The Sorcerer's Apprentice

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Charles Johnson is a professor of English at the University of Washington in Seattle and fiction editor of The Seattle Review. At thirty-eight he has successfully established himself as a scriptwriter, an artist, and a superb novelist and short-story writer. Johnson wrote the Public Broadcasting Service dramas Charlie Smith and the Fritter Tree and Booker, the latter with John Alman, and contributed to the scripts for the series Up and Coming and Yes, Inc. He was also responsible for the script for Charlie’s Pad. He has published two collections of drawings, Black Humor (1970) and Half-Past-Nation-Time (1972), and two novels, Faith and the Good Thing (1974) and Oxherding Tale (1982). While Johnson has published short fiction for a decade and received several commendations and awards for his work, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Tales and Conjurations is his first collection of short fiction. It contains eight stories, all previously published in noted literary magazines between 1977 and 1985. Representing the best of eight years of work, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice offers a superb introduction to Johnson’s short fiction. The stories display a refreshing sense of humor and wit and a mastery of form. While realistically portraying the experience and problems of identity for black Americans, they excite the imagination of the reader through attention to myth and important philosophical issues.

“The Education of Mingo,” the first story in the collection, is set in 1855 in southern Illinois. Drawing on the black experience of slavery to retell Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein tale, Johnson constructs a fable of idealistic philosophy that raises the issue of guilt in a universe controlled by God, or, in this case, the will of a white slaveholder. Moses Greene, a white farmer whose name suggests an untried Moses, a new, inexperienced lawgiver, sets out to remake his world through the education of an African slave he has purchased, Mingo, a king’s son from a tribe of wizards. Twisting truth to suit his own misconceptions, Moses creates a monster, a mirror of his own faulty habits and prejudices. As with any mirror, the image is reversed, and so are Moses’ ideas of good and evil. Mingo becomes a “distorted shadow.” Unfamiliar with his adopted language and culture, he reverses Moses’ directions to kill chickens and be polite to strangers. Horror grows as the reader witnesses Mingo’s unfeeling murder of Moses’ fellow farmer, Isaiah, and his lady friend, Harriet. Perhaps the true horror, however, is that the Frankenstein is the system of slavery, which allows ignorant, egotistic men such as Moses to mold other human beings.

“The Education of Mingo” is the story of how the African, uprooted from his homeland and people and denuded of his native culture and language, has become a product of the white man’s ideas. In the philosophical vocabulary which Johnson wittily employs here, the African is a structure of “intentional consciousness.” Thus his culpability for murder is questionable. As even Moses recognizes, “You couldn’t rightly call a man responsible if, in some utterly alien place, he was without power, without privilege, without property—was, in fact, property.”

Johnson balances questions of guilt and responsibility in “The Education of Mingo” with central issues of black identity that echo through many of the stories in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. His concern is the nature of black experience in American culture and how black identity, cut off from its roots, can be authenticated in a culture which provides no mirror for that identity. Three stories in this collection focus clearly on these issues: “China,” “Althia,” and “Popper’s Disease.” Like “The Education of Mingo,” these three tales are fables, though here the spiritual lessons strike middle-aged black men.

In “China,” Johnson combines realism and humor with Oriental philosophy to weave a tale of a middle-aged black couple in Seattle, Evelyn and Rudolph Jackson. At the outset of the story, both are ill, though Rudolph, who holds a post-office job, is clearly nearer death than Evelyn. Suffering from flat feet, high blood pressure and emphysema, all diseases caused by his job and diet, Rudolph is smitten when he sees a kung-fu film. Avidly taking up the discipline of the martial arts, he conquers and transforms himself physically and spiritually. Forging his body and mind into a new shape and power, Rudolph successfully defies the limitations of the cultural assumptions and customs he learned in Hodges, South Carolina, where he and Evelyn grew up. Evelyn, unfortunately, remains locked into those assumptions and limitations, unable to escape the role of middle-aged Christian black housewife until, in the end, she witnesses the gravity-defying, culture-defying leap of her husband “twenty feet off the ground in a perfect flying kick.”

“China” illustrates the power of consciousness over body and spirit and the destructiveness of American culture for blacks who have accepted the limitations which it teaches. Interweaving Oriental philosophy with concepts and terminology from the Eastern martial arts (which he has himself practiced for a number of years), Johnson introduces the idea of existential freedom for the black man and, with it, a new identity. As Rudolph asks a frightened and protesting Evelyn at one point in the story: “I can only be what I’ve been? . . . Only what I was in Hodges?” The answer comes from the self, from Rudolph’s strength and independent desires: “I only want to be what I can be,” he tells Evelyn, “which isn’t the greatest fighter in the world, only the fighter I can be.” Despite the seriousness of this theme, Johnson uses humor to portray the marital and sexual relationship of Evelyn and Rudolph, both of whom have fed too long on “a heavy meal of pig’s feet and mashed potatoes.”

With “China,” “Althia” illustrates the traps of black identity in America: the lack of opportunities and freedom, the “life that led predictably to either (a) drugs, (b) a Post Office job, (c) Marion Prison, (d) Sunset Cemetery (all black), or (e) the ooga-booga of Christianity.” Both the first-person narrator in “Althia” and Rudolph in “China” break free from these restrictions. Where Rudolph masters his body and mind, transforming his physical and spiritual health, the narrator in “Althia” frees himself from a denial of his bleak Chicago roots and confronts, in middle age, the physical, sexual self he has repressed.

A tenured philosophy professor at a predominantly white university in a predominantly white culture, the narrator illustrates the “classic Dualism” which the black sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois argued every successful black American demonstrates. He is, the narrator admits, “a kind of two-reel comedy,” at war with himself and his past in order to achieve success in a white society. Since he exists in a culture where there are no mirrors of himself or his past, he must construct his own version of himself and feed his intellect with those “odd books from the Negro press . . . written by blacks to inspire blacks.” In this half-alive, overintellectualized state at mid-life, he is confronted with an angry, sexy black woman whose determination to escape the ghetto matches that of the narrator, except, in her case, she is willing to use her body and blackmail to get the B she needs to stay in school. A dark guide for the narrator’s descent into...

(The entire section is 3120 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic. CCLVII, April, 1986, p. 130.

Choice. XXIII, June, 1986, p. 1540.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, December 15, 1985, p. 1344.

Library Journal. CXI, February 15, 1986, p. 194.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. XCI, March 30, 1986, p. 11.

The Nation. CCXLIII, September 13, 1986, p. 226.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, March 30, 1986, p. 7.

The New Yorker. LXII, May 5, 1986, p. 132.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, December 13, 1985, p. 46.

Washington Post Book World. XVI, February 16, 1986, p. 8.