Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"Like nothing else in Tennessee"

I went to a very moving memorial service earlier this afternoon for a long-ago former professor of mine, Barbara Johnson.

She was an extraordinary teacher as well as a remarkable scholar and writer - as I thought about the seminar I took with her in the spring of 1992, I realized she perfectly exemplified the thing described in that essay of Wayne Booth's I recently quoted on college teaching. She downplayed her own very considerable personal and intellectual charisma in an attractive show of self-abnegation; the readerly virtues she taught were modest but also very powerful.

I dug out the syllabus this weekend from an old box of files in my office, and was struck by how strongly I was affected by many of these readings - this was the first time I encountered Saussure's anagrams and the prose poems of Francis Ponge by way of Derrida's Signeponge - I remained in intellectual thrall for some years after to the truly wonderful essay by Roman Jakobson titled "Two Types of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances".

I especially like the paradoxical combination of eclecticism and focus displayed in the cluster of texts grouped under the heading of "The Aesthetic Object: Part I": Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn", Wallace Stevens' "Anecdote of the Jar", Carolyn Forche's "The Colonel" and Heidegger's essay "The Thing".

People sometimes laugh at me when I say this - academics and non-academics alike! - but really the reason I am an academic rather than primarily a novelist or someone making some other kind of art (music, theater) is that the kind of thinking done by the very best people in the academy is truly magical to me. There's nothing else like it, and Barbara Johnson had that quality in spades, in her classes just as much as in her writing. To this we all aspire...

A moment I remember very vividly from that class: Barbara Johnson, mentioning as an aside that Poe originally thought that the raven of the famous poem should be a parrot, suddenly tilting her head to the side and squawking Nevermore! Nevermore!

Here is Harvard University Press editor Lindsay Waters' reminiscence of Barbara Johnson, and here are the funeral home's guestbook and the Crimson obituary.

Last but not least, the syllabus for "Approaches to the Lyric," spring 1992 (click on each image to enlarge the page):


  1. Wow. It's amazing that you kept the syllabus and that you could find it. Thanks for posting it.

  2. By the way, isn't it scary how many famous/innovative academics recently passed away at ages generally younger than normal life expectancy? Said, Johnson, Sedgwick, Derrida...Deleuze was 65 or 70, I think. Kenneth Koch. Foucault, not recently, but he was young-ish. What's up with this?