Folsom Funeral Service

Johnson, Barbara E.

Barbara Ellen Johnson, a resident of Cambridge for the past 27 years, died Thursday, August 27th, 2009 at her home after a long illness.  She was 61.  Barbara was born October 4th, 1947 in Boston, Massachusetts, the only daughter of Gilbert H., and Priscilla C. “Pat” (James) Johnson.  She graduated from Westwood High School with the Class of 1965, earned her undergraduate degree from Oberlin College, and her PHD from Yale.  Barbara was one of the two Presidential Scholars from Massachusetts in 1965, and she was a world renown literary critic.  Ms Johnson was the author of several books including Defigurations du langage poetique, The Critical Difference, A World of Difference, The Wake of Deconstruction, The Feminist Difference, and her latest book, Persons and Things.  She was a Frederic Wertham Professor of Law and Psychiatry in Society at Harvard University where she taught for the past 25 years.  In addition to her mother Pat Johnson of Westwood, Ms Johnson is survived by her three brothers; Peter D. Johnson of Washington, DC, Bruce Pollack- Johnson of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Christopher C. Johnson of Scituate.  A Memorial Service will be held Sunday, August 30th at 2 PM in the First Parish of Westwood United Church with the Reverend Christopher Dodge officiating.  Interment will be private.  In lieu of flowers donations to the Memorial Fund of the First Parish Church, 340 Clapboardtree Street, Westwood, MA 02090 would be appreciated.

Guestbook Entries

  1. Marcie Bianco
    August 28th, 2009 | 10:17 am

    BJ, I love you.

  2. Armine Kotin Motimer
    August 28th, 2009 | 12:58 pm

    I knew Barbara in graduate school and I admired and envied her for her abilities. Very sad to hear of her death now. Best wishes to the family.

  3. lindsay waters
    August 28th, 2009 | 5:36 pm

    A singularly interesting and important person died yesterday. I met Barbara through Paul de Man, her teacher, in December 1983. She seems to me so fresh, so cheeky, so direct in the way she opens out to me and questions me. Something singularly pellucid. She was as American as Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, or Clare Danes. There’s actually more than a touch of those three in her life story. She told me one could work at Harvard and get things done back in 1983, and then she proceeded to work with me to get things done, big things, fun things.

  4. Seth Graebner
    August 28th, 2009 | 6:26 pm

    Professor Johnson would probably have liked the incongruities of an obituary notice that switches tenses so oddly, to inform us that “she is a Frederic Werthan Professor of Law and Psychiatry in Society at Harvard University where she has taught for the past 25 years.”

    Indeed, she still teaches us all, and there will likely not soon come an end to her lessons.

  5. Patricia Ward
    August 28th, 2009 | 7:06 pm

    I had numerous contacts with Barbara during my scholarly career; she also wrote the endorsement for one of my books. Barbara was both brilliant but gracious — interested in people. She will be greatly missed.

  6. Hortense Spillers
    August 28th, 2009 | 11:19 pm

    Barbara Johnson was one of the most remarkable thinkers and scholars of the generation we shared. Many of the conceptual innovations in feminist work and in literary theory of the last three decades originated at her desk, and what a place it must have been! It’s hard to imagine that she is no longer there; she will be sorely missed.

  7. Bill Todd
    August 30th, 2009 | 12:13 pm

    Barbara was probably the most brilliant literary critic of our generation, and I knew her work long before I came to Harvard twenty years ago. Once here, I realized that this was only a small part of what she was — tireless, but inspiring teacher, profound thinker on pedagogic and curricular issues, generous and welcoming colleague. Her presence in a meeting or examination brought it to life. Her deft sense of humor and her extraordinarily fresh vision guided us through many difficult moments. Physically she has left us far too soon, but the memory of her will guide us for years to come.

  8. Elizabeth Scala
    August 30th, 2009 | 2:56 pm

    Barbara was a most wonderful teacher, colleague and friend. We will miss her more than we can say. I was her student at Harvard from 1989-93 and was lucky enough to have her as one of my dissertation directors. Both her work and her personal generosity changed my life and helped me achieve all I have today. My deepest condolences to her family. We will always keep Barbara in our hearts.

  9. Arthur L. Little, Jr.
    August 30th, 2009 | 5:31 pm

    I owe such a huge part of my graduate education to Barbara. She was (and will always remain in mind) an exceptional intellect and one of the most decent and inviting persons I’ve encountered. Her passing is an extraordinarily sad moment for me.

  10. Scarlet Marquette
    September 1st, 2009 | 12:53 am

    To read her was always a revelation and an inspiration. Pellucid, rigorous, teasing–she had a prose style like no other. Following her thoughts on the page, one never knew what to delight in more–her own sublime command of the English language or her keen insights into challenging texts. To know her personally was to be always in the presence of a deeply generous and profound spirit. She was a great beacon for all those who care about thinking, reading, living. A very sad day for the many who loved her…

  11. Charles S. Fineman
    September 1st, 2009 | 8:32 am

    Like Armine Kotin Mortimer (above), I was a classmate of Barbara’s in graduate school (French; Yale); and still remember meeting her for the first time in our first-year Old French course taught by Howard Garey. I am writing this morning to extend my deepest sympathy to Barbara’s family. She was a brilliant scholar and translator who was taken from us far too early.

  12. September 1st, 2009 | 10:56 am

    my God, and how we loved her and her writing and her last book I have right at my bedside, WHAT SHE TAUGHT US ALL
    about Mallarme and everyone else who matters

    how she mattered!

  13. David Hirsch
    September 1st, 2009 | 6:00 pm

    Echoing the thanks of other former students who write here, I remember one lesson in particular that crystallizes my memory of Barbara as a generous scholar and teacher. After reading something I’d written, which was cryptic and jargon-filled in the way that grad students often write when still growing comfortable in their professional skin, Barbara said to me, “The more complicated your thoughts, the simpler your prose needs to be if your intention is to communicate.” Her grace, analytical precision and quiet authority will always be a model to us all.

  14. Roger Gilbert
    September 1st, 2009 | 6:36 pm

    Barbara was my senior thesis advisor at Yale. Her analytic brilliance and quiet wit gave me models of intellectual life that I’ve carried ever since. She was a wonderful teacher and mentor. I feel very sad for the students who won’t get to learn from her as I and so many others did.

  15. Christina Zwarg
    September 1st, 2009 | 8:28 pm

    Sharp, lucid, with a voice of clarity unlike any other I have ever heard. Barbara would always ask the right question, always find the way in, which would be the way out. The challenge she faced, in the end, is one few will understand. I so miss Barbara’s remarkable remarkability. The question “what’s the difference?” was not a simple one for her, or any of her mentors, for that matter: her transformation of their influence is more magical still. Peace, now, to you Barbara, where inspiration is no longer a struggle. You gave us that.

  16. Barbara Hemmings Gray
    September 2nd, 2009 | 5:09 pm

    I was shocked to read that Barbara had died. She was a student in my French classes at Westwood High. I remember that even at that age she stood out as a rare person, a student who inspired any teacher fortunate enough to know her. From reading her obituary I see that her life was filled with great things and that she endeared herself to many, and I find that absolutely normal for the Barbara I knew so long ago.

  17. Bryan R. Washington
    September 3rd, 2009 | 10:51 am

    Barbara Johnson opened wide a window that gave me an extraordinary view of the intellectual landscape out there when I was her teaching assistant in the early Eighties.

    I shall never forget her, nor I am certain will anyone who ever worked with her.

  18. Marilyn Richardson
    September 4th, 2009 | 12:03 pm

    Barbara (ok, BJ) was brilliant, of course, but also so witty, sly, fearless – - and i swear she somehow listened as much with her eyes as with her ears.

    It was a delight to work with her as guest teacher in a couple of her Harvard classes way back when. And I know we are all thankful that her unique voice remains in all the writing she has left us.

    Deepest condolences to all those who held her close.

  19. Fred Moten
    September 4th, 2009 | 12:19 pm

    I am proud to have been, and to remain, her student.

  20. Patricia J. Williams
    September 4th, 2009 | 4:52 pm

    I just learned of Barbara’s passing and am devastated. I first met her when I was a student at the School for Criticism and Theory. I was always in awe of her. She was the most subtle thinker, the most brilliant teacher I’ve ever encountered. And she was certainly the most generous. She turned my career on its head by opening my eyes to a universe of interdisciplinary possibilities. She encouraged me to write beyond the world of law reviews; and she insisted I write the manuscript that became my first book. Barbara quite literally made a world of difference in my life. What a terrible, terrible loss. My deepest condolences to her family.

  21. Deborah Carlin
    September 5th, 2009 | 12:13 pm

    Kind, brilliant, wise, and extraordinarily wry and funny, Barbara’s passing leaves a great void in all of our lives. I feel privileged to have known her as both a student and as a friend, and I cherish the memory of our time together. My condolences to all who loved her and to her family.

  22. September 6th, 2009 | 9:50 am

    Barbara was a dear colleague and the most candid of friends. Her comments–often full of humor–enlivened our meetings; and she always told the truth, even the painful truths of her physical decline. Her writing was striking in openness and frankness, as well as in its freshness of view. She was a natural writer, with a writer’s pungency of language, in conversation as well as on the page. She was kind: in an era where academic hostilities were common, Barbara kept as friends colleagues in many different camps. No one will forget her courage during the past several years, nor the gaiety of that courage. I will miss her always.

  23. Virginia E. Swain
    September 6th, 2009 | 3:43 pm

    What a loss for all who knew her, personally and/or through her work. BJ mixed charm and fun with her extraordinary intellectual abilities — a rare and endearing combination. Although we weren’t in touch much after graduate school, my memories of her as a friend and the person who inspired my interest in and love of Baudelaire are still fresh in my mind. I extend my deepest sympathy to her loved ones.

  24. Marianne Hirsch
    September 6th, 2009 | 4:36 pm

    I’ll never forget Barbara’s public lectures. Invariably, she would appear with a huge pile of books, a few pieces of paper and, looking up passages, reading them, she would construct a brilliant, lucid, trenchant argument, keeping us at the edge of our seats. Her thoughts, her words, were always fresh. She was utterly earnest but her eyes had the sparkle of the pleasure she took in figuring things out on the spot. I to was in awe of her brilliance and I was always surprised by the simplicity of her demeanor, her readiness to have a good laugh. Thank you for that beautiful picture of her.

  25. sophie volpp
    September 8th, 2009 | 1:13 am

    I just went to order Persons and Things and saw with shock that she is gone. I took her class on the lyric in 1985. This picture is just as I remember her — such a deep humanity combined with absolute clarity.
    I was only a student of hers in a fairly large lecture course, but her influence ran so deep. Years later, my mother sent me a book simply because she’d seen that it acknowledged her — she remembered how much this professor meant to me.
    Sophie Volpp

  26. Jonathan Crewe
    September 8th, 2009 | 1:40 am

    In answer to a question I asked when she first presented her “Apostrophe, Animation, Abortion” paper, she came up in a flash with the phrase “abortion manqué” for Shakespeare’s Richard III. One to store away. I later saw that she also had a gift for deadpan stand-up comedy. So brilliant and thoughtful, and so light on her feet. The best!

  27. A Student in Cambridge, MA
    September 8th, 2009 | 10:35 pm

    Ever since I first saw you speak, more than a dozen years ago, I waited for the chance to become your student. That chance was the reason I eventually came to study at Harvard, although by then your illness had already begun to keep you from teaching. How I wish I had had a conversation with you, if only to express, gushing like a fan, how much I revered and relished your mind, manner, humanity, humility.

    Short of that, and in addition to the moments of euphoric depth I have experienced reading and listening to you — on Melville, on Keats, on Lowell, on Nietzsche, to name but a few — I will also remember the playful plainness in your spoken cadence, and that ensemble of turtleneck in one shade of brown with woolen skirt in another you often appeared in at the lectern, characteristically self-unimportant, yet majestic.

  28. Betsy Fleche
    September 10th, 2009 | 12:58 pm

    I will never meet her now. I always meant to introduce myself to her and let her know how life-sustaining her work has been for me. I wanted to say that whenever I read her, I always feel really, really smart! That whenever I teach her, my students respond the same way. But the right moment for such an encounter never seemed to come–it so rarely does!–and I was reluctant to initiate a meeting out of the blue.

    Her words have a magic to turn her readers into critics with great power. That magic still awaits everyone who hasn’t met her yet.

  29. Marie-Rose Logan
    September 12th, 2009 | 12:09 pm

    Naomi Schor, Eve Sedgwick, Carol Kay…and now Barbara Johnson…all gone too soon…The academic world has lost yet another strong voice. Barbara was a wonderful classmate, colleague, and above all a super and most generous human being.Her “magic” lives on. Marie-Rose Logan

  30. sara ahmed
    September 15th, 2009 | 3:59 am

    I first read an article you wrote on literature and psychonanalysis when I was an undergraduate and it blew me away. It posed the question of how to read without holding the text in place as an object of illustration. It was a beautiful question. Once you had posed this question, for me, reading itself changed. I was changed by reading your work. I heard you speak once at Cardiff when I was a PhD student. You were so brilliant, and charming and clever. I was too shy to introduce myself to you. Now hearing you are no longer with us, I will my shyness away. But if I could will anything I know that would not be it. Thank you so much for all you have given me and many others who did not meet you but were touched by your work. I know for many feminists who began their academic lives in the world of literature that your work made persisting in this world possible.

  31. Sharmila Sen
    September 17th, 2009 | 2:48 pm

    You were a superb teacher when I was in college. Later, you were such a kind and generous colleague when I was a junior faculty member in the English department. You’ve taught so many of us how to listen, read, and think. I shall miss seeing you in lectures, in the hallways, on the streets of Harvard Square. Even now I can see that gesture you made with your upturned palm when you were about to ask a question in seminars. Your books will continue to teach us all, including those who have not arrived yet. I shall remember you always with deep gratitude and affection.

  32. Elin Diamond
    September 22nd, 2009 | 9:23 pm

    Sadness over the loss of Barbara pivots quickly to the warmest memories of her in a theory seminar over which she presided at Harvard, where invited speakers stayed long after presentations to think and argue with us. Her broad smile breaking into laughter when conversation got rolling still makes me smile. She created a room within the room where intelligence sparked intelligence quite separate from personalities. A gift she had, one of so many.

  33. September 24th, 2009 | 3:40 pm

    I studied English for a PhD at Harvard, and was a student of Prof. Johnson’s — but those two facts were almost completely separate. I didn’t happen to take any of her classes. I learned from her books: and how remarkably self-effacing are even these brilliant, gorgeous documents!

    I remember few specifics about the great analyses of “A World of Difference” and “The Critical Difference.” But they matter to me the more for all that (“It is not in the premise that reality / Is a solid. It may be a shade that traverses / A dust, a force that traverses a shade” -Stevens). These books altered my own mind and aspirations quite radically.

    Prof. Johnson SHOWS us the text, and the critical energy seems to be the poet’s and our own. In truth, of course, it is also the energy of a great, great teacher, one who motivates great work rather than leading a cult of personality.

    I strive to be a classroom teacher as great as Prof. Johnson apparently was. But to write as lucidly, as excitingly, as incisively, as she did? I despair of ever working that hard.

    As her student _apres la lettre_, I honor Prof. Johnson’s memory.

  34. Elissa Marder
    September 30th, 2009 | 10:25 am

    Barbara Johnson was my teacher at Yale. She was also one of the main reasons why I chose to study French there. She was an enduring source of inspiration and admiration for me. As a graduate student, I wanted to be like her; I wanted to read and write with her inimitable wit, humor and critical precision. I have since become reconciled to being myself. Nonetheless, I hear her voice in everything she ever read and everything she taught me to read and love.

  35. Victor Figueroa
    October 7th, 2009 | 3:55 pm

    I still remember, just before becoming her student, reading this phrase in “A World of Difference” that blew my mind and has impacted my life to this day:

    “If I perceive my ignorance as a gap in knowledge instead of an imperative that changes the very nature of what I think I know, then I do not truly experience my ignorance. The surprise of otherness is that moment when a new form of ignorance is suddenly activated as an imperative.”

    She was a wonderful human being and astonishing teacher. I know many of us will always miss and love her. And for many of us, she will always stand there behind our shoulders, deconstructing every sentence we write or read. And always with that wonderful smile of hers!

  36. Ann Seaton
    October 12th, 2009 | 9:14 am

    I was Barbara’s student, I taught for her, and I used to come back for a few years afterwards and do a lecture on The Marble Faun for Persons and Things. But what Barbara Johnson gave me was not really measurable in that kind of way. A favorite quote–”I’m not against experience,” delivered with that haunting smile. Barbara, with whom and by whom so many were dazzled, was also a writer, or an artist of some kind. She always wanted to shatter the frame, but gently–and she was radical without being trendy, in a way she couldn’t help being. Barbara got older, but she was always a teenager–not in the way she dressed, but in her eternally fresh mind. I am glad I was always listening so hard when she spoke.

  37. Timothy Benston
    November 1st, 2009 | 12:31 am

    Wow..I am so saddened to hear of Prof. Johnson’s passing. She taught two of my English classes at Harvard. I learned how to read as a scholar under her. What a great loss for the Academy !!!!

  38. Monika Fludernik
    November 14th, 2009 | 4:37 pm

    I only learned about Barbara’s passing away just now. This is a deep personal loss. I spent 1987-88 at Harvard, and she was the first female professor of my experience, and one I immediately began to worship. I attended her deconstruction lecture that year, which was magical; and a seminar on narcissism, in which I admired her restraint: she did not say much, but when she said something it was penetrating and just right. I also loved her humour and her smiles, the way she was self-contained and yet warm-hearted. Her voice, with its peculiar lilt, had a musical quality to it. I am extremely saddened by her death. I am touched by the many enthusiastic and loving notes in this guestbook: it is good to know she had so many friends who did keep faith with her.

  39. Rachael Burger
    December 18th, 2009 | 8:50 pm

    I was an undergrad at Harvard in the early 90s. Took a graduate French poetry seminar with Barbara and also defended my (women’s studies) thesis to her. Some years later, she was kind enough to write a grad school recommendation for me.

    So sad to learn of her passing. Barbara was such a lovely person, combining a great mind with occasionally risque humor and wit, and (as many others have said) real humanity, humility, and kindness. She was also so lovely in her decidedly (to me) seventies-era clothing — her a-line skirts, and smooth mock turtlenecks, and her delicate chin-length hair.

    So grateful to you, Barbara, for all that you brought to all of us, and so sorry for your early passing. With love.

  40. Penny Corbett
    February 20th, 2010 | 8:34 am

    Barbara was my close childhood friend, out of touch now for so many decades I am only just now learning of her untimely death. I have great admiration for her amazing accomplishments. I also remember with delight our dancing together, our play times and great best friends sleepovers during elementary school. With appreciation for her conversation and sharing, I am grateful for the several times we did reunite briefly as adults.

  41. rex hauser
    February 28th, 2010 | 8:56 pm

    Thank you Barbara, for lifting many of us in our thoughts and writing, to gracious, precise, elegant, and eminently humane analysis of culture/literature/politics. You explored where few had dared, and as a messenger brought a torch which we will always use, about places where we will always want to go and be.

    Thanks for SCT, ’87, and for teaching Forsche, Audre Lorde, the Detroit Riots, and Derrida, all in the same seminar.

  42. Eric Wayne
    March 1st, 2010 | 1:03 pm

    Unlike most of those who have written, I only met Barbara once, at a conference in Philadelphia in 1979, when she came to hear a paper on Baudelaire that I gave, and we spoke briefly afterwards. But she had the best literary intellect of our generation, and her passing leave a gap that cannot be filled. Also, as one who has lived with slow-moving, secondary progressive multiple sclerosis for more than two decades, I can understand how she may have felt as the illness diminished her. My condolences to all who knew her.

  43. Mark Burns
    March 4th, 2010 | 3:02 am

    She was the kindest, smartest, most generous and moral person I’ve ever known. She changed my life.

  44. Barry Hershey
    March 25th, 2010 | 9:58 am

    Just learned of Barbara’s passing. A very sad moment. In the late 80′s, I sat in on her seminar on narcissism and literature, a singular educational experience. I was taken by the gracefulness of her mind and the warmth of her personality. Took her deconstruction class the next semester.

    Will always be grateful to have had Barbara as a teacher and will remember her with deep affection forever.

  45. Scott Paul Gordon
    April 30th, 2010 | 10:53 am

    I only just now learned of Barbara’s death. I’m stunned. I knew her but not well; but, as many have said above, I know her writing well and, whenever I re-read it, I hear her voice. I will always remember her appearance, sandwiched between Helen Vendler and Meredith McGill, at an English Institute Panel in the early 90s, I think, all speaking on Lowell’s “On the Union Dead”–and recall Meredith’s shaking her head at the difficulty of following Barbara onto any podium. Barbara’s long essay on Melville’s “Billy Budd” is, for me, one of the most amazingly intelligent and lucid pieces of writing I have ever encountered. It perfectly embodies what David H. recalled above: “The more complicated your thoughts, the simpler your prose needs to be if your intention is to communicate.” I teach it every year as the only way–or best way–to make deconstruction accessible to students.

  46. Jonathan Cook
    May 9th, 2010 | 6:25 pm

    I was saddened to learn recently of Barbara’s passing. I took two of her seminars as an impressionable Harvard undergraduate in the mid-90s — and was I ever impressed. Her nimble turns of thought, creative interpretations, and the gently questioning way in which she interpreted writings and the world, were provocative and inspirational. Though my career headed in a different direction, I still think back often to those initial lessons in truly critical thinking.

  47. Sharon Achinstein
    May 17th, 2010 | 6:56 am

    I only just heard of Barbara’s death, but I took her Lyric course in 1985 and it opened my eyes to literature, its shapes, sounds, things. Barbara gave me advice on whether or not to go to graduate school, and the light in her eyes as she spoke of her vocation, the exquisite delight as she explained her own experience, were passed on to me a glee and mystery that made me want to develop further to become the scholar and teacher I am today. Her teachings are with me today. Thank you Barbara, your loss is felt.

  48. Beatty
    August 26th, 2010 | 4:42 pm

    Like the others I had a profound experience that connected mind and body in one of Barbara’s classes – this one being her first move away from the French Dept – and to another dept. A class on Black Women Writers. I had just returned from Amsterdam, wandering a lost urchin with purple hair. Back to the US to English speaking world and into her Extension School class that got a few women of color upset (so that they stormed out when they learned that she the white professor was venturing into different territory), I ate up every word. She explained with all of her might that French enabled her to read black women thanks to her study of Difference. Wow. Her insights changed the way I read everything else from then on, and even goofed with the way I watched movies. Talking became different. It was as if she added new tastebuds into my mouth.

    I also deeply appreciated Barbara’s willingness to come out as a lesbian in the late 1980s. It made all the world’s difference, to me anyway, at a time when Harvard student publications as well as the world were talking about one’s sexual orientation as the usual: faulty choices, sin, confusion, etc. She and Peter Gomes made it known that they were gay and that it wasn’t ok for people to hear bigots without knowing that some pretty terrific people who were gay were a-ok.

    I wrote to her to tell her of the significance of that, many years later, and she replied, “Yes we’re on the same grid.” Don’t you just love that? I was and remain deeply touched by her. My world has been completely upended by her death.

  49. November 20th, 2011 | 4:17 pm

    It is not until now that I have been able to write this. Barbara Johnson was the woman who allowed me to speak at Harvard when the forces that govern academic power and who gets heard were trying to force her into silencing me. It was at the 1991 Gay and Lesbian Conference at Harvard and I attended the conference in protest of a woman academician at Rutgers who had shown no solidarity towards women of color. Barbara presided over my session. Two white women rose to object that I be allowed to speak on the grounds that my “political” statement had no place in an academic setting. After opening the floor for discussion and hearing the voices of Puerto Rican young scholars in the room who wanted to hear me, Johnson ruled that I be allowed to speak. A woman who stood up for a Minority woman who was being ostracized for speaking truth to power was rare in those days. I am writing my memories, and Barbara Johnson and her decision to allow a Lesbian Puerto Rican poet to denounce a system, will figure in my personal account as an immense act of courage and justice. Thank you for giving my right to dissent> I will never forget you, beautiful soul.

  50. Marti Hohmann
    September 14th, 2013 | 10:28 pm

    She was one of my dissertation advisors. I loved her very much.

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