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The Music Plays On

In 2002, a car accident nearly killed Arthur Bryant ’76, wife Nancy Johnson, and son Wally. They spent the next four years navigating precarious, against-all-odds physical and emotional recoveries. A former journalist turned acclaimed poet, Johnson penned a brutal, beautiful memoir of that difficult time, The Rubber Orchestra, before dying of ovarian cancer in 2012. To honor his remarkable wife and her remarkable talent, Bryant published her book last year.

Why did you need to publish this book?

Because Nancy knew she needed to write it. She started working on it shortly after the crash and spent her last years finishing it. Literary agents told me it was wonderfully, powerfully written, but that no company would publish a memoir by someone who wasn’t already famous, unless they were available to sell it. Nancy, of course, wasn’t.


Did the book surprise you and your son?

I had (and have) no memory of the crash or the six weeks after. So while I had heard stories, many details in that time period were new to me. In addition, Nancy was a very private person. The first time I learned several of her intimate thoughts and feelings was when I read them. For Wally, the book was a real eye-opener: He was 7 when the crash took place and 17 when the book was finished. 


How can readers honor Nancy’s memory?

Spread the word about The Rubber Orchestra and share it with others. Buy her award-winning poetry book, Zoo & Cathedral. Contribute to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Wally, who Nancy loved totally, was born with cystic fibrosis.


What have you learned from this experience?

Loving people, enjoying life, and trying to make the world better and fairer are what really count. Your control is limited and, no matter what you do, you never know what cards you are going to be dealt. When you’re dealt bad cards, love, help, and the willingness to fight are essential. Never give up. And, if you can, keep smiling.

Recommended Reading ...

Arthur Bryant ’76 recommends more books that share the spirit of The Rubber Orchestra and its author, Nancy Johnson

V by Thomas Pynchon

Nancy loved the book's lush, meandering, labyrinthine vocabulary and structure.


Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Nancy found these so extraordinary and inspiring that she studied Russian in college to read them in the language in which they were written.


Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

For its brilliant characterization, rich language, structure, and humor that so beautifully delivered the seductive Lolita and perverse Humbert Humbert.


The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Nancy and I were in a book club once and this is the work she selected for us to read.


The poetry of Anna Akhmatova and Bella Akhmadulina

She loved their dark, brooding, politically courageous poetry—and the way they stood strong when under attack by repressive regimes.


The music of Leonard Cohen, especially Live in London and “Hallelujah”

Nancy thought he was a great musician and poet. His work gave her comfort and, believe it or not, joy.