Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

Oxherding Tale received favorable notice in periodicals when it was published in 1982; it was admired by reviewers for The New York Times, The Village Voice, Publishers Weekly, and The New Yorker, among others. The novel, however, did not immediately receive the scholarly critical attention that it was due.

The second of Johnson’s novels (his first was 1974’s impressive Faith and the Good Thing), Oxherding Tale won for Johnson a widening readership that continued to expand. In 1988, he published a collection of short fiction, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and in 1990 he published Middle Passage, which extended his improvisations to seafaring stories. Middle Passage won the National Book Award, the first time that honor had been awarded to an African American male since Ralph Ellison won for Invisible Man (1952).