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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Johnston, Grahame Kevin Wilson (1929–1976)

by W. S. Ramson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Grahame Kevin Wilson Johnston (1929-1976), university teacher, was born on 11 April 1929 at Marton, near Palmerston North, New Zealand, elder son of Frank Johnston, a journalist from Scotland, and his New Zealand-born wife Kathleen Augusta, née Wilson. Schooled at St Patrick's High, Palmerston North, and St Patrick's College, Wellington, Grahame studied English at Victoria University College (M.A., N.Z., 1951) and taught for two years at Auckland University College before proceeding to Merton College, Oxford (B.A., 1954). He returned to the Antipodes to lecture in English at the University of Queensland (1954-56). At St Thomas Aquinas Church, St Lucia, on 23 May 1955 he married with Catholic rites Eva Rosenbaum, a schoolteacher; they were to have one son and were divorced in 1964.

Moving to Canberra University College (later the School of General Studies, Australian National University), Johnston was promoted associate-professor in 1962 and was a visiting scholar (1963) at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. He held the (Sir) Robert Wallace chair of English at the University of Melbourne in 1963-65, then accepted a readership at the A.N.U. In 1968 he became professor of English in the Faculty of Military Studies, Duntroon campus, University of New South Wales. He was appointed deputy-director of the Humanities Research Centre, A.N.U., in 1976.

By training and choice, Johnston was primarily a medievalist, but in young departments with small staffs he displayed considerable versatility, teaching and publishing in the fields of American and Australian literature particularly. His approach to teaching was that of a rigorously trained scholar rather than an inspirational critic. He saw his foremost responsibility as being to make texts available to students who were sufficiently independent in their critical judgement to be able to take his exposition as the first step and to develop interpretations of their own.

As a consequence Johnston's publications have a distinctly utilitarian quality: they are necessary tools which facilitate understanding and exploration, and the intellectual quality which informs them is best judged by their range and integrity. His first three books also showed an unusual diversity. Australian Literary Criticism (Melbourne, 1962) was a pioneering collection that drew together essays which contributed to the definition of an Australian canon as well as validating an embryonic school of Australian criticism. An Outline of Middle English Grammar (Oxford, 1963) was a translation of a work of proven quality by Karl Brunner. Johnston was joint author and editor of the first two editions of the Australian government's Style Manual (Canberra, 1966, 1972), one of those enduringly useful books on which people unthinkingly depend.

He developed a close working relationship with Frank Eyre of Oxford University Press, Australia, and was influential in developing Oxford's considerable role in Australian studies. Johnston was appointed general editor of the press's three series—Australian Writers and their Work, Australian Bibliographies, and Selected Essays on Australian Writers. In 1970 he published Annals of Australian Literature (Melbourne). The most accessible of his cultural tools was to be his last. His Australian Pocket Oxford Dictionary (Melbourne, 1976) was the first major dictionary aimed specifically at an Australian market. Survived by his son, he died of cirrhosis of the liver on 21 December 1976 in Woden Valley Hospital and was buried in Canberra cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • G. K. W. Johnston, curriculum vitae, 8 Apr 1976, Australian National University (copy held in ADB file)
  • private information.

Citation details

W. S. Ramson, 'Johnston, Grahame Kevin Wilson (1929–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 27 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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