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“Spud” Johnson

1897-1968

 

On April 10, 1922 a strange new publication appeared on the Berkeley campus. “Herewith,” its anonymous editors proclaimed,

is presented “The Laughing Horse,” a magazine of polemics, phillippics [sic], satire, burlesque and all around destructive criticism, edited, written and financed by four more or less like-minded young persons, who find education as it is perpetrated in America, and especially at California, a somewhat gaudy farce with lachrymose overtones but withal a spectacle par excellence.

We propose to take nothing too seriously, to hold nothing sacred, to subject anything or everything which seems to affect too pontifical an air, too solemn an attitude, to ribald ridicule. Our aim is frankly destructive, regardless of the attitude of the English Club on that kind of criticism. We are not reformers; we are not architects. We are the wrecking gang, hurlers of brickbats, shooters of barbs, tossers of custard pie. We are not bitter; we are not ill-natured; we are not soreheads. We are simply tired of the incessant bleating of professorial poloniuses and their spineless imitators, the blather of campus politicians, the palpable tosh of [the Daily] Cal. and Pelly [Pelican] and Occident editorials, the silly chatter of our half-baked Hobsons, Bryans and Orison Swett Mardens. We seek not simply to shock by our derisive irreverence of sacred things which are largely ridiculous in their very nature, but merely to come out with a merry horse-laugh.
The editors listed themselves as Jane Cavendish, Noel Jason, Bill Murphy and someone known only as L13, but they were in reality Spud Johnson and two friends: Roy Chanslor and James Van Rensselaer, Jr. The publication was financed by fifty dollars which Johnson had managed to save from his brief stint as a reporter for the Richmond Independent. It was printed “on Genuine Wrapping Paper” and cost twenty-five cents an issue. The publication sold well enough to pay their bills, and to allow the editors to come out with a second issue the following month.

A native of Colorado, Walter Willard Johnson arrived in Berkeley in 1920 after two years at Colorado State Teachers College and a brief stay at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He came to the University of California determined to connect with the West Coast bohemians and literati, and found his entree in the person of poet Witter Bynner. Little is known of how the two came to meet; by 1920 Bynner was no longer teaching at the University, but he had maintained his rooms in the Carlton Hotel. Despite Johnson’s continued influence as chief editor (and his on-going sexual relationship with Bynner), The Laughing Horse did not shrink from criticizing the effete aestheticism that Bynner represented at the time. The attacks could be pointed and frankly homophobic:

In the University of California, the gals outnumber the boys at least five to one in all courses in art, literature and education. Literature is looked upon as a plaything for women and half-baked “queer-ducks,” who sleep in baby-blue silk pajamas. Real men as a rule take courses in bookkeeping or plumbing or the selling of malthoid roofing and leave literature to the women and the men who should have been women.... Show me a man who is forever prattling about art and the little theatre and the poetic drama, and seven times out of ten I will behold an ardent admirer of root beer and a frequenter of maiden ladies’ teas.
Though Spud Johnson was editing the journal long-distance from Sante Fe, The Laughing Horse was nominally being published at the University of California, and the UC administration viewed each issue with growing alarm. Finally, with the fourth issue, which appeared in December of 1922, the University felt it had to act, and banned the publication from the campus.

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Read More About It

  • The Laughing Horse (Berkeley, CA, etc.), vol. 1 - 20 (April 1922-December 1938)
  • Spud Johnson. History of The Laughing Horse ([Taos, New Mexico : South Dakota Review, 1968])
  • Sharyn Rohlfsen Udall. Spud Johnson & Laughing Horse (Albuquerque : University of New Mexico Press, 1994)
 
 

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