E. W. Johnson: From literary star to fallen felon


Near Darke
By Hank Nuwer

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was stuck in time.

Stuck in a Travelodge, no less, with repulsive, cutesy trademark Sleepy Bears.

A Sleepy Bear in nightcap and nightshirt on the motel welcome sign.

On the counter at check-in.

Stuffed Sleepy Bear toys placed atop the guest room pillows.

Even the bathroom tiles wore etched bears.

Bears, bears, bears. It was like Kurt wandering off a tourist trail in the Gates of the Arctic National Park, for Pete’s sake.

Kurt was guest of honor at a writers’ conference in Macomb, Illinois, a city of fast foods and franchise stores.

Kurt sat in the catbird’s seat because all his out-of-print novels had been reissued by publisher pal Seymour Lawrence at Delacorte.

Prior to Lawrence’s intervention, Kurt’s career sank to a new low. He could barely afford an outhouse, let alone a penthouse. In fact, a guaranteed fee at a writers’ conference at a solid Illinois state school would have thrilled him.

He might even have found the Travelodge Sleep Bear amusing.

The workshop host was Edward Warren Johnson, a Western Illinois English instructor who wrote and edited under the shortened name E. W. Johnson.

The gawky six-footer was WIU’s resident weirdo. The campus newspaper tagged him “Outspoken” and a “Campus Personality.”

The bearded instructor sported expensive tailored shirts from a Chicago outfitter, accompanied by beatnik beret. He walked the streets of Macomb accompanied by his black cocker spaniel.

Oddball or not, E. W. Johnson seemed destined for literary noteworthiness. He held an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Iowa’s famed program. Kurt taught there at the time, and Johnson idolized him.

Johnson chose the Travelodge instead in campus lodging because alcohol wasn’t allowed. Speakers like Kurt needed their booze, he figured.

Johnson himself was a self-proclaimed LSD freak who hung out with lesser-known Merry Pranksters of literary fame.

The Pranksters called him Crazy Ed.

E. W. Johnson’s own big book co-edited with Tom Wolfe also was a few years away. Harper & Row dished out a $30,000 advance for “The New Journalism” anthology edited by Wolfe and him.

After check-in, the West-Central Illinois Writers Conference held a meet-and-greet for faculty and students. Kurt clutched a protective tumbler of Scotch.

Kurt learned that Johnson’s conference was a disappointment, badly organized and badly attended.

The author handed back the check for his fee and headed to the airport.

Johnson somehow made it through the conference.

Soon after, Kurt exposed him in a front-page New York Times Book Review essay that badmouthed the worth of writing conferences.

Johnson was shamed.

He left his teaching job at WIU. There was a brief time of fame.

The New Journalism book by Tom Wolfe and E. W. Johnson was a smash hit with readers.

Through the help of the New York Public Library’s archivist, I read all Johnson’s letters to his co-editor Tom Wolfe. He was manic but lucid.

The anthology might never have come out without Johnson prodding Wolfe to get busy finishing two important essays.

Then, in 1974, all that LSD abuse must have caught up with Johnson.

He guest lectured at Indiana University and threatened a student with an axe. After a medical examination, a physician diagnosed paranoid-schizophrenia.

It got worse.

Johnson mailed threats against then-VP Nelson Rockefeller. He moved to Florida and sexually assaulted two women.

He spent the better part of a year in prison.

Florida classified him as a violent sexual offender. For a while, he lived in a down-at-the-heels Florida motel with other sex offenders. A counselor offered help sessions there.

Welcome to the Monkey House!

I spent months trying to track down E. W. Johnson and found him after Freedom of Information requests and plain dogged determination.

I tried to reach Johnson to arrange an interview.

I learned from police detectives he had vacated the motel and quit reporting to his parole officer.

Late last year, the sex offender registry removed the name of Edward Warren Johnson.

E. W. was dead, shy of his 80th birthday.

I never will know what demons transformed him from a nationally known anthologist to a bum on Pinellas County sidewalks.

Vonnegut died in 2007. He never knew about the downfall of “the cigar-chomping” instructor from a “jerkwater college” he had humbled.

Vonnegut’s antihero in many books was the fictional Kilgore Trout, an author of hack novels who ends his life with a Drano cocktail.

Johnson’s life was as pathetic as Trout’s.

I wonder if his ruin was caused by LSD psychosis alone, or by seeing himself ridiculed as an academic loser by an author he idolized.

You never know when you’ll attain a good reputation.

You always know when it is lost.

Hank Nuwer is an author, columnist and playwright. He and wife Gosia live on the Indiana side of the Union City state line. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.

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