Over at Bookforum, Terence Riley reviews the Philip Johnson Tapes. I am thoroughly delighted by the review. The Philip Johnson Tapes was fascinating to put together and its great that it’s getting some attention.
Two things are worth expanding on. I certainly appreciated Riley’s point that at times the interviews "do little to make Johnson more accessible, underscoring instead how impossibly distant his life experience was from most of ours." Absolutely. As T. J. Clark has written, "modernity is our antiquity." I am glad the book conveys the foreignness of that time to us.
When Riley mentions that "the most rigorous of historians will have to look elsewhere" to fact-check certain information on Johnson, it’s unlikely that people will find much more. The archives have largely been exhausted and the team of researchers at Stern’s office did an first-rate job digging up what they could. Here and there, I’m sure we’ll find something, but on the whole, great mysteries are going to remain barring the release of unseen archival material. For example, what was Johnson doing translating Werner Sombart’s Weltanschauung, Science and Economy? What was his involvement with the Veritas press, which was, in part at least, sponsored by the Nazi government? How about his friendship with Viola Bodenschatz, wife of Major General Karl Bodenschatz, Hermann Goering’s top aide? Johnson’s life falls in the inconvenient period in which people neither communicated primarily via letters (his chief letter-writing phase ends around 1931, or so it seems) nor via e-mail but rather via telephone. To address that difficult time, as I explain in my conclusion to the book, historian Allan Nevins developed oral history. And so it is, that with the oral history of Johnson’s life in hand, we’re unlikely to get a whole lot more.
Once again, for emphasis: modernity is our antiquity.