Charles Johnson Johnson, Charles (Vol. 163) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Charles Johnson 1948-

(Full name Charles Richard Johnson) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, nonfiction writer, and political cartoonist.

The following entry presents an overview of Johnson's career through 2001. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 7, 51, and 65.

Johnson's distinguished contribution to American literature was acknowledged with his reception of the 1990 National Book Award for fiction for his novel The Middle Passage (1990). Johnson's novels, short stories, and works of nonfiction address the African-American experience and the legacy of slavery in American culture. Johnson's fiction is notable for its unique application of both Eastern and Western philosophical thought to an African-American perspective on slavery and the Civil Rights era. His prose style is comprised of a hybrid of narrative genres, incorporating the slave narrative, the picaresque bildungsroman, and the oral tradition of the folk tale, among others. His works of nonfiction cover such topics as contemporary African-American literature, the Civil Rights Movement, and the experiences of African-American men in modern culture.

Biographical Information

Johnson was born in Evanston, Illinois, on April 23, 1948. He graduated from Southern Illinois University in 1971 with a bachelor's degree in journalism. While attending college, he worked as a journalist and cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune. In 1970 Johnson married Joan New, with whom he has two children. Also in 1970, Johnson scripted the television series Charlie's Pad, a 52-part series on cartooning for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). In 1973 he completed a master's degree in philosophy from Southern Illinois University. During his graduate study, Johnson began writing fiction under the mentorship of the novelist and creative writing professor John Gardner. From 1973 to 1976, Johnson attended graduate school in philosophy at State University of New York at Stony Brook, but left before completing his Ph.D. Johnson had written six unpublished novels before his seventh, Faith and the Good Thing, was published in 1974. Beginning in 1976, Johnson held a position as a professor of creative writing at the University of Washington in Seattle. He became the fiction editor of the Seattle Review in 1978. When Johnson received the National Book Award in 1990, he became the first African-American author to receive the award since Ralph Ellison in 1953. Johnson has received a number of awards, including the Governors Award for Literature from State of Washington for Oxherding Tale (1982), the Callaloo Creative Writing Award for his short story “Popper's Disease,” and the MacArthur Fellowship in 1998.

Major Works

Johnson has published a variety of works during his career, including novels, short story collections, nonfiction works, and collections of political cartoons. Throughout his oeuvre, Johnson's overriding theme is the examination of the African-American experience and the legacy of slavery in American culture. Johnson's novels provide a complex perspective on issues of race, class, and gender in America through the lenses of both Western and Eastern philosophical thought. His graduate work in philosophy and his personal belief in Zen Buddhism also inform his perspective on the African-American experience. Johnson's fiction is also unique in terms of the way in which he combines the narrative voices of different literary genres, including the slave narrative, sea tale, folk tale, and historical fiction. Johnson's first novel, Faith and the Good Thing, is an intricate, often humourous philosophical work in which he combines fantasy, realism, folk wisdom, and satire to depict a young African-American girl's journey to Chicago in search of the “Good Thing,” or the true meaning of life. During her odyssey, Faith, the novel's protagonist, suffers physical degradations but nonetheless attains spiritual fulfillment. The title of Oxherding Tale, Johnson's second novel, comes from a series of twelfth-century Buddhist paintings known as the “Ten Oxherding Pictures.” In these paintings, a young man in search of an ox that has strayed from his herd serves as an allegory for the individual's search for the self. With Oxherding Tale, Johnson again employs humor and philosophy to trace the development of his protagonist from innocence to experience. The plot is modeled on the slave narratives of nineteen-century author Frederick Douglass. Using a combination of realism and allegory while mixing modern slang with nineteenth-century vernacular, Johnson follows a slave's escape to freedom and his quest for knowledge through the guidance of an eccentric mentor. Set in 1830, Middle Passage chronicles the misadventures of twenty-two-year-old Rutherford Calhoun, a well-educated, mischievous freed slave from southern Illinois. Released in New Orleans by his former master—a clergyman who provided him with a broad education—Rutherford revels in the city's sordid underworld. Intending to escape his numerous creditors and an impending marriage to a priggish schoolteacher that would free him of his debts, Rutherford boards the first available boat, which, to his horror, is a slave clipper bound for Africa. On the dangerous round-trip voyage, Rutherford becomes divided in his allegiance to his white American crewmates and his sympathy for the suffering Allmuseri tribesmen. Rutherford ultimately sides with the captives when they mutiny and, through his traumatic experience with his oppressed shipmates, gains new knowledge about slavery, race relations, and himself. Johnson's collection of short stories, The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1986), also exhibits the author's interest in morality and self-discovery. The stories examine the cultural alienation of African-Americans through a blend of formal language and street argot. Dreamer (1998), Johnson's first work of contemporary historical fiction, is set in Chicago in the 1960s during the final months in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dreamer combines historically factual details with fictional characters in a story that focuses on Chaym Smith, a man who happens to look exactly like Dr. King. After suffering various forms of harassment due to being mistaken for King, Smith offers his services to the civil rights leader as an imposter. The increasing threats on King's life necessitates Smith's role as a decoy who appears in public in order to throw potential assassins off the trail of the real Dr. King. Johnson explores issues of racial identity and political activism while paying homage to King as both a leader and a flawed human being. In 2001 Johnson published Soulcatcher and Other Stories, a short story collection that examines significant events in African-American history. Johnson has also written and co-written a number of nonfiction books, mostly concerning various aspects of African-American history and the African-American experience. Among his nonfiction works are Being and Race: Black Writing since 1970 (1988), Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery (1998), and I Call Myself an Artist: Writings by and about Charles Johnson (1999).

Critical Reception

Critical attention to Johnson's work has focused primarily on his novels, which have been compared to such celebrated works as Herman Melville's “Benito Cereno” and Moby-Dick, Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of an Ex-Slave, Homer's Odyssey, Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. However, Johnson's integration of philosophical discussion into his narratives has received mixed responses from critics. Many reviewers have appreciated how Johnson allows unlikely characters—such as the captain of a slave ship—to espouse philosophical insights, while others have found such incongruities to be unconvincing and overwritten. Commentators have applauded Johnson's ability to apply both Eastern and Western philosophy to the African-American experience in order to provide a fresh perspective on the nature of racism and the legacy of slavery in American culture. Considered one of Johnson's strongest works, Oxherding Tale has been noted by many critics for its fluid integration of philosophical ideas into the storyline, prose style, and well-drawn characters. Although Middle Passage has received mixed criticism for anachronistically interspersing modern idioms, nineteenth-century maritime jargon, and naturalistic prose, many commentators have praised Johnson's adroit blending of disparate literary genres. Critics have also commented on the unique role of the lead character in The Middle Passage as a middleman mediating between the enslaved Africans and the crew of the slave ship. Reviewers have commended Johnson's imaginative mixture of fictional and historical details in Dreamer, and have complimented the novel's theme of the doppelganger, or double, as an effective device for exploring issues of race and political activism.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Black Humor (political cartoons) 1970

Half-Past Nation-Time (political cartoons) 1972

Faith and the Good Thing (novel) 1974

Oxherding Tale (novel) 1982

The Sorcerer's Apprentice (short stories) 1986

Being and Race: Black Writing since 1970 (essays) 1988

Olly Olly Oxen Free: A Farce in Three Acts (play) 1988

The Middle Passage (novel) 1990

Black Men Speaking [contributor; co-editor with John McCluskey, Jr.] (essays) 1997

Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery [with Patricia Smith and the WGBH Series Research Team] (nonfiction) 1998

Dreamer (novel) 1998

I Call Myself an Artist: Writings by and about Charles Johnson [contributor; edited by Rudolph P. Byrd] (essays) 1999

Soulcatcher and Other Stories (short stories) 2001

Arend Flick (review date 24 June 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Flick, Arend. “Stowaway on a Slave Ship to Africa.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (24 June 1990): 1, 7.

[In the following review of The Middle Passage, Flick compliments Johnson for skillfully combining beautiful language with a philosophical examination of the nature of racism.]

Charles Johnson's first book, Black Humor, was published 20 years ago in Chicago, and that collection of drawings—political cartoons, really—startles now, when viewed through the lens of history, his and ours. The art is skillful, the captions trenchant. The theme is race relations, but the tone not what we might have expected from a young black college student...

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Jennifer Hayward (essay date winter 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hayward, Jennifer. “Something to Serve: Constructs of the Feminine in Charles Johnson's Oxherding Tale.Black American Literature 25, no. 4 (winter 1991): 689-703.

[In the following essay, Hayward discusses Johnson's representation of women and the feminine in Oxherding Tale.]

In the seventh chapter of Charles Johnson's Oxherding Tale, Andrew Hawkins, a fugitive slave, watches a family's morning routine from his hiding place in the loft of their barn. While carrying a bucket of fresh milk up to the house, the father spills some “in an accident so suggestive of casual abundance and unconscious prosperity, of surplus and generosity, that I...

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Gary Wills (review date 17 January 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wills, Gary. “The Long Voyage Home.” New York Review of Books 38, nos. 1/2 (17 January 1991): 3.

[In the following review, Wills argues that Johnson's prose style in The Middle Passage transcends traditional ideological formulas about the African-American experience.]

Rutherford Calhoun is a naive wiseacre, a freed slave brought up on a remote Illinois farm, where an abolitionist stuffed his head with learning to arm him against a hostile white world, then set him loose on the streets of New Orleans where, at age twenty-two, he whores and steals, gambles and runs up debts, and tries to control danger with a distancing ridicule. As Charles Johnson...

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Jonathan Little (essay date autumn 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Little, Jonathan. “Charles Johnson's Revolutionary Oxherding Tale.Studies in American Fiction 19, no. 2 (autumn 1991): 141-51.

[In the following essay, Little examines Oxherding Tale as a story of interracial romance that addresses issues of gender, race, and identity.]

Consistent with his call for literary experimentation and diversity in Being and Race (1988), Charles Johnson's metafictional Oxherding Tale (1982) opens up new areas for fiction dealing with black-white interracial romance. In casually endorsing interracial mixture, and in parodying sentimental and sensational precedents, Oxherding Tale signals the...

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Charles Johnson and Jonathan Little (interview date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Johnson, Charles, and Jonathan Little. “An Interview with Charles Johnson.” Contemporary Literature 34, no. 2 (summer 1993): 159-81.

[In the following interview, originally conducted in 1992, Johnson discusses his body of work in relation to the Black Arts Movement, issues of cultural and racial identity, and African-American literature as a whole.]

Like his narrator in Middle Passage (1990), Charles Johnson charts a course through the vexed and volatile issues of multiculturalism and racial politics in America. The rush of publicity Johnson received after his best-selling novel Middle Passage won the National Book Award in 1990 drew attention...

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S. X. Goudie (essay date spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Goudie, S. X. “‘Leavin' a Mark on the Wor(l)d’: Marksmen and Marked Men in Middle Passage.African American Review 29, no. 1 (spring 1995): 109-22.

[In the following essay, Goudie asserts that The Middle Passage expresses an African-American perspective that is influenced by Western philosophical and literary traditions.]

The point is not that acts of racial violence are only words but rather that they have to have a word. … racism always betrays the perversion of a man, the “talking animal.” … A system of marks, it outlines space in order to assign forced residence or to close off borders. It does not discern,...

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Charles Johnson and Michael Boccia (interview date winter 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Johnson, Charles, and Michael Boccia. “An Interview with Charles Johnson.” African American Review 30, no. 4 (winter 1996): 611-18.

[In the following interview, Johnson discusses his personal history, his literary and philosophical influences, and issues of cultural identity.]

When approached to participate in this interview, Charles Johnson responded with his usual enthusiasm: “Send me questions! I'll try to provide everything on my end.” So I sat down and produced questions dealing with three general areas—artist, art, and audience. To these questions, Johnson responded with insight and wit, providing information that illuminates his writing....

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Brian Fagel (essay date winter 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fagel, Brian. “Passages from the Middle: Coloniality and Postcoloniality in Charles Johnson's Middle Passage.African American Review 30, no. 4 (winter 1996): 625-34.

[In the following essay, Fagel explores the role of the central character in The Middle Passage as a “middleman” between competing forces in the colonial power structure.]

I know that if I want to smoke, I shall have to reach out my right arm and take the pack of cigarettes lying at the other end of the table. The matches, however, are in the drawer on the left, and I shall have to lean back slightly. And all these movements are made not out of habit but...

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Bill Brown (essay date spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brown, Bill. “Global Bodies/Postcolonialities: Charles Johnson's Consumer Culture.” Representations, no. 58 (spring 1997): 24-48.

[In the following essay, Brown discusses Johnson's short story “China” from The Sorcerer's Apprentice in terms of theories about masculinity, spectatorship, and commodity culture.]

Fed up with her husband's absorption in the kung fu culture of Seattle, Evelyn Johnson finally explodes: “You can't be Chinese.” She can't imagine Rudolph's longing for a new body, for a new self, as anything but his longing for a new ethnonationality. “‘I think it's strange! Rudolph, you didn't grow up in China,’ she said. ‘They...

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Timothy L. Parrish (essay date spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Parrish, Timothy L. “Imagining Slavery: Toni Morrison and Charles Johnson.” Studies in American Fiction 25, no. 1 (spring 1997): 81-100.

[In the following essay, Parrish compares Johnson's Oxherding Tale with Toni Morrison's Beloved in terms of the slave narrative genre and issues of African-American identity.]

The odyssey of the African-American throughout the twentieth century has been one of loss and reclamation. It's about reclaiming those things which were lost during slavery.

—August Wilson

The slave narrative, as Hazel V. Carby points out, differs from the...

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Barbara Z. Thaden (essay date November 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thaden, Barbara Z. “Charles Johnson's Middle Passage as Historiographic Metafiction.” College English 59, no. 7 (November 1997): 753-66.

[In the following essay, Thaden examines The Middle Passage as a postmodern novel that both draws from and questions American literary traditions.]

Critics have found in Charles Johnson's Middle Passage a variety of themes and allusions. For Madelyn Jablon, Johnson's text is about writing an African and American self; for S. X. Goudie, it is a deconstruction of the racist and colonialist world view which marks us as either the enslaver or the enslaved; for Ashraf Rushdy (“Properties of...

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Charles Johnson and William R. Nash (interview date spring 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Johnson, Charles, and William R. Nash. “A Conversation with Charles Johnson.” New England Review 19, no. 2 (spring 1998): 49-61.

[In the following interview, Johnson discusses his early life, his literary and philosophical influences, and the role of the writer in African-American culture.]

[Nash]: I'd like to begin with your childhood—what can you tell us about your early life experience that is important to an understanding of your work? How did your home environment influence your development as an artist?

[Johnson]: There's nothing unusual to report about my childhood, except perhaps that it was free of the stress that...

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Patricia Holt (review date 19 April 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Holt, Patricia. “King and I.” San Francisco Chronicle (19 April 1998): C1.

[In the following review, Holt argues that Dreamer is a “monumentally important” novel, praising the work for its treatment of the doppelganger theme and its philosophical insights on Martin Luther King Jr.]

Seattle novelist Charles Johnson could not have taken a greater or more audacious risk following his National Book Award-winning novel, Middle Passage (1990), than to create a fictional Martin Luther King Jr. as protagonist of the simply named but monumentally important Dreamer.

Johnson, Pollock professor of English at the...

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Andrew Zawacki (review date 26 September 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Zawacki, Andrew. “The Philosopher King.” Financial Times (26 September 1998): 8.

[In the following review of Dreamer, Zawacki notes the importance that Johnson places on Martin Luther King Jr.'s role as a moral philosopher.]

Novelist Charles Johnson is best known as the only African American since Ralph Ellison to win the National Book Award. Thirty-eight years after the publication of Ellison's Invisible Man in 1952, Johnson's Middle Passage (1990) earned its author high praise from critics considering him an heir to Melville, Conrad and Swift as well as to Wright and Cleaver.

The civil rights activist Dr Martin...

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Richard Hardack (essay date 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hardack, Richard. “Black Skin, White Tissues: Local Color and Universal Solvents in the Novels of Charles Johnson.” Callaloo 22, no. 4 (1999): 1028-53.

[In the following essay, Hardack discusses Johnson's application of transcendental thought to issues of race, identity, and history in his novels such as Oxherding Tale, Middle Passage, and Faith and the Good Thing.]


In his postmodern novels Oxherding Tale and Middle Passage—and in passing, Faith and the Good Thing, Johnsonian pun intended—Charles Johnson implies that African Americans lacked access to a Jacksonian self during the...

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Charles Johnson and Rob Trucks (interview date winter-summer 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Johnson, Charles, and Rob Trucks. “A Conversation with Charles Johnson.” TriQuarterly 107-108 (winter-summer 2000): 537-60.

[In the following interview, Johnson discusses how he researches and writes his works of historical fiction, including Middle Passage and Dreamer.]

Novelist, short story writer, essayist, screenwriter, and cartoonist Charles Johnson received both his bachelor's degree in journalism and his master's in philosophy from Southern Illinois University before studying with the legendary John Gardner at SUNY-Stony Brook. Johnson has published two books of cartoons, a book-length essay entitled Being and Race: Black Writing since...

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Judy Lightfoot (review date 25 March 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lightfoot, Judy. “Fiction about Slavery Finds Humanity amid the Injustice.” Seattle Times (25 March 2001): E12.

[In the following review, Lightfoot praises the short stories in The Soulcatcher and Other Stories, noting that although the collection accurately portrays historical events, Johnson's prose “transcends indignation and blame.”]

How can a writer of realistic fiction, intent on dramatizing the ordinary experiences of plausible persons, succeed when his characters are living a bizarre nightmare? In Soulcatcher, as in his novel The Middle Passage, Seattle author Charles Johnson takes up the challenge of writing realistic...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Asim, Jabari. “Celebrating the Vision of Martin Luther King.” Washington Post Book World (12 April 1998): 1, 10.

Asim describes Dreamer as a novel of ideas that addresses issues of individual identity and the nature of the self, commenting that the work provides “what we've come to expect from Johnson: a tale that's complex, richly told and open-ended.”

Bernstein, Richard. “Imagining a Cain to Shadow Dr. King.” New York Times (8 April 1998): E11.

Bernstein discusses the theme of the doppelganger in Dreamer, noting that despite Johnson's skilled writing style, the novel's...

(The entire section is 351 words.)