Denis Johnson Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Equally adept at fiction and poetry, Denis Johnson chronicles the desperate and surreal lives of people dwelling on the edges of America’s society—criminals and addicts, losers and drifters, prostitutes and con men. Johnson was himself born a drifter. His father, Alfred Johnson, worked for the U.S. Information Agency and moved with his family between diplomatic posts in Germany, Japan, and the Philippines. The transient nature of Denis Johnson’s formative years gave him a vision of life’s impermanence that shapes much of his work.

After his family settled in Alexandria, Virginia, Johnson entered the University of Iowa, Iowa City, one of the nation’s leading creative writing schools. There he achieved success early, publishing his first poetry collection at the age of nineteen.

Entitled The Man Among the Seals, this collection reflects Johnson’s fascination for people caught in life’s traps—from astronauts squeezed into a space capsule’s tight confines to an elderly widow seeking lost family memories in a slot machine. It also reveals the enduring influence of rock musicians, notably Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix, on Johnson’s writing.

Early success had an unnerving effect on Johnson, however, and it was seven years before he published his next book. During that hiatus he completed a B.A. in English in 1971 and an M.F.A. in creative writing in 1974, both from the University of Iowa.

In 1974 he moved to Evanston, Illinois, and taught at Chicago’s Lake Forest College. He quickly discovered that he disliked the academic profession and after one year left his teaching post to drift across Washington state doing odd jobs. During this time Johnson published his second book of poetry, Inner Weather, in which he continued to pursue his interest in down-and-out characters, portraying the darkness and defeat at the heart of urban America.

During 1978 and 1979 Johnson stopped writing while recovering from an addiction to heroin and alcohol. This experience profoundly reshaped his writing. After that his characters still dwell in the realm of despair and failure, but their lives also hold potential for resurrection. Moreover, his post-recovery writings increasingly involve mystical imagery and themes.

From 1979 to 1981 Johnson lived in Phoenix, Arizona, and taught at the medium-security prison in Florence. That...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Denis Johnson, the son of a United States diplomat, was born in Munich, West Germany, in 1949. He grew up in countries such as the Philippines and Japan, wherever his father was posted. These frequent moves inculcated in Johnson a sense that relationships and life were unsustainable. In the United States, he went to school in Washington, D.C., and while overseas he attended the American School. Later, Johnson attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. His first marriage produced one son but ended in divorce. Years later, he remarried. Johnson, intermittently a teacher and a journalist, has always been a writer and often alludes to a troubled period when he was addicted to heroine and alcohol. In 1969, when he was only twenty, he published his first volume of poetry, which received immediate acclaim. In 1983, he began writing the first of his novels. He has also been a foreign news correspondent, covering such hot spots as the war in Somalia. Johnson is well traveled and has made homes in such disparate places as Washington, D.C., Iowa, Massachusetts, and Arizona. He settled in Good Grief, Idaho, with his wife, Cindy, and their two children, Lana and Daniel.


Denis Johnson, born in 1949 in Munich, West Germany, is a U.S. author who lived many years abroad while his father worked for the State Department. Besides his time spent in Munich, Johnson lived in Manila, the Philippines, and Tokyo, Japan; and as an adult, he worked on assignment as a journalist in such places as Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Some critics have speculated that Johnson’s own itinerant background has led to the sense of fragmentation and displacement so prevalent in his writing.

He published his first work, a well-regarded collection of poems titled The Man Among the Seals, when he was only nineteen years old. That early success unnerved him, and it was many years before he published again. His first novel, Angels, appeared in 1983, and an acclaimed collection of short stories, Jesus’ Son, was published in 1992. Tree of Smoke is his fifth novel.

Generally well-received by critics, Johnson’s writing often deals with the sadness of human experience, focusing on down-and-out, dysfunctional characters, many of whom never regain their balance. Johnson sought treatment for alcoholism and heroin addiction soon after his second volume of poetry, Inner Weather, was published in 1976. Since then, critics have noted the struggle for—and perhaps even the possibility of—redemption in his story lines. Religious overtones thus have a tendency to run through most of Johnson’s plots, with many of his characters trying to piece broken beliefs back together again.