Denis Johnson Honored and Remembered

The following is a guest post by Marie Arana, literary advisor to the Library of Congress; coordinator of the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction; and the literary director of the National Book Festival.

Denis Johnson, winner of the 2017 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. Photo by Cindy Johnson.

My first encounter with Denis Johnson was harrowing and it was on the page. As a literary critic, I had read his short stories and novels—searing distillations of a generation’s hallucinatory voyage through the Vietnam War and its bitter sequels. Tree of Smoke. Jesus’ Son. Train Dreams. It was all there: the disillusionment, the alienation, the drug addiction, and a heartbreaking, post-traumatic lurch through an America that was no longer recognizable. For all the wounds he touched in the retelling, for all the broken souls he brought to the task, Johnson managed to find something transcendent about the humanity in question. This was a voice we had not heard before. One could not help but listen.

My second encounter with Denis was exhilarating and it was in person. It was this past spring and the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, had just called him to tell him that the 27 distinguished writers and critics on the jury of the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction had just elected him to this prestigious award. As organizer of that jury and coordinator of the prize, I shot him a brief message to ask how he felt about this news. He wrote back immediately, “Marie! The list of past awardees is daunting, and I’m honored to be in such company. My head’s spinning from such great news!” He was ecstatic.

My next exchange with him was dismaying. He couldn’t come to collect the prize in September, he said. There were health problems. He wasn’t well. He understood—and quite correctly—that part and parcel of accepting this prize is an appearance at the National Book Festival (at which the prize is always conferred), a speaking obligation, and attendance at a very public and joyful tribute to his work.

I called him shortly thereafter to assure him he didn’t have to come. We were sorry he wasn’t feeling well; we would give him the prize anyway. Perhaps we could film him wherever he was and simply show the video at the prize ceremony. Perhaps he could send a statement someone could read on his behalf. We had a long, rambling conversation about this. But, in the end, he demurred, saying he wasn’t sure he could manage any of it.

A few days later, on May 24, 2017, he was dead.

It was a devastating shock to his family. A devastating surprise to his legions of fans. He had not been well with one thing or another, it was true. But no one had expected him to fail so soon. He was 67 years old.

Denis Johnson. Photo by Cindy Johnson.

For years, Johnson’s name had been raised as a possible contender for the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. The award is almost a decade old and, according to the Library, “is meant to honor an American literary writer whose body of work is distinguished not only for its mastery of the art but also for its originality of thought and imagination.” Begun to honor a single writer, Herman Wouk, in 2008, it grew to honor many and now involves a jury of 27 eminent writers and critics whose identity is kept anonymous. Except that you know who at least seven of them are: the prize’s previous winners—John Grisham, Isabel Allende, Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, E.L. Doctorow (now deceased), Don DeLillo, Louise Erdrich, and Marilynne Robinson. The rest of the jurors are Nobel Prize winners, Man Booker Prize winners, and an assortment of some of the most respected literary critics in the country.

This past year, Philip Roth wrote in his citation praising the jury’s choice: “When I was asked to nominate a writer for this year’s Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction I did so in eight words: ‘My sole nominee is the great Denis Johnson.’ Johnson brought news from the darkest, wildest depths of American life.… From the moment I began reading his terrifying first novel Angels, I felt his strength and his daring and recognized his place of eminence among those of his brilliant American predecessors for whom desperation and savagery were depicted with searing originality. . . . There was no one like him in tracking the descent of what he called in Already Dead ‘isolated minds bending around tightly to feed on themselves.’”

You can find this and many other citations by fellow writers (Louise Erdrich, Jonathan Franzen, Don DeLillo, Michael Cunningham, Marilynne Robinson, Nathan Englander, Zadie Smith, etc.) on this website as well.

The prize was finally conferred in a packed hall at the National Book Festival on September 2, 2017. More than a thousand readers were in attendance. The very moving ceremony, presided over by Deputy Librarian of Congress Robert Newlen, was attended by the publisher of Random House, Susan Kamil; Johnson’s editor, Sam Nicholson; and his agent and good friend, Nicole Aragi. The crystal, along with a bound book of the citations, has now been presented to the author’s widow, Cindy Johnson.

I’m greatly looking forward to the Library’s 2018 spring symposium celebrating the timely themes in Denis Johnson’s work: the human cost of war, the ravages of addiction, and the incandescent literature that has emerged from them. Miraculously, a collection of new stories by Denis, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden (submitted to his editor shortly before his death) will be published at the very start of 2018. Check back here for details on this upcoming event. We hope to see you there!

Nicole Aragi accepts the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction from Deputy Librarian of Congress Robert Newlen on behalf of recipient Denis Johnson, September 2, 2017. Photo by Claire Gardiner.

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Learn more about Denis Johnson on his Fiction Prize page. You can also view the tribute video played at the prize ceremony, and read citations by writers and critics on Johnson’s work.

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