Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 762
In 1948, Charles Richard Johnson was born to Ruby Elizabeth (Jackson) and Benjamin Lee Johnson of Evanston, Illinois. Both parents had immigrated from the South, specifically Georgia and North Carolina. Johnson’s mother, an only child (as is Johnson himself), had wanted to be a schoolteacher but could not because of severe asthma. She read widely, sharing her love of books with her son. The two often discussed the books they read. Johnson’s father’s education was cut short by the Great Depression, a time when all able-bodied males worked in the fields. Later, he worked with his brother, who was an Evanston general contractor.
Johnson has described his early years as a “benign upbringing” in a progressive town of unlocked doors. Evanston schools were integrated, and Johnson did not encounter serious racism. His first short stories, as well as many of his cartoons, were published at Evanston Township High School, then one of the best in the country. While there, Johnson began to work with Laurence Lariar, a cartoonist and mystery writer. From 1965 to 1973, Johnson sold more than one thousand drawings to major magazines.
After high school graduation, Johnson registered at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale as a journalism major (with a compelling interest in philosophy). His continuing study of martial arts and Buddhism began in 1967. A cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune in the period 1969-1970, Johnson also wrote and hosted fifty-two fifteen-minute episodes of Charlie’s Pad, a how-to show on cartooning, that aired on the stations of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1970.
During his senior year in college, Johnson began writing novels. With his background in journalism (B.S., 1971), he saw no problem with allotting two or three months for each novel. From 1970 to 1972, Johnson wrote six novels, but he chose not to publish them after he met novelist and poet John Gardner. Impressed by Gardner’s insistence on “moral fiction” and his dedication to craft, Johnson wrote his seventh novel, Faith and the Good Thing, under Gardner’s tutelage.
In 1973, Johnson was awarded his master’s degree in philosophy from Southern Illinois University. Following three years of doctoral work at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Johnson began teaching at the University of Washington as well as serving as fiction editor of the Seattle Review. Under a 1977-1978 Rockefeller Foundation grant, he joined the WGBH New Television Workshop as writer-in-residence. In 1982, he became a staff writer and producer for the last ten episodes of KQED’s Up and Coming series and wrote the second season’s premiere episode, “Bad Business.” A thirty-minute script that he wrote for KCET’s Y.E.S. Inc. aired in 1983.
From 1985 to 1987, Johnson worked on the text for Being and Race, a project he began while guest lecturing for the University of Delaware. It was also his doctoral dissertation. His 1983 draft of the first two chapters in Middle Passage came quickly. Johnson worked on the novel sporadically through 1987 before finally giving it his full attention for nine months.
Johnson practices meditation seriously and has studied many Eastern religions, including Hinduism and Daoism. Although his upbringing was Episcopalian, he now considers himself a Buddhist. Johnson codirected the Blue Phoenix Club, a martial arts club in Seattle. This interest is also reflected in his writing, as in the short stories “China,” which appeared in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; “kwoon” (a training hall for students of kung fu), which was included in the O. Henry Prize Stories of 1993; and the teleplay The Green Belt, published in 1996. He writes regularly for Buddhist publications such as Shambala Sun and is a contributing editor for Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.
From 1978 to 1998, Johnson served as fiction editor for the Seattle Review. His monthly reviews have been published in the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. He also continues to practice his first love, political cartooning; his series “LitCrits” appeared in the Quarterly Black Review, and his comic art has appeared in Buddha Laughing, Literal Latte, the Seattle Times, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Johnson was director of the University of Washington’s Creative Writing Program for three years (1987-1990), until, in 1990, he was awarded an endowed chair, the first Pollock Professorship in Creative Writing at the University of Washington. He assumed the lifetime position in the fall of 1991, and he continues to teach at the university.
Johnson married Joan New in 1970. The couple have two children: Malik, a son born in 1975, and a daughter, Elisheba, born in 1981. Johnson’s life is chronicled in Jean Walkinshaw’s PBS documentary Spirit of Place, which aired in Seattle.