Fenton Johnson


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(1888–1958), poet, essayist, author of short stories, editor, and educator,

who created works that foreshadowed the Harlem Renaissance. Fenton Johnson's first poetry appeared in 1913, and his last was written in the 1930s. He was a mid-western poet, influenced by that region and by the city of Chicago.

Fenton Johnson was born on 7 May 1888 in Chicago. His parents were Elijah and Jesse (Taylor) Johnson; Elijah, a railroad porter, was one of the wealthiest African Americans in Chicago. Johnson described himself as “having scribbled since the age of nine” but originally planned to join the clergy. He attended public school in Chicago and then enrolled at the University of Chicago. Johnson also attended Northwestern University and Columbia University's journalism school. He taught briefly at the State University at Louisville, a private, black Baptist-owned school in Kentucky. After his marriage to Cecilia Rhone, Johnson spent his artistic years primarily in Chicago and New York City.

Johnson produced three books of poetry, A Little Dreaming (1913), Visions of the Dark (1915), and Songs of the Soil (1916). All three books, which received some favorable critical notice, were directly subsidized by the author himself. In the first collection, Johnson uses a lyrical, “Victorian” style reminiscent of Paul Laurence Dunbar. By the third collection, Johnson is experimenting with dialect poetry in both traditional and personal idioms. Regardless of style, this early poetry provides glimpses of the despairing tone that is so memorable in his later works.

Fenton Johnson did not limit himself to poetry; he published a collection of short stories, Tales of Darkest America (1920), and a book of essays, For the Highest Good (1920). He founded and edited literary magazines, and was also a playwright. By the age of nineteen, he says, his plays had been “produced on the stage of the old Pekin Theatre, Chicago.” His play-wrighting continued through 1925 at least, when “The Cabaret Girl” was performed at the Shadow Theatre in Chicago. This title is the only record of Johnson's plays; no scripts are extant.

Fenton Johnson continued producing poetry for anthologies and journals until the 1930s. Critics have judged this later work as among Johnson's best. He increasingly used free verse forms and explored his own urban experiences. Influenced in later years by Carl Sandburg and other midwestern authors, Johnson wrote of the despair and fatalism that was part of his African American experience. Johnson's final literary collection of around forty poems, posthumously published, was created during the Works Project Association's “Negro in Illinois” program. After the 1930s, the only connection Johnson retained to the artistic community in which he was previously so active was a correspondence with Arna Bontemps. Johnson died in 1958, at the age of seventy.

Although often judged as a minor poet who merely prefigured the Harlem Renaissance, Fenton Johnson always exhibited a keen racial consciousness. His best work goes beyond foreshadowing to consistently give voice to a largely silent strain of despair and realism among American and African American culture.

Countee Cullen, ed., Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets, 1927; rpt. 1955.James P. Draper, ed., Black Literary Criticism of the Most Significant Works of Black Authors over the Past 200 Years, vol. 2, 1992.


Subjects: Literature.

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