In Memoriam: Don Barton Johnson (1933-2020)

Submitted by dana_dragunoiu on Thu, 09/03/2020 - 11:08

by Matthew Roth

I never met Don in person, but his effect on me, both personally and professionally, has been profound. When I first encountered, sometime in the early 2000s, the listserv that Don founded and tended for so many years, I was a young(ish) professor-poet who had taught Pale Fire a couple of times but had no real background in Nabokov studies. That would probably still be the case today had I not been so generously welcomed into the community of scholars and enthusiasts that populated the list during that period. It was Don that set the tone, responding with equal thoughtfulness, humor, and good will towards queries from established scholars and amateurs alike. Very early on, he sent me a number of personal messages, encouraging me in my research and offering to write me a support letter if I ever needed one for a grant or promotion. Knowing my interest in Pale Fire, he asked me to read over a draft of his essay on birds in Pale Fire. That may sound like he was asking me for a favor, but truly the pleasure was all mine, and Don probably knew that it meant a lot to me. Since then, I have had many similarly generous exchanges with Nabokov scholars, and knowing what I know about academia, I have to think that Don’s spirit has truly infused the whole field of Nabokov studies and very much continues to this day.


So sorry to have missed being able to comment on the passing of Don Johnson but I want to do so today. When I joined the Nabokov list-serv, so far as I am aware, I was the only non-academic to be accepted. It meant a great deal to me that he allowed me to question the reigning "Don" of Nabokov studies, Professor Boyd, regarding the barn light and Hazel's method of translating the blips of light into words. To this day, no one has answered that question.

But it gave me an "in" into a field of Nabokov Studies that otherwise I would never have had. Mostly I was treated with derision by the other list members, but Don always posted what I had to say. Eventually I was joking with Dmitri Vladimirovich over chickens and chaises longues. Dmitri did get angry with me once, when I took the side of Michael Maar over whether his father could have read the story "Lolita" by von Lichberg.

The long game of ping pong regarding chickens crossing the road was a perfect example Don Johnson;s liberal ways with us. That's not to mention his own frequently humorous editions and contributions to discussions. I've missed him for a long time.