Writing primarily between 1913 and 1920, Fenton Johnson produced a group of memorable poems expressing despair about race relations. Other significant poems use language to convey the power of spirituals. Johnson was part of the new imagistic poetry of the early twentieth century, which had Midwestern and specifically Chicago roots. A self-published writer and founding editor of two short-lived periodicals, Johnson struggled to earn a living as a writer. Although these efforts and his attempts at social reform failed, his works have remained in print in anthologies from the 1920s into the early 2000s.
Around 1918 Johnson married Cecilia Rhone, whom he called "the woman of his dreams" ("The Story of Myself"). He was a member of the Authors League of America and of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.
In the 1930s, Johnson was employed in the Works Progress Administration and his final poems draw upon that experience. He did not publish beyond that period. Any known remaining additional works were destroyed when a basement storage area was flooded prior to his death in 1958.
Fenton Johnson was born in Chicago on May 7, 1888 to Elijah H. and Jesse Taylor Johnson. Elijah Johnson's work as a railroad porter enabled him to provide his family with relative financial security, which included owning the State Street building in which they lived. In a 1963 biographical note, Arna Bontemps described Fenton Johnson as "a dapper boy who drove his own electric automobile around Chicago."
Johnson completed high school in Chicago, after having attended both Englewood High School and Wendell Phillips High School. He studied at Northwestern University in 1908–1909 and at the University of Chicago more briefly thereafter. He worked as a messenger and in the post office in Chicago before teaching English at State University (later Simmons College) in Louisville, Kentucky in 1910–1911. The Louisville experience was disappointing: Johnson was not paid even the promised meager salary. He returned to Chicago to concentrate on his literary ambitions.
Johnson began his literary efforts when he was quite young, and he published his first poem in 1900 in a Chicago newspaper. By the time he was nineteen, he had written plays which were performed at Chicago's Pekin Theatre. According to Elizabeth Englehardt, Johnson wrote plays at least through 1925, the year that The Cabaret Girl was staged at Chicago's Shadow Theatre.
Johnson's main genre was poetry. In 1913 he published his first volume, A Little Dreaming, which, like all his work, was self-published. He dedicated the book to his grandmother, Ellen Johnson, who may have been the book's sponsor. Johnson expressed his appreciation to her as one "whose life was a poem full of tender sympathy and wholesome striving."
Johnson moved to New York, where, with financial support from another benefactor, he studied journalism at Columbia University's Pulitzer School. He wrote for the Eastern Press Association and was the acting drama editor of the New York News. He also published two poetry volumes, Visions of the Dusk (1915) and Songs of the Soil (1916).
Encouraged by positive reviews, Johnson returned to Chicago, where he continued his work as a journalist. He was the founding editor of The Champion in 1916, a monthly magazine which focused on black achievements. It included articles seeking reform, which he called "The Reconciliation Movement." His goal was to bring about racial harmony and in the process to address issues related to stability and order in society. The Champion folded in 1917, and although Johnson still spoke of reform in his later endeavors, his Reconciliation Movement had little impact.
Johnson founded his next venture, The Favorite Magazine, in 1918. Looking back on the origin of The Favorite, he observed in "The Story of Myself: "I had nothing save a meager allowance from a relative but I was determined to have a magazine and conceived the idea that I could accomplish a large number of reforms and the creation of a new literature through a magazine of my own." The Favorite lasted until 1920, when Johnson published For the Highest Good (essays) and Tales of Darkest America (short stories and brief sketches), both volumes using materials Johnson had written for The Favorite.
Johnson's work received attention in a wider context between 1918 and 1921 when several of his poems were published in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, edited by Harriet Monroe. He also had several poems published in 1919 in Others, edited by Alfred Kreymborg. These periodicals presented the new poetry. Johnson's style fit in well with those of other Midwestern poets and writers, such as Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters.
In the 1930s, Johnson worked for the Federal Writers' Project, part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in Chicago. Arna Bontemps directed the unit, which focused on writing about the Negro in Illinois. Bontemps was Johnson's literary executor.
- Born in Chicago on May 7
- Publishes first book, A Little Dreaming
- Founds The Favorite Magazine
- Publishes For the Highest Good and Tales of Darkest America
- Works for the Federal Writers' Project
- Dies in Chicago on September 17
Johnson's poems published between 1913 and 1916 often feature thick plantation dialect or use what Shirley Lumpkin has termed "genteel, imitative Victorian dic-tion," in exploring commonplace themes. Even so, Johnson was interested in a range of topics, as illustrated by "The Song of the Titanic Victim" and "The Plaint of the Factory Child" in A Little Dreaming. That volume also demonstrates Johnson's use of ballad themes related to Scottish, German, and Jewish traditions as well as to classical and medieval settings. Like Paul Laurence Dunbar, the subject of praise in one of the poems in Dreaming, Johnson did not want to be limited to dialect poetry presenting simple expressions about plantation life.
Even though Songs of the Soil includes many poems that use artificially literary diction, Johnson did not use this language in the poems he identified as Negro spirituals. He explains in his introduction to Songs that dialect could not do justice to the spirituals' "barbaric splendor." The contrast in language is evident by comparing "Plantation Prayer" and "Shout, My Brother." Of the two, Johnson identifies only "Shout" as a spiritual. "Plantation Prayer" begins "No othah joy, O Lawd, but jes' to wu'k,/ No othah joy but jes' to love mah folks." Such sentimentality and diction contrast sharply with lines from "Shout, My Brother, Shout": "Hoeing cotton t∘ll day of Judgment/ We will reign with God in Heaven/ Shout, my brother! Shout!" The elements of pain and hardship integral in Johnson's most memorable poems are also seen in "Harlem: The Black City" in Songs of the Soil: "We ask for life, men give us wine,/ We ask for rest, men give us death."
In The Book of Negro Poetry (1922; 1931), James Weldon Johnson noted that Fenton Johnson's expression of "fatalistic despair" brought a new element to African American poetry. This despair is illustrated in "Tired," which includes the directive: "Throw the children in the river; civilization has given/ us too many. It is better to die than to grow up/ and find out that you are colored." Pioneering critic of African American literature J. Saunders Redding found these lines "false to the emotion of despair as the Negro feels it." Redding preferred Johnson's more positive "Children of the Sun." In any case, as Redding points out, Johnson's despairing stance is distinctive in African American literature.
Fenton Johnson worked valiantly for several years to support himself as a writer. His most memorable poetry has its roots in African American culture and experiences. These poems demonstrate the lean, carefully honed verse characterizing American poetry which gained importance through the work of many other Midwestern-based poets and critics in the early decades of the twentieth century.
Johnson's lasting significance despite a relatively small output is demonstrated in his continued presence in anthologies. In the 1920s, in addition to appearing in James Weldon Johnson's Book of American Negro Poetry, his work was published in Harriet Monroe and Alice Corbin's The New Poetry: An Anthology of Twentieth Century Verse in English (1923) and in Countee Cullen's Caroling Dusk (1927).
Other anthologies which include Johnson's work are Arna Bontemps' American Negro Poetry (1963); Ruth Miller's Black American Literature: 1760–Present (1971); Abraham Chapman's Black Voices: An Anthology of African American Literature (1968); Richard Barks-dale and Kenneth Kinnamon's Black Writers of America: A Comprehensive Anthology (1972); Robert Hayden's Kaleidoscope (1982); Arthur P. Davis, J. Saunders Redding, and Joyce Ann Joyce's The New Cavalcade (1991); the Library of America's American Poetry of the Twentieth Century Volume I (2000); and Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie McKay's Norton Anthology of African American Literature (2004).
Bell, Bernard W. "Johnson, Fenton." Dictionary of American Negro Biography. Eds. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. New York: Norton, 1982.
Bontemps, Arna, ed. American Negro Poetry. New York: Hill and Wang, 1963.
Brown, Sterling. Negro Poetry and Drama and the Negro in American Fiction. New York: Atheneum, 1969.
Davis, Arthur P. From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900–1960. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1981.
Engelhardt, Elizabeth Sanders Delwiche. "Johnson, Fenton." The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Eds. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Lumpkin, Shirley. "Johnson, Fenton." Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 45: American Poets, 1880–1945. First Series. Ed. Peter Quartermain. Detroit, Mich.: The Gale Group, 1986.
Redding, J. Saunders. To Make a Poet Black. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1939, rpt. College Park, Maryland: McGrath, 1968.
Redmond, Eugene B. Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry: A Critical History. New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1976.
Worthington-Smith, Hammett. "Johnson, Fenton." Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 50: Afro-American Writers Before the Harlem Renaissance. Ed. Trudier Harris. Detroit, Mich.: The Gale Group, 1986.
Breman, Paul, ed. "Fenton Johnson: The Daily Grind." Heritage Black Poetry Pamphlet 2. London: Parchment, 1994. Limited Printing (100 copies).
The John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library at Fisk University has in its Special Collections Department a manuscript of forty-two poems associated with Johnson's WPA years. Other sources for works by Johnson are in the papers of Harriet Monroe at the Joseph Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago and in the Cullen-Jackman Memorial Collection in the Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center. The Cullen-Jackman Collection includes correspondence between Johnson and Arna Bontemps.