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University of Texas at Austin

Walter Willard "Spud" Johnson:

An Inventory of His Papers at the Harry Ransom Center

Creator: Johnson, Walter Willard, 1897-1968
Title Walter Willard "Spud" Johnson Papers
Dates: 1896-1973 (bulk 1920-1968)
Extent: 18 document boxes, 2 galley files (gf), 1 note card box, 1 oversize box (osb) (7.98 linear feet)
Abstract: Holograph and typescript works and correspondence from friends and associates make up the majority of the papers, supplemented by letters and diaries by Johnson and works and correspondence by other authors.
Call Number: Manuscript Collection MS-02208
Language: English
Access Open for research

Administrative Information

Acquisition Purchase and gift, 1969-1995 (R4935, G10367)
Provenance The Ransom Center purchased the bulk of Walter Willard Johnson's estate, including art, books, and furniture, when it became available in 1969. A small number of items held by Milford Greer were donated to the Ransom Center in 1972.
Processed by Chelsea S. Dinsmore, 2000

Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin

Biographical Sketch

Walter Willard Johnson (1897-1968), nicknamed Spud by his family, was born in Illinois, but spent most of his childhood in Greeley, Colorado. Uninterested in his father's lumber business, Spud took every journalistic opportunity offered. He started and edited a newspaper at Greeley High School before entering Colorado State Teacher's College in 1916, where he wrote for the school paper and worked as a cub reporter for the Greeley newspaper.
After two years at the Teachers College and a shorter stint at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Johnson began to feel constrained by the “small-town” life in Colorado and transferred to the University of California at Berkeley. Shortly after arriving in the Bay area, he met Witter Bynner, a wealthy poet who taught a popular poetry course at UCLA. Bynner helped Johnson find a library job at the Bohemian Club and encouraged him to write poetry. The two men developed a close and lasting friendship.
For the next several years, Johnson juggled school with journalism. He found that he did not like being on the receiving end of the editorial process and in 1922, with three friends, founded his own small format magazine, Laughing Horse. Intended as an alternative to conventional campus publications, the four editors presented "...polemics, philippics, satire, burlesque and all around destructive criticism...." Even after leaving Berkeley, Johnson continued to contribute to Laughing Horse, eventually taking it over and publishing it intermittently over the next thirty years.
In the summer of 1922, Johnson visited New Mexico for the first time. Attracted by the beauty and charm of the area as well as the growing literary community, Johnson did not return to school, but remained in Santa Fe as Witter Bynner's secretary. Through Bynner, Johnson met almost everybody in the New Mexico literary scene including Mary Austin, Carl Sandburg, Mabel Dodge Luhan, D.H. and Frieda Lawrence, and Dorothy Brett. Motivated by the artistic climate and the available time, Johnson began to write poetry again and by 1926 his work had been published in Poetry, Pan, Echo, Palms, and the New Republic. He published a collection of his works in 1935, titled Horizontal Yellow.
Aside from poetry, Johnson maintained a steady stream of literary criticism, editorial comments, and other prose. In 1927 he moved to Taos to become Mabel Luhan's secretary and purchased a small hand press which he used to print Laughing Horse.
By the early 1930s Johnson had become a fixture in the New Mexico literary and social scenes. Dividing his time between Santa Fe and Taos he participated unflaggingly in community affairs and causes. He supported himself with his writing and his printing press and during World War II he ran a bookstall near the Taos central plaza. One of his most durable activities was an editorial column which ran under the title "The Horse Fly" and later as "The Gadfly." Sometimes he published his column as a free-standing small paper and at other times he published in local papers.
Johnson remained active until his death in 1968. In 1953 he took up painting and drawing and in 1954 he travelled to Europe with Earl Stroh. While in France he met Alice B. Toklas before travelling on to Italy and England. In 1960 he helped organize and lead a week long rafting trip through Glen Canyon before it was flooded by construction of the Glen Canyon Dam. In early 1968 he was cooperating with a group of friends to produce a show of his artwork for the following year. When he died, just months before the show was scheduled to take place, it became a memorial for an artist for whom life and art were never separated.


Udall, Sharyn R. Spud Johnson & Laughing Horse. (University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque, 1994).

Scope and Contents

Holograph and typescript works and correspondence from friends and associates make up the majority of the Spud Johnson Papers, 1896-1973 (bulk 1920-1968), supplemented by letters and diaries by Johnson and works and correspondence by other authors. The papers are organized into four series, arranged alphabetically by author or title and chronologically where possible: Series I. Works, 1919-1968 (3 boxes); Series II. Correspondence, 1916-1969 (7.5 boxes); Series III. Personal Papers, 1914-1968 (5 boxes); and Series IV. Third-Party Works and Correspondence, 1896-1973 (bulk 1920-68) (2.5 boxes). These papers were previously accessible through a card catalog, but have been re-cataloged as part of a retrospective conversion project.
The Works Series contains poems, short stories, biographical sketches, essays, reviews, and other literary output by Walter Johnson. Of particular note are various drafts of an untitled novel about Don Grant, holograph and typescript versions of Horizontal Yellow (1935), and groups of essays published for the "The Horse Fly" and "The Gadfly" columns. Individual titles are listed in the Index of Works at the end of this guide.
The Correspondence Series is divided into two subseries: Subseries A. Outgoing Correspondence, 1930-1968 (.5 boxes) and Subseries B. Incoming Correspondence, 1915-1969 (7 boxes). While there are not a great number of letters from Johnson, his correspondence with William Goyen, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Lynn Riggs is moderately well represented. Better represented are friends, acquaintances, and business associates who wrote to Johnson, including Mary Austin, Dorothy Brett, Witter Bynner, Gladys Cannon, Alexandra Fechin, Haniel Long, Daniel McCarthy, the New Yorker, Ruth Swaine, and others. There are also a large number of letters from unidentified writers. All identified correspondents are listed in the Index of Correspondence at the end of this guide.
The Personal Papers Series is composed of Johnson's diaries many of which are sequentially numbered and contain observations, notes, some day-to-day activities, and some creative work. Also present are a commonplace book, records dealing with the publication of Horse Fly, Horizontal Yellow, and Laughing Horse, and various notes and receipts. Of particular interest are nine etched plastic printing plates used for Laughing Horse.
The Third-Party Works and Correspondence Series is divided into two subseries: Subseries A. Works, 1896-1968 (bulk 1920-68) (2 boxes) and Subseries B. Correspondence, 1922-73 (.5 box). The Works subseries includes materials by Witter Bynner, Arthur Ficke, Robert Frost, Mabel Luhan, Lynn Riggs, and others. Many of the third-party works were sent to Johnson for inclusion in Laughing Horse and include notes and letters to Johnson from the authors. There are also a number of cover letters to Norman MacLeod, fellow poet and editor. This correspondence is not indexed. Included in this section are a number of limericks written by friends for Johnson. Third-party correspondents are generally friends and acquaintances writing to each other, often about Johnson or his affairs, and include Dorothy Brett, Arthur Ficke, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Carl Van Vechten, and others. Individual titles and identified correspondents are listed, by author, in the Index of Works by other Authors and the Index of Correspondence at the end of this guide.

Related Material

Elsewhere in the Ransom Center are nearly 1000 photographs of Johnson and his friends, as well as numerous snapshots from his travels in the Southwest, located in the Literary Files of the Photography Collection. Also present are a large number of sketches, paintings, etchings, and watercolors by Johnson and his friends, located in the Art Collection, and several horse statues, rugs, crosses, woodcuts, ceramic tiles and other personal items located in the Personal Effects Collection. There are six scrapbooks containing copies of Laughing Horse and thirty-five Vertical Files containing newspaper clippings with biographical information and literary criticism in addition to published articles by Johnson.
Other materials associated with Spud Johnson may be found in the following collections at the Ransom Center:
  • Brett, Dorothy
  • La Farge, Oliver
  • Lawrence, Frieda
  • Nehls, Edward
  • Stone, Idella Purnell

Index Terms


Austin, Mary Hunter, 1868-1934
Berg, Bobby
Berns, Walter, 1919-
Brett, Dorothy, 1883-1977
Brooks, Gina Knee
Bynner, Witter, 1881-1968
Cabot, Edward
Cannon, Gladys
Eisenstein, Samuel A. (Samuel Abraham)
Farran, Lee
Fechin, Alexandra
Ficke, Arthur Davison, 1883-1945
Goldmark, John
Goyen, William, 1915-
Johnson, J. Smith, Mrs.
La Farge, Oliver, 1901-1963
Lawrence, Frieda von Richthofen, 1879-1965
Long, Haniel, 1888-1956
Lovejoy, Sue Cannon
Luhan, Mabel Dodge, 1879-1962
MacLeod, Norman
McCarthy, Daniel Clifford
The New Yorker
O'Keefe, Georgia, 1887-1986
Riggs, Lynn, 1899-1954
Rodakiewicz, Henwar
Stone, Idella Purnell, 1901-
Swaine, Ruth
Van Tijn, Gertrude
Van Vechten, Carl
Waters, Frank, 1902-
White, Partrick, 1912-


Authors, American--20th century
Poets, American--20th century
West (U.S.)--Social life and customs

Document Types

Commonplace books

Spud Johnson Papers--Folder List