Johnson, Charles 1948-
Charles Johnson 1948-
American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and cartoonist.
For additional information on Johnson's career, see Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1.
Johnson, whose mingling of philosophy and folklore has been praised since the publication of his first novel in 1974, gained prominence when his Middle Passage (1990) won the National Book Award in 1990. His novels, short stories, and essays focus on the African American experience and the legacy of slavery in American culture. Johnson's prose style is rich and varied, incorporating genres such as the slave narrative, the bildungsroman, as well as traditions of oral literature within the African American community. His literary philosophy, as defined in his Being and Race: Black Writing since 1970 (1988), seeks to develop a literature of "increasing artistic and intellectual growth," one that focuses on celebrating and highlighting black culture. Johnson's vision of such a transition is expressed in many of his fiction and nonfiction works, including Middle Passage. Other major themes in Johnson's work include topics such as contemporary African American literature, the Civil Rights Movement, and the place of African American men in contemporary society.
Johnson was born in Evanston, Illinois, in 1948. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in journalism from Southern Illinois University in 1971 and began working as a journalist and cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune during his college years. Johnson had previously studied under cartoonist Lawrence Lariar, who helped Johnson publish his cartoons at the age of seventeen. Black Humor (1970) and Half-Past Nation-Time (1972), his two collections of cartoons were acclaimed for their subtle but pointed satire of race relations, and their success led to a job as scriptwriter for Charlie's Pad, a 1971 series about cartooning that Johnson created, co-produced and hosted for public television. In 1973 Johnson completed a master's degree in philosophy, also from Southern Illinois University. During his years of graduate study, Johnson had the opportunity to study with novelist and literary theorist John Gardner, whose conception of "moral fiction"—demanding from the author a near-fanatical commitment to technique, imagination, and ethics—deeply impressed Johnson. Johnson's first novel, Faith and the Good Thing, was published in 1974 when the author was studying for his Ph.D. in phenomenology and literary aesthetics at the State University of New York at Stonybrook. A couple of years later, Johnson began teaching creative writing at the University of Washington in Seattle and then became fiction editor of the Seattle Review in 1978. He continued writing and publishing his work and when he received the National Book Award in 1990, Johnson became the first African American author to do so since Ralph Ellison in 1953.
Johnson has published in many genres during his writing career, including novels, short stories, nonfiction essays, and cartoons. A major theme in all of his work is his interest in the African American experience and the impact of slavery on contemporary American culture. This perspective permeates most of Johnson's fiction and his novels and short stories often explore issues such as class, race, and gender through the prism of the African American experience. Johnson's first novel, Faith and the Good Thing, for example, is an intricate, often humorous, philosophical work that depicts a Southern black girl's journey to Chicago in search of the "Good Thing": the true meaning of life. During her odyssey, Faith, the story's protagonist, suffers physical degradation, but nonetheless attains spiritual resurrection. In his next novel, Oxherding Tale (1982), Johnson uses humor and philosophy to trace the development of his hero from innocence to experience. The plot of this work is modeled on the slave narratives of nineteenth-century author Frederick Douglass. Using a combination of realism and allegory and mixing modern slang with mid-nineteenth-century vernacular, Johnson follows a slave's escape to freedom and quest for knowledge. Johnson's collection of short stories, The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1986), exhibits his interest in moral tales as well. The pieces in this volume examine the cultural alienation of black Americans through a blend of formal language and street argot.
Set in 1830, Johnson's Middle Passage chronicles the misadventures of twenty-two-year-old Rutherford Calhoun, a well-educated, mischievous freed slave from southern Illinois. Rutherford is released in New Orleans by his master—a clergyman who provided him with a broad education—and revels in the city's sordid underworld. Intending to escape his creditors and an impending marriage to a priggish schoolteacher that would free him of his debts, Rutherford boards the first available ship, which, to his horror, is a slave clipper bound for Africa. On the dangerous round-trip voyage, recounted in the form of a ship's log, Rutherford becomes divided in his allegiance to his white American crewmates and his sympathy for the ship's woeful cargo, a group of suffering Allmuseri tribesmen. Rutherford ultimately sides with the captives when they mutiny and, through his traumatic experience with his oppressed shipmates, gains new knowledge about slavery, race relations, and himself. Although Johnson was criticized for interspersing modern idioms with nineteenth-century maritime jargon and naturalistic prose in the novel, many commentators lauded his blending of such genres as the picaresque tale, historical romance, sea yarn, slave narrative, and the philosophical novel. Johnson continued his exploration into the scars left on the collective psyche left by slavery in Soulcatcher and Other Stories (2001). This short story collection covers the period from the Middle Passage until the opening of the Civil War. In Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (2003), Johnson reveals his Buddhist beliefs in a collection of sixteen essays that have at their core the Buddhist Four Noble Truths, which comment on the nature and evolution of suffering. Johnson connects this to the experiences of African Americans and their struggle to come into awareness and break the cycle of suffering by accepting that reality is the illusion.
Johnson's views about the direction of African American literature have inspired some controversy, and several critics have compared his take on race and culture in American society to that of other contemporary African American authors. In general, however, critical attention has focused more strongly on Johnson's novels, which are often compared to such classics as Herman Melville's Moby-Dick and Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of an Ex-Slave. While many critics have questioned Johnson's use of philosophy in his novels, especially in cases where he uses unlikely characters to espouse complex philosophical ideas, many commentators have lauded his ability to seamlessly incorporate Eastern and Western philosophy into narratives that focus primarily on the African American experience. In this regard, Johnson has garnered lots of positive attention for Oxherding Tale, which is often cited for its skillful integration of philosophy into the storyline. Middle Passage is one of Johnson's most reviewed works. Generally lauded as an absorbing tale of slavery and race relations, the novel is sometimes criticized for the way in which Johnson incorporates modern ideas into a historical narrative. Similarly, Johnson has also been praised for the blend of fiction and history in Dreamer. Set during the last few weeks of Dr. Martin Luther King's life, this book follows Chaym Smith, a man who serves as a decoy for Dr. King, who was beset by several assassination attempts during the last months of his life. Once again, Johnson uses his fictional narrative to explore issues of race identity and politics in the African American community. Johnson's 2001 collection of short stories, Soulcatcher, picks up several themes he has explored in his longer works of fiction. In a review of this work, critic Gary Storhoff asserts that Johnson explores richly complex themes and he also praises the writer's ability to draw readers inside the stories within the stories. Johnson's use of fictionalized facts to portray unflinchingly the experiences of slaves enhances the reader's awareness that those who chronicled the slaves' experiences served to further silence those who were given no voice to begin with. In 2003 Johnson issued Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing. This work, writes William R. Nash, brings together many of Johnson's ideas and explores the connection between faith and the art of writing, pointing out that faith, rather than race, should serve as the guiding force behind cultural change and development in the African American community.
Black Humor (cartoons) 1970
Half-Past Nation-Time (cartoons) 1972
Faith and the Good Thing (novel) 1974
Oxherding Tale (novel) 1982
The Sorcerer's Apprentice (short stories) 1986
Being and Race: Black Writing since 1970 (essays) 1988
Middle Passage (novel) 1990
Black Men Speaking [coeditor with John McCluskey, Jr. and contributor] (essays) 1997
Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery [with Patricia Smith and the WGBH Series Research Team] (nonfiction) 1998
Dreamer (novel) 1998
I Call Myself an Artist: Writings by and about Charles Johnson [contributor; edited by Rudolph P. Byrd] (essays) 1999
Soulcatcher and Other Stories (short stories) 2001
Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (essays) 2003
Gary Storhoff (essay date 2004)
SOURCE: Storhoff, Gary. "Soulcatcher and Other Stories." In Understanding Charles Johnson, pp. 217-26. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.
[In the following excerpt, Storhoff argues that, while Johnson effectively draws readers into the experiences of African Americans victimized by slavery, his dialogue is sometimes too concise to support the stories' impact. However, Johnson's dramatized historical events effectively draw readers closer to his characters, which would otherwise be lost in the telling of the very events that affected them.]
As a child, I never doubted—not once—the crucial role my people have played since the seventeenth-century colonies in the building of America on all levels—the physical, cultural, economic, and political.
Charles Johnson, Turning the Wheel
Soulcatcher and Other Stories (2001) results from Johnson's collaboration with Patricia Smith and the WGBH Series Research Team to create the television series Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery. The book companion, published in 1998, includes Johnson's twelve stories, written to accompany Smith's history, which dramatize historical events recounted in the series. Since the history covers the period from the Middle Passage up until the beginning of the Civil War, Johnson was able, as he writes in the preface, to fictionalize the "facts and historical figures essential for deepening our understanding of America's past and present."1 The stories in Africans in America comprise the separately published volume Soulcatcher. Johnson did not change the stories, nor did he add to their number.
Johnson's stories disclose highly specific historical facts that give greater authority to the volume's historical discourse. Johnson's thorough research for the project makes vivid in precise details the oft-forgotten history of African Americans. For example, Johnson describes his African characters in "The Transmission," about the Middle Passage, as "forced to lie on their right sides to lessen the pressure on their hearts" (8). Johnson also explains that African captives had their fingernails clipped to prevent them clawing each other in the excruciatingly tight ship's hold. However, he is not completely restrained by historical fact, and sometimes Johnson imaginatively recreates the historical events to reinforce the historical point being made in the accompanying history. In "The Mayor's Tale," for example, Johnson writes a parable, imagining the chaotic effect on America's economy if all escaped slaves, to avoid recapture after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, had left for Canada. If African Americans were really outside of American history as a racist may claim, the story implies, disaster would be the result. The necessity of fictionally illuminating a history text, however, has its disadvantages for Johnson's independently published volume. Occasionally the dialogue, always Johnson's strength, seems contrived, designed to illustrate a fact pro- pounded in the history text; the narratives themselves, sometimes too short to support his complex and meditative themes fully, often seem unnecessarily truncated.
Nevertheless, this project once again demonstrates Johnson's innovative technique. As he writes, Africans in America "is the only history text that features fictions commissioned from a contemporary writer" (xiv-xv). The collection consists of twelve short stories that dramatize, primarily with a focus on individual contemplation and action, the events chronicled in the history text—the imagined conversation of Phillis Wheatley with her mistress; the thoughts of Frederick Douglass after his beating by racist whites in Pendleton, Indiana; Richard Allen's meditation on racism as African Americans assist Philadelphians during the yellow fever plague of 1793. Even the placement of the stories in the history text is strikingly original. They are usually featured as interchapters, but occasionally they are interpolated within the chapter itself. And in the case of "A Soldier for the Crown," which recounts the story of a cross-dressing African American fighting for the British during the Revolutionary War, Johnson's story interrupts Patricia Smith's single paragraph. In several stories, Johnson chooses as his subject the consciousness of ordinary African Americans forgotten by history, such as the terror felt by an African child during the Middle Passage, or the desolation of a captured slave rebel about to be executed after Jemmy's slave rebellion in 1739.
In the history volume, Johnson's primary purpose is to provide a sense of dramatic immediacy to the moments of American past too often omitted by mainstream historians. Soulcatcher also reiterates many of Johnson's themes, especially the African American artist's incommensurable purpose in the contemporary United States. Many of these stories provide a justification for Johnson's own literary career thus far: his resolute commitment to artistic originality, his repudiation of polemical art, his confidence in expressing in art an ineffable religious vision, and his sense of the divinity of the artistic mission.
"The Transmission," the collection's first story, introduces the griot who sings his own race's story—clearly a surrogate for Johnson himself, and his artistic project in Soulcatcher. Malawi, the story's protagonist, is a member of Johnson's Allmuseri tribe who suffers the horrors of the Middle Passage, as the Africans are "transmitted" to America for enslavement. As in the novel Middle Passage, Johnson frankly presents the Africans' suffering without didactic comment. Malawi is chained to the decomposing corpse of his brother, Oboto, who was the village's original griot. As Oboto died, he whispered the village's history to Malawi, and the story ends with Malawi's "transmission" of the song to an uncomprehending but presumably receptive white crewman.
Malawi's acceptance of his new role as griot links him to his author, who has also shouldered the burden of communicating the history of African Americans to a sometimes uncomprehending audience. In the worst of circumstances, Malawi nevertheless shares his author's fundamental optimism, gained through his newfound artistic work. Malawi's recognition that he had "no time to dwell on his despair" (9) is the key to his narrative. By taking up his new vocation, he is released from his personalized suffering, for he knows that he alone is responsible for communicating the story of his race to America. But like Johnson in accentuating his own innovations, Malawi also knows that he cannot simply repeat in rote fashion the stories of the past; he understands that the African "people's chronicle was unfinished. New songs were needed. And these he must do" (11). African identity in America will be entirely different, Malawi seems intuitively to realize, calling for new forms and new narratives, but he understands that his heritage, though transformed, was not "wiped from the face of the world" (8). Malawi's song, then, is a symbol for Johnson's own aesthetic purpose in his career: to create a new vision of race in America, to sing an entirely new song for the hope of renewed interracial understanding and compassion.
Johnson's concern for the appreciation of the artist is repeated in his imaginary dialogue between Phillis Wheatley and her mistress, Mrs. Wheatley. Once again, the story conveys important historical information about African American history (Phillis's dialogue contains numerous allusions to her poetry), while simultaneously voicing Johnson's theories about art and politics. The story's narrative hinges on Phillis's vocational anxiety, her doubts about her own poetry that is devoid of explicit political messages. In her conversation, Phillis ruminates on her art's utility. Specifically, Phillis worries that her apolitical literary production will do "nothing to further our cause" (28): "Sometimes I wonder if my people see me—my work—as useless" (29). Phillis cannot, she admits, write convincingly about racism because she lacks emotional detachment in dealing with racism; she is more effective in composing "a hymn to morning"—a self-reflective cynosure of Johnson's "singing the world" in his own work.2
Mrs. Wheatley assures Phillis that explicit political commentary in a literary text is not essential, nor even in most cases praiseworthy, since what is needed most is artists who have "enriched others through their deeds" (30). Mrs. Wheatley expresses Johnson's own disdain for polemical literature:
While a pamphlet can be valuable and stir people to action, a hundred years hence it may be forgotten—as the injustice it assails is forgotten—or it will be preserved only as a historical document, interesting for what it reveals about a moment long past, but never appreciated as art. I'm speaking of writing poems about oppression.
As if to corroborate Mrs. Wheatley's scorn for "poems about oppression," Johnson ends the story with a compliment to Phillis actually sent to her by George Washington, written in response to Phillis's occasional poem on Washington's taking command of the Continental Army. The letter's conventional valediction, making Washington Phillis's "obedient, humble servant," justifies Phillis and allays her fears of inadequacy. Johnson uses Washington's historical reputation to confirm Mrs. Wheatley's assessment of Phillis's art: "It is a noble calling, Phillis, this creating of beauty, and it is sufficient unto itself" (29).
The "noble calling" of the artist does not necessarily conflict with the historian's undertaking, and this point is made in several stories where Johnson changes the literal events of the past or imagines possible repercussions of actual events in order to convey the emotional experience of African American history. The story makes clear Johnson's idea that "history" and "fiction" are yet another false dualism, since a fiction may endow a historical moment with greater meaning than would a mere recitation of facts. In a footnote to "The People Speak," Johnson acknowledges that he has fictionalized history "in order to conjure a moment in time with feeling" (67). "The People Speak" concerns a crucial moment in African American history, "a debate on two equally powerful yet antithetical dreams within the black American soul" (68). In January 1817, African Americans gathered at A.M.E. Bethel Church in Philadelphia to debate whether people of color should emigrate to Africa. In the story, Johnson includes historical figures who were absent (for example, Paul Cuffe), and women, who were not allowed to participate. The purpose of his revision, however, is to provide to the reader a greater sense of inclusiveness in this pivotal event. The story is, to use Johnson's phrase from Middle Passage, a "useful fiction." The unanimous decision of ordinary African Americans to remain in America, despite the nation's racism and slavery, represents an epochal rejection of defeatism as articulated by Paul Cuffe: "No, methinks it is asking too much for both sides, theirs and ours, to live peacefully as one people" (71). If, as Reverend Allen claims, the unanimous vote indicates "which direction all our people will take in the future" (72), Johnson's faith in the gradual but irresistible amelioration of race relations through American history is expressed dramatically.
"The Mayor's Tale" is written in the form of a parable that elaborates on the possible but not actual consequences of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Because this legislation (as explained in Africans in America ) provided legally for the forcible return of escaped slaves to the South, Johnson poses a theoretical question: What if, to escape southern "soulcatchers" (that is, bounty hunters), all African Americans emigrated to Canada? What would America be like without an African American presence?
In Johnson's comic tale, the mayor goes to bed one night thinking that "all was well in the world" (93), especially since his narrow, self-centered, materialistic concerns seemed satisfied. He has African American servants and employees, a big house, a well-fed family, and a good job. The mayor's complacency is a result of his misunderstanding of the world's interrelatedness, essentially based on the invisibility of African Americans who labor in his house and town: "It wasn't as if he looked for them every day. No, most of the time they blended into the background of his day" (96). Because, he believes, he is not materially affected by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, he need not consider its calamitous consequences for his village or his nation. But he awakens to his city where all African Americans have fled to Canada to escape their re-enslavement. Without servants and support at every level of life, "he saw chaos" (97). His chaotic situation is humorously brought home by his cold house and his angry wife, who refuses to leave her bed. At his office, he realizes his insufficiency, for his work "had taken two—perhaps three—times longer to do" (97). The tale points to a moral Johnson continually repeats: African Americans were integral to the making of American history—and, of course, still are.
"The Mayor's Tale" also reiterates Johnson's theme of mindful labor as critical for gaining enlightenment. The mayor's and his wife's incapacity relates to a Hegelian master-slave relationship. In Hegel's view, the master is ultimately reduced because his continuing dependence on his slave has denied him the moral and spiritual education inherent in labor. The slaves, in contrast, achieve individuality through their work. Work, then, serves as the indispensable condition for achieving a sense of one's place in the world, a condition that the mayor and his wife have denied themselves. The story's ending focuses on the mayor's despair, not simply because he lacks coal or the service of African American waiters, but because he has failed fundamentally to understand his world: "Hizzoner broke down and wept in the snow" (101).
Racism and its accompanying epistemological failure is also the theme of "Martha's Dilemma." Once again, Johnson employs a Hegelian depiction of the reversal of slavery, as the mother of our country feels herself imprisoned by the peculiar institution. Martha Washington must adjust to living with her slaves after George posthumously manumitted them in his will, to be effected at Martha's death. She suddenly finds herself in their lifelong predicament, her very life depending on their continued goodwill. Like the mayor, Martha has depended on her slaves obsessively throughout her life, to her own detriment: "Ironically, we were enslaved to them, shackled to their industry, the knowledge they'd acquired because we were too busy running the country to develop it ourselves!" (46). Martha's proclaimed self-importance is rendered comically in the story, and Johnson depicts her as a shrew bawling out her famously austere husband as a "big oaf" (43), a mere politician who was "a slow reader. A poor speller. He was a man of deeds, not ideas" (45). Through Martha's diatribe, Johnson debunks the "well meaning mythmakers who began enlarging his legend before we could properly bury him" (44). The mythmakers' stories (as opposed to Johnson's own) are "balderdash" (45).
Johnson's dismissal of phony myths as kitsch in "Martha's Dilemma" repeats his celebration of common, ordinary people working deliberately and routinely in everyday life. Although he dramatizes the lives of a few famous African Americans, such as Frederick Douglass and Reverend Richard Allen, Johnson primarily demonstrates their fame achieved through their daily labor, usually performed in mundane, ordinary circumstances. "A Lion at Pendleton" describes Douglass's charisma and his beating by a white mob in Pendleton, Indiana. But the primary focus of the story is Douglass's commitment to his work to end slavery, his willingness to labor unstintingly for the cause: "he had not rested. Nor had he wanted to. How could his spirit sleep as long as a single black man or woman was in chains?" (89). The story's climax is not a famous speech by Douglass, but Douglass climbing back on his horse, off to yet another meeting. Johnson's celebration of work is repeated in "The Plague," where Reverend Allen works steadily for months to relieve the suffering in Philadelphia, preaches five sermons per day, but is rewarded only by "lily-white faces glaring … through the windows, twisted lips drawn down in distrust" (57). Neither Douglass nor Allen can realistically envisage an earthly reward—the abolition of slavery—and instead they must see themselves as working for the future, themselves as "a conduit, an anonymous instrument through which the music of our Lord and Savior bursts forth" (52).
Work at mundane tasks, as is typical in his fiction, carries a supreme thematic importance for Johnson. The ordinary work of unknown, unheralded people—like the African Americans the history book immortalizes—choosing moment by moment, day by day, may lead America to a more socially just nation. Johnson demonstrates that he plays a part in that vision. Like Tiberius, the captured slave rebel in "Confession," Johnson's readers may awaken to a new, enlightened reality—one that they too may help create:
Everythin' looked changed after he spoke. Like I'd lived alla my life in a cave, believin' the shadows I seen were real. … I felt like a sleeper. A man who'd been dreamin' his whole life. But Jemmy woke me hup.
It is Johnson's task as a literary bodhisattva to wake us "hup."
2. Johnson, Being and Race, 123.
Selected Works by Charles Johnson
Being and Race: Black Writing since 1970. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.
Middle Passage. New York: Atheneum, 1990.
Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery. By Johnson, Patricia Smith, and the WGBH Research Team. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1998.
Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing. New York: Scribner, 2003.
Rudolph P. Byrd (essay date 2005)
SOURCE: Byrd, Rudolph P. "Prologue." In Charles Johnson's Novels: Writing the American Palimpsest, pp. 1-10. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.
[In the following essay, Byrd examines Johnson's novels in the context of the author's literary and cultural vision, explaining that Johnson often uses metaphor to skillfully convey several layers of meaning during the course of a single narrative thread.]
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William R. Nash (essay date 2007)
SOURCE: Nash, William R. "The Application of an Ideal: Turning the Wheel as Ontological Program." In Charles Johnson: The Novelist as Philosopher, edited by Marc C. Conner and William R. Nash, pp. 171-81. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007.
[In the following essay, Nash asserts that Johnson's reason for publishing Turning the Wheel, in which the author connects his Buddhist faith and the art of writing, is to point out that race, not faith, is an illusion. Johnson points out that just as Buddhists believe they must overcome their own suffering in order to fully realize their lives, so African Americans must learn their history.]
In "Shoulder to the Wheel" (2003), an interview with my fellow Johnson scholar (and good friend) John Whalen-Bridge, Charles Johnson explains what led him to publish Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (2003). The author notes, "in this phase of my life, what I call Act Three, I finally had to declare myself someone devoted to the dharma" ("Shoulder" 301). The work certainly does that; indeed, this collection of sixteen essays (seven on Buddhism, nine on writing) marks the fullest overt written articulation of elements that Johnson has "tuck[ed] into" his fiction from the publication of Faith and the Good Thing (1974) on through his most recent novel, Dreamer (1998). In foregrounding his dedication to the dharma and offering his views on how one enacts its most basic principles, Johnson realizes a program for the application of an ideal that has driven his work since 1974: the notion that race is an illusion.
The work comes at an opportune time. Turning the Wheel emerged into an especially welcoming environment for American writers of color to discuss their interests in Buddhism, as the past five years have brought significant advances in this area. Johnson published selections from Turning the Wheel in Tricycle in 2000; Angel Kyodo Williams published Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living With Fearlessness and Grace (2000); Jan Willis published Dreaming Me (2001), her stirring memoir or her journey from a protestant upbringing in pre-Civil Rights era Alabama to her present life as a noted scholar of Tibetan Buddhism and a practicing "Baptist-Buddhist"; and Hilda Gutierrez Baldoquin edited a landmark volume, Dharma, Color, and Culture: New Voices in Western Buddhism (2004), which includes a reprint of Johnson's essay Reading the Eightfold Path from Turning the Wheel. While these works do not share completely unified goals or uniform success of execution, the authors of these various works all address the particular usefulness of Buddhist practice, with its emphasis on seeing past apparent differences to the interconnectedness of all sentient beings, as a counter to the ravages of American racism.
At the heart of this common resistance lies one of the most important foundations of Buddhist thought. Regardless of sect, all Buddhists embrace Shakyamuni Buddha's teaching of the Four Noble Truths, which one might translate as follows:
- Suffering exists.
- Suffering arises from attachment to desires.
- Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases.
- Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path.
In the context of American racism, the First Noble Truth is self-explanatory—certainly "suffering" is a fair term for living under the weight of systemic, systematic injustice, violence, and oppression.1 The Second Noble Truth also resonates in this context, although one must take care to define "desires" clearly. The greatest desire, the most destructive illusion to which we become attached, is the notion of a concrete "self," a discrete entity with firm boundaries that separate and protect us from others. That desire for selfhood figures powerfully in othered individuals' quest for citizenship and acceptance as so-called real Americans.
With that definition in hand, one can confront the last two Noble Truths; at this point, the terrain becomes much more complex. Does the Third Noble Truth somehow effectively suggest that Americans of color must stop wanting to be full-fledged citizens, that they must instead accept and submit to their otherness? Not exactly. In the terms of these American Buddhists of color authors, the response is not resignation, but rather recognition that otherness is a constructed, lived illusion.
Beautiful rhetoric, one might say, but the suffering is real, and the historical record is replete with examples of enforced otherness—one need only look at the famous Civil Rights-era photographs of Alabama law enforcement officials setting dogs on African-American children to see that. How, then, in the face of these actions (and countless others like them), can one view otherness as an illusion? Here, as perhaps in all places, the devil is undeniably in the details. Attacking innocent children, or dragging a black man to death behind a pickup truck, as was done all too recently in Texas, is the living of the illusion. Johnson says of the contemporary racial climate that for people of color, this illusion is "one they're pulled into, whether they want to participate in it or not, the moment they walk out their door" ("Shoulder" 307).
So, what does one do in the face of this hostility? Or, to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous question in the essay "Fate," how shall one live?2 In answer to that query, each of these authors points to the Fourth Noble Truth, and each recognizes that the living of what Johnson calls a "complete ethical system" is indeed the Way to liberation from racialized suffering (McWilliams, "An Interview" 297). Willis and Baldoquin certainly embrace this reading of the Eightfold Path. In Johnson's case, liberation is not an end in itself, however; he pushes the reader farther, stating "the question, I think, is what does a Buddhist do after awakening. … If he decides to stay in the world, the marketplace, in order to teach, as Shakyamuni did, or serve in some capacity, he does so—and lives daily—with nonattachment and metta [loving kindness towards all sentient beings]" ("Shoulder," 314). In Turning the Wheel, Johnson offers a series of reflections on his attempts at awakened living.
With that, Johnson fulfills the promise appearing in the final pages of Dreamer. That work turns on the notion that "doing well," a formulation initially articulated in the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, is the path to universal acceptance into the "beloved community" that Martin Luther King, Jr. sought.3 I see him emphasizing, at the end of Dreamer, the need for individuals to pursue "doing well" fully and passionately. As narrator Matthew Bishop walks in Dr. King's funeral cortege, he stands on the verge of despair, realizing that he "believed in each of us there was a wound, an emptiness that could not be filled in our lifetime"; and yet, as he comes to this awareness, he also sees that "we could not stop if we wanted to, or go backward." In an eerie echo of this insight, someone behind him remarks, at that precise moment, "‘keep moving forward. If we stop, we'll fall and be trampled’" (236). And so, facing the internal void and unable to turn away, one must pursue the right course of action, which here Johnson identifies as "doing well."
Right action, of course, resonates with "Right Conduct," which is the fourth stage of the Eightfold Path, if one imposes a linear structure on them.4 Recognizing this, one can then turn to the opening essay of Turning the Wheel. "Reading the Eightfold Path" outlines and provides a philosophical interpretation of each step of the Buddhist Way towards enlightenment. It also advances a social program of living that answers the call to action that Johnson sounds through this anonymous speaker at the end of Dreamer. Indeed, the essays that Turning the Wheel comprises systematically propose a means by which a seeker, specifically an African-American seeker, more specifically an African-American writer, can "keep moving" and serve the ideal of the beloved community. In so doing, they also provide, by example and directly, suggestions for how his readers might themselves turn the wheel of the Dharma.
At the heart of "Reading the Eightfold Path" is the notion of svadharma, or "personal responsibility." As Johnson succinctly states, "Followers of the Buddhadharma, fully aware of impermanence, dualism, and relativity, yet also aware of the ubiquity of suffering, are obliged at some point to oppose the origins of duhka (‘suffering’) in the social world" (26). For the best American example of this opposition, Johnson turns once again to the subject of Dreamer and states that American Buddhists
will, I believe, share the dreams stated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1964, where he said "Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts…. Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time…. The foundation of such a method is love…. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up."
To work for this, to find an occupation that realizes this, is to fulfill the step [of the Eightfold Path] called Perfect Livelihood.
What Johnson calls for with this description is a form of "engaged Buddhism," a variant on the teachings of Thich Nhat Hahn, the Vietnamese monk who led the Vietnamese Buddhist Coalition at the Paris Peace accords and whom King nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967.5 Furthermore, he specifically weds this mode of being to Dr. King's vision and reinforces the call for action that he sounds in Dreamer. In Johnson's view, the responsibility of the enlightened one is not merely to sit quietly beneath the bodhi tree; rather, to invoke a formulation that drives his second novel, Oxherding Tale (1982), the enlightened one must needs "return to the village with bliss-bestowing hands," sharing what he has learned in his own quest with those villagers who suffer without knowing why.
The specter of Oxherding Tale proves extremely important here, in that it evokes both Johnson's movement toward and his shying away from activism in his earlier fiction.6 In each of his novels, Johnson plays with the bodhisattva role, offering the lessons of enlightenment in the various guises of bildungsroman, slave narrative, sea story, and fictionalized biography. All of his books are, in one way or another, about the need for individuals, especially black individuals in America, to free themselves from their illusions of separation and to work together to build and maintain a more harmonious life-world. To a person, his protagonists experience great suffering and grope their way towards the cessation of that pain. And, in every case, they find what they are seeking, and more besides. Faith Cross, Andrew Hawkins, Rutherford Calhoun, and Matthew Bishop each experiences a profound awakening to the interconnectedness of all beings. For them as individuals, these are powerful, liberating moments. In all of Johnson's novels, save Faith and the Good Thing, that awareness leads the seeker to a concomitant realization of the power of love as a means of overcoming suffering, a step further on the Path of Right Relationship.
That these individuals experience enlightenment leads me to the related question: what about the rest of the community—not just the fictional community, but also the extratextual community of readers? Does this lesson about love and "interbeing" translate to them?7 As I read the novels, the answer is "not quite." Johnson certainly makes a strong case for these principles being broadly applicable; however, he also introduces a counterclaim in the fiction that limits the accessibility of the interbeing ideal.
The counterclaim that intrudes in each of his novels, however, manifests itself in a pressing sense of the sustained injustice that African Americans have faced throughout the nation's history. Throughout his fiction, the tension between his Buddhist ideals and his sense of the frustrating racial realities of American life keeps Johnson from ever fully achieving a satisfactory application of his philosophical and social ideal, which is to both address and eschew the systematic and systemic violation of American black being. With Turning the Wheel, Johnson finds the medium that allows him to fully address the questions of what it means to be black in America and to demonstrate the liberation available to African Americans in the dharma.
Two essays in the first section most effectively illustrate the point. The first, "Accepting the Invitation," is a brief meditation on why Buddhists should vote. Johnson notes that the Eightfold Path, specifically the "injunction for Right Conduct," calls Buddhists "to translate the Dharma into specific acts of social responsibility." He continues, "in a democratic republic, that surely means voting for those initiatives we believe will reduce suffering and violence, ignorance, and hatred" (44). He weds this call for spiritually enlightened social engagement to a brief but forceful account of the injustices black Americans suffered in the era before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed. The message is clear: African Americans are a group of people who have known suffering and who have had to work especially hard for their enfranchisement. As a result, they have a particular duty (svadharma) to embrace the responsibility that attends finally gaining the ballot. Furthermore, in the religious-philosophical system that calls on blacks to embrace a particular attitude towards voting, there lies a means of addressing the broader conception of racially inflected suffering that this group faces. Keep moving, the essay says, echoing the end of Dreamer ; and, as you move, here is a religious-philosophical roadmap that will show you the Way to freedom.
The second essay, "A Sangha by Another Name," pushes this notion even farther, arguing that Buddhism is an effective, perhaps even an ideal, response to the challenges inherent in being black in America. The essay opens with the following assertion: "The black experience in America, like the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, begins with suffering" (46). I find this assertion striking for two reasons. First, because it equates black life in America so directly to Buddhist philosophy, a correlation that is still sufficiently rare in the national public discourse to command special attention. Second, because it marks perhaps the only instance in Charles Johnson's corpus where one can find the phrase "the black experience" used in anything other than a mocking or dismissive manner—throughout his critical oeuvre and in interviews and discussions, he consistently prefers the formulation "experiences of blackness," which allows for the richness and breadth of black life and defies any attempts at viewing the black community as a monolith.
Indeed, Johnson has spent his creative career decrying the notion that there can meaningfully be anything called the black experience, given that individuals have such varying responses to even the same stimuli. But here, in this instance, Johnson finds the formulation useful; and as he explains it, I understand his usage. Certainly it seems reasonable to characterize the slave trade and the enforced cultural re-education of newly made African-Americans as experiences marked by suffering. In that vein, it seems worth pausing to note that some of Johnson's earlier humorous representations of the slave trade (most notably a cartoon from his first published collection Black Humor ) have raised objections from scholars unsettled by the notion that one might find anything to joke about in the hold of a slaver. And yet, given how Johnson makes a powerful teaching tool of humor, the drawings demand reassessment of the importance of suffering in African-American life and lead one to reject the victimization model of black identity.
In "Sangha," the vision of black suffering and struggle is much more conventional, because he cannot explain his notions about the cessation of suffering without emphasizing that idea of group suffering as a starting point. Johnson's shift away from one of his most adamantly-held positions in service of this greater social and moral good resonates with a similar shift in ideas that one sees running throughout Dreamer, where he makes strong steps towards the fully-realized social program he presents in Turning the Wheel. To get people thinking about how to correct injustice, he has use for the notion of a monolithic character for African Americans' experiences that he presents in the opening of "A Sangha by Another Name."
Perhaps paradoxically, Johnson's recognition of suffering as the hallmark of black life doorways not into a sustained lament over the narrowness of black being, which I would argue is the usual resolution of such a set of claims; instead, it opens onto the Way, the path that Johnson believes will lead African Americans through suffering into enlightenment. As he says in the closing sentence of the essay, "through the Dharma, the black American quest for ‘freedom’ realizes its profoundest, truest, and most revolutionary meaning" (57). Johnson has hinted at this notion before, to be sure; indeed, it is a version of this realization that carries Andrew Hawkins to "moksha," or enlightenment, in the last chapter of Oxherding Tale. In that instance, however, the enlightenment is very particularized, the end of one man's journey and not a broadly applicable notion. What Johnson aims at in "A Sangha by Another Name" (the title is a reference to Johnson's view of King and his "beloved community") is precisely that universal vision. What is more, he attributes flashes of that vision to a range of predecessors in the African American literary tradition, including W. E. B. Du Bois and Jean Toomer, a move that simultaneously legitimizes the notion by grounding Johnson firmly in an established tradition and expands its scope by offering an alternative reading of that canon.
In a recent interview with John Malkin, Johnson likens his creative process to the practice of meditation. This link in many ways explains the second half of Turning the Wheel, entitled "On Writing." In these nine essays, Johnson complements his alternative reading of the African-American tradition in "A Sangha by Another Name" with a combination of essays that redefine the writer's role. He also illustrates how authors concerned with racial issues, and black writers in particular, can first achieve enlightenment and liberation through their work and then share those insights with readers. With these goals in mind, the several essays on writing and on particular works of literature demonstrate something of the application of Johnson's Buddhist ideal.
Two of these essays are particularly noteworthy for their interlocking commentary on how writers and readers can escape the limitations of racialized thinking that plague Americans: "The Beginner's Mind" and "The Role of the Black Intellectual in the Twenty-First Century." The former, which is largely a tribute to Johnson's mentor, John Gardner, demonstrates the level of careful observation and "clean," or value-neutral, observant thought that the reader must bring to each experience in order to wring the most from it. The latter provides a program for black writers and for readers of all ethnicities; I read it as a literary attempt to erase the "mark of Cain," or, in the terms of Dreamer, to "do well."
The reference to "the mark of Cain" is, of course, an allusion to the widely held belief that African Americans bear the curse of their blackness as a sign of their heritage as Cain's descendants.8 In this essay, Johnson argues that black intellectuals have been similarly marked, in the sense that their perceived racial identity is the litmus test by which editors and readers judge their ability to comment meaningfully on any subject. Throughout the twentieth century, he argues, the range of African Americans' contributions to public intellectual discourse was largely, if not exclusively, limited to questions of race, regardless of what an individual's field of expertise might be. As he notes acerbically, "twentieth-century black ‘intellectuals’ were granted authority by the white world on but one worldly subject: themselves" (85). He goes on to explain that for him, the term "intellectual" has the negative pre-twentieth century connotations that signify a tendency towards reducing phenomena to reason and, more broadly, towards speaking boldly and expansively on all racial subjects regardless of what one might or might not know about the issues at hand.
One quickly sees the limitations of this pigeonholing of the African American mind: the speaker who comments about everything related to race risks ending up full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. As Johnson puts it, "the result is often comic when the ‘intellectual-celebrity’ steps out of the field where he or she has genuine authority (artists, for example, who talk about the fields of economics or politics when they are amateurs; or, if you like, [Toni] Morrison's recent statement that William Jefferson Clinton is our first ‘black’ president, which was probably news to everyone in Clinton's family)" (87). Extending the point, sometimes the results are comic even when figures speak inside their discipline but stretch for connections to contemporary events, a move that increases their prominence in the public eye.9
Certainly this emphasis on public commentary limits an intellectual's ability to make a meaningful contribution to a particular discipline. In Johnson's terms, it is this that distinguishes the public figure from the scholar. Johnson reserves the latter term for people who add to the body of knowledge associated with their disciplines in a manner that distinguishes them and materially advances the subject at hand. By way of illustrating the point, Johnson notes W. E. B. Du Bois's phenomenal contributions to sociology and John Hope Franklin's accomplishments as an historian. In speaking of Du Bois, he also notes the broader benefits of the life of the mind to both the scholar and the community. First, he says, such real scholarship is "a moral work," one that fully engages every element of the scholar's being and thereby ennobles and transforms him or her. Second, he notes that emphasizing the success of such role models could inspire future generations of African Americans to achieve evergreater scholarly heights (92). If the community can do that, he argues, then it can reverse the trend that restricts black thinkers to commentary on racial matters.
One might wonder what this essay has to do with Buddhism, and at first glance it might well seem disjointed. I would argue, however, that there are at least two powerful links that illuminate the Way buried in this essay and, by extension, in all of Johnson's "On Writing" essays. First of all, the black scholar who embraces the methods of his or her chosen field and pursues knowledge for the pure (or almost pure) love of it embodies the ideal of one who lives his or her svadharma. The standard by which the public intellectual must necessarily measure his or her success is public recognition; one cannot expect that it is possible to garner (and arguably to pursue) fame without becoming tainted by it. This is especially true in an environment that increasingly demands public displays of insight, or PDI's, from African American pundits regardless of what they might or might not reasonably know about a given issue.
By contrast, the scholar may pursue knowledge for its own sake, performing biochemistry experiments because she wants to know how certain crystals grow or studying Sanskrit so that he might better read traditional texts. This dharma-driven pursuit of information yields, arguably, not just knowledge but also wisdom. Punditry, by contrast, dresses information (and sometimes mis-information) in the cloak of wisdom, with regard for little more than the impact that the commentary will have on the speaker, not the perceiver. Since what passes for insight is often not the Truth (in the metaphysical sense), then it cannot really set either the speaker or the perceiver free. In sharp contrast to that, Johnson offers a Way that frees not only the present individuals but also subsequent generations of the community. The scholar, in short, is the Buddha returning to the village with bliss-bestowing hands.
Or perhaps one should say "a Buddha," with the acknowledgment of the creative writer as another such figure. One of the pieces in "On Writing" is a paean to Ralph Ellison; two others are introductions that Johnson composed for new editions of Sinclair Lewis's Kingsblood Royal (1947) and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). A third, "Progress in Literature," makes the case for the importance of writing and reading (e.g., "literature is dangerous ontologically because reading is the most radical and liberating of all enterprises … the triumph of individual consciousness and human freedom" [131-33]). He continues, compellingly arguing the public's need, even its responsibility, to support the independent venues for innovative experimental fiction as a means of defending against the same sort of cultural ghettoization he decries in "The Role of the Black Intellectual." This time, however, the restrictions he warns against fall on the reader, not the writer. Getting free of these confining attitudes is, in Johnson's view, clearly noble work, a step on the Way towards the elimination of suffering that is the goal of all his writing.
He applies this standard of helping eliminate suffering to the authors whose individual works he comments on in the other "On Writing" essays. Both Sinclair Lewis and Ralph Ellison come off rather well, as Johnson praises them for their efforts to meaningfully represent the richness of twentieth-century American life and the completeness of their vision. He takes a rather different view of Stowe—one that demonstrates both the complexities of his intellectual position on race and his resolution of that apparent conflict. Although Johnson does acknowledge some of Stowe's successes in Uncle Tom's Cabin, he primarily emphasizes the novel as an "ineluctably racist" portrayal of African-American life (98). I do not dispute that characterization; I would, however, suggest that in many ways Stowe is no worse (and arguably, somewhat better) than many of her abolitionist colleagues, who sought the freedom of enslaved blacks but held no brief for their achieving anything like social equality.
What I find interesting about Johnson's essay is that he omits that crucial piece of history while turning much of the rest of his introduction to a lesson on the realities of slave life. He ends that discussion with the assertion that, despite some "admirable attempts," white people cannot meaningfully and effectively "portray a black person in his own terms" with "compelling … fidelity and veracity" (103). On the surface, this seems to raise once again the specter of the "black experience" issue. And yet, on closer examination, this statement reveals a concern with a different level of awareness, one that actually conveys some sense of hope and that in many ways fulfills the larger mission of Turning the Wheel. The call for describing "the racial Other" on his (or her) own terms is a plea for understanding; and what Johnson says makes Stowe's work so useful is that it reminds us of the need for such understanding between racial groups. Here, as in the Buddhist essays, Johnson emphasizes the steps of the Eightfold Path, the Perfect Thought and Perfect Conduct that will ultimately help heal the racial divide in America.
That emphasis on Perfect Conduct and Perfect Thought, as defined in "Reading the Eightfold Path," perfectly characterizes Johnson's position as the author of this series of essays. As he pursues his householder's svadharma, giving himself fully and freely that which he is given to do (writing and teaching), he illuminates the Way for readers and seekers struggling to overcome the suffering associated with a narrow view of American racial being. As Johnson himself has said, "over the last three decades, I … had to acknowledge and explore the central questions in Eastern religions" as part of his creative effort "to develop black (and thereby American) philosophical fiction." In other words, "the life of the spirit" has been "something I could not—and did not want to—ignore" (Boccia, 205). In Turning the Wheel, he brings the life of the spirit to the forefront, emphasizing in the process how mindfulness and sensitivity bring liberation to both black letters and black life.
1. For a concise discussion of this, see Johnson's "Accepting the Invitation," first published in Tricycle (X.1, Fall, 2000: 63-64) and reprinted in Turning the Wheel, 42-45.
2. It is perhaps useful in this context to note Emerson's familiarity with key texts and ideas of Buddhist philosophy. For further discussion of Emerson's debt to Eastern thought, see Richardson.
3. For my more complete discussion of Dreamer, and more particularly for my assessment of the importance of "doing well" in Johnson's evolving world view, see Charles Johnson's Fiction, 162-95, esp. 174-77, 181-82, and 194-95.
4. Johnson notes the difficulty of organizing the steps of the Eightfold Path in his essay, stating, "this is not a linear movement. … Naturally, all the steps presuppose, depend upon, complement, and complete each other; they are not taken one at a time, but worked on simultaneously, and as one matures with them, understanding of the steps deepens" ("Reading," 6-7).
5. For a discussion of Johnson's similarities to Thich Nhat Hahn, see Storhoff, Understanding Charles Johnson, especially 9-10.
6. In myriad interviews and essays appearing throughout his career, Johnson disavows any interest in activism or being a spokesperson. And yet, despite that public stance, his novels demonstrate an increasingly strong impulse towards collective action. This, in brief, is one of the guiding arguments of my Charles Johnson's Fiction.
7. Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term "interbeing" to describe this state of mutual connection, as Johnson notes in several of his published essays on Buddhism. In earlier interviews, Johnson tends to use a philosophical term from Husserlian phenomenology—"intersubjectivity"—to refer to this same notion.
8. As I argue in Charles Johnson's Fiction, 138, 165-69, this pernicious, destructive formulation derives from a deliberate misreading of the original Hebrew. Johnson explores the impact of this idea of blackness as "stain" at length in Dreamer.
9. One might think, for example, of Henry Louis Gates. Jr.'s 1990 defense of Luke Skywalker and the other members of the hip hop group 2 Live Crew, who faced obscenity charges and public reprimand for the content of their best-selling album As Nasty As They Wanna Be. Although I see some merit in Gates's New York Times piece, "2 Live Crew, Decoded," his commentary on the issue speaks most strongly to me of his having been anointed as the public authority on African-American vernacular cultural by virtue of his authoring The Signifyin(g) Monkey in 1988.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "2 Live Crew, Decoded." New York Times, June 19, 1990: A23.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. Peace Is Every Step. Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1991.
———. Being Peace. Edited by Arnold Kotler. Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1987.
Johnson, Charles. Black Humor. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Co., 1970.
———. Dreamer. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
———. Oxherding Tale. New York: Grove Press, 1983.
———. Soulcatcher and Other Stories. New York: Harcourt, 1998.
———. Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing. NY: Scribner, 2003.
McWilliams, Jim. "An Interview with Charles Johnson" in McWilliams 271-99.
———. ed. Passing the Three Gates: Interviews with Charles Johnson. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004.
Nash, William. Charles Johnson's Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2003.
Storhoff, Gary. Understanding Charles Johnson. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.
Whalen-Bridge, John. "Shoulder to the Wheel: An Interview with Charles Johnson" in McWilliams 300-315.
Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. Review of Soulcatcher and Other Stories, by Charles Johnson. African American Review 36, no. 2 (2002): 338-40.
A review of Johnson's short story anthology, comparing it with his first collection of short stories. Also includes brief synopses of several stories in the collection.
Selzer, Linda. "Master-Slave Dialectics in Charles Johnson's ‘The Education of Mingo.’" African American Review 37, no. 1 (2003): 105-13.
An analysis of Johnson's short story "The Education of Mingo" as an early example of the author's views on the relationship between subjects and objects as well as on the master-slave dialogue.
Steinberg, Marc. "Charles Johnson's Middle Passage: Fictionalizing History and Historicizing Fiction." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 45, no. 4 (winter 2003): 375-90.
Discusses Johnson's Middle Passage in terms of the challenges faced by readers trying to discern the difference between historical accounts of slavery and the possibility that fiction can be accepted as truth.
Additional coverage of Johnson's life and works is contained in the following sources published by Gale: African American Writers, Ed. 2; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 6; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1:2; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 116; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 42, 66, 82, 129; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 7, 51, 65, 163; Contemporary Novelists, Eds. 5, 6, 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 33, 278; DISCovering Authors Modules, Ed. MULT; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers (ebook), Ed. 2005; Modern American Literature, Ed. 5; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; and Short Stories for Students.