Denis Johnson – Literary Influences, Favorite Poets & Books


The favorite books and literary influences of the late author and poet, Denis Johnson, are examined below.  While Johnson was known as a prolific writer at a young age – publishing his first book of poetry, Man Among Seals, when he was 19 years old – it was not until 1992, following the publication of his masterpiece Jesus’ Son, that Johnson came to prominence in the literary world.  Jesus’ Son is a collection of short stories examining the exploits of numerous narrators wandering through a rural America where drug use is rampant and petty crime is a customary part of their everyday lives.  The book has rightfully been declared a classic of 20th century American literature.  Johnson’s 2007 novel The Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  Johnson passed away on May 24, 2017 following a battle with liver cancer, at the age of 67.

For more information on any of the books below, feel free to click on the associated image for more information (via Amazon).


Catcher in the Rye

Tom Sawyer

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

During a 2002 interview with Longreads, Johnson stated that the books that inspired him to become a writer were Catcher in the Rye, Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn.  With respect to Catcher in the Rye, Johnson stated it “was my book when I was a kid. I thought, this has the same kind of flavor for me. And didn’t know exactly what it was about it, but at the same time, I thought I’d never publish these things. They’re too weird, and too frankly autobiographical. I guess at that point I thought it was important for me to hide the fact that I’m not right in the head.”

During a 2013 interview with the Yale Literary Magazine, Johnson expressed his admiration for author Graham Greene, and recommended the following novels by the late English author:

The Power and the Glory

The Comedians

The Heart of the Matter

The Human Factor

A Burnt-Out Case

During his interview with Yale Literary Magazine, Johnson expressed his love for espionage novels, noting that while he loved James Bond as a kid, he preferred “the more realistic, complicated approach – Le Carré particularly, and some of Eric Ambler.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

This novel is considered by many to be Le Carré’s masterpiece.

The Little Drummer Girl

Le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl was recently adapted into an excellent television series directed by Park Chan-wook – the series stars Michael Shannon and Alexander Skarsgård as Israeli intelligence officers working to take down a cell of Islamic extremists in the late 1970s.

A Coffin for Dimitrios (Ambler)

Journey Into Fear (Ambler)

When asked by Yale Literary Magazine to reveal his favorite poets, Johnson replied as follows: “Dylan Thomas first of all…then Walt Whitman and the beat poets shortly after that.  And Bob Dylan’s lyrics, and ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ and then when I was a college freshman, ‘The Lost Pilot’ by James Tate…I still read poetry all the time.  Just lately it’s Eugenio Montale, and Michael Burkard, and John Clare.  Often I return to Franz Wright, and W.S. Merwin.  I’ve recently been impressed by the young poet Carl Adamshick…James Tate still.  John Logan I return to as well.  I’ve been re-reading ‘The Salt Ecstasies’ by James L. White, too.  Last winter was the winter of Fernando Pesoa.

The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas

Complete Poems of Whitman

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (T.S. Eliot)

The Lost Pilot (Tate)

The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale

By Secret Boat (Burkard)

John Clare Poems

Walking to Martha’s Vineyard (Wright)

The Essential W.S. Merwin

Saint Friend (Adamshick)

The Salt Ecstasies (White)

Izabrane pesme Alvara de Kampusa (Pesoa)

If you are unfamiliar with any of Johnson’s work, we strongly recommend checking out the following:

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