Middle Passage

Middle Passage

by Charles Johnson


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From a critically acclaimed, award-winning and bestselling author comes a compelling adventure that "The Seattle Times" hailed as "a work of art that is a rattling good sea yarn as well as a profound meditation on the nature of self-knowledge".

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501110528
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 07/07/2015
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Charles Johnson is a novelist, essayist, literary scholar, philosopher, cartoonist, screenwriter, and professor emeritus at the University of Washington in Seattle. A MacArthur fellow, his fiction includes Night Hawks, Dr. King’s Refrigerator, Dreamer, Faith and the Good Thing, and Middle Passage, for which he won the National Book Award. In 2002 he received the Arts and Letters Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Seattle.

Read an Excerpt

Entry, the first, June 14, 1830

Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I've come to learn, is women. In my case, it was a spirited Boston schoolteacher named Isadora Bailey who led me to become a cook aboard the Republic. Both Isadora and my creditors, I should add, who entered into a conspiracy, a trap, a scheme so cunning that my only choices were prison, a brief stay in the stony oubliette of the Spanish Calabozo (or a long one at the bottom of the Mississippi), or marriage, which was, for a man of my temperament, worse than imprisonment -- especially if you knew Isadora. So I went to sea, sailing from Louisiana on April 14, 1830, hoping a quarter year aboard a slave clipper would give this relentless woman time to reconsider, and my bill collectors time to forget they'd ever heard the name Rutherford Calhoun. But what lay ahead in Africa, then later on the open, endless sea, was, as I shall tell you, far worse than the fortune I'd fled in New Orleans.

New Orleans, you should know, was a city tailored to my taste for the excessive, exotic fringes of life, a world port of such extravagance in 1829 when I arrived from southern Illinois -- a newly freed bondman, my papers in an old portmanteau, a gift from my master in Makanda -- that I dropped my bags and a shock of recognition shot up my spine to my throat, rolling off my tongue in a whispered, "Here, Rutherford is home." So it seemed those first few months to the country boy with cotton in his hair, a great whore of a city in her glory, a kind of glandular Golden Age. She was if not a town devoted to an almost religious pursuit of Sin, then at least to a steamy sexuality. To thenewcomer she was an assault of smells: molasses commingled with mangoes in the sensually damp air, the stench of slop in a muddy street, and, from the labyrinthine warehouses on the docks, the odor of Brazilian coffee and Mexican oils. And also this: the most exquisitely beautiful women in the world, thoroughbreds of pleasure created two centuries before by the French for their enjoyment. Mulattos colored like magnolia petals, quadroons with breasts big as melons -- women who smelled like roses all year round. Home? Brother, for a randy Illinois boy of two and twenty accustomed to cornfields, cow plops, and handjobs in his master's hayloft, New Orleans wasn't home. It was Heaven. But even paradise must have its back side too, and it is here (alas) that the newcomer comes to rest. Upstream there were waterfront saloons and dives, a black underworld of thieves, gamblers, and ne'er-do-wells who, unlike the Creoles downstream (they sniffed down their long, Continental noses at poor, purebred Negroes like myself), didn't give a tinker's damn about my family tree and welcomed me as the world downstream would not.

In plain English, I was a petty thief.

How I fell into this life of living off others, of being a social parasite, is a long, sordid story best shortened for those who, like the Greeks, prefer to keep their violence offstage. Naturally, I looked for honest work. But arriving in the city, checking the saloons and Negro bars, I found nothing. So I stole -- it came as second nature to me. My master, Reverend Peleg Chandler, had noticed this stickiness of my fingers when I was a child, and a tendency I had to tell preposterous lies for the hell of it; he was convinced I was born to be hanged and did his damnedest to reeducate said fingers in finer pursuits such as good penmanship and playing the grand piano in his parlor. A Biblical scholar, he endlessly preached Old Testament virtues to me, and to this very day I remember his tedious disquisitions on Neoplatonism, the evils of nominalism, the genius of Aquinas, and the work of such seers as Jakob Böhme. He'd wanted me to become a Negro preacher, perhaps even a black saint like the South American priest Martín de Porres -- or, for that matter, my brother Jackson. Yet, for all that theological background, I have always been drawn by nature to extremes. Since the hour of my manumission -- a day of such gloom and depression that I must put off its telling for a while, if you'll be patient with me -- since that day, and what I can only call my older brother Jackson's spineless behavior in the face of freedom, I have never been able to do things halfway, and I hungered -- literally hungered -- for life in all its shades and hues: I was hooked on sensation, you might say, a lecher for perception and the nerve-knocking thrill, like a shot of opium, of new "experiences." And so, with the hateful, dull Illinois farm behind me, I drifted about New Orleans those first few months, pilfering food and picking money belts off tourists, but don't be too quick to pass judgment. I may be from southern Illinois, but I'm not stupid. Cityfolks lived by cheating and crime. Everyone knew this, everyone saw it, everyone talked ethics piously, then took payoffs under the table, tampered with the till, or fattened his purse by duping the poor. Shameless, you say? Perhaps so. But had I not been a thief, I would not have met Isadora and shortly thereafter found myself literally at sea.

Sometimes after working the hotels for visitors, or when I was drying out from whiskey or a piece of two-dollar tail, I would sneak off to the waterfront, and there, sitting on the rain-leached pier in heavy, liquescent air, in shimmering light so soft and opalescent that sunlight could not fully pierce the fine erotic mist, limpid and luminous at dusk, I would stare out to sea, envying the sailors riding out on merchantmen on the gift of good weather, wondering if there was some far-flung port, a foreign country or island far away at the earth's rim where a freeman could escape the vanities cityfolk called self-interest, the mediocrity they called achievement, the blatant selfishness they called individual freedom -- all the bilge that made each day landside a kind of living death. I don't know if you've ever farmed in the Midwest, but if you have, you'll know that southern Illinois has scale; fields like sea swell; soil so good that if you plant a stick, a year later a carriage will spring up in its place; forests and woods as wild as they were before people lost their pioneer spirit and a healthy sense of awe. Only here, on the waterfront, could I recapture that feeling. Wind off the water was like a fist of fresh air, a cleansing blow that made me feel momentarily clean. In the spill of yellow moonlight, I'd shuck off my boots and sink both feet into the water. But the pier was most beautiful, I think, in early morning, when sunlight struck the wood and made it steam as moisture and mist from the night before evaporated. Then you could believe, like the ancient philosopher Thales, that the analogue for life was water, the formless, omnific sea. Businessmen with half a hundred duties barnacled to their lives came to stare, longingly, at boats trolling up to dock. Black men, free and slave, sat quietly on rocks coated with crustacea, in the odors of oil and fish, studying an evening sky as blue as the skin of heathen Lord Krishna. And Isadora Bailey came too, though for what reason I cannot say -- her expression on the pier was unreadable -- since she was, as I soon learned, a woman grounded, physically and metaphysically, in the land. I'd tipped closer to her, eyeing the beadpurse on her lap, then thought better of boosting it when I was ambushed by the innocence -- the alarming trust -- in her eyes when she looked up at me. I wondered, and wonder still: What's a nice girl like her doing in a city like this?

She was, in fact, as out of place in New Orleans as Saint Teresa would be at an orgy with de Sade: a frugal, quiet, devoutly Christian girl, I learned, the fourth daughter of a large Boston family free since the Revolutionary War, and positively ill with eastern culture. An educated girl of

Reading Group Guide

Middle Passage
Charles Johnson

Questions and Topics For Discussion

  1. Narration

Middle Passage is the story of an adventurer who takes to the high seas. It is also the story of a writer. As the narrative’s protagonist Rutherford Calhoun explains, “Only the hours I spent hunched over the skipper’s logbook kept me steady…Then, as our days aboard the Juno wore on, I came to it with a different, stranger compulsion—a need to transcribe and thereby transfigure all we had experienced, and somehow through all this I found a way to make my peace with the recent past by turning it into Word” (pp. 189-90)

  • Consider the role of storytelling in the novel. How do the stories recorded by Rutherford Calhoun enable him to make sense of his experiences, and thus perhaps aid him in coping with the many moral and other challenges he faces?
  • Consider the role of storytelling in your own life. What stories are important to you? And how do these stories help you cope with and make sense of your experiences?
  • The quotation cited above expresses a positive function of storytelling. Are there also examples in the novel of characters who have fallen victim to false stories, either their own or those of others?
  • The term metafiction refers to fictional works that call attention to their own making, breaking the illusion that the world created by the writer is real. Instead of wanting us to forget that the story is a work of fiction that has been made up, authors of metafictional texts keep reminding us that the world they have created is artificial. In what ways is Middle Passage metafictional?
  • Why do you think Johnson chose a metafictional approach to telling his story? Think about the names Johnson assigns to people, places and things. There are characters named Rutherford Calhoun, Squibb, Cringle, and Falcon, a country called Bangalang, and slave ship christened the Republic.
  • What are the implications and ironies of some of the names Johnson uses in Middle Passage? The Republic was unstable physically and the crew was constantly rebuilding it. The ship was, according to Calhoun, “a process” (p. 36). Cringle says that the ship would not remain the same as it was when leaving New Orleans; the Middle Passage would change it.
  • Is the ship the metaphor for the process of life itself?
  • If so, what is Johnson saying about the human condition? The historical Middle Passage was a source of horrific emotional, physical, and spiritual suffering for millions of Africans. In addition, it served as their introduction to the dehumanizing institution of slavery. Johnson has been criticized for transforming that grim reality into a comic (at least in part) adventure story.
  • Do you agree with these criticisms?
  • Why or why not?
  1. Freedom and Bondage

Issues related to freedom and bondage play an important role in Middle Passage. The institution of slavery is an obvious form of physical bondage. Johnson seems to suggest that minds can be enslaved as well as bodies.

  • Consider the ways that characters in the novel are enslaved—to marriage, to money, to ignorance, to habit, to false traditions, to debt, etc. Is anyone in the novel free? If so, who?
  • What characters are enslaved? To what are they enslaved? Are they aware of their enslavement? Can they become free? And if so, how?
  • What does freedom mean for Rutherford Calhoun? For you?

  1. Identity and Transformation

Liminality is a sociocultural state of being in which a person is betwixt and between, neither this nor that, belonging to two groups and to none. The condition of being liminal often gives on license to do things and go places typically denied others. Rutherford Calhoun says that he Middle Passage has rendered him a “cultural mongrel” (p. 187), and thus liminal.

  • In what ways is Rutherford Calhoun both a part of and separate from American society?
  • In what ways is he similar to and different from his African-American contemporaries?
  • In what ways is he both a party of and separate from the ship’s social system?
  • What freedoms and what limitations arise from Rutherford Calhoun’s liminality? Throughout Middle Passage, there is a sustained examination of issues related to ethnic/racial identity, whether “White” or “Black,” “pure bred” or mixed race Creoles, “American” or “African,” etc.
  • Is “race” biological? Cultural? Social? Is it a useful category? Why or why not?
  • In what ways have attitudes toward race changed since the mid-nineteenth century? In what ways have attitudes remained the same?

  1. Union and Transcendence of Opposites

Johnson’s work frequently draws upon Eastern philosophy, and in this respect, Middle Passage is no exception. An appreciation of duality is central to many Eastern approaches to understanding the role complementary opposites (e.g., male/female, free/enslaved) play in shaping our lives and the universe we inhabit. When reading, be attentive to these dualist couplings of seeming opposites.

  • Consider the opposition of shore and sea in the novel and the qualities that Johnson attaches to each. Why does Calhoun, who seeks freedom on the sea, long for “solid ground” (p. 204) at the novel’s end?
  • What other oppositional pairings can you find? Are any transcended? If so, how?
  1. Quest

American literature is filled with men and boys who leave the restrictions of society behind to seek a new, free life on the untamed frontier. In many respects, men of the sea have much in common with the rugged frontiersmen who followed the dictate “Go West, Young Man” in seeking both their fortune and freedom.

  • How does Rutherford Calhoun’s sea tale follow the pattern of such mythic American quests?
  • Is the sea, like the frontier, a place to test his masculinity? (See p. 41) Does he successfully leave the past behind and stage his own rebirth? Rutherford Calhoun also observes at one point that there was an exaggerated sense of “manhood” on shipboard, one developed in the absence of women, who are said to be a civilizing influence. This conception of ship life seems to suggest that the sea is an antidote to the weakness of “civilization and urban life,” which is viewed as feminine.
  • Do you agree that men are truly wild and women truly civilized? Why or why not?
  • How is this dynamic played out in the relationship between Rutherford Calhoun and Isadora Bailey.
  1. Historical Issues

Johnson’s Middle Passage is a work of fiction rather than historical scholarship. As such, creative license is taken with the historical setting in which the book’s narrative is situated. One example of such license is the author’s inclusion of anachronisms in the story he tells. An anachronism is something (or someone) that is historically out of place, such as a microwave in a movie set during the American Revolution. There are many anachronisms, most far less obvious than the microwave, in Johnson’s Middle Passage. There is, for instance, a mention of the Piltdown Man, an archeological hoax perpetuated in the early twentieth century, long after the time in which Johnson’s narrative is set.

  • When you notice an anachronism, mark it, and as you read the book, try to come up with some possible reasons as to why an author would intentionally insert them into his story. In addition to inserting anachronisms into his tale, Johnson also invents people, places, and things that never existed in any historical context. The Almuseri, for example, are a fictional tribe. They are described as an ancient people of achievements when Europe was still embryonic, the repository of the achievements of all on the continent who had gone on before. There is also mention of “headhunting natives” residing near Bangalang (p. 44). The inclusion of such nonhistorical inventions may be used to serve a large literary purpose.
  • What aspects of the author’s portrait of the African background are least accurate?
  • What aspects are more accurate?

Customer Reviews

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Middle Passage 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this book and didn't want to finish it....I highly recommend it to anyone seeking some insight into the psyche of pirates that sailed on the slaveships during 'the slave trade'. I loved the character, Rutherfod Calhoun, such an appropriate name for a jive turkey uncle tom type of brother of the 1800's. I liked to say that he did his thing as many of us who 'pass' do today. I respect the author's attempt at showing the greed that drove the 'civilized' white men to those demonic acts in regard to procuring sacred artifacts, human chattel and destroying cultures to build his world. This tale was humorously told with pride, and there are many lessons to be learned within its text. I loved it!! To Mr. Charles Johnson I'd like to say Thank You So Much and Speak On Brother Speak On....Bravo!!!!
RoseCityReader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Middle Passage by Charles Johnson won the 1990 National Book Award. I was reluctant to read it because I thought it was going to be too depressing and preachy. It was depressing at times, but it was also, well . . . goofy. Very engrossing, even exciting, but a little haphazard. It has a ne¿er-do-well hero, multiple plots, and exciting adventures -- a real sea yarn. I could not get my brain around the notion that the narrator knew about and referred to things that didn¿t happen until decades after the story takes place (he mentions things like time zones and squeegees that didn¿t exist in 1830, for example, not to mention philosophical and scientific theories that didn¿t develop until much later, such as evolution). But once I decided to let that all flow over me, I enjoyed the book. It certainly packs a lot into its 206 pages.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a good book but at time hard to understand because of the sailor talk. The lessons in the book great points about life. Things most people can find similar to they life. i think it ended to soon.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I love the detailed events that take place. great story. I didnt want to put the book down once i began reading it. It was required reading for humanities class i took.
Guest More than 1 year ago
i really like middle passage by charles Johnson. i like the way he started the book with his mistakes in life and ended it with a life lesson he learned. i recommed people to read this book because it makes you think about your life and how you live it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
he main character, Rutherford Calhoun, is an educated slave, but perhaps more importantly a cad and a coward. In many ways Rutherford is a parallel character to Harry Flashman in George McDonald Fraser's Flashman series. The main difference is that Rutherford is that not only does Rutherfors not think much of himself, but either do others. (Flashman, the bully from Tom Brown's School Days, has a military reputation, much of which emanated from his failures as a person and a leader.) Indeed, both characters--Calhoun and Flashman--probably partially derive from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. In any case, if you don't worry much about the apparent writing eloquence of an ex-slave, you will be treated to a treat. But do remember that the book is telling a story and not about the trials and tribulations of a former slave. Middle Passage is simply an entertaining, upbeat, and fast-paced read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was great. If you want realistic,yet exciting and suspensful adventure, read it. If you want a down to earth funny real character that I'm sure you can relate to, read it. It's not just a book about the horrors of the middle passage, its a book about a guy who wants figure out if he's worth anything in a world where all the odds are against him. Rutherford Calhoun was a great satirical narrorator who you'll immediately fall in love with. If you read this you wont regreat it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Thoroughly intriguing from start to finish, Highly Insightful with its many Life Lessons filtering through every other page, Philisophically endowed with avenues of diverse thought,Historically Acurate, Dramatically Captivating, Even Comedic at times ,Taking the reader through a vast tapastry of sincere intrigue, as the main character goes on an unpredicable journey of self discovery, Amidst the many focal points through out this Novel I found myself not only entertained, but educated as well, in the many references of other great historical figures, literary master pieces, and world events.....Truly a Must Read...........Charles Johnson, my brother you are to be commended,continue to grow in the knowledge of capturing the essence of a true author, and continue to inspire aspiring writers such as myself
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought that this book was pretty good. It had it's boring parts but overall it was pretty good.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I admit that Middle Passage has its improbable, fantastic elements. But boring? This is one of the fastest, wittiest books I have read. The ending is contrived, and some of the dialogue sounds false, but Middle Passage is engaging, interesting, and deeply thoughtful, with fascinating characters and many sly allusions to reward the reader of Plato and Melville.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I can understand why there are no customer reviews of this really ambitious, badly written novel. Who would bother. Yet the 'commercial' review can not praise it enough. This might be an example of trying to sell something that a lot of readers may find limited. It is another underworld novel like Bodega Dreams and just as non-gelling. The characters try to be real and not just symbols and the author presents them as multi-dimensional, great. But then there are the coincidences, one right after the other, almost predictible. Also the strange box from the village, maybe a nod to King Kong? except its supernatural and leads nowhere. Sometimes badly written novels are called avant-garde to get them to sell. With a little more revision and sacrifice this could have turned into a fine third rate novel. Thank tou.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was not impressed with this book, it was an okay book but seemed like it lost something in the middle of the book and it was hard for me to hang on throughout the book. I did like how the book started with his (main character: Rutherford) mistakes and rounded it up in the end with a couple of things he had learned along the way. I believe Rutherford was a good character, but the book just needs more flash throughout the middle of the book. I wouldn't recommend this book, but if you have extra time on your hands and want a book to read then i would suggest it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really wanted to like this book. I couldn't wait to start reading it. And it WAS readible. On the whole, however, I think he failed at whatever it was he was trying to say. I also felt as though the ending was a little too pat.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought that this novel was one of the most horribly written pieces of all time. I had to be bound up and chained just to read this book. It's a mix of childish creativity and little thought. If I were you, I would buy all the copies of this book and burn them. I think Mr. Johnson is in the wrong profession.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I didnt read this book and im not going to. So whatever. Keep calm and listen to Avenged Sevenfold:)