by Brian Boyd
Donald Barton Johnson, the leading American Nabokovian of his time, has died at 87. He was “Don” in person, standing five foot ten with grizzled beard, he was “D. Barton Johnson” on the printed page—as he wrote with characteristic wryness in a 2012 email, “I’ve always used that signature for publications since there are scads of Donald Johnsons out there, although few of them have my wit, charm, and gaiety”—but on our screens he was almost always “Don Johnson.”
Don was the author of many remarkably fine essays and notes on Nabokov, some collected in his splendid Worlds in Regression, 1985, but many more still uncollected (more of that soon); the founder in 1993 of Nabokv-L, the listserv that in its first halcyon years allowed scholars and readers to connect day by day to discuss at a high literary level Nabokov’s works and his life; and in the same year the founder of Nabokov Studies, still the flagship journal in the field.
Don’s Nabokov criticism is distinguished by its drive to solve puzzles—alphabetical, linguistic, literary, ludic, naturalistic—that particular works pose and to see how they coalesce with other puzzles and patterns to pinpoint deeper meanings. These discoveries led him early all the way to an awareness of Nabokov’s “otherworldly” side, revealed in Worlds in Regression.
That book’s subtitle discloses Don’s deeply-ingrained modesty: Some Novels of Vladimir Nabokov. He made no large claims or large gestures: he would simply discover a new puzzle or pattern or problem, and elegantly solve it. Zoran Kuzmanovich and I (and probably others) repeatedly pressed him to collect the essays he had published since the 1985 book, but when in 1991 he retired from the Germanic and Slavic Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and no longer had to submit an annual research report, he simply stopped keeping track of his ongoing output. We hope to rectify any omissions with a volume of either the best essays that Don didn’t collect in Worlds in Regression, or even a compendium of all his best essays, whether they’ve already appeared in his book or not.
Because Don’s driving force was always curiosity and not ambition, it has not been easy to find out much about him. Don’s modesty provoked Zoran Kuzmanovich, to whom he handed on the reigns of Nabokov Studies, to pay homage to him. Zoran (“I’ve always envied your name,” Don once charmingly wrote him) solicited tributes from senior Nabokovians for the tenth number of Nabokov Studies (2006), then planned a session in Don’s honor at the Nabokov Upside Down conference I organized in Auckland in January 2012. We hoped until the last minute, against the odds, that Don might actually be present to witness the tribute and to hear the announcement of the first Nabokov prize, the Don Barton Johnson Prize for the best essay published each year in Nabokov Studies. An interview Zoran conducted with Don in 2011, in preparation for that session, allows us to fill in a little of the background of this utter non-self-promoter.
Don was the grandson of a farmer and the son of “a professor of foreign languages at a small teachers’ college in Indiana,” Central Normal. Around 1950, when he was finishing high school as the Cold War heated up, his father hired a Polish DP to teach, inter alia, Russian. “Thanks to the Korean conflict, the army was drafting kids right after graduation and he arranged for me to join the new Russian class while I was starting my senior year in high school.” But
"the college promptly folded and rather than lose what little I had learned I transferred to Indiana University where there was a large Russian (a so-called 'strategic language') program. Basically, I was there to avoid the draft and turned out to have a minimal gift for language learning. On graduation the draft loomed again and I discovered that if I took a job with the fairly new National Security Agency I would be more or less draft-safe. I did eventually get called up but, thank God, failed the physical. Better yet, I learned some Hungarian (I was briefly a Hungarian cryptanalyst) and Bulgarian. During my years in Washington I spent a year at UC Berkeley and got an MA (concentration in economics with Old Church Slavonic on the side). Back in Washington, I realized that I liked California much more than Washington, pitched up my job and moved to Los Angeles without much idea of what I might do. Maybe a job in the flourishing Junior College System? This required some sort of certificate from the School of Education. I enrolled and very quickly realized it was not for me. I went to a series of departments at UCLA (economics, history, linguistics, Slavic languages, etc.) asking how quickly I could [earn] a PhD. As it happened, the Slavic Department had a slew of money and offered four years of support. I had always been an avid reader but found the scattered literature courses I’d had unsatisfying so I chose linguistics which focused on the analysis of form and patterning. Computer-aided machine translation was in the air and several of the department faculty were involved with it through the Rand Corporation. I ended up with a dissertation entitled Transform Analysis of Russian Prepositional Constructions. Laughably later published as a book.
After a year obviously teaching at Ohio State, I was (easily) lured back to the University of California where there were plans for a Russian graduate program. I drafted the plan, Ronald Reagan was elected Governor (in part running against radical activities in the university), and that was the end of the projected Russian graduate program at Santa Barbara. There was little need for Russian linguistics courses so I drifted into teaching Russian literature beginning with a course on Nabokov, a long-time favorite of mine."
Don found teaching Russian literature, and especially Nabokov, at Santa Barbara so congenial that he remained there for the rest of his life, marrying Sheila Golburgh and indulging together their passion for birdwatching, which took them all over the world. In 1997 they would write a wonderful memoir of Nabokov’s 1953 summer home in Ashland, Oregon, where they had learned to enjoy spending time in summer birdwatching and attending the town’s renowned summer theater program.
Working on Nabokov, Don found a more toothsome outlet for some of the skills he had acquired as a Hungarian cryptanalyst (see for instance his “Nabokov as a Man of Letters: The Alphabetic Motif in his Work,” 1979). His first article on Nabokov was “Nabokov’s Ada and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin” (1971); a second, in 1972, in Carl Proffer’s Russian Literature Triquarterly, “Synesthesia, Polychromatism and Nabokov,” marked the start of what would become another sustained interest in his work and the beginning of his friendship with Carl and Ellendea Proffer—who at that time, when Nabokov was still persona non grata in the Soviet Union, were the galvanizing force for the Russian side of Nabokov (in addition to Russian Literature Triquarterly, they founded Ardis Press, reissuing the bulk of Nabokov’s Russian oeuvre). The synaesthesia article was reprinted alongside Don’s “Contrastive Phonaesthetics, or, Why Nabokov Gave Up Translating Poetry as Poetry” and a translation by him of an early review by Pyotr Bitsilli, in Proffer’s A Book of Things about Vladimir Nabokov (Ardis, 1974).
The first issue of The Vladimir Nabokov Research Newsletter, in Fall 1978, reports in its News section (p. 8) two items by Don in press, another of his alphabetic series, “The Alpha and Omega of Nabokov’s Prison-House of Language: Alphabetic Iconicism in Invitation to a Beheading” and “The index of Refraction in Nabokov’s Pale Fire,” both noted also as parts of a forthcoming book, then tentatively titled Keys to Nabokov’s Labyrinth of Art. Nabokovians have developed a special tenderness for the title Worlds in Regression, but the abandoned title would have had an apt resonance: Don as Theseus to Nabokov’s Daedalus.
The first News item in the Newsletter for Spring 1983 announced Don’s chairing an AATSEEL session on “Nabokov and the Russian Émigré Literary Scene.” I contacted Don about it, explaining I could not afford to travel but was keen to discover whatever might come to light. We soon found how much information we had to share, he from his decades working on Nabokov and with the Proffers and I from my time working on the biography and with Véra. We were both to be published simultaneously by Ardis: his Worlds in Regression, my Nabokov’s Ada. While waiting for his volume to appear, I asked him for a list of his articles, then tracked them down in the University of Auckland library and via Interloan. I wrote him on October 25, 1984: “Your articles are splendid, and just what is needed in Nabokov studies. You have the patience, persistence, and imagination to unravel VN’s webs and see how they are spun. (I am also pleased, from my own point of view, that you’ve missed some things I’ve seen, just as I’d missed some of your clues: you haven’t stolen all of my thunder.) I must say we seem much closer in approach than any other Nabokovians, who all too often merely annotate (more or less accurately), speculate (more or less wildly), or generalize (more or less intelligently) without solving the particular problems that disclose the meanings.”
I met Don for the first time in February 1987 at the Yale Nabokov conference organized by Vladimir Alexandrov and Michael Holquist, and a couple of weeks later visited him to give a lecture at UCSB. In person and soon via email, Don was a delight to spend time with: an astute observer of nature and culture, a sardonic commentator, a quiet but playful presence, a blend of a grey- or white-haired Buffalo Bill and the Cheshire Cat, with his lingering wry smile, his dry droll drawl, his reinforcing “Oh yeah” (emphasis on the “oh”), his self-presentation as a crusty misanthrope when anyone could see his soft interior. He loved pouring generous dollops of whisky for the many Nabokovians he hosted in his ranch-house at the end of a canyon above Santa Barbara—right at the trailhead to the appropriately-named Inspiration Point track—and delighted in scaring those who stayed in his study-cum-sleepout by telling them of the plate-sized tarantula he had once found on the wall above his bed.
In early 1993 Nabokov studies began to cohere in a new way when Don announced a new journal, Nabokov Studies (first issue in 1994) and the beginnings of the Nabokov listserv, Nabokv-L. Don’s wry e-mail alias, attached to every Nabokov-L message for years, would become well known to all active Nabokovians: chtodel@ (various internet providers), after Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s famous Chto delat’ (What To Do?), Lenin’s favorite novel and Nabokov’s prime target for scorn in Dar (The Gift).
The listserv, a now all but superseded technology, allowed scholars and avid readers around the world to engage with Nabokov’s work and life at a high level, day after day, under Don’s welcoming eye and witty and informative introductions or afterwords. Not the least fascination of Nabokv-L was watching Don accommodate Dmitri Nabokov’s aggressive defensiveness of his father’s reputation:
EDITOR's NOTE. Below Dmitri Nabokov comments upon yet another Lolita-inspired novel (some might say "LOLITA rip-off”). It brings to mind yet another by A.A. Holmes, called, I think, THE END OF ALICE. Someone ought to do a study of such-like, perhaps under the title: (perVERSIONS OF LOLITA).
From: Dmitri Nabokov
Let it be clear that it is neither my right nor my intention to censor. I am allowed, however, to express astonishment. Astonishment that anyone should take seriously two of the worst coattailing hacks (there are others too, alas, including utter frauds like the monolingual expert on translation Hofstadter) amid the list's many fine scholars and "little Nabokovs" -- one of Father's favorite signatures.
Another source of fun was watching Don negotiate between Dmitri’s hauteur and scorn and Galya Diment’s irrepressible insouciance. More than once an exchange between Galya and Don, intended to be private, was broadcast on Nabokv-L, an easy mistake to make in those early days of the Internet, before proliferating cyberabuses had necessitated the installation of security filters.
Are you having problems with DN re that? G
No, not yet. It was a preemptive strike. I had a heavy spat with him over [something else] . . . but . . . I decided to let DN hang himself.
For all Don did for Nabokovians as a community, his most lasting legacy will probably be his critical discoveries.
Curiosity is a supreme virtue for Nabokov and a supreme virtue in a scholar. Don embodied it in a particularly pure form. He followed his curiosity wherever it took him—around the world of nature, in pursuit of birds, and around the world of culture, in pursuit of Nabokov. Fortunately for us, Nabokov values and rewards the curious mind so well that as a scholar Don worked on little else for almost forty years. Regardless of fashion or fame, he would pursue tenaciously any spoor that interested him: L’Inconnue de la Seine, the Marlborough and Turkish tobacco theme in Ada, Nabokov’s early English reading, birds in Ada, obscenity in Ada, synaesthesia, Greta Garbo, Pierre Louÿs, letters anywhere in Nabokov, painting in Ada, Ada’s “Last Tango” . . .
One reason I personally feel so grateful to Don is that he picked out paths into Ada I know I would never have had the energy to explore fully in my attempt to follow simultaneously all the trails I see as I crash through its thickets. When I had the bulk of Ada still to annotate, I always felt reassured whenever I heard Don working somewhere up ahead, because I knew that at least one more will-o’-the-wisp track would have been explored to the end and securely signposted.
Don had a rare combination of generosity to new ideas and scepticism about them. He had a wariness—his own, not reflexively Nabokovian—about grand meanings and a converse passion for particulars. Where Alexander Dolinin focuses intently on literary allusions, Don would chase any kind of detail, lexical, literary, visual, musical, filmic, natural. Where Dieter Zimmer would identify particulars for their own sake, with methodical and painstaking comprehensiveness, Don would clamber over any barrier after his prey but then pen the particulars he ran down into a meaningful pattern if he could. Where I tend to book- or shelf-length projects, Don simply followed his nose. He was almost too purely curious, too free of ambition, for a scholar.
Toward the end of the 2000s, Don began to feel his concentration and memory fading. Although he had handed over mediation of Nabokv-L to Beth Sweeney and Steve Blackwell, he still chipped in, even as late as the end of 2013, as in this, one of his last posts, showing once again the voracious range of his reading and his urge to track what Nabokov had read:
In Speak, Memory (Chapter 4, section 4) VN discusses his many governesses including “one awful person who read to me Marie Corelli’s The Mighty Atom.” Corelli, very popular in her day, is better remembered for her first biggie, Romance of Two Worlds. The Mighty Atom may be found in full on the web. Below, I quote from a brief web summary of the volume. . . .
D. Barton Johnson (Who, for his sins, is now reading Corelli’s Romance of Two Worlds).
Don thought about attending the Kyoto 2010 conference and even the Auckland 2012 conference but proved to be up to neither. He was still intermittently active, reviewing my Stalking Nabokov in 2012 with his customary generosity and clarity and Andrea Pitzer’s The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov in 2013 with his customary acumen and discernment.
In our last successful email exchange, in 2014, I asked him, since some of those who had agreed to read the Nabokov Upside Down volume for Northwestern University Press had reneged, would he be ready to do it? I stressed that this wasn’t a formal invitation, I was just sounding him out. His reply?
Sure, I’ll be glad to critique the volume (--- but of course my response will depend heavily on the number of times my name is cited with profound reverence).
(sounded out) Don
Earlier that month, he had signed himself “Dodderingly, Don”—not exactly dodderer’s diction. And a year earlier, when I had asked him how things were, he replied in one sad line: “Mentally flagging at 80.”
Nabokovians who knew and loved Don felt troubled, as the 2010s wore on, by the increasingly prolonged silences of a voice that had animated and amused us all for so long. We knew Don must no longer be himself but we knew nothing more. We waited with ebbing hope for another brief flash of life. We grieved for his absence yet could not grieve for him. It's sad now to hear the news of Don's death, but it has been sad for so many years to suspect that his sparkling mind and spirits had already taken their leave, and to fear that we could no longer connect with him or have him connect us all.
We hope that a collection of his essays will allow him to keep animating and amusing us. A PhD student I supervised assumed—in about 2000—that Don must be much his own age, because of the boyish brio of the subtitle “Taking Nabokov Clitorally.” In his work, Don’s voice will always remain fresh and young.
Don is survived by Sheila and his step-children Aaron Moody and Jessica Dora.