Middle Passage works effectively as an exciting adventure of a calamitous sea voyage, but the author, Charles Johnson, introduces much deeper philosophical questions about the nature of reality. Rutherford Calhoun, the narrator who speaks in a multiplicity of voices ranging wildly from philosophical argument to twentieth century black English, writes the ship’s log. The story becomes his own postmodernist revision of history. Calhoun, like the African trickster of folklore, transforms his tale into a masterpiece of sly humor, parody, and allusions to other literary works that invite the complicity of the reader.
The characters, although fully developed with psychological motives and realistic physical attributes, represent far more than this. Johnson, a lifelong student of philosophy, has immersed himself in the history of slavery and narratives of the sea. Most obvious is his debt to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and its narrator, Ishmael. The story also calls up the historic 1839 takeover of the slave ship Amistad, the only instance of African slaves succeeding in a mutiny on the high seas.
The classic slave story Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) could serve as a model for Middle Passage, but Johnson references the work for his own purposes. Frederick Douglass, the protagonist of the traditional slave narrative, journeys from mental and physical slavery to freedom and a new life in the North. The fictional Calhoun, however, is legally free but enslaved by his physical appetites. Douglass taught himself to read and write so that he could report his own story. Calhoun, given the task of writing the ship’s log, assumes the authority to create not just his own journey but the symbolic record of...
(The entire section is 740 words.)