Short Biography of Uwe Johnson

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Short Biography of Uwe Johnson

Uwe Johnson was born on July 20, 1934, in Kammin (today Kamień Pomorski in Poland). He started school in 1940 and then transferred to a National Socialism’s elite institution (Deutsche Heimschule) in the summer of 1944. In February 1945, he left school, and his family fled to Mecklenburg, where they settled in Güstrow in 1946. Johnson's father, who was deported to Ukraine in 1945, was declared dead in 1948. From 1948 to 1952, Uwe Johnson attended John-Brinckman High School in Güstrow. He studied German literature in Rostock from 1952 to 1954 and then spent the next two years in Leipzig.

In Rostock, he refused to support the state's defamation of the Young Community, resulting in his expulsion from the university. As part of the state's damage control after the June 17, 1953 uprising, Johnson was readmitted to his studies. In Leipzig, he developed significant and influential friendships. Under the guidance of Professor Hans Mayer, he wrote a thesis on Ernst Barlach's Der gestohlene Mond. Eventually, Mayer helped Johnson by submitting his first manuscript to Peter Suhrkamp after it had been rejected by several publishers in East Germany. The novel was posthumously published in 1985 under the title "Ingrid Babendererde. Reifeprüfung 1953," which tells the story of a high school class's decision to flee from the East to the West.

In 1956, Johnson's mother left East Germany with his sister, but he stayed in the German Democratic Republic. He translated Herman Melville's Israel Potter into German and also translated the Nibelungenlied from Middle High German. Upon the publication of his novel Mutmaßungen über Jakob in 1959, Johnson moved to West Berlin. In 1961, the year his book Das dritte Buch über Achim was published, he made headlines when Hermann Kesten claimed that Johnson justified the construction of the Berlin Wall, which was then repeated in the Bundestag by Foreign Minister Heinrich von Brentano. Johnson refuted Kesten and Brentano with a tape recording.

Following his early novels, critics, to Johnson's dismay, labeled him the "Poet of the Two Germanys". Both of his books depict events in East Germany and the impact of political events on individual lives. The complicated narrative structure in both works reflects the problem-oriented treatment of the subject matter, which defies simplistic interpretation.

In 1962, Uwe Johnson married Elisabeth Schmidt, and their daughter was born in the same year. Johnson received a scholarship from Villa Massimo and translated John Knowles' A Separate Peace into German. In 1964, he reviewed programs from the East German television, which were boycotted by the West German press, for the West Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel. These texts have been published as Der 5. Kanal. In the same year, his collection of stories titled Karsch und andere Prosa was published, followed by the novel Zwei Ansichten a year later. Johnson edited Bertolt Brecht's Me-ti. Buch der Wendungen. From 1966 to 1968, the Johnson family lived in New York City on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Through Helen Wolff's connections, Uwe Johnson worked as a textbook editor at Harcourt, Brace & World for the first year and received a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation in the second year. In 1967, he compiled a German-language reader for high schools titled Das neue Fenster. Important acquaintances in New York included Helen Wolff, Hannah Arendt, and Heinrich Blücher.

Upon returning to Berlin, Johnson brought with him the plan for the Jahrestage project. Parallel to working on this project, Uwe and Elisabeth Johnson had extensive conversations with journalist Margret Boveri, intending to assist her in portraying their lives. In 1977, after Boveri's death, Uwe Johnson published her autobiography titled Verzweigungen.

The first volume of the Jahrestage series was published in 1970, followed by the second volume in 1971 and the third in 1973. The fourth and final volume was completed ten years later. The protagonist of the series is Gesine Cresspahl, born in 1933, who tells her daughter the family history over the course of a year in New York in 1967/68. The narrative spans from the early 1930s in Mecklenburg to the Vietnam War and the Prague Spring, with the connection between history and family history shaping the novel both in form and content.

Uwe Johnson edited Max Frisch's Tagebuch 1966–1971. In 1972, he was elected Vice President of the Academy of Arts in West Berlin. In this role, he organized a symposium on Samuel Beckett's work together with Hans Mayer and Karin Kiwus. In 1974, he published Eine Reise nach Klagenfurt, a detailed and touching tribute to Ingeborg Bachmann.

In the same year, the Johnsons moved to Sheerness on Sea, located on the Isle of Sheppey in England. In 1975, Johnson published a collection of essays titled Berliner Sachen and, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Suhrkamp Verlag, edited the volume Max Frisch Stich-Worte. His retelling of Philipp Otto Runge's fairy tale Von dem Fischer und seiner Frau was published in 1976 by Insel Verlag.

In 1977, Johnson became a member of the Darmstadt Academy for Language and Poetry but left informally two years later. In 1979, he delivered a poetics lecture at the University of Frankfurt, which was published a year later in an altered form as Begleitumstände. In this work, he publicly announced his separation from his wife. Johnson contributed the story Ein Schiff to the volume 1000, edited by Jürgen Habermas. His sketch Ein Verunglückter appeared in a memorial publication (Festschrift) for Max Frisch's 70th birthday in 1981.

With the publication of the fourth volume of the Jahrestage series in 1983, the main work was completed. It was released together with the Kleines Adressbuch von Jerichow und New York, edited by Rolf Michaelis, which aimed to facilitate access to the novel. Unfortunately, the book tour had to be cut short due to health reasons.

On March 13, 1984, Uwe Johnson was found dead in his house in Sheerness.


Prof. Dr. Holger Helbig
Institute for German Studies
Gertrudenstraße 11, Torhaus
18057 Rostock

Tel.: +49 381 498 2540
E-Mail: holger.helbiguni-rostockde