Charles Johnson Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Compare a story or novel by Charles Johnson to a work of fiction by his mentor, John Gardner. In what ways are the two writers similar and different?

How does Johnson use the tradition of African American folk tales?

Discuss how philosophy underlies the themes of a novel by Johnson.

Compare Johnson’s treatment of African American life in two works of fiction. In what ways does the treatment differ?

With Faith and Isaac in Faith and the Good Thing, how is Johnson contrasting different attitudes toward African American heritage?

In Middle Passage, how are the ship and the sea metaphors for Johnson’s themes?

How is Middle Passage thematically similar to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851)?

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Charles Johnson worked as a cartoonist from 1965 to 1972 before turning to prose fiction. His first novel, Faith and the Good Thing, was published in 1974, followed by Oxherding Tale (1982), Middle Passage (1990), and Dreamer (1998). Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 (1988) includes essays on literary theory and culture, while I Call Myself an Artist (1999) has essays, interviews, reviews, and an autobiographical sketch.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Middle Passage won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1990. Booker, a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) teleplay, received a Writer’s Guild Award and the Prix Jeunesse in 1985. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was a finalist for the 1987 PEN/Faulkner Award. The story “Kwoon” was reprinted in 1993’s Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In addition to being a highly regarded postmodern novelist and short-story writer, Charles Johnson is a literary critic, a screenwriter, a philosopher, an international lecturer, and a cartoonist. His writing career began in 1965, when he sold his first cartoon to a Chicago magazine. He has gone on to publish in several genres, including two collections of his comic art, Black Humor(1970) and Half-Past Nation Time (1972); collections of short stories, among them The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1986) and Dr. King’s Refrigerator, and Other Bedtime Stories (2005), and several award-winning teleplays, including Booker (1984) and Charlie Smith and the Fritter Tree (1978).

A literary aesthetician, Johnson has also published hundreds of articles and book reviews. Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 (1988), a fascinating critical analysis, won the 1988 Washington State Governor’s Writers Award. In 2003, he published a collection titled Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Charles Johnson’s novels have been widely published in translation, and his work has been rewarded with more than twenty grants and awards as well as with professional and public recognition. Johnson has been the recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation grant (1977-1978), a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship (1979), and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1988). His screenplay Booker received four awards: the 1985 Writers Guild Award for outstanding children’s show script, the 1985-1987 Prix Jeunesse (International Youth Prize), the 1984 Black Film Maker’s Festival Award, and the 1984 National Education Film Festival Award for Best Film in the social studies category. In addition, Oxherding Tale was given the 1982 Washington State Governor’s Writers Award, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was one of the 1987 final nominees for the PEN/Faulkner Award. In 1989, Johnson was named by a University of California study as one of the ten best American short-story writers. In 1990, Middle Passage was honored with a National Book Award, making Johnson the first male African American writer to receive this prize since Ralph Ellison won for Invisible Man (1952). Johnson received the Journalism Alumnus of the Year Award from Southern Illinois University in 1981 and was again honored in 1994 when the university established the Charles Johnson Award for Fiction and Poetry. In 1998, he was awarded a coveted “genius grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in recognition of his entire body of work.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

African American Review 30, no. 4 (Winter, 1996). A special issue of the journal devoted to Johnson’s work. Most of the essays consider Johnson’s novels, but there are some references to the short fiction. The strength of the issue is the variety of viewpoints it presents, ranging from political assessments to philosophical excursions. Uneven but often informative.

Byrd, Rudolph P. Charles Johnson’s Novels: Writing the American Palimpsest. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. A helpful guide for new readers of Charles Johnson, offering insight into his four novels.

Byrd, Rudolph P., ed. I Call Myself an Artist: Writings by and About Charles Johnson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999. An intelligently chosen, eclectic collection of works by Charles Johnson, which includes an autobiographical essay and several essays explaining his aesthetic perspective and theories of literary composition. There are also two interviews with Johnson and an extensive section of critical discussions of Johnson’s work, including an essay by the editor on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which explains Johnson’s employment of the philosophical perspectives of Alfred North Whitehead.

Coleman, J. W. “Charles Johnson’s Quest for Black Freedom in Oxherding Tale.” African American Review 29, no. 4 (Winter,...

(The entire section is 610 words.)