Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
Charles Johnson started his career as a cartoonist and published his work in newspapers and magazines. Two collections of his cartoons and drawings were subsequently published, Black Humor (1970) and Half-Past Nation Time (1972). Eventually, however, he turned to fiction as a means of artistic expression. As he completed his master’s degree in philosophy at Southern Illinois University in the early 1970’s, Johnson studied with novelist John Gardner. He wrote and rewrote under Gardner until he produced what would become his first novel, Faith and the Good Thing (1974). That novel can be read as a folktale in which a woman named “Faith” sets out on a literal and figurative journey to find the meaning of her existence.
Following Faith and the Good Thing, Johnson published Oxherding Tale, which received favorable reviews from both popular magazines as well as from literary journals. He followed his second novel with a collection of short fiction, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1986), and with a book of literary criticism, Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 (1988). His growing reputation as one of America’s most important writers was solidified in 1990 when he published Middle Passage, which was accepted by most critics as his best novel and which won the National Book Award. Middle Passage is the story of Rutherford Calhoun, a thief who meets members of the Allmuseri tribe who are being taken into slavery. He comes to admire their fortitude in the face of captivity and wants to learn how they deal with adversity. The novel then shows Rutherford’s slow progress toward renunciation of materialism in favor of self-negation under the guidance of the Allmuseri.
A common thread throughout these novels is an interest in exploring the limits of human knowledge. Johnson, with his training as a philosopher, wants to know what is possible for people to understand about their own existence. Exactly why, Johnson asks, do we act and think the way we do? Although answers are not always readily available, Johnson argues persuasively in his fiction that to neglect to ask such questions, to go through life always accepting the way things are, is to live with blinders. According to Johnson, it is up to each individual to question his own existence in order to lead a full, free life.