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Denis Johnson papers open for research

A selection of discs from Denis Johnson's collection. Johnson’s handwritten note states, 'these discs are the only copies of any drafts from before 1992.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni. Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center.
A selection of discs from Denis Johnson's collection. Johnson’s handwritten note states, 'these discs are the only copies of any drafts from before 1992.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni. Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center.

Since July 2011, Harry Ransom Center archivist Amy Armstrong has been processing and cataloging the Denis Johnson papers, which are now available for research. Armstrong shares her insight about processing the Johnson materials.

“Guess what collection I just started processing?” I asked my husband in a voice that implied he would be jealous. “Denis Johnson!” Johnson is the author of Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke. I have his books in my house and he is one of my husband’s favorite writers. So from the beginning, I felt lucky. But then again, I always do. As an archivist at the Harry Ransom Center, every day I have the honor and privilege of interacting with fascinating material.

Though primarily composed of writing notes and drafts, Johnson’s papers have a definite intimacy. He created extensive notes and drafts for most of his works, and, at times, he wrote on whatever was at hand, including the back of checks, envelopes, receipts, a set of paper coasters, a paper plate, and a paper towel. One can’t help but picture Johnson sitting at a table somewhere, moved by something he heard or saw, which sparked a thought he just had to get down immediately on whatever he could grab. This may not be what happened at all, but seeing this note written on a paper plate allowed me to connect with Johnson in his everyday life and envision how he lives and works.

Though there is not a lot of professional correspondence in the papers, there are some early personal letters Johnson wrote as a teenager to his parents. These candid letters reveal a young man who already seems to possess the writer’s eye and a gift for observing, assessing, and describing the human condition. In a letter written when he was 17, Johnson, who is working away from home for his uncle in South Carolina, reports on members of his extended family:

Uncle C. S. told me tonight to take engineering in college, and he would give me a job…I told him I wanted to become a writer. He was shocked and completely unable to understand why anyone would want to devote himself to such a worthless occupation. I think if I were one of his own children, he would have beaten me.

Self-assured Johnson goes on to say, “It doesn’t really bother me what C. S. thinks, though, because our values are at such opposite extremes.” Later in the letter, he provides a snapshot of his aunt.

She is so wrapped up in taking care of her home and family that she has little time for anything else. Today in the news there was a story about a Buddhist monk burning himself. She commented that he was not very devout because it says in the Bible that suicide is wrong. I tried to explain to her that Buddhist monks aren’t interested in being good Christians. I don’t think she understood what I was trying to say.

Letters written from college about expected subjects (please send some money, my grades are improving) report Johnson’s struggles in his unmistakable voice and demonstrate his ability to turn a humorous light on some of life’s more trying moments. Johnson updates his parents about his writing in almost all the letters. Here’s an excerpt from one letter:

The stories are coming as fast and furiously as stories can come. Unfortunately my ability to criticize is fast outstripping my ability to write, and I am disappointed in everything. But a good writer is able to quickly fix the blame on a typewriter, the lighting, the weather, the president, and so on.

He also recounts stories of his daily life such as this excerpt about his infant son:

He still does his morning chores, which he picked out for himself and which consist of turning over the wastepaper baskets, emptying the ashtrays (onto the floor), and de-shelving all magazines. He seems to look upon himself as something of a hunter also. Only yesterday he captured my cigarette papers and drowned and mangled them, leaving me smokeless for today.

Though few in number, these early letters reveal a story about Johnson’s early writing and the talented author he was to become.

The Denis Johnson papers are now open for research and consist of professional and personal papers that document Johnson’s diverse writing career and showcase a broad range of creative output that includes poetry, short stories, novels, essays, journalism articles, screenplays, and scripts.

To celebrate the opening of the papers, the Ransom Center will be giving away ten signed copies of Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. Visit the Ransom Center’s Facebook page to see some of the Johnson materials—from a paper plate to coasters—and select your favorite for the chance to win.

To Keep or Not to Keep: Denis Johnson and his papers

A selection of discs from Denis Johnson's collection. The handwritten note points out that 'These discs are the only copies of any drafts from before 1992.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
A selection of discs from Denis Johnson's collection. The handwritten note points out that 'These discs are the only copies of any drafts from before 1992.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
As an avid reader of Denis Johnson’s work (I bought my first Playboy magazine to read Nobody Move in serial form), I was thrilled to have the opportunity to go through his papers. Seeing Johnson speak at the 2008 Flair Symposium, “Creating a Usable Past: Writers, Archives, & Institutions,” had amplified, for me at least, the desire to know as much as one can about a favorite author. Flair’s intimate venue and Johnson’s candidness about his own archive gave mystique to his lost work and to what he has decided to save—for with Johnson, this decision is both deliberate and thoughtful. For those who weren’t there, here is a video of Johnson discussing his past habit of throwing away drafts and one of his more recent decisions to destroy a notebook, essentially censoring his own archive.

Two years after Flair, among the most exciting finds in Johnson’s papers were two pages of a draft of “Emergency,” a story from Jesus’ Son, which had been severely crumpled and then smoothed out to fit in a folder with other drafts of the story. One can only speculate as to why these pages were crumpled, but perhaps they are a testament to Johnson’s statement that, after hearing that poet Donald Justice received $17,000 for the drafts of one of his books, Johnson “went upstairs and emptied his wastebasket.” Scholars and fans alike will be grateful that he did.

There are treasures relating to his early life and even some drafts dated before 1992 (Johnson included a note with several stacks of floppy discs stating “These discs are the only copies of any drafts from before 1992″). There is a binder of press clippings housed with a mother’s devotion in neat, plastic sleeves; letters, report cards, and other mementos of Johnson’s youth; a draft of the story “Happy Hour,” from Jesus’ Son, dated 9-26-1991, and another draft bearing the alternate title “Electric Child on Bad Fun”—a draft that proved to be quite different from its published form.

Johnson said that it was “liberating” to throw away drafts because they “were like skins [he] was shedding and leaving behind.” He adds that this process of shedding skins did more for him as an artist than his drafts could for a researcher. But after Johnson decided to save his skins, his awareness of his papers’ archival destination raises an issue new to the modern area: censorship. It’s hard to imagine Evelyn Waugh or Charlotte Bronte experiencing self-consciousness about writing in a journal because a scholar might someday read it and scoff, but many of today’s top authors are aware that placing their papers at libraries engages part of an important branch of scholarship (and occasionally comes with a pay-off). What does this self-awareness mean for them as artists and archivists, and what does it mean for the future of archives? I’m not one to speculate, but I expect that as more living writers place their archives at libraries, the nature of the archive will evolve, for better or worse.