- Kenneth Johnston
April 20, Kenneth Johnston's birthday, is on the cusp between two star signs, Aries and Taurus. Impulsive Aries lends energy and pushes Ken forward, while the solid Taurus attends to details: that's the astrological recipe for three major books, five edited collections, at least 33 scholarly essays, dozens of reviews, a cluster of "occasional pieces" and television, radio, and theatrical scripts. As we all know Ken is independent, generous, optimistic, enthusiastic, and courageous—and if his hair had never been cut since he came into the world, today it would be 9.93 meters long—making him something between Gandalf and Samson pre-Agonistes. But, of course, it has been cut because something we all associate with Ken is his impeccable tout ensemble. One of the things his CV does not divulge is his enviable success in being upgraded on trans-Atlantic flights—a record that speaks to a demeanor and charm that works its magic on audiences in Europe and America. His companion Janel Mueller will testify that this graciousness goes back to his college days, and I notice that Ken's Amazon web page advises us that "he sings and swims."
Ken studied at Augustana College and the University of Chicago Divinity School; then for his Ph.D. at Yale University where Harold Bloom supervised his doctorate, and his contemporaries included Morris Dickstein and Jerry McGann. Ken's subject was "The Veiled Vision: The Continuity of Natural Imagination in the Poetry of Wordsworth," a title that might be suggestive in various ways of Ken's later books about Wordsworth's continuing project The Recluse, as well as the strategic veilings and cover-ups that form part of Ken's subject in his masterly study of poetic self-creation in The Hidden Wordsworth.
A half-century ago Ken was appointed Assistant Professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, an affiliation that continues happily now in his Emeritus years. Ken's loyalty to Bloomington is admirable in its own right, and because it exemplifies strength in local attachment—one of the insights of the Wordsworth he so acutely tracks through his publications. On the national scene Ken was a member of a faculty group who joined with and helped to moderate campus protests against the Vietnam War; he was among the few from Bloomington who actually went on the mass anti-war protests in Washington, D.C. He took an interest in the circumstances of our profession, travelling to campuses all over the country to interview faculty members about how they did English in their colleges and universities.
Back in Bloomington, another friend from those early days recalls that he was "an excellent Father Christmas," a good actor and—true to his Amazon blurb—that he "has a jolly good voice." My source also tells me that Ken "performed brilliantly in The Yeoman of the Guard and I suspect many young ladies [End Page 22] in the hall fell in love with him. He should have performed more often! By the way, his wife Ilinca was an excellent cook and hostess and it was always fun to be Chez Johnston." I certainly echo those memories of the Chez Johnston experience, having been warmly welcomed by Ken and Ilinca back in 1988 during the Romanticism conference held that year at Bloomington. Ken took charge of arrangements for this conference and raised the funds to make it all happen—one of the outcomes was the excellent Romantic Revolutions: Criticism and Theory collection co-edited by Ken and published in 1990.
Ken was a Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Bucharest in 1974–1975, where he met Ilinca. They settled together in Bloomington from 1977, brilliantly and successfully combining the challenges of raising a family with the demands of academic life. Ken was now a full Professor and a notably successful and popular Head of English for seven years from 1994–2001—an excellent example of Ken's Taurean energy and practicality in effective collaboration.
Meanwhile Ken had begun his long association with Grasmere by attending the second Wordsworth Summer Conference in 1972. Alongside Ken were Russell Noyes, William Empson, Michael Cooke, Reg Foakes, Earl Leslie Griggs, Carl Woodring...