Remembering W. Ralph Johnson.

W. Ralph Johnson, John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Classics, passed away on April 13th 2024.

Johnson came to Chicago as Professor of Classical Languages and Literature in 1981 and served as chair of the department from 1983 to 1988. He acquired appointments in the New Collegiate Division in 1988 and the Committee on Comparative Literature in 1991. Johnson retired in 1998 but continued to teach in Classics and for the Graham School until 2011.

In addition to one work of fiction and one volume of poetry (both published by Janus Press), Johnson was the author of seven books.  Though most of his monographs were close readings of a single author and, indeed, a single work by a given author, his output was notable for the diverse forms of his criticism.  His first book, Luxuriance and economy: Cicero and the alien style (1971), was a study of Cicero's prose style and in particular of patterned changes in it across time.  It combines a mastery of technical forms of analysis with a view that stylistics transcends merely formal mastery:  "If style were, that is, what very many people take it to be, doubtless good training might perfect the gifts in question to such a degree that the whims of fortune could never impair their functioning nor mere reality dim their shining." The result is both a pellucid study of prose and a moving conjecture regarding Cicero's effort to surmount the achievements that had made him famous.

Against his other work, The idea of lyric (1982) stands out not only for its chronological sweep but for its priorities. The book asserts the essential unity of lyric from archaic Greece to Allen Ginsberg. For Johnson, that unity is visible above all in a rhetoric by which the lyric self constructs its persona and engages the world. Johnson is best known as a reader of Latin poetry; The idea of lyric is noteworthy in affirming an ideal in which Greek poetry is necessarily preeminent.

 In his book Lucretius and the Modern World (2000), Johnson uses the concept of 'space time' to put the reader in dialogue with the poet, both for the Roman period and the modern reader. The result is an especially lucid and fascinating exposition of the challenges that Lucretius puts to the reader. Throughout his scholarly writings, Johnson shows an uncanny ability to draw the reader into the text by his own deep appreciation of both the author's and the reader's concerns. This puts him, in the eyes of many, at the highest level of literary criticism for Latinists of his generation.

The power and precision of his criticism and the strength of personality in his later work notwithstanding, Johnson is and will be chiefly known for Darkness visible: A study of Vergil's Aeneid (1976). Darkness visible itself contains worlds. Described internally as a collection of essays, its first chapter surveys Vergilian criticism of preceding decades and finds their politics wanting or, perhaps, finds the demands of critics that Vergil be (narrowly) political unsatisfactory.  The second and third chapters take very different routes to reading Vergil in light of Homer and, to a point, Homer in light of Vergil.  Chapter 2 is entitled "Lessing, Auerbach, Gombrich" and takes as its starting points the engagement of those critics with Homer, whence questions are raised and modes of reading abstracted that Johnson brings to Vergil.  Chapter 3, by contrast, reads passages of Vergil against others in Homer that are sometimes source and sometimes analogue.  Sections of this chapter, "Dissolving pathos," "Aeneas and the monuments," and especially "The end of book 12," achieve an extraordinary rhetorical force and ethical power.

Throughout the book, the contrast with Homer, and with how others read Homer as realist and concrete, serves Johnson in focusing his and our attention on darkness, futility and unreason.  Hence, in Johnson's view, Homer's success in affirming "the essential beauties of both Hector and of Achilles" is essential to his achievement:  "The virtues of both men survive the catastrophe of their collision and, enduring a ruthless transcendence, achieve a still coinherence which remains, priceless and unattainable, the norm for tragic poetry in the West." In the Aeneid, by contrast, "the absence of lamentation for and celebration of Turnus and what he stands for" means that "our sense of Aeneas and what he stands for becomes inevitably weakened and confused."

I mean, rather, that what Vergil chooses to emphasize at the close of his poem is a moment when Aeneas gives way to an anger which, however perfectly justified, is directed against a man who is no longer, in any way, a match for him, and who is, though Aeneas cannot know this, a victim of a mindless, evil design. And when that anger has been unleashed, both men become victims of a kind of mechanical malevolence that negates the dignity and courage of both of them.

Darkness visible is among the most widely read and influential works of classical literary criticism of the last 50 years.  For several generations of students, it was the first work of classical scholarship, perhaps often the first work of literary scholarship, that they read.  This was so because of the weight of the Aeneid in the tradition and the place it held in curricula. But it was also true because in it, a great critic insisted that a poem he loved should matter to us and explained in language of gripping emotional power why this was so.

Johnson had a distinctive voice and always foregrounded his position as a philologist and interpreter in his work.  This was true already in what might have been—and sort of was—a very technical dissertation on Ciceronian style.  Regarding a sentence at the opening of Cicero's sixth Philippic, Johnson writes, "It is not a great sentence but it is tidy and enormously satisfying.  The subordinations are put in their place, and the numerous main verbs behave like ambitious Eagle scouts. The chief virtue of the sentence is the loveliness of its modulations, its toying with emphasis."  Other metaphors in his criticism are no less delightful.

Johnson received his BA, MA and PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.  He taught at Berkeley as assistant professor of Classics and later associate professor of Classics and Comparative Literature from 1966 to 1974.  He was associate professor and then professor of Classics at Cornell before coming to Chicago.  He also held visiting professorships at UCLA and the University of Michigan.

Among other awards, Johnson was given the Distinguished Teaching Award at Berkeley in 1971; the Christian Gauss Award for Literary Criticism by Phi Beta Kappa in 1983; he delivered the Martin Lectures at Oberlin in 1984-1985, the Townsend Lectures at Cornell in 1988-1989, and the Biggs Lectures at Washington University in St. Louis in 2004.

Regarding Johnson's work as a critic and his contribution to the Classics at Chicago, Robert Kaster, a later chair of the department and now Kennedy Foundation Professor of Latin Language and Literature, emeritus, at Princeton University, writes:  "Ralph was one of the very greatest readers and interpreters of Latin poetry of the last hundred years: for me, encountering Darkness Visible was a transformative experience, and I remember to this day the astonishment I felt while reading its last pages. After the arrival of Peter White and Arthur Adkins, his joining the department marked a turning point in its history and contributed mightily to making it the crucial center of classical studies that it is today."

Johnson's death was preceded by that of his husband of many years, Mike Perkovich, in March of this year. He is survived by two children, Nick Johnson and Leatrice Oram, and three grandchildren.