W. Ralph Johnson, pre-eminent UChicago critic of Latin poetry, 1933‒2024

W. Ralph Johnson, pre-eminent UChicago critic of Latin poetry, 1933‒2024

W. Ralph Johnson, the John Matthew Manly Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus, 1993-2024, Photo courtesy of the University of Chicago Special Collections Research Center

The following was published in UChicago News on May 10, 2024.

By Sara Patterson

Prof. Emeritus W. Ralph Johnson, a distinctive critic of Latin poetry and the renowned University of Chicago author of multiple books on Latin and comparative literature, passed away on April 13. He was 90.

Through his scholarship, Johnson showed 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. Many of his colleagues believed that he achieved the highest level of literary criticism for Latin scholars of his generation, and said he helped make UChicago the “crucial center of classical studies that it is today.”

The John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Department of Classics, Johnson had a distinctive voice that reflected his rigorous intellect. While he was a powerful critic and published widely, Johnson is best known and will be remembered for Darkness Visible: A Study of Virgil’s Aeneid (1976), according to his colleague, Prof. Clifford Ando.

“The book is among the most widely read and influential works of classical literary criticism in the last 50 years,” said Ando, the David B. and Clara E. Stern Distinguished Service Professor in the Departments of Classics, History, and the College. “For several generations of students, it was the first work of classical scholarship, perhaps the first work of literary scholarship, that they read.”

Throughout Darkness Visible, Johnson contrasted Virgil with Homer. He focused the readers’ attention on darkness, futility and unreason. In Johnson’s view, Homer’s success in affirming “the essential beauties of both Hector and Achilles” was crucial to his achievement.

Johnson observed: “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, Johnson wrote “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.”

“Ralph was one of the very greatest readers and interpreters of Latin poetry of the last hundred years,” wrote Robert Kaster, the Kennedy Foundation Professor Emeritus of Latin Language and Literature at Princeton University. “For me, encountering Darkness Visible was a transformative experience, and I remember to this day the astonishment I felt while reading its last pages.”

A UChicago faculty member from 1981 to 1998, Johnson continued to teach in the Classics Department and for the Graham School until 2011, influencing several generations of UChicago students.

“Ralph Johnson was a terrific teacher—he made the classical texts of Virgil and Catullus for example (among so many other texts), come to life in an incredibly brilliant and informed fashion,” said Françoise Meltzer, his former student and now the Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature, the Divinity School and the College at UChicago. “He was wonderfully irreverent, totally erudite, very funny, and despite his friendly and open demeanor, didn’t suffer fools.

“Also, Ralph was a superb poet, critic, raconteur and fierce intellectual. When he became my colleague, I was able to see how generous he was to students, and how friendly he was to his colleagues. His virtuosity of thought and the prose and arguments of his numerous books were a model of intellectual prowess and literary insight. He was a jeans-wearing renaissance man, mastering at least six languages. He never stopped reading until the day he died.”

Cultivating a fierce intellect

Johnson was born on July 9, 1933, in Trinidad, Colo. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Latin from the University of California, Berkeley, respectively in 1961 and 1963. His doctorate in Classics was also from Berkeley in 1967.

At the start of his academic career, Johnson taught at his alma mater from 1966 to 1974—first as an assistant professor of Classics and later as an associate professor of Classics and Comparative Literature. He moved on to teach at Cornell University from 1974 to 1981, before capping his career at UChicago from 1981 to 1998.

“Ralph Johnson was one of the great stars of Classics during my first years here, along with James Redfield and Anne Burnett,” said Peter White, the Herman C. Bernick Family Professor in the Department of Classics and the College at UChicago. “They knew a lot, they had a presence in the field beyond our own department, and they were all wonderful writers. But Ralph brought drama as well as style to what he wrote and didn’t always mark a clear line between his writing and his life.”

In addition to Darkness Visible, one book of fiction and one volume of poetry, Johnson wrote six books, which nearly always focused on Latin poetry. His first book, Luxuriance and Economy: Cicero and the Alien Style (1971), was a study of Cicero’s prose style and the patterned changes in it over time. The work combines a mastery of technical forms of analysis with a view that stylistics transcends merely formal mastery.

As his work advanced, he ranged more widely through his literary criticism of Latin poetry. “In his book Lucretius and the Modern World (2000), Johnson uses the concept of “space time” to place the reader in dialogue with the poet—both for the Roman period and the modern reader,” said Elizabeth Asmis, professor in the Department of Classics and the College at UChicago. “The result is an especially lucid and fascinating exposition of the challenges that Lucretius poses to the reader.”

During his tenure at UChicago, Johnson began as a professor of Classical Languages and Literatures and served as chair of the Department of Classics from 1983 to 1988. He acquired appointments in the New Collegiate Division in 1988 and the Committee of Comparative Literature in 1991. He retired in 1998.

Among his many accolades, Johnson received the Distinguished Teaching Award at Berkeley in 1971 and the Christian Gauss Award for Literary Criticism by Phi Beta Kappa in 1983. He delivered the Martin Lectures at Oberlin College in 1984-1985, the Townsend Lectures at Cornell University in 1988-1989, and the Biggs Lectures at Washington University in St. Louis in 2004.

“Ralph was not only a great classicist but a great lover and illuminator of poetry in general,” said Richard Strier, the Frank L. Sulzberger Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Department of English Language and Literature at UChicago. “It was a privilege and an enjoyment to know him, and his work will continue to matter to everyone interested classical poetry and in poetry. With Ralph Johnson and Helen Vendler gone, the poetry world has lost two of its strongest and most important voices.”

Johnson was preceded in death by his husband, Mike Perkovich. His survivors include his son, Nick Johnson; his daughter, Leatrice Oram; and three grandchildren.

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May 10, 2024