Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
This first novel by Charles Johnson was quickly noted as a startlingly original effort when it appeared in 1974. Critics remarked on its narrative flair, its challenging philosophical substance, and its unique vision of the African American experience. Faith Cross was described as a “rural Candide,” and the story of her journey was called a fanciful, “latter-day Arthurian legend.”
Important to the context within which the novel developed is the fact that Johnson worked on it under the eye of writer John Gardner. The signs of Gardner’s profound influence are evident in both the novel’s style and content. Johnson’s penchant for the exaggerated, for the fabulistic, for the sometimes outlandish strikes a most Gardneresque note for the attentive reader. Like Gardner, too, Johnson sought to create a particular type of “moral fiction” (to use Gardner’s phrase), one that affirmed certain philosophical and ethical verities. As a result, Johnson was early on pegged as a “philosophical novelist,” a title he does not particularly dispute and one that has been borne out in his subsequent works of fiction. Perhaps of greatest importance, however, is the fact that Gardner demonstrated to Johnson the place of the African American writer within “the Great Tradition”; aesthetics, argued Gardner, transcend race. The well-told and significant story takes its content from very basic philosophical and moral truths; what shape those truths assume in their telling remains the prerogative still of the writer. This interracial, artistic connection between Johnson and Gardner deserves closer study.
The shifting nature of this novel—its swings from hoodoo incantation to philosophical surmise to historical account—also hints at certain connections to the work of Ishmael Reed, though Johnson does not possess Reed’s radical wit or irreverence. In Faith and the Good Thing, Johnson urges a fairly realistic vision of the modern African American personality upon his reader. The heady infusion of Western European philosophy into the African American spirit of the novel makes this work unusual in African American fiction, giving it an impressive and ironic intellectual and cultural range. This first novel, above all, revealed the promise that Johnson has certainly gone on to fulfill in his later work.