April 2018 newsletter – Elizabeth Serson Johnson

Austin Robinson has described how Elizabeth Johnson became the first editor of The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes (Keynes 1971-89) when in May 1954 the RES Council decided that the Society’s memorial to Keynes ‘should take the form … of “a series of fine editions of the great economists”, starting with “an edition of Lord Keynes’s writings published and unpublished”. The same meeting made Richard Kahn, Roy Harrod and myself responsible for this and authorized the appointment of Elizabeth Johnson to begin the work.’ (Robinson 1990, p. 152) By 1971 it was envisaged that the edition would comprise the ten books that Keynes published in his lifetime, three or four volumes republishing Keynes’s academic and other articles with associated correspondence and an estimated nine Activities volumes dealing with ‘his more ephemeral writings, … hitherto uncollected, his correspondence relating to those activities, and such other material and correspondence as is necessary to the understanding of Keynes’s activities. The first four of these volumes are being edited by Elizabeth Johnson’ (Robinson 1971, p. x).

Liz Johnson had arrived in Cambridge with her husband, the Canadian economist, Harry Johnson, in January 1949. Born in Ottawa in 1921, she met Harry in her first year at the University of Toronto, where she was an undergraduate studying English at University College 1940-44 and he was at Victoria College 1939-43. They both worked on the student newspaper, Varsity, of which she became assistant news editor in her final year. After graduation she worked as a reporter for the Ottawa Journal before and after a year at the Columbia School of Journalism, until they married in May 1948 (Moggridge 2008, pp. 26, 31 and 91). Her first, exciting, task for the Keynes edition was to read through the papers, at that time ‘heaped in bundles and boxes and old-fashioned wicker files’ and only roughly sorted by Roy Harrod for his Life of John Maynard Keynes (1951); as she later wrote, ‘Part of the fun of editing papers is the pleasure of legitimate eaves-dropping … I met Keynes through his papers, and I was both charmed and exasperated.’ She also had to begin the huge task of locating the extensive and important Keynes material in the public and other archives (Johnson 1978). Harry was then a fellow of King’s College (1948-56) but, as Austin put it, his ‘meteoric career carried her to Manchester, London and Chicago and away from the archive of papers’, slowing the progress of the edition, with the result that I was appointed a second editor in 1969 (Robinson 1990, p. 181). Austin became joint managing editor of the edition in 1971.

As the first editor it was Liz who was responsible for the format of the Activities volumes of the edition, beginning with her first two, Activities 1906-1914: India and Cambridge and Activities 1914-1919: The Treasury and Versailles, published in 1971. Her other two Activities volumes, Activities 1920-1922: Treaty Revision and Reconstruction and Activities 1922-1932: The End of Reparationsappeared in 1978. She also carried out the main editorial tasks for Indian Currency and Finance and The Economic Consequences of the Peace, the other two of the first quartet of volumes to appear. The format differs from most collected editions in that it does not separate items by type (letters, memoranda, articles etc) but usually mixes document types up and ‘attempts to provide in lead-ins to particular documents what is often a running commentary giving the documents a context’ (Moggridge 1988 p. 73). As Austin wrote of these volumes, ‘It is their task to trace and interpret Keynes’s activities sufficiently to make the material fully intelligible to a later generation.’ In this she succeeded admirably, setting a fine example to her fellow editor.

After she finished her work for the edition, and now living in Chicago, Liz became an editor at the University of Chicago Press. I visited her regularly in Chicago and also saw her in London when she was visiting her and Harry’s two children Ragnar and Karen, so that we remained in close touch until her death last July.


Johnson, Elizabeth S (1978), ‘Keynes from his papers’ in Elizabeth S Johnson and Harry G Johnson, The Shadow of Keynes: Understanding Keynes, Cambridge and Keynesian Economics, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978

Keynes, J M (1971-89) The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes Volumes I-XXX, London: Macmillan for the Royal Economic Society

Moggridge, D E (1988), ‘On editing Keynes’ in D E Moggridge (ed), Editing Modern Economists, New York: AMS Press Inc, pp. 67-90

Moggridge, D E (2008), Harry Johnson: A Life in Economics, Cambridge University Press

Robinson, Austin (1971), ‘General introduction’ in The Collected Writings of John Maynard KeynesVolume XV, pp. vii-xi

Robinson, Austin (1990), ‘Fifty-five years on the Royal Economic Society Council’ in John D Hey and Donald Winch (eds), A Century of Economics: 100 Years of the Royal Economic Society and the Economic Journal, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, pp. 161-92

Donald Moggridge
University of Toronto