Whiskey, Wilde and the Western World: An Introduction to Fenton Johnson

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In this 2017 collection, which brings together essays originally seen in Harper’s, NPR, The New York Times and elsewhere, Fenton Johnson provides the reader with a fascinating timeline in the life of an activist. This timeline is particularly gripping because it spans many decades and multiple subjects, including faith, sexuality and family life. Johnson has spent more than thirty years as an outspoken writer and activist for this population, and Everywhere Home weaves us a beautifully-written tale of advocacy and passion.

Raised in family of whiskey-drinking, tale-telling Kentuckians, Johnson grew up near a monastery. In fact, much of his writing has danced with religion, through skeptical observation and spiritual journeys. In his latest collection, spirituality makes several appearances, one of which is in an essay titled “Catholic in the South.” At times laugh-out-loud funny, this story details his mother’s religious journey. As he puts it: “From the perspective of the secularized 1990s it’s hard to appreciate the magnitude of my mother’s leap from Bible Belt Protestantism into the ritualized pomp of the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church.”

We are given some idea of the ripples this change caused in the reality of his family, which eventually resulted in all but two of eight children leaving the Church. With the author’s guidance, we explore the already complicated mind of a fourteen-year-old boy, further confounded by a confrontation with religion. You can almost taste the anxiety. In an attempt to be fair to himself, a young Johnson leveled the playing field of faith. “I resolved…to shop the religion market, in all its Christian diversity. I designed for myself an ecclesiastical survey course consisting of Sunday visits to the Protestant churches of each of my high school classmates.” What follows is a heartwarming and heartily funny account of this adolescent adventure.

Unlike some of his earlier collections, which all center around singular topics, this is Johnson’s collected works. An essay from 1991 could be followed by another from 2016, and then the reader might be swept back to 2003. This gathering of Johnson’s work allows for a far-reaching, and yet deeply intimate, encounter with the author.

Perhaps my favorite essay of the collection is “From the Depths: Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis in Its Second Century.” First published in 2009, this brilliant essay begins with a line that gives me chills each time I read it: “Among our immortal dead perhaps only Jesus fell faster and farther.” Johnson goes on to examine Wilde’s work as a whole and through its various parts, at each turn delving more deeply into the consciousness of this “Irish-born mystic, martyr and megalomaniac.” My fascination with De Profundis certainly had bearing on the delight I had while reading this essay, but even those who do not have a literary relationship with this particular work will likely find rooting in the humanity of Johnson’s analysis. As with every individual essay in Everywhere Home, there will be something here that makes you laugh, cry and everything between.

Read Fenton Johnson’s Collection of Essays

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Tess Wilson works in Civic Information Services at CLP – Main, and occasionally assists Teen Mentors during programming at the Labs. She is a collector of anything from big dictionaries to small rocks, and her latest acquisition was an MFA in Creative Writing of Poetry from Chatham University.