American Novelist Diane Johnson: The Edith Wharton of Her Generation

by Emily Shuman

Diane Johnson was born Diane Lain on April 28, 1934, in Moline, Illinois, which she describes as a place where, “everyone knew you or your parents, and life was full of small pleasures, few excitements” (Colby 1). This low-key, Mid-Western background hardly seems characteristic of the cosmopolitan expatriate that she would become later in life. Initially, Johnson did not seem on the path to becoming a writer; she pursued her education at Stephens College when she was just seventeen but later dropped out to become a wife and mother. Yet with the passage of time she grew to realize her talent and potential future in writing, an epiphany that guided her development as a woman and a novelist. Over the course of her life and career Diane Johnson has evolved from an empowered female and mother to a passionate, political expatriate, two roles that have undeniably shaped her work, perspective of the world, and outlook on life.

Johnson’s academic career got off to an uncertain start when she dropped out of college to marry her first husband. She eventually obtained her B.A at the University of Utah in 1957, giving birth to her first two children just a year earlier. From there she avidly pursued her education, ultimately receiving her M.A and P.h.D from UCLA. In this same period of time Johnson’s family experienced both growth and destruction; she gave birth to her third and fourth children but divorced her husband soon after. In the aftermath of her divorce Johnson had her first international experience, briefly moving to England. Abroad, she began work on her first published piece, a biographical study of Mary Ellen Peacock Nicolls Meredith, which was also her doctoral thesis. Yet even at this time, writing had not occurred to Johnson as a possible occupation. In 1968 she returned to the United States and later married John Frederic Murray, a doctor and professor at the University of California. With her marriage came a relocation to San Francisco where the couple still lives part-time.

It took quite a long time for Johnson to truly consider herself as a novelist. As she revealed in an interview, “I really didn’t know that writers were still alive. I had the impression that everyone who wrote books had written them already and disappeared from earth” ( Yalom 124). Johnson had always recognized that she had a certain talent for writing and even when she eventually began to explore writing fiction she still did not consider it a true vocation. The budding author expressed timidity, revealing, “It’s hard to conceive of yourself as a writer, so you await proof before you take that pledge and say, ‘I’m a writer’” (Pearlman & Henderson 50). Under the advice of her close friend novelist Allison Lane, Johnson finally began to see that her talent could be a useful and worthwhile career. Lane also convinced Johnson that she should not feel guilty about hiring a babysitter and taking time away from her role as a mother to pursue her writing. With this newfound support Johnson officially dedicated herself to her writing.

Johnson’s works generally share one underlying commonality in that they all feature female narrators. As a consequence of prejudice against them in society, Johnson feels that women are not considered trustworthy narrators in literature. Through her work she conveys her support for empowered women, stating that, “I write about women of childbearing age, because I like to fly in the face of these prejudices and hope that I can make them authoritative and trustworthy reporters” (Yalom 128). Johnson uses her role as an author as a vehicle for her personal ideals, believing that, “every fully conscious woman is at heart a feminist, whether she calls herself one or not” (Yalom 136). However, the plots of Johnson’s novels are not intended to be feminist complaints; instead she maintains that she is, “not trying to write manifestos about female independence, but human lives,” (Yalom 127). Thus, although she opposes society’s prejudices, Johnson’s true aim is to create equality through her female characters and create issues that can be generalized to all of humankind.

Through the progression of her life Johnson grew from a young, empowered feminist to a cosmopolitan expatriate. Johnson experienced Paris for the first time in 1967. She exited the metro at la Place de la Concorde and was taken by how it looked lit up in a light snowfall.

In that moment she fell in love with the city, (“Conversation”1). Interestingly, it was actually her husband John Murray who took the initiative in creating the couple’s French life. Through his French colleagues John began to see the possibility of working and living abroad. The couple decided to move and now spends half the year in San Francisco and half in the City of Light. They make their home in la sixième arrondissement, Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Johnson describes her neighborhood as the center of everything, which certainly contributes to her love for her French life and her second country.

Johnson’s current living situation has had a significant effect on her most recent works and has shaped her perspective on the world. Johnson’s three most recent novels, Le Divorce, Le Mariage, and L’Affaire, are satires of Americans living abroad in France that focus on culture clashes and the way the French view Americans. The novels can be best described as comedies of manners and have earned her the nickname, “The Edith Wharton of her generation,” (“Conversation” 2).

Johnson’s choice of topic was certainly influenced by her own situation and the environment around her. She expressed, “I want to write about Americans and you can really see them better in the context of another society” (Yalom 130). Her interest in Franco-American relations stretches beyond inspiration for her novels. Since she splits her time between the United States and France, Johnson is a unique, part-time expatriate who must also split her allegiance between two nations. While in France, Johnson follows American politics avidly and is even a member of an organization called Democrats Abroad. Her political activism reached its pinnacle in the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq when she found herself in the middle of a heated tension between her two nations. Johnson describes her community of Americans in France as having a more internationalist perspective on the world and having reservations about the decision to go to war (Darman 2). Despite the delicacy of the situation, Johnson freely expressed her opinion in an interview with Newsweek: “I actually don’t feel French anti-Americanism when I’m here the way I feel American anti-Frenchness when I’m in the United States. I don’t know where that comes from. It’s very hard to understand if you’re here because there doesn’t seem to be any real reason for it. I mean, America doesn’t or shouldn’t require everyone to automatically approve whatever nutty thing they’re going to do so I don’t see why the average American in the street got so up in arms about France” (Darman 2).

Living in both the United States and France allows Johnson to see both perspectives, influencing her views on political relations, the American public, and the French people. Despite the animosity, Johnson claims that most of the French she knows don’t mind her Americanness and that a few have even approached her saying, “We know it’s not your fault, you know it’s just your president and we know he’s crazy” (Darman 2). As a result of her years in France, Johnson has embraced the true cosmopolitan lifestyle, identifying with both the United States and her adopted country of France. This lifestyle enables her to provide unique criticism of international relations between the two.

Diane Johnson’s experiences over the course of her life have allowed her to come into her own as a writer and as a person. Through the passage of time she has gradually evolved from a young mother to an empowered female to a budding writer, to a modern day cosmopolitan. For now she remains a part-time expatriate, sharing her support and love for two countries and cultures. Current Johnson and her husband spend eight months of the year in Paris, but she admits that the period of time is slowly stretching to become even longer. This trend could bring new possibilities as the author’s attachment to France grows deeper. Her new life, new country, and new city have already undeniably affected her in many ways and will only continue to do so in the future. In regards to just how Paris has changed her life she divulges, “I certainly feel a broader, richer experience of life. In some ways I am a happier, more productive person” (Conversation 2).

Works Cited

“A Conversation with Diane Johnson.” Paris Through Expatriate Eyes. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2010.

Darman, Jonathan. “Lost in Translation .” Newsweek 26 Sept. 2003. Web. 11 Nov. 2010.

“Johnson, Diane.” World Authors 1975-1980. 1985. Biography Reference Bank. Web. 11 Nov. 2010.

Pearlman, Mickey, and Katherine Usher. Inter/view Talks With America’s Writing Women. N.p. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1990. Print.

Yalom, Marilyn. Women Writers of the West Coast Speaking of Their Lives and Careers. Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1983. Print.

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