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.
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philosophy at State University of New York at Stony Brook, but left before completing his Ph.D. Johnson had written six unpublished novels before his seventh, Faith and the Good Thing, was published in 1974.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.
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 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.