Donald Barton Johnson (as an author he always signed himself “D. Barton Johnson” to avoid confusion with the many other Donald Johnsons) was born in 1937 near Ladoga (!), Indiana. His father taught languages at a teacher’s college. Don also began to learn languages, first Russian, while still at high school, then at college. “Strategic languages”—especially Soviet bloc languages, at the peak of the Cold War—seemed a way to avoid being drafted into the Korean War. Don acquired also Bulgarian, Hungarian and the rather less strategic Old Church Slavonic. He worked in Washington for the Natural Security Agency, including as a Hungarian cryptographer. After an MA in Economics and Old Church Slavonic at Berkeley he returned to Washington but realized he preferred California. He completed a PhD in Russian linguistics at UCLA in 1966, and joined the Germanic and Slavic Department of the University of California at Santa Barbara in the same year. There he began to teach literature, especially Nabokov, whose work had long been a favorite. He began publishing on Nabokov in 1971 and with increasing frequency over the next two decades. His much-admired essays tend to follow puzzles and patterns—alphabetic, linguistic, literary, ludic, naturalistic—within a single novel and to show how they converge to unexpected meanings. All serious Nabokovians need to know his discoveries and his solutions to key Nabokov riddles. He collected his first essays in Worlds in Regression (Ardis, 1985), one of the first to broach the otherworldly theme in Nabokov. Retiring from UCSB in 1991, he threw his energy into Nabokov. In 1993 he announced a new annual journal, Nabokov Studies, which—unlike the older Nabokovian (originally The Vladimir Nabokov Research Newsletter, 1978- ), to which he also contributed frequently—focused on full-length peer-reviewed articles, as well as reviews. At the same time he launched the electronic listserv, Nabokov-L. Under his management, with his welcoming, witty and well-informed introductions of new material, Nabokov-L allowed scholars and readers to discuss Nabokov at a high literary level, especially in the first years of the new medium. Don continued to write astute essays and notes after World in Regression, but despite many requests did not collect his later work. Others hope to be able to issue a second or a collected D. Barton Johnson volume.
He gave extensive archival and research materials related to Nabokov and Sokolov, his other major literary interest, to UCSB’s Davidson Library and Special Research Collections, including the Donald Barton Johnson Papers.
Obituaries on thenabokovian.org by Brian Boyd, Zoran Kuzmanovich, Maurice Couturier, Alexey Filimonov, Gerard de Vries, Stephen Blackwell, Barbara Wyllie and Stanislav Shvabrin provide more detail.