Johnson, Charles Richard

views updated

Johnson, Charles Richard

April 23, 1948

Novelist Charles Johnson was born in Evanston, Illinois, and studied at Southern Illinois University and SUNY at Stony Brook in New York, majoring in philosophy. As he writes in his essay "Where Philosophy and Fiction Meet" (1988), he was inspired by a campus appearance of LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) to turn toward literary expression (after some work as a cartoonist). His flirtation with cultural nationalism was intense but brief: He came to recognize that its built-in danger "is the very tendency toward the provincialism, separatism, and essentialist modes of thought that characterize the Anglophilia it opposes." If the utopianism and the mix of social hope and colorful individual expression of the 1960s inspired him to become a writer, he was attracted to the tradition of the philosophical novel, which he began to write at the postmodern moment when parody, comedy, and tongue-in-cheek improvisation in the face of disaster came together. He worked under the supervision of novelist John Gardner and remained closely associated with him for many years. Johnson draws freely on Indian and Japanese Buddhist sources, Western philosophy, and literary precursors from Cervantes to slave narratives and from Saint Augustine to Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. He has also been deeply influenced by the ways in which the African-American writers W. E. B. Du Bois, Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison approached fundamental questions of culture and consciousness. Johnson traced their legacy in the essay "Being & Race: Black Writing Since 1970" (1988), a subtly yet firmly argued survey of the contemporary literary scene, for the title of which Martin Heidegger served as an inspiration.

After writing a number of increasingly accomplished short stories that were collected in The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1986) and publishing a first novel, Faith and the Good Thing, in 1974 (several others exist in manuscript but were never published), Johnson achieved an artistic breakthrough with his novel Oxherding Tale (1982). A meditation on the representation of the eighth of the "Oxherding Pictures" by Zen artist Kakuan-Shien (in which both the ox and herdsman are gone), the novel also continues the tradition of autobiographical fiction as embodied in James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Oxherding Tale represents the education of Andrew Hawkins, who is raised by a transcendentalist tutor on a southern plantationa plantation that is visited by Karl Marx in the novel. As Andrew (like Saint Augustine before him) learns to free himself from dualism, another figure, that of the Soulcatcher, grows in importance. Johnson draws the philosophical issues out of love, education, or enslavement. It is a stylistically brilliant novel, both comic and profound, picaresque and self-reflexive. It parodies the eighteenth-century novel and the genre of the slave narrative yet manages to remain faithful to both these inspirations. Johnson received the Governor's Award for Literature from the state of Washington for Oxherding Tale in 1983.

Johnson's novel Middle Passage (1990) continued the exploration of a nineteenth-century setting for unusual purposes. It is the tale of Rutherford, who eludes collectors of gambling debts and the offer of redemption by marriage in New Orleans when he takes the place of a sailor, only to find himself aboard a slave ship headed for Africa. Johnson manages to revitalize what have become fixtures in imagining the nineteenth century by concerning himself with the human issues he locates in particular spaces. The enslaved Almuseri add some elements of magical realism to the text, which may be the most imaginative modern thematization of the experience that the title refers to, free from the clichéd ways in which this historical period has sometimes been fictionalized. Middle Passage was awarded the National Book Award in 1990. Johnson's novel Dreamer (1998), an exploration of the mind of Martin Luther King Jr., was not a critical success.

Johnson has continued to publish books, including Soulcatcher and Other Stories in 2001, and a book of interviews, Passing Three Gates (2004), edited by Jim McWilliams.

See also Caribbean/North American Writers (Contemporary); Du Bois, W. E. B.; Ellison, Ralph; Literature of the United States; Toomer, Jean; Wright, Richard


Johnson, Charles. "Where Philosophy and Fiction Meet." American Visions 36 (June 1988): 4748.

Johnson, Charles. Passing Three Gates: Interviews with Charles Johnson. Edited by Jim McWilliams. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004.

Kutzinski, Vera. "Johnson Revises Johnson: Oxherding Tale and The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man." Pacific Philology (Spring 1989): 3946.

werner sollors (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

About this article

Johnson, Charles Richard

Updated About content Print Article