Johnson, Charles R. 1948—
Charles R. Johnson 1948—
Novelist, essayist, cartoonist
When Charles Johnson won the 1990 National Book Award in fiction for his third novel, Middle Passage, he became the first black man to win the award since Ralph Ellison won in 1953 for Invisible Man. It is worth noting too that literary critic Elizabeth A. Schultz equated Johnson with Ellison in her 1978 essay “The Heirs of Ralph Ellison,” and that Johnson himself has written with admiration of the “magnificent feast of fictional styles” found in Invisible Man.
Aside from Ellison, Johnson cites Jean Toomer and Richard Wright as writers he admires; moreover, his 11-year association with novelist John Gardner has helped him develop his unique brand of philosophical fiction. In his 1988 article “Where Philosophy and Fiction Meet” Johnson praised Toomer as a writer “whose lovely and language-rich Cane ushered in the Harlem Renaissance and advanced the American short story as a form.” He noted that Toomer’s image of the “blue man” suggested “infinity and the transcendence of dualism,” an important concept in Johnson’s personal development from a member of the black arts movement of the 1960s to a philosophical novelist. While Johnson’s first publication, a cartoon collection titled Black Humor, was a direct result of his exposure to playwright and social theorist Amiri Baraka and the black arts movement, Johnson came to recognize that “the built-in danger of this cultural nationalism is the very tendency toward provincialism, separatism and essen-tialist modes of thought that characterize the Anglophilia it opposes.”
Before he became a fiction writer, Johnson established himself as a political cartoonist, publishing book-length works and contributing to a variety of newspapers and magazines. In 1970 he produced and co-hosted a how-to-draw television series on the Public Broadcasting Service called Charlie’s Pad. At the same time, Johnson was heavily involved in cultural nationalism, organizing groups in the newly formed discipline of black studies. Then, he says, “I began to see that the intellectual questions I wanted to pursue, some of them were foreclosed on by some of the principal spokesmen of the black arts movement.” In the writings of Toomer, Wright, and Ellison, Johnson found a basis for the type of philosophical fiction he wanted to write. Wright, though recognized as a leading writer of racial protest, also wrote works that Johnson felt were “compatible with the most interesting ideas in continental philosophy during the
Full name, Charles Richard Johnson; born April 23, 1948, in Evanston, IL; son of Benjamin Lee and Ruby Elizabeth (Jackson) Johnson; married Joan New (a teacher), June, 1970; children: Malik, Elizabeth. Education: Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, B.A., 1971, M.A., 1973; State University of New York at Stony Brook, doctoral study in philosophy, 1973-76. Religion: Buddhist.
Chicago Tribune, cartoonist and reporter, 1969-70; 5i. Louis Proud, member of art staff, 1971-72; University of Washington, assistant professor, 1976-79, associate professor, 1979-82, professor of English, 1982—, endowed chair of humanities, 1991—. Seattle Review, fiction editor, 1978—; Associated Writing Programs Award Series in Short Fiction, director, 1979-81, member of board of directors, 1983—.
Awards: Named journalism alumnus of the year, Southern Illinois University, 1981; Governor’s Award for literature, State of Washington, 1983, for Oxherding Tale; Callalo Creative Writing Award, 1983, for short story “Popper’s Disease”; outstanding writer citation from Pushcart Prize, 1984, for short story “China”; Writer’s Guild award for best children’s show, 1986, for “Booker”; PEN/Faulkner Award nomination, 1987, for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; National Book Award in fiction, 1990, for Middle Passage.
Addresses: Office —Department of English, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98105.
thirties and forties.” Similarly, Johnson found Ellison’s Invisible Man “to be, at bottom, about the ambiguities of perception and interpretation in the racial world.”
Johnson’s development as a first-class novelist and writer began with his association with John Gardner. Feeling out of step with his black arts contemporaries, Johnson wrote in American Visions, “I tried to maintain that most insecure of positions demanded by philosophy: namely, a perpetual openness to thoughts and feelings wherever I found them. And a tremendous source of help for this was my 11-year association with John Gardner.” Johnson studied under Gardner at Southern Illinois University as a graduate student, earning a master’s degree in philosophy.
Johnson had written six apprentice novels before penning Faith and the Good Thing, published in 1974. As described by Arthur P. Davis in his survey Novels of the New Black Renaissance, it is “a fascinating melange of classic philosophy, scholasticism, occult writings, folklore (including Southern superstition and Negro tall tales), surrealistic dreams, flashbacks, and down-to-earth realism…. Taking Faith from her Deep Southern home to Chicago and back to her native region, the author carries the reader along with a brilliant tour de force of fantasy and realism.” Davis found Johnson’s refinement and folk knowledge an unusual mixture and called the novel “a strange book, a provocative book, an eminently readable book.” It is the “overall mythic design” of Faith and the Good Thing that initially led literary critic Schultz to draw her comparison to Ellison’s Invisible Man.
Eight years passed before Johnson’s second novel, Oxherding Tale, was published. According to the author, the manuscript “went through 25 publishers before Indiana University Press took the great risk of releasing it.” Like his award-winning third novel, Middle Passage, his second novel is a slave narrative. Johnson admits that Oxherding Tale is more complex than Middle Passage. He describes it as “a modern, comic, philosophical slave narrative—a kind of dramatization of the famous Ten Oxherding Pictures’ of Zen artist Kakuan-Shien.” Soon after the publication of Oxherding Tale Johnson began research for Middle Passage. “I went back and looked at every sea story from Apollonius of Rhodes to Homer— all the way through Melville, Conrad, London, the Sinbad stories, slave narratives that took place on boats—about the middle passage.”
Like his previous novels, Middle Passage combines the adventures of a roguish main character with philosophical concerns about race, culture, and individual identity. Characteristic of much of Johnson’s fiction, humor and satire are also found in abundance. As Linnea Lannon described Middle Passage in the Detroit Free Press, “It is at once witty and wily, a novel laced with references to great adventures of another age (Moby Dick and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) but not weighed down by them, a deeply philosophical book that never leaves the reader mired in symbolism.” Johnson himself described Middle Passage as “a philosophical sea adventure, a genre-crossing novel, which is itself a kind of genre.” In accepting the National Book Award for Middle Passage, he predicted that black fiction would become one of “increasing intellectual and artistic generosity, one that enables us as a people, as a culture, to move from narrow complaint to broad celebration.”
Black Humor (cartoon collection), Johnson, 1970.
Half-Past Nation Time (cartoon collection), Aware, 1972.
Faith and the Good Thing (novel), Viking, 1974.
Oxherding Taie (novel), Indiana University Press, 1982.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (short stories), Atheneum, 1986.
Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 (essays), Indiana University Press, 1988.
Middle Passage (novel), Atheneum, 1990.
Contemporary Authors, Volume 116, Gale, 1986.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 7, 1977, Volume 51, 1989.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 33, Gale, 1984.
American Visions, June 1988.
Boston Globe, January 28, 1991.
Callaloo, October 1978.
Chronicle of Higher Education, January 16, 1991.
CLA Journal, June 1978; December 1978.
Contemporary Literature, Autumn 1978.
Detroit Free Press, December 9, 1990.
Detroit News, January 17, 1991.
New York Times Book Review, July 1, 1990.
People, January 14, 1991.
Village Voice, July 19, 1983.
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