Journalist H. L. Mencken called Gerald W. Johnson “the best editorial writer in the South” (1922) and “one of the most competent newspaper men in America” (1932). Virginius Dabney noted that when Johnson was on the editorial staff of the Greensboro Daily News, “the News held undisputed sway in the state, and was the mouthpiece of North Carolina liberalism” (1932). On the occasion of Johnson’s 70th birthday, Adlai Stevenson celebrated him as “the critic and conscience of our time” (1960). Outliving Mencken (died 1956) by 24 years, Johnson came to be regarded not only as “Baltimore’s greatest living writer,” but also as “Baltimore’s Second Sage” or the “Sage of Bolton Hill” (1988). Following his own death, Johnson was inducted into the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame in Chapel Hill (1984), the Maryland-Delaware Press Association Hall of Fame (1988), and the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame (1996), but he was not included among the 18,000 historical figures in the 17-volume American National Biography published in 1997.
With educational and marital ties to Virginia and North Carolina, native Baltimorean Vincent Fitzpatrick, who is curator of the Mencken Collection in the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Mencken bibliographer and biographer (1989), and, like Johnson himself, contributor to both the Baltimore Sunpapers and the Virginia Quarterly Review, seems uniquely qualified to write the first biography of Johnson (1890—1980) and demonstrate why we should not forget him or ignore the writings of one of the most prolific and versatile American critics of the 20th century. Based on extensive archival work, numerous interviews with Johnson family members and contemporaries in the 1980’s and 90’s, site visits in North Carolina, Baltimore, and New York City, and background research in American social, political, journalistic, and literary history of the past century, Fitzpatrick’s biography offers a very sympathetic, even reverential, but by no means uncritical, evaluation of Johnson’s long life and prodigious output as a reporter, columnist, essayist, author, lecturer, TV commentator, and letter-to-the editor-writer.
Born in the tiny community of Riverton in the Upper Cape Fear Valley of North Carolina in 1890, Johnson received his college education at Wake Forest (1908—11), where he served as editor of the student newspaper, but also wrote for the Thomasville Davidsonian (1910—11), before joining the Greensboro Daily News in 1913. In 1917, Johnson enlisted for military service in World War I and had a brief tour of combat in France in 1918; following a brief period of study at the University of Toulouse in 1919, he returned to the News. In 1924, Johnson was appointed professor and head of the new journalism department at Chapel Hill, where in the next two years he would also write his first book (The Story of Man’s Work ) and contribute essays to two new important journals, the VQR (1925) and Mencken’s American Mercury (1924). Johnson had already drawn Mencken’s attention in 1923 with a convincing essay, “The Congo, Mr. Mencken” in response to the latter’s devastating dismissal of Southern culture in his notorious essay, “The Sahara of the Bozart” (1920/22); this and other critical essays on Southern issues (e.g., the Ku Klux Klan, religious fundamentalism, New South boosterism) published in Emily Clark’s Reviewer (1923) and Professor Howard W. Odum’s Journal of Social Forces (1923) led to the invitation in 1926 to join Mencken and the staff of the Baltimore Evening Sun, “the gaudiest journalistic show in the United States.” In the 1930’s, Johnson turned from “South-Watching” (although he would never cease writing about the South) to “America-Watching,” but his passionate defense of the New Deal, endorsement of FDR in 1936 and 1940, and support for America’s aid to England and entry into World War II would increasingly place him at odds with Mencken and the editorial opinion of the Sunpapers, with the result that he made “the bold decision to set out on his own” in 1943.
As a freelance writer and critic, Johnson wrote or contributed to seven books between 1944 and 1950 alone, sold articles to such large-market magazines as Vogue, Life, and Look, but also continued to publish articles in the Sunpapers, book reviews in the New York Herald-Tribune (1937—65), and essays in such journals as the VQR, New Republic, American Scholar, Atlantic Monthly, and Saturday Review of Literature. In the 1950’s, Johnson gained fame as a fierce critic of Joseph McCarthy, supported Adlai Stevenson in his two unsuccessful presidential campaigns (1952, 1956) against Eisenhower, whom he considered unqualified, and Nixon, whom he despised, and expanded his role as a voice for the “plain people” of America in his TV commentary, “How Things Look from Bolton Street” (1952—54). Although Johnson supported Stevenson over Kennedy in 1960, he grew to admire JFK in his brief presidency. With the increasing expansion of the Vietnam War, however, Johnson scorned LBJ for misleading the country, supported Eugene McCarthy in 1968, but voted for Humphrey over Nixon. He continued to denounce the war in Vietnam under Nixon, predicted (quite incorrectly, however) that McGovern would give him “a scare” in the 1972 presidential election, and scathingly dismissed Nixon as “The Nothing King” (1974) after his resignation following the Watergate scandal. Johnson called Ford’s pardon of Nixon “grossly immoral,” and in 1976 he voted for Jimmy Carter, about whose patient handling of the Iranian crisis he wrote his last piece, a letter to the editor of the Baltimore Sun for Nov. 19, 1979.
As a lifelong Democrat, Johnson voted for every Democratic Party nominee from Woodrow Wilson (1912) to Jimmy Carter. He revered Wilson and FDR, admired Truman, Kennedy, and Carter, but thought that Johnson was “the worst politician since Hoover.” As a Southern liberal, Johnson, like the Greensboro Daily News, defended free speech, endorsed separation of church and state, supported women’s suffrage, despised racial prejudice and violence, but believed that race relations could be improved without weakening (social) segregation. As a liberal, he supported the New Deal and the role of the federal government versus states’ rights, promoted “the Liberal of 1946” as “a man unterrified” by the challenges of the postwar world, criticized Southern Democrats, particularly the Dixiecrats of 1948, who obstructed civil rights, and wrote the liberal manifesto for Stevenson’s campaigns in 1952 and 1956. As a realist, Johnson relentlessly criticized failings in American society, but as an optimist, he “believed that democracy, for all its flaws, was the most humane form of government,” vastly superior to fascism (Mussolini and Hitler in the 1930’s) or communism (the USSR in the 1950’s). Johnson “saw the American experience as a morality play and believed unashamedly in heroes,” such as Wilson and FDR, but also Washington, Andrew Jackson, Lincoln, and Robert E. Lee. Johnson also wrote admiringly about prominent Americans or Southerners, whose influence he felt made a difference in his life and time, such as Mencken, William Louis Poteat, president of Wake Forest, an “apostle of discontent” (Johnson) and “courageous exemplar of New South Liberalism” (Bruce Clayton ), or Harry Woodburn Chase, president at Chapel Hill, for his steadfast defense of free speech for his faculty and his leadership in defeating the anti-evolution bill (1925) in North Carolina.
Like Mencken, Johnson was both a fierce “disturber of the peace” in his criticism and an engaging literary stylist in his writing. He was “bellicose,” “polemical,” “splenetic,” and “tart”; he “bemoaned” and “bludgeoned,” “debunked,” “decried,” “denounced,” “deplored,” “derided,” and “despised,” “excoriated,” “flayed,” “lambasted,” “lamented,” and “lampooned,” “raged at” and “ridiculed,” “scoffed at,” “scorned,” and “snorted at,” “torched,” “upbraided,” and “vilified.” His texts are replete with lively tropes (boxing, animal, carnival, theater, meteorological, olfactory metaphors), analogies, allusions, literary references, leitmotifs, puns, antitheses, oxymora, irony, and humor. He could be “waggish” and “guffaw” at what he wrote. “This man who so relished paradox presented one himself: a benevolent-looking gentleman with silver hair, impeccably dressed, soft-spoken, contemptuous of all theatrics, going deftly about the business of unsettling people’s minds.” Paradox is particularly evident in Johnson’s relationship to the South. He believed, for example, that the Civil War was “an avoidable tragedy,” not worth the cost in lives, but celebrated “the grandeur of General Lee” or “the bravery of those cadets of VMI who fell during the Battle of New Market.” He relentlessly criticized Southerners for their romantic notions of the Old South and for not facing the realities and embracing the potential of the New South, most notoriously in his bitter debate with the Southern Agrarians and their manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand, in 1930—31. But “his elegiac writing about the war would prove more winning than his polemics,” and “The Cadets of New Market” (1929) “may well be his finest essay.” In the 1920’s, Johnson was a “liberal segregationist,” and although this term did not become an oxymoron until the end of World War II (cf. John Egerton ), it is, as Fitzpatrick notes, “surprising indeed” that Johnson remained a “liberal segregationist” to the end of his career.
Beyond such inconsistencies are weaknesses in Johnson’s writings that Fitzpatrick does not hesitate to point out with blunt criticism or wry humor. Johnson wrote 44 books, among them nine biographies, ten books on American history and government for juveniles, three novels, historical studies, and commentaries; “the canon is uneven in quality.” Among the biographies, Andrew Jackson: An Epic in Homespun (1927) and Randolph of Roanoke: A Political Fantastic (1929) stand out, while Johnson’s biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt: Portrait of a Great Man (1967) is “outright hagiography”; this “boy’s life of Roosevelt” is “the most notable exception” among the books for juveniles that Johnson wrote “with considerable skill,” beginning with America Is Born (1959), which the ten-year-old Fitzpatrick found “entrancing” and “far more exciting than anything that his teachers made him read for school.” Johnson’s historical novel, By Reason of Strength (1930), and autobiographical novel, Number Thirty-Six (1933), are “competent,” but “hardly flawless,” literary counterparts to his journalistic criticism of the South, and his detective novel, Beware of the Dog! (1939) “gave Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler no cause for alarm.” “To help pay the bills,” Johnson “churned out hack work that consumed time and energy which could have been spent more profitably elsewhere.” He should have, for example, written a book on “The Mind of the South,” as he anticipated many of the conclusions in W. J. Cash’s book of the same title published in 1941; but Fitzpatrick finds it “difficult to imagine that Johnson could have written a better book” anyway. Similarly, Johnson should have written his planned intellectual biography of Adlai Stevenson (died 1965) instead of “the Roosevelt fiasco” (1967).
Johnson’s true “forte,” however, was the essay, and two anthologies, South-Watching (1983) and America-Watching (1976), provide easy access to many of his most memorable pieces that would otherwise share the “ephemerality” of so much journalistic writing. The former contains a selection of 22 essays from 1923 to 1965, while the latter contains 71 selections from 1923 to 1975; together, they include 11 different essays from the VQR, America-Watching “captures,” as Fitzpatrick notes, “Johnson’s staggering productivity, his immense skill as a stylist, and his extraordinary range of interests.” Johnson wrote, as Fred Hobson observes in his introduction to South-Watching, “with a grace that can only be called literary,” and, alluding to Hemingway’s definition of “guts” and Dorothy Parker’s description of the Hemingway hero in her New Yorker profile (Nov. 30, 1929), Fitzpatrick considers “grace under pressure” to be “a trait that marked Johnson’s own career.” Such a writer and critic deserves to be read and remembered; he deserves to be included in the next published supplement of the American National Biography.