Charles Johnson’s “Middle Passage” Speaks to the Present Times

Just finished reading Charles Johnson’s 1990 novel, Middle Passage, and I’m wishing it had been considered mandatory high school reading for me.

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Well, by 1990 I was already in college, but in my fantasy I wish to have read this novel in my high school English class my junior or senior year. First of all, it would have prevented me from graduating high school without knowing what the term “The Middle Passage” meant re slavery – something I’m ashamed to acknowledge. (I didn’t learn the term until I was in my 20s.) 

The novel won the National Book Award, and the NYT Book Review blurb on the back of my paperback edition states, “A novel in the honorable tradition of Billy Budd and Moby Dick . . . heroic in proportion . . . fiction that hooks into the mind.” I agree with all of that (though I’ve never read Moby Dick and don’t plan to).

A bit over 200 pages, Johnson’s novel is told in first person in the form of a series of 8 journal (or ship’s log) entries over the course of the summer of 1830. Our narrator and anti-hero is Rutherford Calhoun, a 20-something freed former slave living (and committed to little more than partying) in New Orleans. Rutherford was born into slavery and he and his brother were the slaves of a man named Reverend Peleg Chandler, whom Rutherford says was morally against slavery and thus arranged for the manumission of his slaves just before his death (why is it that so many of the white men we hear about who had slaves but opposed slavery only granted their slaves freedom upon their death – I mean, if they really found slavery morally repugnant… right?)

In any case, our narrator describes Chandler this way:

“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 Martin de Porres – or, for that matter, my brother Jackson.”

We later learn of the many ways in which Rutherford resents his brother Jackson, who was constantly being praised by the Reverend/Master while Rutherford was being admonished.

One of the running themes throughout the novel involves Rutherford’s grudge against his brother, a man of high moral character, idealism, and devotion to Chandler. And Rutherford candidly admits that his brother is and has always been selfless, high-minded, and good in ways that he himself has not. Rutherford tells of his lifelong compulsion to steal things and to tell lies, though he also defends those habits as part of the way in which many slaves survived and navigated their horrible circumstances. These parts of Rutherford’s character cast him into the role of a classic trickster figure, though in this particular story the trickster also finds himself confronted with the limits of how far being a trickster can serve a person who seeks escape from his own moral accountability.

In addition to being a New Orleans playboy, Rutherford is a young man with an advanced education, having read widely across the Western cannon, including works of philosophy and religion, as well as the sciences. Chandler was his teacher, and the log entries we read in this novel are the writings of a 19th century man of letters. He is also a self-admitted gambling addict, womanizer, and cynic, and his adventure story begins with a desperate effort on his part to escape having to marry a woman named Isadora Bailey. Here’s how he describes her:

“[She was] not a girl to tell your friends about, but one reassuring to be with because she had an inner brilliance, an intelligence and clarity of spirit that overwhelmed me. Generally she spoke in choriambs and iambs when she was relaxed, which created a kind of dimetrical music to her speech. Did I love Isadora? Really, I couldn’t say. I’d always felt people fell in love as they might fall into a hole; it was something I thought a smart man avoided.”

Isadora, who wants to reform Rutherford, finally takes a drastic step towards that goal and in so doing sets the story in motion. She meets with a Creole mafioso who has been hunting for Rutherford in order to collect on his massive debts, and she strikes a deal with the crime boss: she will pay off his debts if he forces Rutherford to marry her. The mobster’s thug nabs Rutherford and hauls him to his boss, and Rutherford is given the ultimatum – show up the next day for the wedding or be killed.

In desperation, Rutherford heads to the port of New Orleans and stows away on a ship called the Republic, hiding in one of the life boats under a tarp. (It’s a bit more complicated than that, but close enough for this synopsis.) After the ship has hit the high seas, he is discovered and ends up being assigned to work as assistant to the cook. And, about this time, he discovers that the Republic is a slave ship, headed to the west coast of Africa to pick up, along with various metals, spices, and other objects of trade, a group of Africans belonging to the Allmuseri people, who apparently fetch a high price at market. (Note: although the U.S. outlawed the importation of new slaves in 1807, the practice continued and the law was loosely enforced. Additional note: the Allmuseri are a fictional tribe and Charles Johnson describes how he came up with them in his fiction here.)

Image result for charles johnson middle passage
Charles Johnson

The novel dispenses quickly with the journey to Africa, and the bulk of the story centers on the “hero’s long journey home.” Once in Africa, Rutherford is horrified by the cruelty and inhumanity the slave traders and the ship’s crew show to the Allmuseri captives, but he can’t bring himself to intervene or attempt to sabotage the mission of the Republic. Through most of the novel, Rutherford describes the strangeness of being a free black person aboard ship and assisting in the slavers’ work. In Rutherford, Johnson has created one of the most compelling and emotionally confusing protagonists I’ve ever encountered as a reader.

As the journey home moves forward, the crew faces a series of crises, life-threatening challenges, and other obstacles, but unlike some famed heroes of ancient Western literature who triumph over these obstacles on the long journey home, Rutherford repeatedly does whatever he needs to do to protect himself, and more than once he finds himself in situations in which he betrays his own conscience under pressure. Johnson has given us a genuine anti-hero – someone who is a pleasure to listen to as he tells us his tale, but who is also morally and politically ambiguous (or flat out disappointing) throughout. Rutherford sometimes makes us laugh, sometimes moves us, and sometimes makes us cringe as he demonstrates courage and empathy one minute, cowardice and panic the next.

The book is flat out brilliant.

Barbara Z. Thaden writes, “In Middle Passage, Johnson incorporates the plot structure and themes of genres such as the epic, the romance, the sea story, and the slave narrative…” [1] Yes! As a work of postmodern American literature, it excels at drawing on classic and modern literary genres in ways that mine and undermine their conventions.

But it also speaks startlingly to things going on in the present, Trumpian moment. I was nearly knocked out of my chair by a passage in which the captain of the Republic, the “ruthless and comically bigoted”[2] Ebenezer Falcon, describes his fear of what might become of America if white supremacy and institutionalized racism lose control of the country. In a scene near the end of the story, in which Falcon has lost control of the ship to an Allmuseri mutiny and is seriously injured, he ends up face to face with Rutherford and says to him:

“…Is it the end of the world, Mr. Calhoun?”

“Sir?”

“It came to me as I lay here, a nightmare that this was the last hour of history. Nothing else explains it. The breakdown. I mean, how thorough it is, from top to bottom, like everything from ancient times to now, the civilized values and visions of high culture, have all gone to hell in fine old hamlets filled high with garbage, overrun with Mudmen and Jews, riddled with viral infections and venereal complaints that boggle the mind and cripple whole generations of white children who’ll be strangers, if not slaves, in their own country. I saw families killing each other. People were living in alleyways. Sexes and races were blurred. I saw riots in cities and on clippers. Then: the rise of Aztec religion and voodoo as credible spiritual practices for some, but people were still worshiping stage personalities too. On and on it came to me. Crazy as it seems, I saw a ship with a whole crew of women. Yellow men were buying up half of America. Hegel was spewing from the mouths of Hottentots. Gawd!” His whole body shuddered from stem to stern. “I was dreaming, wasn’t I?”

This is right from the white nationalist / Aryan-supremacist thought world. In 1990, this kind of neo-Nazi belief system was visible – I think that may have been the year David Duke was the Republican candidate for governor of Louisiana – but in 2019 we are living in a time of emboldened white nationalism and violence the likes of which I didn’t think possible just a few short years ago.

One of the themes Rutherford wrestles with in this book is how to reconcile his identity as a “Negro,” as a former slave, and as an American. Towards the end of the story, he says:

“If this weird, upside-down caricature of a country called America, if this land of refugees and former indentured servants, religious heretics and half-breeds, whoresons and fugitives – this cauldron of mongrels from all points on the compass – was all I could rightly call home, then aye: I was of it.”

This description of who Americans are is, of course, exactly what the captain of the Republic is afraid of, and in fact it is in such diversity and social reorganization along lines of respect for difference and equality before the law that America’s true greatness lies.

In working on this blog post, I’ve read some literary reviews of this book, and I’m realizing that the book may in fact be on a lot more curricula in English departments of colleges and maybe high schools than I realized when I started writing this post. And there are lots of other important themes in the book, including issues about the nature of the Self, the ways in which all people live in an utter interconnectedness that is often obscured by ego, and the ways in which individual people often are both victims and victimizers even within the systems of structural injustice that pervade societies. There are papers analyzing the ways this novel references Nathaniel Hawthorne’s works, and The Odyssey, and Frederick Douglass’s works. Yes – I’m sure that’s all there, and I’m not going to write about all of that – I’m really just getting started reading more about Charles Johnson and this novel.

I’ll close with one critical observation and one literary appreciation.

This novel ends with [SPOILER ALERT] Rutherford being reunited with Isadora. He is an utterly transformed man, and they end up getting married in a happy ending that I really did not see coming as I read this book. When Rutherford describes Isadora in the beginning of the book, he says a lot about how homely he finds her. She is plump, she has a nose the size of a doorknob, etc. When he finally reunites with her and it turns out she wants to be with him, Rutherford gushes about how she has lost about 50 pounds and how she now looks ravishing. It’s not that they end up together that bothered me – it’s the weird way in which I got the feeling the book wasn’t true to its own depth of perceptiveness about the human condition in making sure we knew that Rutherford gets to marry a not-fat hottie. Maybe there’s some aspect of irony or parody that I’m missing, but I remember feeling a bit let down by this one aspect.

Now for my literary appreciation. This book is packed with lavishly written sentences that include all kinds of period language, as well as nautical terms and slang from many different sub-cultures. One of my favorite passages takes place after a horrifying storm that has just started to die down a bit, but has scared absolutely everyone aboard ship to the core. Rutherford tells us:

“Without speaking, we all clapped our hands together as one company – thirty-two sopping-wet cutthroats black-toothed rakes traitors drunkards rapscallions thieves poltroons forgers clotpolls sots lobcocks sodomists prison escapees and debauchees simultaneously praying like choirboys, our heads tipped, begging forgiveness after this brush with death in Irish, Cockney, Spanish, and Hindi for a litany of collective sins so long I could not number them. Besides, I was too busy peeking through my fingers and promising God I would be good forever if He would quit playing games like that one.”

I’m grateful to Charles Johnson for this remarkable novel, and I look forward to re-reading it soon.

Endnotes

[1] Thaden, Barbara Z., “Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage as Historiographic Metafiction,” College English, Vol. 59, No. 7 (Nov., 1997), pp. 753-766. 

[2] Ibid.

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