American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

MIDDLE PASSAGE (1990). Charles Johnson’s (1948- ) third novel and seventh published book, Middle Passage won for its author the National Book Award in the year of its publication. As Johnson’s original working title, “Rutherford’s Travels,” suggests, the work portrays the adventures of a picaro-like hero who stows aboard the Republic, a slave ship bound from New Orleans to the west coast of Africa, plying for the duration of the novel that triangular sea route that is known, at least the segment from Africa to the West Indies, as the Middle Passage. As narrator-protagonist-journalist, freedman Rutherford Calhoun affords the author a perspective of not only the plausible “historical insider” but also the educated, loquacious, philosophical moral voice, seldom reticent about matters anachronistically beyond the nautical setting and the cultural context of the fiction at hand.

Johnson has acknowledged some of his inspirational sources in both print and visual media. Among these are Robert Hayden’s* miniature epic “Middle Passage” (1945), quoted by Johnson as epigrammatical introductory material, and historical documents that include accounts of the 1839 Amis- tad* uprising. As to literary purpose, Johnson justifiably claims a multigeneric achievement; Middle Passage is simultaneously a rousing adventure yarn, a sea story travel account in satirical, allegorical vein similar to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), and a humor-laden novel of social and moral protest. These qualities are deftly underpinned with a recurrent framework of philosophical rumination about human nature and self-knowledge, an intriguing mediation that ultimately transcends the entertaining fictional narrative. [See also AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE; SLAVE NARRATIVES]

Fred M. Fetrow