Middle Passage by Charles Johnson Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Middle Passage, Johnson’s third published novel, is a complex blend of allegory, adventure story, tall tale, and philosophical meditation. The novel won the National Book Award. It follows the misadventures of Rutherford Calhoun, the narrator, who is an entertaining liar and consummate rogue. Calhoun, a slave, flees first to New Orleans and then, to escape marriage, to sea. Ironically, he stows away on a slave ship, the Republic, and so his adventures begin.

The novel’s characters are a motley collection of freaks, misfits, and oddities. Ebenezer Falcon, captain of the Republic, is a stunted, twisted dwarf whose brilliant mind and strong will are devoted to his own evil ends. Cringle, the first mate, is a well-meaning but ineffectual liberal, able to perceive evils and injustices but incapable of acting to resolve them. Josiah Squibb, the alcoholic, often-married but never-divorced cook, serves as a representative both of humankind’s baser instincts and of rough but necessary common sense.

In Africa, the Republic takes on a cargo of slaves from the Allmuseri tribe (a group frequently mentioned in Johnson’s fiction as a symbol of original African nature and unity). The crew also brings on board an enormous box that contains the Allmuseri’s “god,” a monstrous shape-shifting creature that drives mad those who listen to it.

On the return voyage, a mutiny and slave revolt, perhaps...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Middle Passage Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Winner of the National Book Award for fiction, Middle Passage is a fanciful account of the misadventures of a twenty-two-year-old black man, a freed slave who ends up aboard a ship bound for Africa to take on a cargo of slaves. Middle Passage is divided into nine entries made by Rutherford Calhoun in a ship’s log. The first entry is dated June 14, 1830, and the last is dated August 20, 1830. Calhoun narrates each entry.

The book’s action begins in New Orleans, where Rutherford Calhoun has drifted after being freed from slavery by his master, a preacher in southern Illinois. Calhoun, mischievous by nature, becomes involved in petty crime and ends up deep in debt to Papa Zeringue, a Creole gangster. Rutherford has also entered into a platonic relationship with Isadora, a young schoolteacher. Papa offers to forgive Calhoun his debts if he will marry Isadora, but for young Rutherford, any thought of marriage is too constricting even to contemplate. To escape, he stows away on a slave ship, the Republic. The ship puts to sea before he is discovered.

After he has been found, he is brought before the captain, Ebenezer Falcon, a strange but philosophical man, misshapen both in physique and in morality. Falcon turns out to be both a dwarf and a monster, but in his first interview with Calhoun, there are only intimations of this monstrosity. Falcon decides to allow Calhoun to work aboard the ship without compensation. For the rest of the voyage to Africa, Calhoun befriends the crew and learns about the ship, which is not in good condition and is constantly being repaired.

The ship drops anchor in the African port of Bangalang. There, Rutherford observes the captain buy a cargo of slaves and a huge,...

(The entire section is 719 words.)

Middle Passage Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Middle Passage is the story of Rutherford Calhoun’s life-changing journey aboard the slaver Republic in 1830. Like Charles Johnson’s earlier Oxherding Tale, this book is narrated by a young black man born into slavery but with a superior education, whose story is rooted in nineteenth century history but whose savvy, humorous voice bespeaks a twentieth century intellectual consciousness.

Rutherford’s adventures begin when he stows aboard a ship to escape a woman determined to bring him to the altar. The Republic, a slaver, ships out to Africa; there it picks up a special cargo—a hold full of men, women, and children of the mystical Allmuseri tribe. The Republic’s captain also secretly brings on board a crate containing the captured Allmuseri god.

Middle Passage blatantly evokes Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851), “Benito Cereno,” and Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e., English translation, 1616) among others. Johnson flaunts, mocks, and turns on end these similarities: His dwarfish Captain Falcon is a caricature of the crazed Ahab; the ringleaders of the revolting Allmuseri are Babo, Fernando, and Atufel; Isadora, Rutherford’s intended, knits by day and unravels her work by night to forestall marriage to her new suitor. The Republic’s voyage is a darkly comic version of the Pequod’s, but one highlighting...

(The entire section is 559 words.)

Middle Passage Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Rutherford Calhoun, twenty-two years old and newly freed from slavery by an Illinois farmer on his deathbed, is enjoying life in the wicked city of New Orleans, Louisiana. His former master had educated young Rutherford in the classics and the Bible. However, for Calhoun, freedom means living the dissolute life of a petty thief, gambler, and womanizer. He has run up a debt of fifty thousand francs, owed to a black gangster, Papa Zeringue.

Calhoun has been keeping company with Isadora Bailey, a free black schoolteacher with impeccable morals and ambitions to reform him. She loves him; but he does not have marriage in mind. Zeringue, acting as Isadora’s protector, has agreed to forgive Calhoun’s debts if he will marry her.

The night before the wedding, Calhoun, after an orgy of drinking in a seaside tavern, steals the identity papers of drunken sailor Josiah Squibb, a cook on the ship Republic, and sneaks aboard as a stowaway. When he awakes with a hangover, he discovers that the ship, a wreck constantly needing repair, has a crew of malformed, incompetent misfits. An exception is Peter Cringle, the first mate, who is a New England gentleman. Captain Ebenezer Falcon is a pederast who rapes young Tom, the cabin boy. Squibb is permanently drunk, and Calhoun must take over the galley. He soon confirms his suspicion that the ship is a slaver, bound for Guinea to pick up forty Allmuseri, members of a tribe of mysterious wizards. With the slaves aboard, the Republic begins its homeward journey, the Middle Passage of slaves from Africa to the United States.

Calhoun is highly educated, with a knowledge of Latin, Greek mythology, and philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Saint Thomas Aquinas. He is something of a mystic—homeless and on a quest to discover the truth of his identity. When the ship reaches Africa, he scavenges the cabin of Captain Falcon while the crew is ashore, stealing some money. He is discovered by Falcon but, instead of being punished, is taken into Falcon’s confidence and agrees to spy on the crew. The captain’s cabin is filled with illegal plunder from his other voyages. His latest acquisition is a huge, mysterious crate, installed in the ship’s hold; it terrifies the crew.

As he observes the brutal treatment of the slaves, Calhoun begins to move beyond his self-concern to develop compassion for their plight. He seeks the company of the mysterious Ngonyama, one of the Allmuseri, whom the captain has assigned to oversee the slaves. Ngonyama is silent and cunning, with strange powers such as the ability to carve a roast pig without touching bone, as if he could see the invisible parts of the animal. Calhoun begins to teach him English; he in turn begins to learn the Allmuseri...

(The entire section is 1144 words.)

Middle Passage Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Middle Passage is Rutherford Calhoun’s account of the last voyage of an illegal American slave ship, the Republic, and of his personal quest for knowledge of the meaning of his life. When the novel begins, Calhoun is a twenty-one-year-old freed slave from Illinois who supports his life of pleasure in New Orleans by theft and lying. To escape a forced marriage to Boston schoolteacher Isadora Bailey and debts owed black underground leader Papa Zeringue, Calhoun stows away on the slave ship Republic, where he meets even greater dangers than he faced on land. As a slave he received a classical education, and since his captain requests that Calhoun write the ship’s log, he both records the ship’s...

(The entire section is 715 words.)