I like to think that the last thoughts of Haynes Johnson were happy ones. Johnson, a longtime reporter for the Washington Post and the author of many sweeping books about American life in toto, died in late May. Days later came the publication of a new book by George Packer, a writer for the New Yorker, called The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. The new book has the trademark Johnsonian (Haynes, not Dr.) sweep, embodies the same Johnsonian ambition to force Americans to face the unpleasant truth about themselves. We can hope that Haynes moved on to the next world knowing that this one had found his successor at last.
Johnson was his era’s chief practitioner of Jeremiah journalism; the news he brought was always bad, and spongy with a thick syrup of moral reproach. He had his rivals. My favorite piece of Jeremiah journalism is The Reckoning, by David Halberstam, who took upon himself the grim duty of informing his fellow Americans that their entire country was about to be bought by small, sack-suited businessmen from Japan. This was in 1986.
Haynes had the same dirge playing endlessly in his head and in his books. In brief, which he never was, his theme was that America was falling apart. He first warned us about this in his 1980 book, In the Absence of Power. Ten years later, in Sleepwalking Through History, he warned us that America, during the misleadingly happy and prosperous Reagan years, had forgotten that it was falling apart. In Divided We Fall (1994), he produced fresh evidence that America was falling apart. And so on through the Age of Anxiety (2005) up to The Battle for America (2009). Most of his books were best-sellers. Leafing through them, I pluck at random the essential Haynes sentence: “Both at home and abroad, Americans live in a time of great uncertainties.” And we still do!
The sentence could have been written by George Packer. Packer has inherited not only the prophetic and scolding tone of Haynes Johnson but also the master’s professional tricks. I hope I’m not giving away trade secrets here. Johnson’s books were what we hacks call a notebook dump. His job at the Washington Post allowed him to travel the country, filing stories about the increasingly chaotic and uncertain times. Invariably—through winter or fall, recession or recovery, foul weather or fair—he found a land of dwindling resources and rising cynicism and failing institutions, peopled by a handful of clueless or devious rich people, a lumpen mass of bitter but strangely noble poor people, a thin and brittle middle class, all trembling in fear that they will lose what they have or never get what they have not. Then after a while he would string those stories into a book, whose narrative, as a consequence, could at times seem discontinuous or herky-jerky. Book publishers hate mere collections of recycled journalism. The problem is solved as always through clever wordsmithing. Rather than “a bunch of articles I wrote over the last few years about different stuff,” the book could be described as a “collage”—a kaleidoscope, even!—taking as its subject matter nothing less than the vastness of America itself. Yeah, sure. America. That’s the ticket.