Johnson, Josephine Winslow

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JOHNSON, Josephine Winslow

Born 20 June 1910, Kirkwood, Missouri; died 27 February 1990

Daughter of Benjamin and Ethel Franklin Johnson; married Thurlow Smoot, 1939; Grant G. Cannon, 1942 (died 1969); children: three

Josephine Winslow Johnson was reared on a 100-acre farm in south-central Missouri. Reflecting on her mother's lineage, Johnson has noted the long dominance of Franklins, i.e., Anglo-Saxon freeholders, untitled agrarians with a fervent attachment to specific pieces of land. The strength of this passion is intensified in Johnson.

At the age of eight, Johnson wrote a poem to mark the end of the war and glimpsed her vocation as a writer. Her first novel, Now in November (1934 reprinted in 1991), brought her the Pulitzer Prize. Another novel—as well as poems and short stories—soon appeared, for in these years, Johnson says she "wrote, if not endlessly, then enormously." Her first marriage, to a Labor Relations Board lawyer, only perpetuated her growing sense that (as she said in her autobiography, Seven Houses: A Memoir of Time and Places, 1973), "I seemed to be waiting to begin to live." Later in Grant Cannon she found a partner whose hopeful nature temporarily dispelled her own profound pessimism. With Cannon, an editor of Farm Quarterly, she raised three children. His death in 1969 took from her one who, in her words, "made no lifelong truce with despair as I have made."

Although her work covers many decades and genres, the important themes almost all appear in the early fiction. Now in November celebrates the land and the self-sufficient farm family even while it deplores the Depression and the tyranny of weather. The work is lit by occasional set pieces of nature description and by a clear attention to the limited point of view of the narrator, the middle daughter on a small Missouri farm, as she remembers her childhood and her growing understanding of her sister's mental illness. The private drama of sister Kerrin's suicide and the mother's death is played out against the social background of financial disaster for small farmers during the 1930s. Although the novel betrays the influence of the social protest fiction of Sinclair and Steinbeck, much of it is more reminiscent of the naturalism of Hardy or Zola.

Johnson's second novel, Jordanstown (1937), about a small-town newspaperman and community organizer during the Depression, is less successful because the didactic ideology of socialist realism is too little camouflaged. Still, Jordanstown has memorable elements: Stefan, the baker, whose obstinate hope buoys the protesters as much as his hot breads do; the stifling July death of the child whose sick, malnourished mother does not even realize the girl has died. Johnson's third and fourth novels, Wildwood (1945) and The Dark Traveler (1963), are disappointing. Slips into omniscience only remind us of the strength of the earlier limited point of view. The anguish surfacing in the earlier fiction is here completely unrelieved, and the loss of the idealism of the socialist movements of the 1930s is reflected in the agnostic's cry in Wildwood : "A voice mocking and mechanical, final and unanswerable: and the Lord said, Let there be no light."

Johnson's short fiction, however, shows that more compact forms better display both her descriptive talents and her facility with surprise endings. "Gedacht," her first published short story, is the best of the Winter Orchard (1935) collection. It concerns a World War I veteran who, having lost his sight from poison gas, regains it briefly. Johnson's early poetry incorporates the themes of her fiction: social protest, loss of religious faith, love of nature, and the struggle with cynicism.

A publishing hiatus of almost 20 years occurred in Johnson's mid-career, and when she resumed publication, some very different genre preferences manifested themselves. She produced essays, memoirs, and diaries instead of fiction. Johnson's vision became quieter, more introspective, more ameliorated by the natural world, although social concerns and pessimism are still there. Thus The Inland Island (1969, reprinted 1996), a kind of nature journal in the style of Walden, laments the Vietnam War and promotes the environmental movement in the midst of solitary meditations and exquisite observations on the natural year. With The Circle of Seasons (1974), the text for a book of nature photographs, Johnson reiterates the themes begun in Now in November. It is both an ode and an elegy that celebrates and questions: "Will there be any rhythm and difference of season left, any feeling of the great circular flow of living things [for our children]?"

Johnson has contributed brilliantly to the "proletarian" tradition in American letters. Indeed, one is frequently tempted to rank her with the great shapers of that tradition, London, Sinclair, Norris, and Steinbeck. But Johnson's activity displays other dimensions that make her difficult to categorize, for she is also a writer of naturalistic fiction, a didactic poet, a Thoreauvian essayist, and an anguished contemplative decrying militarism and the inhumanity of modern technology. In a time when the often divided currents of agrarianism, radical trade unionism, conservationism, and militant pacifism seem about to form a curious new merger, Johnson's lifelong nurturing of these concerns may prompt a rediscovery of her achievement.

Other Works:

Unwilling Gypsy (1936). Year's End (1937). Paulina: The Story of an Apple-Butter Jar (1939). The Sorcerer's Son, and Other Stories (1965).

The manuscripts and papers of Josephine Winslow Johnson are housed in the Rare Books Collection at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.


Carter, Q. R., "Josephine W. Johnson and the Pulitzer: The Shaping of a Life" (thesis, 1995).

Reference works:

CA (1971). CN (1976). NCAB. TCA. TCAS.

Other references:

Nation (21 Aug. 1935). NYHT (13 Sept. 1934, 13 Aug. 1935). NYT (16 Sept. 1934, 11 April 1937). NYTBR (2 Mar. 1969, 13 May 1973). Saturday Review (3 Apr. 1937, 15 Feb. 1969).


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Johnson, Josephine Winslow

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