On Curt Johnson, “December” magazine, and Raymond Carver

A WRITER’S STORY: For more than 40 years, while laboring here on his own novels, Curt Johnson used his little magazine, December, to champion other authors—including a then-unknown Raymond Carver

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For Mark and Paula, one of the good memories was the sound of their father’s typewriter late at night. Ultimately Curt Johnson would publish six novels, starting with Hobbledehoy’s Hero, a coming-of-age tale set in Iowa that Pennington Press, a new Chicago publisher, issued as its first release in 1959. Two of his many short stories garnered special accolades. “Trespasser,” about an old Arkansas squatter’s battle with the phone company, appeared in the 1973 edition of the O. Henry Prize stories, while “Lemon Tree”—described by one reviewer as a “story of sordid-sordid-sordid extramarital involvement”—found a place in Best American Short Stories 1980.

A 1966 issue of December magazine, featuring Marilyn Monroe on the cover.
A 1966 issue of December, with Marilyn Monroe cavorting on the cover, featured Raymond Carver’s breakthrough short story, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?”

Beginning in 1962, Johnson became the editor and publisher of December, a little magazine that had started at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1957. When the Chicago postman who had inherited the periodical could no longer afford to run it, he passed the magazine to Johnson, who nurtured it over the next 40-plus years. “It was very important to Curt to publish writers that he saw weren’t being published elsewhere,” says Diane Kruchkow, Johnson’s coeditor on Green Isle in the Sea: An Informal History of the Alternative Press, 1960-85.

Johnson invested his own money in December—by the mid-1980s, he estimated he had spent $96,000 on the magazine and taken in only $51,000—and enjoyed the freedom that allowed. “It’s my magazine,” he told a friend—the writer Norbert Blei—in a 1977 interview. “A lot of the stories are about lower-class people or men and women in desperate marital situations, a lot of them traditional in approach . . . but I happen to like that kind of story.”

December had its triumphs, publishing stories and novels by Blei, John Bennett, Jerry Bumpus, Jay Robert Nash, and others. “By the River,” an early tale by Joyce Carol Oates, appeared in 1968 and was included in Best American Short Stories 1969.

But the magazine’s greatest success was undoubtedly Raymond Carver, who in 1963 was a struggling 25-year-old father of two when he made his first appearance in the magazine with the story “Furious Seasons.” Carver published several pieces in December, including his breakthrough tale, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” After appearing in a 1966 issue, it was included in Best American Stories 1967 and served as the title for Carver’s first story collection.

Johnson and Carver finally met in May 1968, when Johnson was in California attending a little-magazine conference. By then, Carver was on the December masthead as its associate editor, alongside its special editor, Gordon Lish. Over lunch, Johnson introduced the two editors to each other. A year later, Lish had become the brash young fiction editor at Esquire magazine, and one of the fresh new writers he promoted was Raymond Carver.

Johnson continued to mentor and champion Carver. In the winter of 1978, he let him use the rustic, snowbound cabin he owned near Galena—though Carver fled after a week, spooked by the place’s oppressive isolation. As Carver’s fame and income increased, the two men grew distant. They had their final meeting in Chicago when Carver, now a superstar, appeared at a 1986 fundraiser for Poetry magazine. Two years later, he died from lung cancer.

In a 1994 essay, Johnson, though of the opinion that success had had a deleterious effect on his old friend, was unstinting in his praise for Carver. “In the territory of fiction he staked out for himself he was absolutely honest,” Johnson wrote, “and in that territory no American writer can touch him. He can truly break your heart.”

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After his divorce from Jo Ann, Johnson married—and divorced—two more times. Though he claimed to love women, he once described himself as a misogynist. In his 1995 novel, Thanksgiving in Vegas, he wrote: “The thing to keep in mind was that if you grew too dependent on [women], or trusted them too far, they left you in the lurch, betrayed you in some way. That much about them was predictable.”

In 1990, Johnson bought a little white house in Highland Park. He built a deck out back and installed a Zen garden. His closest companion was a big beagle named Rocky. In 2007, Norbert Blei’s Cross+Roads Press published Salud, a compilation of Johnson’s writings. When Blei visited the Highland Park home to deliver a copy, he found the once-vital Johnson a “ravaged hulk”—he had lost a lung to cancer in 1997—who forced back tears when he saw the book.

On June 9, 2008, two weeks after his 80th birthday, Johnson died alone in his bed. Paula organized a heartfelt memorial service for her father, and after he was cremated, she spread his ashes at a location she prefers not to disclose. “I admire what my father did,” she says. “I admired it as a kid, and now I admire it even more. He was very successful in seeing through what he believed in, and he didn’t compromise. And that was very cool.”

PRINTERS ROW LIT FEST
June 12th-13th
Stop by Chicago’s booth to pick up our list of the Top 40 Chicago novels of all time.

 

Photograph: Courtesy of Paula Johnson

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