On Barbara Johnson
Before I was offered a job at HUP in 1983, I had fairly deep connections with a number of Harvard professors—Hilary Putnam, Stanley Cavell, Werner Sollors, Roman Jakobson, Helen Vendler, Barbara Lewalski. I had never met Barbara Johnson, but we had one key friend in common—Paul de Man. I was publishing de Man’s books at Minnesota. So, when I was offered the job, I made a return trip back to Cambridge to size things up once more. I saw just a few people on campus, including Barbara, whom I spoke with for the first time. My question to her in a nutshell was: "Is it safe to work here?" By then I knew Yale a little, but Harvard not at all except for a memorable visit to Jakobson in 1979. These schools seem to be as convoluted as the Vatican, but I was raised in the bosom of the Roman Catholic Church, and such East Coast schools and the Pentagon share something of the Byzantine structure of the Vatican, so I was not totally ignorant of complex social structures. It was December 1983, days before de Man would die. Barbara's answer to my question was "yes." She had just moved from Yale to Harvard the previous year, so she knew whereof she spoke.
Some months after I got here, HUP's director, Arthur Rosenthal—one of the greatest American publishers in the era after World War II and founder of Basic Books—suggested to President Derek Bok that Barbara be appointed to HUP's Board of Syndics, and together Barbara and I got a chance to discover whether it was safe to be at Harvard. Arthur liked to "mix things up" in the world at large and in the little world around Harvard Yard. Bok supported him through thick and thin. I presented a number of projects to the Board of Syndics that led to what the Catholics call "baptism by fire" for Barbara and myself. She was ingenious, charming, indefatigable as a supporter of unusual projects of merit. But there were members of the Board who were allergic to certain names—"Heidegger," for instance—so any book having much to do with his ideas needed good reasons before we could win approval for it.
Our most beautiful achievement was the publication of Patricia Williams’ Alchemy of Race and Rights. Our grandest was A New History of French Literature, of which Denis Hollier, then at Berkeley, was the chief editor—but Barbara was the editor from Harvard. Her renown and daring won the day with Arthur Rosenthal and then with the faculty Board. Despite the objections of members of the Romance Languages Department, who took issue with the book's nontraditional slant, the volume came out and was a great success in the English-speaking world, winning rave reviews in the New York Times Book Review and the TLS. Of course, we were denounced in France because we were Americans, and because more than half of the editorial board was female, as were about half of the contributors. A decade later, the French themselves stopped opposing feminism and changed the composition of their parliament so that it was 50% women.
Barbara was a superb editor of the New History. She later contributed to the Norton Anthology of Literary Theory, all the while keeping up her writing. Among American academics, she was the key collaborator of Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man. She gave their ideas a local habitation inside the United States. Along with other scholars, such as Gayatri Spivak and Shoshana Felman, Barbara developed the ideas of de Man and Derrida so that they worked on American intellectual ground—exploring them and discussing them in American English. "The Heidi of the avant-garde," one wit called Barbara, and it’s true that she appeared the ingénue. If there had been no Barbara Johnson to figure out that the use-value of deconstruction was in the United States, it would never have passed the Pragmatist’s Test: what can you do or make with that idea as a tool for life?
In the hands of most converts to deconstruction, the ideas of de Man and Derrida turned to mush. Barbara was unusual among American deconstructionists in that everything she wrote had the elegance of simplicity and economy. The beauty of deconstructive thought is that it pursued simplicity. The New Criticism that preceded deconstruction wanted complexity, but first-rank deconstructionists sought to achieve the simplicity of Socrates, who asked impossible questions in the simple language that children use. Certain cognitive styles, of which deconstruction is one, lead to simplicity. Why must we accept the fact that all people before us have divided the world into binary oppositions? Where structuralism thrived on such oppositions, deconstruction called them into question. What really caused deconstruction to take off in America was that it arrived at a moment of huge social change in the post-World War II period, when most Americans had become reluctant to maintain the old binaries of black/white and male/female. Before Barbara Johnson, deconstruction in America was just theory. But theory has to be actualized in the corporeal world to effectively come to life; one must bring it to bear first on the male/female binary and then on the black/white binary. At Yale first and afterward at Harvard, Barbara joined forces with brilliant students and colleagues as these ideas took off in America. She collaborated with Henry Louis Gates, developing a way to question that rigidities of black/white divisions in American society, and she inspired the work of the writer and law professor Patricia Williams. So deconstruction spread, enlivening the intellectual discourse in the United States.
Barbara’s relation to deconstruction changed a great deal over the years. Rachel Jacoff, a dear friend of Barbara’s and the editor of John Freccero’s Dante: The Poetics of Conversion, puts it this way: "Rereading The Critical Difference (1980) and A World of Difference (1987), one can see Barbara moving from literature to life. Her textual analyses, always brilliant and anti-binary, then start becoming ways of dealing with issues whose real-world consequences become apparent. Back in the day, many people thought of deconstruction as a kind of game played by French and francophile insiders. You know, the 80s equivalent of berets and Gauloises bleues. Barbara opened it out in a different and profoundly meaningful direction." What I saw was that in her latest book for HUP, Persons and Things (2008), Barbara fully declared her independence from de Man. In this book, an opening in a poem is not the aperture that a de Man would use to unravel the entire thing, but a cavity like the one inside the jar that Wallace Stevens "placed ... in Tennessee" ("Anecdote of the Jar")—an entry point into a world made whole again. And what did our work on A New History of French Literature lead to? Was that a dead end? Hardly. It inspired me to develop with David Wellbery A New History of German Literature (2004), and also to develop with Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors A New Literary History of America, published this month and christened with a two-day symposium September 25-26 at the Barker Center at Harvard.
There has been a backlash against deconstruction by humanities professors who want to turn the teaching of the arts into something like Sunday school. If there is one thing deconstruction is not, it is Sunday school. Deconstruction's leading lights have always been those who, like Arthur Rosenthal or Walt Whitman or Barbara Johnson, are eager to mix things up. Barbara was a great contributor to the making of modern-day Yale, Harvard, and Harvard University Press. "Safe" I would not call Harvard—but lively, much more lively, thanks to Barbara’s work here.
One last personal note: as Barbara, because of her disease, progressively lost motor control, it became more difficult to converse with her and to understand her speech. Her brain was functioning—it seemed in overdrive—but the tongue was not. I found it easier and more interesting to visit her with other friends, so I went once with Helen Vendler and again with Gayatri Spivak. And one special time, we had a publication party for her translation of Mallarmé's Divigations, a party that included Skip Gates, Rachel Jacoff, Marc Shell, and others. But my favorite visit during those difficult days was the time I went to her house to pick up the manuscript of her Mallarmé translation. I read parts of it to her slowly, enjoying the force and wit of her renderings, and in that context a conversation between us flowered because her written words provided the background against which we could play. And for that brief time, all the intelligence and grace of her writings came into motion. Beautiful.