Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
Although Middle Passage is only Charles Johnson’s third published novel, it is a powerfully mature exploration of themes that Johnson has touched on in his previous works. Rutherford Calhoun’s metaphysical odyssey from selfish individualism to unselfish concern for the welfare of others resembles the quests for self-revelation undertaken by the protagonists of Johnson’s previous novels, Faith and the Good Thing (1974) and Oxherding Tale (1982). Middle Passage is also an allegory that incorporates elements of the supernatural, mysticism, and folk wisdom through the inclusion of the Allmuseri, an African tribe introduced by Johnson in Oxherding Tale as well as in two short stories that appeared in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1986).
By using the framing device of the ship’s log to record the events of Calhoun’s voyage of discovery, Johnson also draws upon the tradition of the slave narrative and the dramatic impact of its eyewitness revelations of brutality and betrayal. At another level, Johnson’s philosophical fiction draws upon and wrestles with the rich literary past from which it springs—such literary predecessors as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and “Benito Cereno” (1855), and John Gardner’s novella The King’s Indian (1974). Given the diverse elements it incorporates, it is not unusual that reviewers have found Middle Passage difficult to categorize. They have praised the power of the novel’s language, the novel’s inventive narration and many allusions, and the force of the imagination that drives the plot. Johnson’s dedication to his craft was amply rewarded when Middle Passage received the National Book Award for fiction in 1990.