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Middle Passage ()

National Book Award Winners (1990)

This 1990 National Book Award Winner won comparisons to Moby Dick & other classics of American literature. However, after a promising start, I thought the book tailed off into pseudo-mystic blather. I first read it several years ago & argued with Andrew Geller about it's merits--I vastly preferred Barry Unsworth's Booker Prize winning Sacred Hunger. But, finding it for $1 at the local library book sale, I decided to give it another shot. I still think it's pretty seriously flawed.

Rutherford Calhoun is a recently freed slave in 1830 New Orleans. Deeply in debt to a local gangster, he is about to be forced into marriage with his prissy schoolteacher girlfriend, so he sneaks aboard an outbound ship, The Republic.  This clever escape appears less so when he discovers that the ship is a slaver headed to Africa & the captain of the ship is Ebenezer Falcon, a megalomaniacal dwarf. Falcon is such a viscious taskmaster (he's a blatant rip-off of Ahab, hence the Moby Dick comparisons) that his crew teeters on the brink of mutiny and, shortly, the cargo of slaves begins to plan an insurrection too. Calhoun is trapped in the middle of the three parties, the captain makes him a spy, the crew wants his help for the mutiny & the slaves warn him about their plans.

So far so good, but then Johnson introduces another element. It seems that, along with the cargo of slaves, the ship has taken an African tribal god aboard.  Falcon will be able to sell the god for an exorbitant amount in the States.  But the god has other ideas & the ship is soon rocked by unnatural storms & crewmen are being driven crazy and then all hell breaks loose when the Almusari tribesmen take over the ship.

Rather than adding a layer of spiritual tension or bringing some type of mystic depth to the novel, I found the whole god shtick pretty annoying. It also sidetracks the book & I didn't think it ever really got back on the beam.

Ultimately, I found that Johnson took what was set up to be a rousing adventure & freighted it with too much mumbo jumbo.


Grade: (C)


Book-related and General Links:
    -INTERVIEW: The Human Dimension   An interview with writer-philosopher Charles Johnson (Charles Mudede, Real Change)
    -INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Charles Johnson:  The National Book Foundation presents a conversation with National Book Award Winner Charles Johnson, author of Middle Passage (interview by Diane Osen, Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of  Ten Indians By Madison Smartt Bell  Karate Kids (Charles Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE BLUE DEVILS OF NADA A Contemporary American Approach to Aesthetic Statement. By Albert Murray (Charles Johnson, NY times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of   INDEPENDENCE DAY By Richard Ford  (Charles Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of HEROISM AND THE BLACK INTELLECTUAL Ralph Ellison, Politics, and Afro-American Intellectual Life. By Jerry Gafio Watts   (Charles Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of   MILLROY THE MAGICIAN By Paul Theroux  (Charles Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  LURE AND LOATHING Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation. Edited by Gerald Early   (Charles Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of   MEMORIES OF THE FORD ADMINISTRATION By John Updike  (Charles Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of   IN MY FATHER'S HOUSE Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. By Kwame Anthony Appiah  (Charles Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of   SIGNALS OF DISTRESS By Jim Crace  (Charles Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
    -Charles Johnson Award for Poetry and Fiction (SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY CARBONDALE)
    -Deep impact  Seattle novelist Charles Johnson, winner of a MacArthur "genius" grant, is a philosopher at heart (Ellen Emry Heltzel, The Oregonian)
    -Exploring Amistad from Mystic Seaport
    -Slave Trade Timeline (From Mystic Seaport)
    -ARTICLE: on 1990 National Book Award for Middle Passage: Ideology Said to Split Book-Award Jurors (Roger Cohen, NY Times)

    -Charles Johnson: Fictionalizing King (Seattle Times)
    -REVIEW: of Dreamer By Charles Johnson (Dennis McFarland, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Writer boldly attempts to inhabit King's mind (Donn Fry, Seattle Times)
    -REVIEW: (Denver Post)
    -REVIEW: A fictionalized Dr. King confronts his dark double  (Farah Jasmine Griffin for The
Philadelphia Inquirer)
    -REVIEW: Dreamer: Martin Luther King's evil twin (Meg Laughlin, The Miami Herald)
    -REVIEW: Recalling King's dream in the days of doubt (Andy Solomon, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW: Garry Wills: The Long Voyage Home, NY Review of Books
        Middle Passage by Charles Johnson
    -REVIEW: of MIDDLE PASSAGE By Charles Johnson (Thomas Keneally, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Middle Passage Charles Johnson's Tale Of Slaving, Seafaring And Philosophizing (ELEANOR BLAU, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: Edmund S. Morgan: The Big American Crime, NY Review of Books
        Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America by Ira Berlin
        Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry
        Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery
        Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery produced by WGBH
        Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery by Charles Johnson, Patricia Smith
    -The docu-novel: The author of "Bellefleur" selects five great "nonfiction novels." (Joyce Carol Oates, Salon)
    -ESSAY: OMNIVIEWS: BIFURCATIONS & THE AGE OF NICHE (Jeff Bockman, Publisher and Editor, Literal Latté)