Study Guide

Oxherding Tale

by Charles Johnson

Oxherding Tale Summary

Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Oxherding Tale depicts the startling and varied adventures of Andrew Hawkins as he attempts to negotiate the perilous passage from slavery to freedom, crossing racial barriers and throwing his identity into crisis along the way. Born into slavery on a cotton plantation, Andrew from an early age at the same time becomes an exceptionally sophisticated thinker after being tutored by an intellectual. His status at Cripplegate, a plantation owned by Jonathan Polkinghorne, is deeply ambiguous; conceived by an enslaved butler, given birth by Polkinghorne’s wife, well regarded by Polkinghorne, he attempts to exploit his unusual position to negotiate a path to freedom.

At twenty, having fallen in love with Minty, a seamstress of blossoming beauty, Andrew is emboldened to confront Polkinghorne, requesting a deed of manumission in order to earn money so that he might marry Minty. Polkinghorne sends Andrew to a widow’s distant farm to work for wages and promises to sign the freedom papers only when Andrew returns with the money. Aflame with the possibilities, Andrew sets out to take responsibility for his future, to shape a destiny for himself and his loved ones.

The novel consists of two major parts. Part 1, entitled “House and Field,” is devoted largely to Andrew’s life at the Polkinghorne plantation and to his service at Flo Hatfield’s farm. Most of Andrew’s childhood and adolescence is presented in flashbacks; at the end of chapter 1, Andrew has received his assignment to the Hatfield farm, and his...

(The entire section is 629 words.)

Oxherding Tale Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Oxherding Tale describes the education a young slave, Andrew Hawkins, receives from a variety of people. It is through synthesizing the different views from these people that he becomes a complete person.

The novel itself opens with “the Fall,” which is how Andrew describes his conception. During a bout of heavy drinking, Jonathan Polkinghorne, the owner of a South Carolina plantation named Cripplegate, and his favorite slave, who is also his butler, decide to swap wives for one night. The master slips into the slave’s quarters, while the slave (George Hawkins) goes to the Polkinghornes’ bedroom. The deception is uncovered by Anna Polkinghorne during the act of intercourse, and although she immediately screams, causing George to run from the bedroom, Anna has been impregnated. This act forces her husband to send George to work in the fields, thus causing him to fall in stature from a house slave to a field slave. George’s new occupation is that of an oxherd.

Even though Jonathan would like the baby to be brought up as the Polkinghornes’ own son since they are childless, his wife insists that Andrew be placed in the slave quarters as though there is no connection between the master and his slave. Consequently, Andrew is reared by George and his wife, Mattie, though Jonathan allows the boy to receive an excellent education with the promise of someday being free.

To tutor Andrew, Jonathan hires an itinerant philosopher named Ezekiel Sykes-Withers. Ezekiel professes to be a Transcendentalist, which means that he is more interested in theory than in real life. Andrew learns his lessons well from Ezekiel— mathematics, languages, abstract reasoning—but something is missing....

(The entire section is 708 words.)

Oxherding Tale Bibliography (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Byrd, Rudolph P. “Oxherding Tale and Siddhartha: Philosophy, Fiction, and the Emergence of a Hidden Tradition.” African American Review 30 (Winter, 1996): 549-558. Byrd shows the connection between Oxherding Tale and Siddhartha and demonstrates how Johnson was influenced by Hesse’s novel. Both books share similar structure and intellectual concerns.

Coleman, James W. “Charles Johnson’s Quest for Black Freedom in Oxherding Tale.” African American Review 29 (Winter, 1995): 631-644. Coleman asserts that Johnson attempts to achieve freedom from the dominant and narrow tradition of written black texts. Johnson has stated that he centers his own writing around phenomenological theory. In this article, Coleman links the theory with Johnson’s attempt at black textual revision.

Crouch, Stanley. “Charles Johnson: Free at Last!” In Notes of a Hanging Judge: Essays and Reviews, 1979-1989. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Crouch’s insightful review of the novel shows that Johnson has created, using the nineteenth century genre of the slave narrative, a fascinating protagonist in Andrew Hawkins. Crouch finds Andrew and his search for some truth in his existence to be reminiscent of characters created by authors such as Herman Melville or Mark Twain.

Davis, Arthur P. “Novels of the New Black...

(The entire section is 617 words.)