The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

UI pays tribute to Writer’s Workshop alumnus Denis Johnson

The UI honors Denis Johnson, an acclaimed author and Iowa Writers’ Workshop alumnus.
Denis Johnson (

Today, a tribute to acclaimed author and Iowa Writers’ Workshop alumnus Denis Johnson will be held, honoring his life, career, and time at the University of Iowa. The event will feature numerous speakers, including UI faculty and professors along with fellow authors.

Johnson died in May and was posthumously awarded the 2017 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. The event will acknowledge this award, along with other accolades, including a Whiting Award, fellowships from the Guggenheim and Lannan Foundations, and a Pulitzer Prize nomination.

Though Johnson was a celebrated writer who gained attention for work, colleagues said he remained a humble and approachable individual.

“People who loved Denis Johnson as a person and who loved his work will be speaking to remember him and mark the importance of him as an American writer,” Writers’ Workshop Director Lan Samantha Chang said. “He was an iconic writer, and his presence was very deeply felt here at the university. It is very meaningful for us to be able to put on this event.”

Johnson came to Iowa as an undergraduate, earning a B.A. in English before pursuing an M.F.A. from the Writers’ Workshop. He later returned to the Workshop as an instructor, worked with the International Writing Program, and taught undergraduate writing classes; as a result, Iowa City’s influence can be seen in several of his works.

“He’s a writer who adopted Iowa, because of his time here both studying and teaching,” UI English Professor Loren Glass said. “He’s taken Iowa City as a setting for a number of his most well-known stories.”

Glass also noted that Johnson studied both fiction and poetry, writing his thesis in the latter genre, which is very rare for authors to do. That he achieved mastery and literary acclaim in both genres is an additional cause for honor and recognition.

“Denis Johnson was a not only a gifted writer, he was a fearless one,” Daniel Khalastchi, the director of the Magid Center for Undergraduate Writing, said in an email to The Daily Iowan. “While his work shifted the literary landscape and garnered attention and praise, he always remained (in my experience with him) modest and supportive of other artists who were committed to their craft.”

Johnson wrote nine novels, along with several plays, collections of poetry, a novella, and his short-story collection Jesus’ Son, for which he received the most recognition and praise. Many of the stories in the collection are set in Iowa City and the surrounding area, paying homage to the town where Johnson dedicated much of his life.

“Honoring Denis not only for what he did but for what he allowed others to do feels absolutely essential,” Khalastchi said. “And there’s no better place to honor him than in a town — among the buildings, streets, student populations, and communities — he once called home.”

A Tribute Honoring Denis Johnson

What: Celebration in honor of Johnson, a Writer’s Workshop alumnus

When: Friday at 4 p.m.

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