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 spiritually attractive, but when she arranges to pay his debts to Papa Zeringue, a black gangster and entrepreneur. in effect blackmailing him into reform, respectability, and marriage, Calhoun flees. As anyone familiar with Fiedler’s book knows, Calhoun fears marriage just as much as he fears Santos, Papa Zeringue’s 280-pound goon, who suffers from “that rare disease—gaposis—where nothing fits right.”
In Middle Passage, on the other hand, almost everything fits just fine, narratively speaking. Scenes may shift, plots and characters proliferate, but not without yielding to a sense of an unfolding, densely parallel whole. Fleeing from Isadora, for example, Calhoun reenacts his father’s escape from both slavery and fatnily in 1811, when Calhoun was three years old. His ambivalence toward the father he admires as a free man and despises as a traitor and deserter is understandable, for Riley is, as the son imagines him, the “possible-me that lived my life’s alternate options, the me I fled. Me. Yet not me. Me if I let go. Me if I gave in.” This ambivalence is complicated still further by Calhoun’s distaste for his older brother Jackson’s willingness to be everything that their father apparently was not: patient, fair, devoted, responsible, altruistic. Against Jackson’s commitment to “plodding reform,” Calhoun posits the self-serving “sedition” of lies, petty thievery, and flight, first from Jackson and southern Illinois and now, one year later, from Isadora and New Orleans. Turning away from marriage, he turns toward the sea, stowing away, ironically enough, aboard a slave-ship aptly, and ironically, named the Republic, captained by a tyrant, Ebenezer Falcon, and manned by a crew of misfits, “refugees from responsibility,” who may discern in the aged, drunken, polygamous cook, Josiah Squibb, an image of themselves as they eventually will be.
Squibb is one of Calhoun’s several surrogate fathers. Falcon is another. Polymath, perfectionist, and pederast, the dwarfish captain is one of Charles Johnson’s finest creations, the comically horrific embodiment or caricature of Franklinesque self-improvement and Emersonian self-reliance. He is a Wolf Larsen-like variation on the Melvillean theme of the isolato, one whose survivalist mentality and anti-affirmative action rhetoric resonate with the peculiarly contemporary Americanness which characterizes so much of this mock-nineteenth century novel. “A creature of preposterous and volatile contradictions”—son of a minister who was himself one of the American Revolution’s rabid Sons of Liberty and of a doting mother who filled his head with visions of faraway places—Falcon is the Faust of Middle Passage, who bewitches and tyrannizes his crew: “In a sense we were all ringed to the sharper in cruel wedlock.” Although he pities Falcon for his incompleteness, Calhoun also feels, upon reading the captain’s journal, as if he “had fallen into another man’s nightmare.” Against Falcon’s tyranny and nightmarish vision, the sensitive, Starbuck-like first mate, Cringle, spokesman for civilized values over “formless Naught,” can only offer his reluctant participation in a planned mutiny which Calhoun will betray and a slave revolt will make unnecessary, and his own nightmarish vision of the future: homeless people, viral infections, venereal complaints, the blurring of racial and sexual distinctions, urban riots, exotic religious practices, feminism, the buying of America by Orientals, worship of entertainers as cult figures, and “Hottentots spouting Hegel.”
If Cringle’s nightmare looks ahead in time, the Allmuseri, the Republic’s human cargo, its black gold, look back to Johnson’s Oxherding Tale and to several stories in his 1986 collection, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and further still to some prehistoric stage, some primal unity of being from which all Europeans as well as Europeanized blacks, including Calhoun, have fallen. With their reverence for life, language of fluid wholes rather than static substances, opposition to private property, and ignorance of empirical science, the Allmuseri represent man in his original state. As Calhoun comes to realize, his brother Jackson might have been one of the Allmuseri, who “seemed less a biological tribe than a clan held together by values”—values which the Allmuseri, originally seafarers and explorers, may well have spread throughout the world. Melville’s Ishmael rhetorically asks, “Who ain’t a slave?” Middle Passage implies a similar question: “Who ain’t an Allmuseri?” Who is not black, at least in part, in his very origin, his deepest being? Not even the Allmuseri, however, are wholly or purely Allmuseri any longer. Not merely dispersed (by choice in the case of the explorers; by force in the case of the slaves aboard the Republic), they are also divided among and within themselves (just as Calhoun and his brother are and just as the United States...
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