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Charles (Richard) Johnson Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Evanston, Illinois, 1948. Education: Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, B.A. in journalism 1971, M.A. in philosophy 1973; State University of New York, Stony Brook, 1973-76. Career: Reporter and cartoonist, Chicago Tribune, 1969-70; member of art staff, St. Louis Proud, Missouri, 1971-72; assistant professor, 1976-79, associate professor, 1979-82, and since 1982 professor, University of Washington, Seattle. Since 1978 fiction editor, Seattle Review. Awards: Governor's award for literature, 1983; Callaloo creative writing award, 1985; National Book award, 1991.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Faith and the Good Thing. New York, Viking, 1974.

Oxherding Tale. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1982; London, Blond and Briggs, 1983; with a new introduction by the author, New York, Plume, 1995.

Middle Passage. New York, Atheneum, 1990; London, Picador, 1991.

Dreamer. New York, Scribner, 1998.

Short Stories

The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Tales and Conjuration. New York, Atheneum, 1986; London, Serpent's Tail, 1988.

Plays

Olly Olly Oxen Free. New York, French, 1988.

Television Writing: Charlie's Pad series, 1971; Charlie Smith and the Fritter Tree, 1978; For Me Myself, 1982; A Place for Myself, 1982; Booker, with John Allmann, 1984.

Other

Black Humor (cartoons). Chicago, Johnson, 1970.

Half-Past Nation Time (cartoons). Westlake Village, California, Aware Press, 1972.

Being and Race: Black Writing since 1970. Bloomington, Indiana Press, and London, Serpent's Tail, 1988.

I Call Myself an Artist: Writings by and about Charles Johnson, edited by Rudolph P. Byrd. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1999.

King: The Photobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (with Bob Adelman). New York, Viking Studio, 2000.

Editor, with John McCluskey, Jr., Black Men Speaking. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1997.

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Critical Studies:

I Call Myself an Artist: Writings by and about Charles Johnson, edited by Rudolph P. Byrd. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1999.

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Like many contemporary writers, Charles Johnson has a particular interest in the historical novel, and he uses this form to question the nature of the self and its relation to society and history. Two of his novels, Oxherding Tale and Middle Passage, are neo-slave narratives (novels that use the first person form to recount a story of slavery), and another, Dreamer, follows the end of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s campaign for racial equality. Each of these novels presents a highly educated and deeply philosophical first-person narrator who undergoes a spiritual transformation as he participates in and comes to understand his connection to African-American history.

Johnson's critically acclaimed Middle Passage won the 1990 National Book award, and has been favorably compared to Melville's Moby Dick. In Middle Passage, Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed slave and petty thief, seeks to avoid his personal responsibilities by working on board a slave clipper bound for Africa. During his time on ship, Calhoun becomes familiar with both the slave ship captain, Ebenezer Falcon, and the slaves, and his interaction with them forces him to revise his worldview. Falcon, an embittered dwarf wedded to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, spouts the philosophy of dualism, of the split between mind and body, knower and known, as the natural (and just) cause of slavery. Calhoun recognizes and begins to fear his own resemblance to Captain Falcon's quest for "experience" and willingness to appropriate the possessions of others. In contrast, the slaves, from Johnson's mythical Allmuseri tribe, believe in the unity of Being, and the worst feature of slavery, in their view, is the fact that they learn the philosophy of dualism as they learn the English language. Caught in the middle when the slaves take over the ship (named The Republic), Calhoun increasingly learns to view life through the Allmuseri's beliefs, experiencing a death to his former self when the ship breaks apart and he is thrown into the sea, and a resurrection as the embodiment of the Allmuseri philosophy when he is rescued.

As this summary suggests, Johnson's novels work as allegories as much as they work as historical fiction. In fact, his novels are a pastiche of forms, including spiritual autobiography, tall tale, adventure story, philosophical treatise, and comedy of manners. Part of Johnson's literary goal is to draw on multiple genres and traditions in order to create novels capable of conveying the richness of African-American history. Johnson's first novel, Faith and the Good Thing, embeds a naturalist story within an oral tale, combining myth, fantasy, and realism. The embedded story has many similarities to Richard Wright's Native Son, but Faith Cross, the main character, is able to transcend the limitations placed on her by racism and socioeconomic oppression by becoming a conjurer. The philosophical traditions that Johnson's narrators share are as rich as the literary forms they narrate. Johnson's novels are filled with allusions to Buddhist and Hindu texts, Enlightenment philosophers, and Thomist theologians. But the central philosophy that underpins all of Johnson's writing is phenomenology, which he presents as the philosophy of the Allmuseri.

Thus in Oxherding Tale, the extensively educated, mixed-race slave Andrew Hawkins, who has met Karl Marx and can quote from Lao Tze, still has a great deal to learn from his fellow slave Reb, an Allmuseri tribesman. Without the belief in the interconnectedness of all beings, which leads to the conclusion that the "self" is a fiction, Hawkins cannot understand his relationship to either the black or the white worlds. Hawkins must first reject the beliefs of his Black Nationalist father, whose violent revolt against slavery leads to his death and the dispersal of the other plantation slaves. He must also reject his own too-easy assimilation, when his flight from the slave catcher leads him to assume a white identity. Reb releases both himself and Hawkins from the slave catcher by having no essential identity, no static self that allows the slave catcher to identify, and thus entrap, him. Neither black nor white yet both, Hawkins finally becomes free only when he can both acknowledge his slave past and imagine a future beyond the restrictions of imposed racial identity. Dividing his novel into "House and Field" and "The White World," Johnson signifies upon and updates both the fugitive slave narrative and the classic novel of passing.

Although Johnson's novels are philosophical and sometimes difficult, they are also immensely comic. Johnson's comedy permeates his entire work from character depictions to a style of dialogue that is often Wodehousian in its wit: "Peggy Undercliff gave me what I have often read described in popular fiction as the 'eye,' though I'll not swear on it, never having seen the 'eye' at such close range before" (Oxherding Tale). Much of Johnson's comedy works by inverting expectations and by throwing his characters into highly improbable situations. The story of Hawkins's conception, for instance, is a masterpiece of social satire. Because he has stayed up too late drinking with his slave, Jonathan Polkinghorne is afraid to face his wife and thus sends his slave (Hawkins's father) to spend the night with her. After enjoying herself with the slave, Anna Polkinghorne screams, locks herself in a separate wing for the rest of her life, and refuses to acknowledge Hawkins as her son.

In his most recent novel, Dreamer, Johnson explores the nature of the self by creating a doppelganger for Martin Luther King, Jr., and imagining how the circumstances of their lives determine their different identities. Chaym Smith, who looks so much like King that he becomes a stand-in, and who is equally well educated in philosophy and religious theory as King, nonetheless has lived an entirely different life. Where King was raised in a middle-class household, Smith was abandoned by his father. This juxtaposition allows Johnson to meditate upon the way in which social and historical forces shape identity, and conversely, how individual identity shapes history. The reception of Dreamer is more mixed than was the response to the neo-slave narratives, with some critics praising the empathetic portrayal of King and others criticizing what they perceive to be the lack of coherence, as Smith simply disappears partway through the novel, picked up by the FBI.

Other critical controversy surrounds Johnson's use of the supernatural. He has been criticized for overuse of the supernatural purely for reasons of effect, but this is to misunderstand both the author and his intentions. The fantastic and uncanny play an important role in disrupting the reader's ability to read Johnson's fiction according to standard generic conventions, and this in turn meshes with Johnson's goal of dismantling our conceptions of essentialist identities.

—Harry Bucknall,

updated bySuzanne Lane

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