Robert Underwood Johnson (January 12, 1853 – October 14, 1937) was an American writer and diplomat. His wife was Katharine Johnson.
A native of Centerville, Indiana, Johnson joined the staff of The Century Magazine and became the magazine's associate editor in 1881, and in 1909, on the death of Richard Watson Gilder, became the editor, which he occupied until May 1913. Johnson was also a longtime writer and editor for Scribner's Monthly.
Using the influence of The Century Magazine, Johnson, in conjunction with famed naturalist John Muir, was one of the driving forces behind the creation of Yosemite National Park in the California in 1890. In 1889, Johnson also encouraged Muir to "start an association" to help protect the Sierra Nevada, inspiring the formation of the Sierra Club in 1892.
He married Katharine McMahon. They had a son, Owen McMahon Johnson (1878 - 1952), who became an American writer in his own right. In the 1890s, Johnson and his wife Katharine became very close friends with the inventor Nikola Tesla.
Johnson became noted early for his work on international copyright. As secretary of the American Copyright League, he helped get the Law of 1891 passed, for which he was decorated by the French and Italian governments. He had a hand in many important publishing undertakings, and it was on his persuasion that Ulysses S. Grant wrote his Memoirs. He became permanent secretary of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was a driving force for the effort to acquire and preserve as a museum the rooms in Rome where the poet John Keats and his friend Joseph Severn spent Keats's final months in 1821.
In 1916 he acted as pallbearer for the funeral of Alexander Wilson Drake. In 1917 he organized and was chairman of the American Poets' Ambulance in Italy. This organization presented 112 ambulances to the Italian army in four months. In 1918-19 he was president of the New York Committee of the Italian War Relief Fund of America. He served as the U.S. Ambassador to Italy from April 1920 to July 1921, and represented the United States as observer at the San Remo conference of the Supreme Council of the League. He was decorated by the Italian government in recognition of his work in behalf of good relations between Italy and the United States.
Full Biography (submitted by family)
Born in Centreville, IN January 12, 1853, he was educated in the public schools. His brother Henry Underwood Johnson became a member of Congress from that district (1881-1889). His father Nimrod Hoge Johnson was a lawyer, judge and intellectual. His mother, Catherine Coyle Underwood was a Suffragette. On his mother's side were officers of the Revolutionary War - Lieutenant John Wigton (Philadelphia) who served on the Pennsylvania Continental Line . Pechin (Georgia) A native of family served in both sides of the war. He was great-grandson of Nathan (born Leesburg, VA) and Sarah Hoge, great-grandson of Noah and X Spencer. His great-grandfather came to the US from Ireland before 1795 settling first in Philadelphia and then in Washington, D.C. Grandfather's family Nathan and Sarah Hoge, pioneers of the Abolitionist movement were stoned and egged for their work. They moved from Belmont County, Ohio where their home was a station of the "Underground Railroad." He married Katharine McMahon August 31, 1876 in Washington, DC. Katherine was daughter of John (businessman) and Mary McCue of Washington, D.C. Mary McCue's father Owen came to Washington from Ireland in 1800. They had a son, Owen McMahon Johnson (1878 - 1952), who became an American writer in his own right. (footnote) and daughter Agnes McMahon (who married Frank Howell Holden, architect.) Johnson died in New York City, October 14, 1937.
Schooled at the QuakerEarlham College, Richmond, Indiana, entering at age fourteen and graduated with a B.S. in 1871, his first job was at Scribner Educational Books in Chicago, where he witnessed the Great Chicago Fire and an address by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Johnson visited relatives in Washington, D.C., including Grandfather John Underwood, who lived across from the now House of Representatives office building. He was schooled in Calvinist Presbyterianism by his uncle by marriage, the Reverend Charles H. Raymond, who served as charges d'affaires of the Republic of Texas at Washington before its admission as a state of the Union and by Quakerism of the Johnsons. Their services were attended by Washington leadership, notably for Johnson, Henry Clay. His ancestors hailed from Scotland, England and the Netherlands (Dutch).
Johnson's first work was as a clerk in Chicago, Illinois, agency of the educational books of Charles Scribner's Sons, and in 1873 he entered the firm's New York office beginning his long connection with ''The Century Magazine,'' then Scribner's Monthly) under Josiah Gilbert Holland. Johnson joined the staff of The Century Magazine in 1873. The Century Magazine was directed at leaders in the political, religious, artistic and social opinion. He became the magazine's associate editor in 1881, and in 1909, on the death of Richard Watson Gilder, succeeded to the editorial chair, which he occupied until May 1913. Johnson thus shared in the conception and working out of many of the various editorial projects that made The Century, as it became in 1881, one of the best-known literary and art magazines of the period. His aim as editor was to conserve the character and influence it had acquired and to fortify its traditional policy as a leader of public opinion and as an exponent of the best art and literature of the time. (The National Cyclopedia of American Biography, James T. White & Company publishers, NY, NY) One of his first major projects was the editing of "Century War Series" (1883) and the subsequent four volumes "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War" (1887-88), with the goal of raising circulation (by 100,000), was a series on the great battles of the Civil War from the point of view of officers on both sides based on accounts sourced from soldiers' family records. Johnson succeeded in securing four papers from General Ulysses S. Grant which later formed the basis of Grant's "Memoirs."
After his marriage to Katharine, they commenced a modest living in the NYC Murray Hill neighborhood after their honeymoon at the Philadelphia Exhibition that, in part, promoted interior design later promoted by the Century and its leadership in home design. In the 1890s, Johnson and his wife Katharine became very close friends with the inventor Nikola Tesla, for whom Johnson wrote a poem. While in New York City, his love of nature and exploration extended to outings and ramblings. He was surrounded by social friends over for musical and literary evenings and consumed all forms of art - opera, theatre. His favorite friends from US and abroad being Tommaso Salvini, Paderewski, the Clemenses, Kipling and Eleonora Duse(list page 593 RY) -, fine art through the National Academy of Design. The list of his and his wife's many friends of note are in his autobiography, Remembered Yesterdays. As a political independent, Johnson led advocacy for five causes important to him - International Copyright, Forest Conservation, Repeal of the Panama Tolls Exemption, Abolition of the Tariff on Art and Granting of Charters to the American Academy and the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
Johnson became noted early for his work on international copyright. As secretary of the American Copyright League, he helped get the Law of 1891 passed, for which he was decorated by the French and Italian governments. Johnson was called the father of the international copyright law (footnote Congressional Record 2/10-19, 1891;3/3-4/1891 Floor. ) The silver fruit stand honoring his role is in the collection of the Academy of Arts & Letters. Johnson's role in the creation, initial passage and reauthorization of the act to end intellectual piracy in the US ranged from his position at The Century, as an officer of the Copyright League, lobbying Members of Congress, participation in a conference to secure support from labor unions; negotiating with the Congressional conference committee.
Leveraging the influence of The Century Magazine, Johnson, in conjunction with famed naturalist John Muir, was one of the driving forces behind the creation of Yosemite National Park in California in 1890 and in 1913. He was chairman of the national commission for preservation of Yosemite National Park. Johnson is credited with writing the bill. Muir dedicated his book The Yosemite to Johnson. In 1889, camping out with Muir at Soda Springs, Johnson also encouraged Muir to "start an association" to help protect the Sierra Nevada, inspiring the formation of the Sierra Club in 1892.
Johnson advocated for the forest reservation system and a scientific national policy of conservation and fought persistently though vainly against the acquisition by the city of San Francisco, California, of the Hetch-Hetchy Valley as a reservoir. In 1906, in letters to President Theodore Roosevelt, he proposed a conference of governors to conserve the forests of the Eastern states, out of which grew the White House Conference on Conservation. In 2017, a plaque commemorating Johnson's role in relationship with Muir was erected at Tuolome Meadows - the site of their conversation about land preservation. Their story was recounted in Ken Burns' public television series on Our National Parks.
As a founding director of the Hall of Fame of New York University, he helped shape its principals "to instill in both Americans and foreigners, and especially in the youth, the principle of patriotism, a healthy conservatism, and reverence for the traditions of high achievement" along with "respect for scholarship and at the best traditions and standards; secondly, maintenance of the dignity and insistence on the value of literature and the arts; and thirdly, realization that its authority mush rest on the experience and the achievement of its members." (RY) He became permanent secretary of the American Academy of Arts and Letters whose formation started in 1899 with Johnson successfully proposing the charter from Congress (1916), purchase of the Venetian Renaissance home on 155th Street, NYC and the raising of funds for an endowment noting the indebtedness to the 'finest Spanish scholar in America, Archer M. Huntington' and culminating in 1904 (?). The first members to be inducted by secret ballot of their peers were William Dean Howells, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Edmund Clarence Stedman, John La Farge, Mark Twain, John Hay and Edward MacDowell. The second group inducted at the first meeting were Henry James, Charles Follen McKim, Henry Adams, Charles Eliot Norton, John Quincy Adams Ward, Thomas Raynesford Lounsbury, Theodore Roosevelt and Tomas Bailey Aldrich. A core of fifty members were inducted and in 1908 adopted a constitution. "The value of a great institution, like the value of a great personality, lies in the potentiality of its influence. Our national ideas need to be firmly established and maintained on an intellectual plane. ....we also need a revival of the gospel that the glory of man is his mind and his soul; and to remember that these, as well as the body, are exposed to starvation and dwarfism and disease and blindness. ..." o Remembered Yesterdays "The Temple" RUG poem at the laying for the cornerstone of the Academy's permanent home. Page 439 is an accounting of the history of the Academy. Said by John Hay" an Academy was more needed in our democracy than in an old-world monarchy, which has its own traditions and inherited standards, since here we are more subject to the tyranny of vogue." As Secretary of the American Committee, He was a driving force for the effort to acquire and preserve as the Keats-Shelley museum from a museum the rooms in Rome on Spanish Steps leading up to the Santa Trinita dei Monti church where the poet John Keats and his friend Joseph Severn spent Keats's final months in 1821. Percy Shelley apparently resided temporarily in a home across the steps.
He served as the U.S. Ambassador to Italy from April 1920 to July 1921, and represented the United States as observer at the San Remo conference of the Supreme Council of the League. He was decorated by the Italian government in recognition of his work in behalf of good relations between Italy and the United States. In 1916 he acted as pallbearer for the funeral of Alexander Wilson Drake director of the Century Magazine's art department and a notable engraver from New Jersey.
Johnson's activities during World War I afforded him the opportunity to "present the little-known facts of Italy's important contributions to the Allied cause, and that in general I had written much in prose and verse in admiration of that country and her people." In 1917 he organized and was chairman of the American Poets' Ambulances in Italy. This organization presented 112 ambulances and 37 field hospitals to the Italian army in four months built from Ford chassis from Milan. In 1918-19 he was president of the New York Committee of the Italian War Relief Fund of America raising $235,000 distributed all over Italy "not merely to minister to the suffering but to show Italians everywhere the sympathy and cooperation of America...the blind, prevention or cure of tuberculosis among children of veterans, benevolent work of San Gregorio in Rome." After being shown a photograph of a child holding 'the only doll in the valley' (Bezecca) RUJ wrote a poem by that name, sent out a press appeal and 'hundreds of dolls' were distributed to the Val.". He served as the U.S. Ambassador to Italy from April 1920 to July 1921, and represented the United States as observer at the San Remo conference of the Supreme Council of the League. He was decorated by the Italian government in recognition of his work in behalf of good relations between Italy and the United States.
In his first week on the job, represented the United States as observer at the San Remo conference of the Supreme Council of the League (1920.) In his biography, he describes in some detail bemoaning the lack of an official record of the proceedings or decisions despite momentous topics such as Armenia, status of Constantinople, Yugoslavia, borders and troop positions in Italy, Germany as well as Palestine and the Zionists. "It is amazing how frequently Italy seemed to be in the throes of an inescapable crisis, which, however, passed by like a summer storm - much noise and turmoil but little damage." Informed by his research into the Civil War, he visited the lower Alps battle fields. His duties were largely socially diplomatic but also included conversations with American business interested in working in Italy including Charles M. Schwab as well as a persistent opposition to Soviet intrusions of any kind. A detailed description of the Celebration of Vittorio Veneto - enemy losses topped 500,000. A description of hosting a dinner for the King and Queen of Denmark is rich in description of rituals, atmosphere and attire. Zeppelin Roma purchased by the US, extensive description of two trips. He, and apparently many in the diplomatic corps, operated independently receiving little operational funding or response to their queries from the US State Department. He was decorated by the Italian government in recognition of his work in behalf of good relations between Italy and the United States.
For his service in securing an international copyright, he received the honorary A.M. degree from Yale University, the decoration of chevalier in the French Legion of Honor in 1891 and the caveliers of the Crown of Italy in 1895. In addition, Johnson was made a commander of the Order of the Crown of Italy in 1919, an officer of the Order of Leopold II (Belgium) in 1919, and the commander of the Order of St. Sava (Serbian) in 1920. He received the Grand Cordon Order of SS.Maurice and Lazarus (Italian), conferred by King Victor Emanuel III in 1921; was named grand officer of the French Legion of Honor in 1922; and received the grand cordon, with star, order of Polonia Restituta in 1931. A member of Phi Beta Kappa, he was also an organizer in 1904 and permanent secretary of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, an outgrowth of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, of which he had also been secretary. He was a member of the National Citizens Committee of the Third Hague Conference, Independence Hall Conference to found the League to Enforce Peace, National Association of American Speech, Civil Service Reform Association, Sons of the Revolution, and the Authors, MacDowell (honorary), Century and Sierra clubs.