If you want to learn about how to be a creator, look elsewhere. This book is primarily historical and biographical rather than focused on the psychology and methodology of creativity.
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Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  29 reviews
40 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Erudition with Attitude 15 April 2006
By Robert Morris - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a companion volume to Intellectuals (first published in 1988) in which Johnson focuses on a number of prominent as well as diverse intellectuals who include Rousseau, Shelley, Ibsen, Brecht, and Sartre. He proceeds in the same manner in Creators with his focus on an equally diverse group whose members include Chaucer, Bach, Austen, Eliot, and in Chapter 14, Picasso and Disney. Most of those who have already read one or more of Johnson's other works probably disagree with several of his opinions but no one can (or at least should) question the scope and depth of his erudition. Of course, the appeal and value of this book will depend almost entirely on each reader's own interests but I presume to suggest that this book be read in its entirety because several lesser known people (A.W.N. Pugin and Viollet-le-Duc, for example) are far more interesting than I (at least) anticipated.

The title of the first chapter (i.e. "The Anatomy of Creative Courage") could well have served as the book's subtitle. Each of the 17 whom Johnson rigorously examines demonstrated throughout their lives and careers extraordinary courage when pursuing their visions despite all manner of barriers. "What can be said is that creation is always difficult. If it is worth doing at all, we can be sure it is hard to do. I cannot think of any instance in which it is accurate, let along fair, to use the word `facile.'" Johnson also suggests that "courage and creativity are linked, for all creation requires intellectual courage." Also when overcoming physical disabilities, as well as severe poverty, alienation, voluntary or involuntary isolation (often resulting in severe loneliness), and constant awareness of hardships which one's loved ones have been forced to share and endure. "All the same," Johnson concludes, "creation is a marvelous business, and people who create at the highest level lead a privileged life, however arduous and difficult it may be. An interesting life, too, full of peculiar aspects and strange satisfactions. That is the message of this book."

Please keep in mind that this volume does not consist of 17 mini-biographies, although there is a wealth of biographical information provided. Nor is it a definitive critical analysis of what each of the subjects created, although their major achievements are acknowledged. Nor is it a cultural history, although Johnson briefly but deftly correlates a number of cross-generational themes. Granted, he could well have devoted an additional chapter to each of several others such as Vermeer, Mozart, Richard Wagner, Caravaggio, Mary Cassatt, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Emily Dickinson. (He does briefly discuss them in the first chapter.) I think it is important to realize what this book is not so that it can be properly understood and appreciated for what it is: what an uncommonly intelligent, eloquent, and erudite historian has found most interesting and informative in the lives and careers of 17 creators. "Creativity, I believe, is inherent in all of us. We are the progeny of almighty God...He created the universe, and those who inhabit it; and in creating us, he made us in his own image, so that his personality and capacities, however feebly, are reflected in our minds, bodies, and immortal spirits. So we are, by our nature, creators as well...and [because ] we are all made in God's image, there is creativity in all of us, and the only problem is how to bring it out. A farmer is creative -- none more so -- and so is a shoemaker."

I presume to suggest, however, paraphrasing George Orwell, that all human beings are creative but some are more creative than others.
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An interesting tour of creators in various art forms and what their work required of them 13 April 2006
By Craig Matteson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
There is a long line of books of lives and this is a quite interesting contribution to the genre. These kinds of books are not meant to be biographies as we know them today. This book has some points to make about the creative personality in its various manifestations over several centuries in many of the arts in the West. Yes, if you read a few dozen biographies you could get more in depth on each of the figures discussed here, but that would be a different project than Paul Johnson is after here.

The author wants us to see that the creative personality has certain tendencies, needs, and that society gains from this kind of individual even if there are also costs to those around him or her. There is also a vast range of personality. Some are healthy and vastly productive, others have a more restricted output, but still their contribution is large. Others have a toxic personality and then there is a full range in between. The real point here is to use these brief examinations of these creative artists to illustrate rather than to explain or provide some undergirding theory.

The chapters are arranged in a largely chronological order. This has some advantages in discussing artistic trends over time. Johnson includes authors and poets such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Hugo, Twain, and Eliot, but Dickens, the Br?ntes, and many other writers are discussed along the way as well. There are visual artists and architects beginning with D?rer, Turner, Hokusai, Pugin, le Duc, Tiffany, Picasso, and Disney. He also includes fashion designers Balenciaga and Dior with quite convincing observations for their inclusion.

Bach is the only musician given a chapter heading, but many other musicians are discussed along with Bach in his chapter. That is really the way each chapter is constructed. Each artist is discussed in a larger context, which requires discussion of other artists. For example, in discussing Jane Austen, many other women who managed to become artists in the face of huge social pressure are discussed to provide a richer context for Austen.

The book opens with a discussion of the anatomy of creative courage. This theme of courage to create and the way that courage is manifested in the lives of each of these artists is the unifying theme of the book, but there are other threads that we follow as well. We learn about the role of families in the lives of these artists (variously important), their access to professional training (not as important as you might expect), what a sympathetic or hostile social environment does to creativity (might make producing more difficult, but does not stop the most determined), what social change does (destroyed most of Tiffany's work and makes us poorer, and forced Balenciaga into a lonely retirement), and the differences between fine and fashion art and how that change occurred.

The last chapter discusses creativity in science and the use of metaphor in creation.

I think this is a very interesting, entertaining, and useful read. It is not a biography of each artist and should not be judged as such. This book has a different purpose and I think meets that purpose well. If you are an expert on any of the creators you will certainly judge what Johnson should have included differently than the author. However, you would be thinking as a biographer rather than trying to make the points Johnson is trying to make as a historian.

I also enjoyed Johnson's many personal observations and the anecdotes from more modern times with creators he actually met and some that he knew.

Enjoy!
20 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Profiles of Individual Artistic Creators, Musicians and Writers 24 Mar 2006
By Donald Mitchell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
If you've never read about the work and lives of these creators, you will like this book better than I did. For the most part, Mr. Johnson provides superficial details and makes very general judgments. If you read a standard biography of any of these people, you'll be more satisfied than with this book. But this book may give you an overview to find out which people you want to read more about.

For me, the most interesting parts came in the descriptions of Chaucer, Durer, Bach, Cassatt and Wagner. Who knew that Wagner used to beg money from people so he could live in luxury? Otherwise, he apparently had trouble writing operas. The characterization of Chaucer's contributions to language is inspired and intriguing. The book is filled with other similar dribs and drabs of fascinating details from the lives of monumental creators in the arts.

If you want to learn about how to be a creator, look elsewhere. This book is primarily historical and biographical rather than focused on the psychology and methodology of creativity.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Four stars for the facts, two for the tone... 4 Dec 2007
By William E. Adams - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
If you ever read the syndicated political columns of William F. Buckley, the premier American literary conservative of his era, you undoubtedly recall that once in each effort he threw in an obscure vocabulary word, precisely used by him, never encountered by his readers before. It was educational, if you had a dictionary handy, but because this quirk of his was used judiciously, (one might say conservatively), it was forgiven. Mr. Johnson, obviously a fine scholar with a great education, who has rubbed shoulders with some of the best thinkers of the 20th century, has the Buckley flaw, but to a fault. It seemed that a word or a foreign phrase which baffled me popped up 300 times. I have four years of college and I'm not inexperienced in the world at age 63, (as of yesterday) but I found this word-dropping to be offensive. The one time I ever saw Bill Buckley in person, he did his trick in a way that also offended me: The week of Martin Luther King's murder I saw Buckley in a debate on civil rights with Julian Bond at Vanderbilt University, and Buckley, referring to the assassination, called it a "regicide" which was too cute by half, and should have been resisted by such a disciplined man. Johnson almost goes that far as well. One learns a great deal about the famous and the relatively famous thinkers and creators he profiles between these covers, but his prose style is cumbersome, and his attitude tedious. It took me weeks to read this, because I was only content with putting up with the book for four or five pages at a sitting. I know a lot more about the subjects of this volume now, but I also know a lot more about its author, and that makes me little interested in his other works.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What makes creative talent flourish 11 Jan 2007
By Luis Zaldua - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The author of "Creators", the historian-cum-journalist Paul Johnson, identifies the reasons why people such as Shakespeare, Bach, Turner, Pugin, Balenciaga ,Walt Disney and a few others, have been so outstanding and prolific in their respective arts and crafts. Talent of course is a necessary requisite but is not enough. All those people were hardworking and loved their work. This love for their craft in turn led them not to be content with anything less than perfection. Besides, they were all innovators in their own manner: always searching for new ideas and novel ways of achieving the highest standards in their work.

The author devotes a chapter to each of these creators. There are all sorts of anecdotes illustrating their mastery. For example, Bach reached such heights at composing music for organ that the best organ makers asked him for advice as to how to build organs so that they could produce more beautiful sounds. Pugin died young at 41 but by then he had built several cathedrals and the Houses of Parliament -he made such good use of his time. Balenciaga not only made women look gorgeous in the dresses he designed and produced for them, but also made them feel comfortable in those dresses. T. S. Eliot was so shy that he needed a stimulating alcoholic drink to be able to start writing poetry. Picasso led modern art on a path away from nature while Disney sought his inspiration in nature, which he "surrealized" (to use a word coined by Johnson) in his films: the author guesses at the tendency that will have the last word.

The book is written with an elegant prose which is suffused with Johnson's incomparable knowledge of history and a flair for the revealing anecdote which only a seasoned journalist could have possibly recorded. "Creators" is thus well worth reading.
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