Obituary: Professor Dudley Johnson

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The Independent Online
Dudley Johnson was a splendid specimen of the larger-than-life Anglophile American academic of yesteryear, a breed now almost extinct. With his death the world loses one of the last Grand Old Men of English letters raised in the inter-war years, when the pursuit of scholarship was still regarded as the principal purpose of education.

For well over half a century Johnson's life was inextricably linked with that of Princeton University, first as undergraduate, then instructor in the English Department, assistant professor, Philip Freneau Preceptor, associate professor, professor, departmental chairman and, finally, Holmes Professor of Belles Lettres. He retired in 1979, but continued to live in Princeton until his death.

Edward Dudley Hume Johnson was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1911, across the street from James Thurber, as he liked to recall. His father, Charles, was a local businessman and gentleman farmer. He attended St Paul's School, Concord, New Hampshire, before going up to Princeton, where he entered the Department of Romance Languages with the Class of '34, graduating magna cum laude. Apart from academic distinction, his undergraduate years were memorable for the occasion when, during the dark days of prohibition, the still in his rooms exploded blowing the door off its hinges and causing considerable damage. After graduating, he went to Oriel College, Oxford, on a Rhodes Scholarship, where he obtained a BA in English Literature and began a lifelong love-affair with Britain. He completed his graduate studies in English in the US and gained his PhD at Yale.

His initial spell of teaching was interrupted in 1941, when he joined the US Naval Reserve as an ensign; by the time he was discharged in 1946 he had attained the rank of lieutenant-commander. One of his earliest essays as a budding collector of drawings and watercolours dates from this time: on leave in New York, he went into the gallery that represented the veteran American watercolourist John Marin, intent on making a purchase. To his chagrin the dealer looked him up and down and said, "Young officer, what right do you think you have to own a Marin?"

Johnson went on to own fine works by such artists as Matisse and Pascin, before settling on the watercolourists of the English School, but he never owned a Marin.

Returning to Princeton as assistant professor, he began to develop the series of popular undergraduate and graduate courses in Victorian literature and intellectual history on which his reputation rests. He was an inspirational teacher, who relished life and language. His rugged good looks, bushy eyebrows, gravelly voice and over-loud tweed suits would have made him distinctive in any company; even in the privileged world of post-war Princeton they marked him out, and he grew naturally into the courtly and patrician figure that those of us who got to know him later came to love.

Patrician he certainly was, but he was also the epitome of the absent- minded professor; his regular greeting "How are you, my friend?" frequently disguised the fact that he had temporarily forgotten the names even of those closest to him. My first name is Peyton; many is the time I have had to answer to "Clayton", while on one occasion he is reputed to have given a graduate seminar on Byron calling him Browning throughout. His students knew who he was talking about, and no one wished to interrupt the spellbinding flow of erudition.

Amongst those who gained from his teaching are Robert Patten, the Dickens/Cruikshank scholar, the Ruskinian George Landow, and Samuel Pickering Jnr, the real- life model for John Keating in Dead Poets Society, who was later to become his son-in-law. Indeed, Keating's exhortation to his pupils, "Learn to savour words and language", is vintage Johnson.

In 1952 Dudley Johnson published The Alien Vision of Victorian Poetry, and in the mid-1960s Charles Dickens: an introduction to the reading of his novels. These were both important works in the reassessment of Victorian life, art and letters. Two later books resulted from a happy marriage between his passion for 19th-century literature and his extra-curricular pursuits: The Poetry of Earth (1966), which he edited, reflected his deep love of nature and the countryside, whilst Painters of the Social Scene in Great Britain from Hogarth to Sickert (1986) enabled him to explore the relationship between literature and narrative painting over two centuries. Shortly after this book appeared, I took him out to dinner with a museum curator, who spent much of the evening trying to discover exactly how he defined the word "narrative" in relation to painting. The next day Johnson said that, although he had enjoyed the evening, he felt that his fellow guest was one of those products of the American educational system "who allowed language to get between them and their objective".

We were first put in touch in 1964 by Robert Patten, who had sent him a catalogue of our exhibition of "Early English Watercolours" at the Fine Art Society in London. Dudley and his stylish wife Laurie, a photographer and later owner of a gallery, the Drawing Room, in Princeton, were both fun-loving people, and their house was always full of laughter. However, his years as departmental chairman during the Vietnam war and the excesses of the student uprisings took their toll; he aged and became a sadder man. In his final letter to me in November he wrote that his "capacity for forming friendships" had been his life's supreme reward. Typically, these friendships have extended beyond the grave. Even while I was writing this a Christmas gift of claret from Dudley Johnson was delivered. Fully aware that he was unlikely to be alive, he still wished to ensure that his friends would enjoy the festive season and be of good cheer.

Edward Dudley Hume Johnson, English scholar: born Columbus, Ohio, 29 November 1911; associate professor of English Literature, Princeton University 1952-61, professor 1961-74, Holmes Professor of Belles Lettres 1974-79 (Emeritus); married Marianne Mackie (deceased; marriage dissolved), 1947 Laura Vance (two sons, one daughter); died Princeton, New Jersey 9 December 1995.