Charles Johnson Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Charles Richard Johnson was born on April 23, 1948, in Evanston, Illinois, to Benjamin Lee and Ruby Elizabeth Johnson. While quite young, Johnson demonstrated a talent for drawing and wished to pursue an artistic career, but his father strongly disapproved of the notion. It was only after the younger Johnson sought and won the support of Lawrence Lariar, an established writer and cartoonist, that his father relented. At the age of seventeen, Johnson began working as a cartoonist, and throughout the years he has contributed his work to publications such as Ebony, Jet, Black World, and Players International. His cartoons and drawings were also published in book form in Black Humor (1970) and Illustrated Anatomy of Campus Humor (1971).

As a student at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Johnson was an editorial and comic-strip artist for several college publications. In 1969 and 1970, he worked as a cartoonist and reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and he was a member of the art staff of the St. Louis Proud from 1971 through 1972.

While working successfully as a cartoonist and journalist, Johnson also attended to his academic studies. By 1971, he had completed work for his bachelor’s degree in journalism at Southern Illinois.

In 1970, Johnson had branched into a new endeavor by creating, coproducing, and hosting a television show on cartooning called Charlie’s Pad. Fifty-two shows were...

(The entire section is 611 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Although Johnson clearly draws upon the African American tradition and its lessons, his work is significantly different from that of many other black American authors, especially as it relates to the role of the individual, of whatever race, in the larger community. In a similar fashion, Johnson’s use of philosophy to frame and express his concerns sets him apart from the majority of contemporary American writers of all races and genders.

Johnson’s major accomplishments are possible because of his re-creation of traditional oral narrative forms through powerful, metaphorically rich language. This use of language permits Johnson to create characters who can express philosophical dilemmas while remaining intensely and believably human.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Charles Johnson was born in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois, on April 23, 1948. A voracious reader who resolved to complete one book per week when he entered high school, Johnson aspired to be a visual artist and took a two-year correspondence course in cartooning while still in school. He entered Southern Illinois University in 1966, majoring in journalism, and began a lifelong study of martial arts in 1967. Johnson published his first book of political drawings, Black Humor, in 1970, followed by Half-Past Nation Time in 1972, while producing a show called Charlie’s Pad for PBS, which was to run for ten years starting in 1969.

Johnson married Joan New in 1970 and began the first of six novel-length manuscripts that he wrote during the next two years, while working toward a master’s degree in philosophy at Southern Illinois. He entered a doctoral program at the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1973, published the novel Faith and the Good Thing in 1974, and in 1976 accepted a position in the English Department of the University of Washington.

Oxherding Tale, the novel that elevated Johnson to national prominence as a writer, appeared in 1982 after being rejected by twenty-five publishing houses. The short stories that Johnson had been placing in magazines since 1977 were collected as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in 1986, and his theoretical overview of African American literature, Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970, was issued in 1988. Johnson’s novel Middle Passage won the National Book Award, making Johnson the second black man (after Ralph Ellison) to be so honored. In spite of his success in several fields, Johnson has continued what he describes as “the same life and labor—that of devoting myself to a genuinely philosophical black American fiction.”


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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...

(The entire section is 762 words.)