Literary Luminary Passes Away

The words of literary critic Barbara E. Johnson often adhered to the memory in the way that the works she studied remained indelible after her own analysis.

The late professor of law and psychiatry in society at Harvard knew how to both speak with careful hesitation and opinionate with force, yielding a hard-to-forget intelligence and wit, according to Professor of English Werner Sollors.

He remembered watching his close friend and colleague respond to a comment made during one of her lectures: “She nodded very strongly, and said, ‘I agree completely with the opposite of what you’re arguing.’”

“She was an unbelievably smart close reader with a good amount of whimsy—very hard to replicate the kind of intellectual acumen that went into her quick sayings,” added Sollors, who also teaches in the department of African and African American studies. “She was just a powerhouse.”

Johnson passed away on Thursday in her home from cerebellar ataxia, according to her brother Bruce Pollack-Johnson. She was 61.

Eight years ago, the acclaimed literary critic and translator had been diagnosed with the rare degenerative condition with effects similar to multiple sclerosis that made it difficult for her to speak and walk.

But Johnson—who taught at Harvard for 25 years—continued to advise dissertations and produce scholarly works years after her diagnosis, according to Pollack-Johnson.

“Her productivity was incredible...The blessing was that her mind was always as sharp as a tack until the very end. She was telling jokes and making literary references,” Pollack-Johnson said. “It took long to figure out what the joke was, but she was as brilliant as ever.”

Former student Lili P. Porten called her dissertation adviser a “truly beloved” woman who was able to adopt that rare fusion of brilliance and kindness.

“I have dozens of e-mails from people since her death...she changed their lives,” Porten said. “She would find the insight you didn’t know you had, and that was really wonderful.”

Barbara Ellen Johnson was born in Boston, Mass. on October 4, 1947. One of two Presidential Scholars from Massachusetts in 1965, Johnson graduated from Oberlin College four years later and continued her education at Yale, where she received her Ph.D. in French in 1977.

The “Yale School”—a group of deconstructionist literary critics and theorists including Johnson’s thesis director, Paul de Man—would serve as a signifcant influence on Johnson’s own criticism.

In her 25 years at Harvard, Johnson worked for multiple departments, including the departments of English, comparative literature, women’s studies, and African and African American studies. When she was chair of the latter, Johnson brought in Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., according to Porten.

Johnson’s works include “The Critical Difference” (1980), “A World of Difference” (1987), and “The Wake of Deconstruction” (1994).

“She often focuses on a very small detail in a novel that you might have otherwise overlooked,” Sollors said. “She draws so much out of it that the next time you read the novel, you can’t help thinking of Barbara Johnson.”

—Staff writer Esther I. Yi can be reached at estheryi@fas.harvard.edu.