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Robert Underwood Johnson collection

Identifier: MSS 0121

Scope and Content Note

The Robert Underwood Johnson Collection comprises 2 linear feet of correspondence, manuscripts, personal papers, printed material, photographs, and realia of American poet, editor, and diplomat R.U. Johnson. The collection spans the dates 1879 to 1931 and is divided into six series: Publishing, Poetry, Prose, Maurice F. Egan, Italy, and Personal.

Each series reflects a particular aspect or period of Johnson's life. Series I, Publishing, contains materials related to Johnson's activities while editor of the Century Magazine and to the publication of his own works of poetry. The materials, particularly Johnson's correspondence, express typical editorial concerns and describe the politics of publishing. The series is note-worthy for its documentation of the formation of the Academy of Arts and Letters. In his autobiography Remembered Yesterdays, Johnson claims to be the only person then living who was "officially and intimately connected with the history of [the Academy] in one capacity or another from its inception" (p. 439).

Series II and III contain additional evidence of Johnson's love of letters. Series II, Poetry, includes draft and printed versions of Johnson's poems. Series III, Prose, contains drafts of Johnson's prose works and notes for his speaking engagements, many of which deal with some literary topic.

The subject of Series IV, Maurice F. Egan, shared Johnson's love of letters. An American educator, editor, author, and diplomat, Egan was one of Johnson's closest friends. Like Johnson, he was active in the international copyright movement. The materials in this series present the concerns of those in American literary circles; illuminate Johnson's personal life and achievements; and offer insights into the culture and current events of Denmark. As Egan served as Ambassador to Denmark from 1907–1918, his letters to Johnson during that period also discuss diplomatic and political affairs during a turbulent time in world history.

Johnson too served as an American Ambassador. Series V, Italy, contains materials documenting Johnson's stint as ambassador to Italy from 1920–1921; his love of the Italian country, culture, and people; and his philanthropic and diplomatic efforts to benefit the people of Italy. His correspondence provides a glimpse of American foreign policy in a post-World War I world. Notes from the San Remo Conference of 1920 document the policies implemented by world leaders to create order after the war.

Series VI, Personal, contains material pertaining to Johnson's personal life. A large part of this series comprises information from and about Johnson's immediate and genealogical family, which he attempted to trace. It also includes correspondence from family and from friend Grace Litchfield; photographs, clippings, and articles about Johnson; memoirs of travel and noteworthy occasions such as seeing Lincoln at City Hall; notebooks and appointment books; and printed matter, such as a copy of Ivanhoe, which belonged to Johnson.


  • Creation: 1879-1931


Language of Materials

Materials entirely in English.

Access Restrictions

The collection is open for research.

Terms Governing Use and Reproduction

Use of materials from this collection beyond the exceptions provided for in the Fair Use and Educational Use clauses of the U.S. Copyright Law may violate federal law. Permission to publish or reproduce is required from the copyright holder. Please contact Special Collections, University of Delaware Library,

Biographical Note

American poet, editor, and diplomat Robert Underwood Johnson was born on January 12, 1853, on Capitol Hill, Washington D.C. He served as American ambassador to Italy from 1920-1921 and, together with naturalist John Muir, helped to instigate the movement that resulted in the creation of Yosemite National Park.

Johnson was named after his great-grandfather, Robert Underwood, who was one of the earliest settlers of Washington and a mathematician of noted ability. Johnson's father was a lawyer and later a judge in Indiana, where Johnson spent his childhood. In 1867 Johnson entered Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana; he graduated in 1871 at the age of eighteen.

After college Johnson became a clerk for Scribner Educational Books in Chicago. Within two years he was promoted to a position with the editorial staff of Scribner's Monthly, which later became the Century Magazine. He was again promoted in 1881 to associate editor under R. W. Gilder. Upon Gilder's death in 1909, Johnson became editor, a position he held until 1913. While at Century Publishing, Johnson co-edited the Century War Series, which was serialized in the magazine and later published in four volumes as Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. He also produced several volumes of his own poetry, including The Winter Hour, and Other Poems (1891) and Poems, published in 1902 and enlarged in 1908, 1919, and 1931. Because he regularly wrote to commemorate illustrious persons and occasions, Johnson was often referred to as the unofficial poet laureate of the United States.

Johnson was involved in numerous literary organizations. He served for many years as treasurer and then secretary of the American Copyright League, and was active in the international copyright movement. For his service in this area he was decorated by the French and Italian governments and received an honorary M.A. from Yale University. A member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and secretary of the Institute from 1903 to 1909, he became the preliminary secretary of the Academy of Arts and Letters during its formation. Johnson's devotion to literature and the arts can also be seen by his origination of the Keats and Shelley Memorial in Rome.

In addition to his literary pursuits, Johnson dedicated himself to the conservation of America's natural resources. Together with John Muir, he instigated the movement which resulted in the creation of Yosemite National Park. In 1913 he was made chairman of the National Committee for the Preservation of Yosemite National Park. He directly appealed to President Roosevelt for a conference of governors to conserve the Eastern states' forests, and was thus responsible for generating what became the White House conferences on conservation.

Another of Johnson's interests was Italy. In addition to displaying a love of the Italian arts and culture, he showed an unwavering dedication to the welfare of the country. He organized the New York committee of the Italian War Relief Fund of America, which raised a total of $225,000, and the "American Poets Ambulances in Italy," which administered aid to the Italian army during 1917. In 1920 President Wilson appointed him Ambassador to Italy. He served as ambassador until 1921.

Upon his return to the United States, Johnson remained active in many of his former organizations. He lectured and continued to write until his death in 1937. His autobiography, Remembered Yesterdays, was published in 1923.

Biographical information is derived from the collection and from the New York Times 15 Oct. 1937: 23.


2 linear foot (6 boxes)


The Robert Underwood Johnson Collection comprises 2 linear feet of correspondence, manuscripts, personal papers, printed material, photographs, and realia of American poet, editor, and diplomat R.U. Johnson (1853-1937). In addition to his literary and diplomatic pursuits, Johnson, together with naturalist John Muir, instigated the movement which resulted in the creation of Yosemite National Park.


Purchase, April 1973.

Shelving Summary

  • Boxes 1-6: Shelved in SPEC MSS manuscript boxes
  • Removals: Shelved in SPEC MSS oversize boxes (32 inches)


Processed by Julie Witsken, November 1996. Encoded by Thomas Pulhamus, February 2010. Further encoding by Lauren Connolly, June 2015.

Finding aid for Robert Underwood Johnson collection
University of Delaware Library, Special Collections
2010 February 12
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
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Repository Details

Part of the University of Delaware Library Special Collections Repository

181 South College Avenue
Newark DE 19717-5267 USA