Thursday, September 14, 2017
Fenton Johnson (May 7, 1888-September 17, 1958) will be inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame Sept. 14 at the Poetry Foundation. The ceremony, which features a lineup including Alexander Jacobs, Richard Guzman, Vida Cross, and Rebirth Poetry Ensemble, begins at seven p.m. Michele Jolivette, Johnson’s great grand niece, will accept the statue.
Johnson began writing as a Chicago public school student, as early as the age of nine, and before his career had ended would establish himself as an important and innovative voice in literature, particularly for his poetry. Johnson was born in Chicago, the son of a railroad porter, and was educated in America’s finest educational institutions—University of Chicago and Northwestern University as an undergraduate, and then Columbia University as a graduate student.
Johnson self-published the first of three poetry volumes in 1913, in which he gave early evidence that he would become a powerful voice in exploring the African-American experience. Before that time, Johnson had already written several plays, and would add a collection of short stories and then essays to his oeuvre. He also founded several literary magazines, The Champion in 1916 and The Favorite Magazine in 1918. All of Johnson’s books and magazine publications were self-financed.
Johnson distinguished himself, though, in the teens and early twenties. He became a trailblazer for Black poets in the new poetry movement, and saw his work published in magazines such as Poetry and Others, alongside the likes of William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore.
Johnson’s magazines sought to bring about racial harmony and reform in society, but his poems were notable for despair about the conditions for Blacks in America. Johnson used Chicago as the setting for a good portion of his work, such as “Aunt Jane Allen,” which is set on firmly in the Bronzeville neighborhood, on State Street, and “A Negro Peddler’s Song,” which is patterned after a song sung in a Chicago alley. Though Johnson spent the great majority of his life in Chicago, his work is credited as a forbearer to Harlem Renaissance writers like Langston Hughes.
While many scholars consider Johnson a minor, though notable poet, his widespread and continuing inclusion in important literary anthologies suggest his legacy is lasting. In his lifetime, Johnson saw the likes of James Weldon Johnson, Monroe and her colleague Alice Corbin, and Countee Cullen choose his poems for inclusion in their anthologies. After Johnson’s death, he would continue to be widely published in anthologies of Black literature and poetry, with luminaries such as Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Bontemps selecting his work. Even today, highly accomplished poets like Ron Stillman cite Johnson as an influence on their careers.