Highlights of a Life
A Literary Career with Big Beginnings
Josephine Johnson was born June 20, 1910, in Kirkwood, Missouri. She was the daughter of Benjamin H., a merchant, and Ethel (Franklin) Johnson. After growing up in Kirkwood, Johnson attended Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, but gave up, degreeless, in 1932 to return to her family’s farm.
John Fleischman writes in Ohio Magazine, March 1983: “She set up a desk in the attic under a dormer window and wrote and wrote and wrote… The stories from the attic appeared in magazines. A New York editor wrote to ask if she was considering a novel. She wrote Now in November at the farm and was at home there one spring day when a newspaper reporter rang her up to tell her that Now in November had won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for 1934. She was twenty-four.”
Writes Richard Greenleaf in Contemporary Novelists:
Now in November… came out of a time when the whole of the economy of the United States was in crisis, and when the agricultural economy was still in the throes of an even older crisis. It tells the story of small farmers in Missouri. A pall of doom is made to hang over every turn of every season, culminating in disastrous fire. And the emotional patterns within the family she depicts are far from idyllic. Yet somehow it is more a celebration of rural life than a denunciation. It has more bitterness than anger, more resignation than protest… the significant view it gave of a part of American life was odd at the time and is still almost entirely unique.
The experience of winning the Pulitzer for one’s very first novel, published at age 24, is also almost entirely unique. Riding on this preliminary success, Johnson published several more volumes composed in her mother’s attic: Winter Orchard and Other Stories, a collection of short stories, in 1936; Unwilling Gypsy and Year’s End, both books of poems, in 1936 and 1939, respectively; Jordanstown, a novel, in 1937; Paulina: The Story of an Apple-Butter Pot, in 1939.
Writes Richard Greenleaf of Johnson’s 1937 novel:
Jordanstown was an attempt to increase the proportion of anger and protest in her fiction, in step with the movement for the “proletarian novel” of that time. It was by far less successful than her initial effort, and bears the marks of having been nurtured in a publisher’s office rather than in an author’s heart.
“Real Life” Begins
The title “Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist” followed Josephine Johnson for the next fifty years, like an audience demanding an encore. Writes John Fleischman:
However it appeared to strangers in the Thirties, celebrity was privately no magic elixir for Josephine. The years of being the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist writing in her mother’s attic were a time of marking time. “I seemed to be waiting to begin to live,” she wrote in Seven Houses, “and not all the beauty, all the intensity of the words on paper… all the desperate search for reform and change, the bitterness of the depression years, not the love for my sisters nor the tortuous refining of personal philosophy, seemed to be the reality of living that I wanted to find. And then I met Grant Cannon and the waiting to live was over and the real life began.”
Josephine married Grant G. Cannon, editor in chief of the Farm Quarterly, in 1942, and they lived in Iowa City while she taught at the University of Iowa for the next three years. The couple moved to Hamilton County, Ohio in 1947, and Josephine published her first novel in nearly a decade, Wildwood. In 1956 the Cannons bought thirty-seven acres of land outside Cincinnati, and they invited a state forester to come have a look at it. Josephine wrote:
“What can we do to make a nature preserve?” we asked [the forester] cautiously, the title belonging to vaster things such as the Serengeti Plain.
“Sit back,” he said, “and watch the ecology develop.”
That was all, and the tide of that odd word has come.
By this time Josephine had given birth to three children: Terence, Ann, and Carol. As they let the greenery and wildlife develop on their land, they had what they began to call an “inland island” in the midst of Cincinnati suburbia. As Fleischman writes, “Real life as a mother of three and the superintendent of an island cut into her literary output. But the Sixties seemed to give her a second literary wind.”
Josephine published The Dark Traveler in 1963, and Granville Hicks said of it, “Her voice is, as it always has been, quite her own, quiet, precise, thoughtful, authoritative.” The Sorcerer’s Son and Other Stories was published in 1965. According to Fleischman, the collection was “well received.”
Returning to the Spotlight
On New Year’s Day, 1967, Josephine began work on The Inland Island, a book about her family’s nature preserve, peppered with her commentary on war and the state of the world. The book is divided into twelve sections, one for each month, and it records her observations of the family’s acres of land over the course of the year.
According to Fleischman, “Simon & Schuster was very enthusiastic about The Inland Island. Her editor, Michael Korda, thought it was a book for the times and the times were 1968…Simon & Schuster had a good hunch that a book about ‘ecology’ seasoned sparingly with withering anti-war commentary had possibilities.”
This promising news was paired with cause for despair, when Grant Cannon was diagnosed with cancer. Fleischman writes: “While Grant succumbed, The Inland Island prospered… it was partly Grant’s book. He had put his foot down when Josephine had wanted to cut out all the short sections of moral commentary. No, Grant said, leave them in. They would give the book its strength. They would give the book its meaning.” Grant Cannon died in 1969.
Edward Abbey wrote about The Inland Island in The New York Times, with its “delicate marvels, compassionate observations and – strangest and lovliest of all – passionate denunciations.” Many critics compared the work favorably to Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, and credited the book with helping to popularize ecological concerns.
Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Johnson used the celebrity status the Pulitzer had earned her to work for causes that she cared about. In the Gale Contemporary Authors Literary Database, her hobbies are listed as “Conservation of nature, world peace, elimination of poverty, beautification of cities, freedom of speech.”
In an essay in The New York Times in 1969, Josephine denounced those she thought were destroying the environment: “A vast throng of people are working night and day, destroying all they still call their native land. Who are these people… Who pollutes the air? Who cuts down the trees, builds houses on the stripped hillsides? Who poisons the sheep, shoots the deer, oils the beaches, dams and rivers, dries up the swamps, concretes the countrysides?”
In “Contemporary Novelists,” Richard Greenleaf writes:
The world of Josephine Johnson’s fiction is circumscribed and quiet, but not untroubled and not without echoes of the wider and more troubled outer world. The affairs in her books are affairs of jealousy, rejection, disappointment, and frustration, relieved on every page by the beauty of nature and the music of breath and blood. Larger affairs are not so much shut out as reflected and symbolized. ‘Salamanders and fungus seem more exciting to me than war or politics,’ she wrote early in her career, ‘but it is cowardly and impossible to ignore them or try to escape.’
As she aged, Josephine Johnson spent more time observing her nature preserve, and less time writing. She would publish three more books before her death, from pneumonia, on February 27, 1990, in Batavia, Ohio. She lived to be 79 years old.