Middle Passage (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Like so many of the best contemporary American novels, including his own Oxherding Tale (1982), Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage—winner of the National Book Award for fiction—is at once wildly original and self-consciously derivative. Read one way, the novel is an allegory of the African-American’s struggle for freedom and identity; read another it is a pastiche of its own literary past: slave narrative, Robert Hayden’s poem “Middle Passage,” Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and “Benito Cereno”(l855), Jack London’s The Sea Wolf (1904), Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), John Gardner’s novella The King’s Indian (1974, itself a pastiche of these same works; Gardner was Johnson’s teacher at Southern Illinois University), and Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), whose thesis Johnson adopts as a point of departure. Freed by his slavery-hating master, a minister and biblical scholar, in 1829, Rutherford Calhoun, also known as “Illinois,” arrives in New Orleans; there this petty thief and teller of tall tales (of which Middle Passage may be one), meets Isadora Bailey, a school-teacher from Boston and collector of stray and maimed animals, including Calhoun. A man “drawn to extremes,” he finds this plain-looking woman intellectually and...
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Middle Passage (Magill Book Reviews)
Charles Johnson’s MIDDLE PASSAGE is several books in one. To begin with, it is the superbly told story of Rutherford Calhoun, raconteur, thief, and philosopher. In 1829, twenty-two years old and newly freed from slavery, Rutherford leaves Illinois for the exotic charms of New Orleans. Within a matter of months he finds himself deeply in debt and scheduled to be married to Isadora Bailey, a kind-hearted, well-educated, reform-minded, and very proper girl from a free Negro family in Boston. To escape this fate (he likes Isadora but has no desire to be married or to be reformed), Rutherford stows away aboard the REPUBLIC, a slave ship embarking for Africa on April 14, 1830. The book purports to be his retrospective journal of the voyage and its aftermath.
Once started, Rutherford’s narrative is difficult to put down; with the twists of its plot and the sheer gusto of its telling, MIDDLE PASSAGE demands, on a first reading, to be devoured in one long, late-into-the-night session. It is a compelling adventure story with a Shakespearean villain, the despotic Captain Ebenezer Falcon, and a mystery at its center: the Allmuseri, an African people of great antiquity and wisdom. It is a meditation on the horrors of slavery and the experience of black Americans. It is also an exercise in literary legerdemain: By various devices (chiefly the use of anachronisms), Johnson allows his late-twentieth century voice to break into the narrative without destroying its...
(The entire section is 1083 words.)
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Davis, Charles T. Introduction to The Slave’s Narrative. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Discusses the writings of slaves and freed slaves as literature and the influence of these narratives on African American fiction. Provides a useful context for Johnson’s novel.
Gleason, William. “The Liberation of Perception: Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale.” Black American Literature Forum 25 (1991): 705-728. Analyzes Johnson’s Oxherding Tale (1982) in the context of his theory that African American fiction should not take as its focus American racism and its impact but rather find a new vision, liberate its perception, and focus on moral and philosophical goals.
Goudie, S. X. “ Leavin’ a Mark on the World’: Marksmen and Marked Men in Middle Passage.” African American Review 29 (Spring, 1995): 109-122. Goudie examines Johnson’s role as an outspoken critic, exploring Johnson’s claim that a sameness has stifled the growth of African American fiction. Goudie shows how Johnson uses intersubjectivity and cross-cultural experiences in Middle Passage.
Harris, Norman. “The Black Universe in Contemporary Afro-American Fiction.” College Language Association Journal 30 (1986): 1-13. Argues that Johnson’s novels, like those of Ishmael Reed and Toni Morrison,...
(The entire section is 769 words.)