Charles Johnson Essay - Critical Essays

Charles Johnson American Literature Analysis

Four major points distinguish Johnson from other modern American authors. First, as an African American writer, he approaches the traditional themes and concerns of that culture with a new insight while retaining a profound understanding and appreciation of them. Second, he is an intensely philosophical writer, acutely aware of developments in modern thought and able to give those thoughts concrete expression in his fiction. Third, he links this love and understanding of philosophy with a deep respect for moral fiction, a connection also found in the writings of John Gardner, the writer who influenced Johnson greatly and who was, in many ways, his mentor. Fourth, and most important, Johnson has published some of the most innovative and best-written American fiction of his time.

Johnson repeatedly turns to the themes of black history in the United States and the response of black people to slavery, discrimination, and poverty. One of the triumphs of African Americans has been the preservation of a distinct culture and identity even when these were seriously threatened, over long periods of time, by external forces. In novels such as Faith and the Good Thing and Oxherding Tale (1982), Johnson uses the black experience and draws upon the oral forms of African American folk narrative. Faith and the Good Thing, for example, strongly relies upon these traditions, with the author pausing frequently to address the reader with the phrase “Listen, Children,” exactly as a speaker would summon a listener’s attention. Oxherding Tale employs these same devices to an even greater and more successful extent. The novel is structured along the lines of a slave narrative, a form of modern parable most successfully developed during the nineteenth century by Frederick Douglass, himself a former slave.

African American culture and literature have traditionally emphasized verbal skill and wordplay, and these are found abundantly in Johnson’s work. A master of metaphorical language, Johnson creates scenes that are highly visual and descriptive and that place the reader in the center of the work’s action while at the same time commenting upon it. In so doing, Johnson draws from a culture that prizes the apt use of language to control and order a potentially dangerous world.

Another way to establish control and order is through philosophical investigation, and Johnson is one of American literature’s most philosophical writers. Yet he links his philosophical investigations to the practical business of writing. In his study of black writing, Being and Race (1988), Johnson establishes a careful theoretical foundation that includes a sophisticated reading of the doctrines of philosopher Edmund Husserl. Johnson, however, connects these abstract thoughts to written reality:Life is baffling enough for every novelist, and for writers of Afro-American fiction it presents even more artistic and philosophical questions than for writers who are white. Few writers, black or white, bother with such questions, and in the long run they may have importance only to a few people who wonder, as I have for twenty years, about the forms our stories have taken, what they say about the world, and what they don’t say. These are not idle questions.

Johnson understands that the enduring questions of philosophy, and the answers that have been advanced, may be difficult but are never idle. He also maintains that all human beings, irrespective of their race or gender, share a profound stake in these questions and answers. This is one reason why Johnson creates characters such as the Swamp Woman in Faith and the Good Thing, who may appear to be uneducated, even illiterate, but who can approach the confusion of being and existence with the subtlety of Aristotle or Immanuel Kant—and often quote them as well.

Combining such philosophical concerns with artistic integrity was also a major goal of Gardner, whose novels such as The Resurrection (1966) and The Sunlight Dialogues (1972) often interweave fiction and philosophy. The positive impact of Gardner on Johnson is seen clearly in Oxherding Tale and Middle Passage, where the philosophical discussions arise naturally from the action and become a part of it.

Finally, Johnson is a talented and original writer who draws upon the African American experience, the legacy of philosophy, and the teachings of Gardner but who forges his own fiction and finds his own voice. Even when he handles difficult subjects and complex ideas, he presents them in a clear, almost conversational tone, making such topics come alive with startling comparisons and appropriate examples.

Johnson has a knack for creating vivid, memorable characters who engage the reader’s interest and sympathy. Faith Cross in Faith and the Good Thing; Andrew Hawkins in Oxherding Tale, and Rutherford Calhoun in Middle Passage have their own voices and their own presences. The reader cares about them because of their overwhelming individuality.

Above all, Johnson is a master of...

(The entire section is 2102 words.)