The Denis Johnson Papers consist of manuscript drafts, notes, notebooks, research
material, screenplays, scripts, poems, publication proofs, clippings, scrapbook
material, correspondence, printed material, photographs, posters, and childhood
papers belonging to the American writer Denis Johnson. The professional and personal
papers document Johnson's diverse writing career and range of creative output
includes poetry, short stories, novels, essays, journalism articles, screenplays,
and scripts. The papers are organized into two series: I. Literary Activities,
1970s-2009, undated; and II. Personal and Professional Files, 1939-2009, undated.
Series I. Literary Activities makes up the bulk of the papers and includes materials
associated with Johnson's writings. It is arranged into four subseries: A. Novels
and Collections, circa 1975-2009, undated; B. Short Stories and Essays, circa
1970s-2008, undated; C. Poetry, circa 1980s-2008, undated; and D. Film and Theater
Projects, circa 1980s-2009. Materials in each of these subseries are arranged
alphabetical order by title, and within each title, the material generally follows
the chronological order of literary production, from research and notes to
publication drafts. When applicable, related material such as book dust jackets,
reviews, publicity material, and/or adaptations follow the drafts.
Johnson created extensive notes, drafts, and outlines for most of his works. He
apparently wrote on whatever was at hand, and his notes appear as full-page, typed
sheets, as well as writings on the back of checks and receipts, paper coasters,
paper plate, a paper towel, and envelopes. Johnson often inserted the handwritten
material in with his typed notes and draft fragments, making it sometimes difficult
to discern if the intended order remains intact. Much of the material is in
chronological order, but page numbers are not always sequential, and the notes
drafts sometimes stop and start, even in mid paragraph. Furthermore, the notes
draft fragments are heavily revised and indicate a constant re-working of the
material. As a result, no attempt was made to arrange these materials within
folders, and they remain foldered as they arrived at the Ransom Center, with all
original folder titles created by Johnson indicated by single quotes in the
Subseries A. Novels and Collections represents most of Johnson's novels and
collections; however, some important works are not represented, including Johnson's
first poetry collections, The Man among the Seals,
Inner Weather, and The
Veil, and his first three novels, Angels,
Fiskadoro, and The Stars
at Noon. Johnson has said that earlier in his career, he often did not
keep working drafts because he found it necessary to "shed
them" in order for his writing to evolve.
Johnson often worked on multiple pieces simultaneously, as in the case of three
novellas, The Name of the World, Door in a Blank
Wall, and Train Dreams. Johnson planned to publish
these together in a single volume titled Name of the World. As a result, some
and notes are filed with material from the other works. Ultimately, Johnson
published Name of the World and Train Dreams separately (first in the Paris Review and in Europe, then later in the U.S.), and aspects of
Door in a Blank Wall appear with material from Tree of
Johnson frequently referred to previous ideas or notes as he worked and sometimes
re-filed them with subsequent projects. For example, Johnson's work Seek, a collection of essays previously published in
and other popular magazines, includes materials from his two articles "Civil War in Hell" (1990) and "Small Boys' Unit" (2000). Because Johnson used his
original notes, research, and cassette tapes to write these essays, as well as
screenplay about Liberia, and then later referenced this combined material during
the editing of Seek, the material was filed with
drafts of Seek.
The first segment of Seek is arranged in alphabetical
order by published essay title or by Johnson's original folder title. Following
essays are pages used specifically for the publication of the final Seek manuscript, such as drafts for the piece called
"Three Desserts" (which is a combination of
three separate essays) and proofs of the completed manuscript. Correspondence
indicates that Johnson added and deleted essays during the editing process, and
of these discarded essays remain filed with this work. Series I., Subseries B.
Stories and Essays contains additional files related to the original Liberian
magazine essay, and Series II. Personal and Professional Files contains materials
related to the screenplay.
Tree of Smoke, which won the National Book Award in 2007, is
represented by the largest volume of material in the collection. Johnson worked
this novel for almost fifteen years, and the research and notes show his frequent
starts and stops. These notes, outlines, and draft fragments date from 1993 to
book's publication in 2007. Included are research files containing notes, travel
photos, and ephemera from trips to the Philippines and Malaysia, as well as previous
writings used for reference, and internet research about Vietnam, military
operations, and other topics. Also present are chapter draft fragments and note
files, organized by story timeline and labeled using Johnson's original folder
titles. The bulk of the manuscript material for the book is comprised of loose
drafts of undated and unnumbered pages. These fragments were very much working
and drafts and contain Johnson's frequent handwritten edits throughout. The pages
were, for the most part, left in their original order as it is difficult to discern
a clear arrangement.
Following the loose manuscript material for Tree of
Smoke are six binder notebooks, many with embellished covers, corresponding
to the chapter years in the book. These appear to be the final versions of the
working drafts of the novel. For preservation purposes, the contents were removed
from the binders, and in cases where the binder was decorated, the pages and
corresponding binder were filed together. In addition, Johnson's Tree of Smoke materials include one complete, near-final
typescript, one typescript with typesetting marks, two sets of page proofs, and
advanced reader's copy of the novel that includes a sample of the audiobook.
Subseries B. Short Stories and Essays contains Johnson's shorter fiction and
non-fiction works and is arranged in alphabetical order by work title or Johnson's
original folder title. The Seek material in Subseries
A. Novels and Collections also includes magazine essay drafts.
Subseries C. Poetry contains working and final drafts of Johnson's poems. Of
particular interest is the 'Slide Show' file, which
contains material Johnson wrote for Sam Messer's art show in 1982. Johnson and
Messer were frequent collaborators at different points in their careers, and Series
II. Personal and Professional Files also includes Messer-related material. Of
additional note in Subseries C. are drafts for Johnson's poem "The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium
General Assembly." Subseries A. includes material related to Johnson's
published poetry collections.
Subseries D. Film and Theater Projects contains correspondence, reviews, publicity
material, and scripts for some of Johnson's screenplays and theater productions.
Johnson did not retain many of his screenplays, but his papers do include materials
for his adaptation of his own novel Angels. Most of
the material in this subseries pertains to public readings and the theatrical
productions of Hellhound on My Trail, Shoppers Carried By Escalators into the Flames, and
Soul of a Whore; however, only Soul of a Whore is documented with a play script.
Series II. Personal and Professional Files contains papers and documents related to
Johnson's childhood, family life, and writing career. Awards, book jackets,
contracts, correspondence, ephemera, identification cards and passports,
photographs, printed material, publicity clippings, reading and workshop materials,
report cards, research files, scrapbook material, and travel files are found in
Of particular interest is the scrapbook material, apparently assembled into notebooks
by Johnson's mother, Vera. The first notebook contains Johnson's birth certificate,
school report cards, and letters to his parents while in college. These letters
very personal and candid, with Johnson describing daily happenings, his home life
with his wife and baby, and the progress of his writing. The other notebooks contain
clippings and printed material that document Johnson's writing career, his awards,
and readings. Due to preservation considerations, these materials were removed
their original binders and rehoused, but their original order was maintained.
Overall, there is relatively little correspondence in Johnson's papers. What is
present includes letters from publishers, professional associates, other writers,
and writing program requests. The material is arranged chronologically, with a
separate segment of 'Prison Correspondence' from two
death row inmates, Charlie Doss and Robert Smith, whom Johnson taught while working
at an Arizona state prison. A few of these letters include some of these inmates'
writings. Scrapbook notebooks in this series contain letters Johnson sent to his
parents during the 1970s and 1980s.
In addition to the photos in the scrapbooks, there is a small amount of loose candid
and publicity photographs of Johnson. Many of these are reproduced prints of Johnson
while in college.
Publications and journal issues containing Johnson's short stories, essays, and poems
are also located in this series. One copy of each title was retained.