The University of Iowa

A Posthumous Prize for Denis Johnson

From the The New York Times, the Library of Congress has announced that Denis Johnson will be the winner of its annual Prize for American Fiction, to be formally bestowed on Sept. 2, as part of the National Book Festival in Washington.

Johnson was a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and studied under Raymond Carver, whose raw accounts of addiction and recovery would be echoed in Johnson’s work. He held a BA in English and an MFA degree from the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he also returned to teach. 

Johnson published his first book of poetry, The Man Among Seals, in 1969 at the age of 19. He earned a measure of acclaim with the publication of his first novel, Angels, in 1983. In a 2006 New York Times Book Review poll, Jesus’ Son was voted one of the best works of American fiction published in the last 25 years. It was adapted into the 1999 film of the same name, which starred Billy Crudup.

Tree of Smoke won the 2007 National Book Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It takes place during the Vietnam War, spanning the years 1963-70, with a coda set in 1983. In the novel, we learn the history of Bill Houston, a main character in Johnson’s first novel, Angels, which is set in the early 1980s.