Review of Middle Passage, by Charles Johnson

Copyright © by Alex Sheremet, 2/25/10


  Although Middle Passage is one of the greatest novels ever written, it really wasn’t supposed to be, as Charles Johnson has the perfect set-up for dull PC bathos. The plot, the characters, and many of its ideas all imply cliché and utter failure in imitation of other failures. Just consider the synopsis and you’ll see what I mean. Rutherford Calhoun, a black New Orleans rascal and ex-slave, spends his days gambling, drinking, and accumulating debt. To avoid trouble and cut ties with his fat, religious, and pristine girlfriend, Isadora, he becomes a stowaway on what turns out to be a slave ship, the Republic. He has a transformative experience along the Middle Passage, returns home a changed man, defeats his enemies, and marries his now-slim and beautiful lover. It sounds disastrous, but it’s precisely how Johnson subverts these clichés and expectations that makes the novel so great. All details are calculated, the dialogue is rich and philosophical, and descriptions are full of humor, wit, and evocation appropriate to the scene and overall text. Nothing is forced or out of place. That Johnson veers so close to platitude and avoids it shows he’s conscious of what makes good writing. And that this is not Johnson’s first but second great novel (the first being Oxherding Tale) means he’s simply one of the best writers you’ll ever read.

  The only ‘truly’ (i.e., prototypically) dense and complex character in Middle Passage is Rutherford. And this is not criticism. I use the word ‘truly’ with hesitation because there’s more than one way to create compelling characters, much less compelling books which may or may not have prototypical characterization. Other characters, however, do not necessarily grow, at least not in Rutherford’s varied and ambiguous directions. Again, this is not criticism, for at the very least, other characters are great archetypes, as in Shakespeare’s tragedies, who are stand-ins for unique ideas and serve clever counterpoints to Rutherford, who is prototypical, in that he’s unique, interesting, likable, has complex motives and behavior, and grows. He’s extraordinarily observant and educated, his own ideas playing off of the archetypes’, all of which is far beyond what’s expected of a former slave. As he experiences his terrifying ordeal, he changes, subtly criticizing himself via juxtapositions of scene and dialogue even he isn’t aware of. For example, although he complains of Jackson’s (his brother) “betrayal,” it’s eventually revealed this was nothing more than convincing their ex-Master, Chandler, to share all property equally with the slaves, rather than giving it to the brothers, for Jackson, in a beautiful, philosophical, and quotable speech on property and ownership, argues they are educated, healthy, and thus need less:

I know Rutherford has thought about this too. But it don’t seem right to ask for myself. I could ask for land, but how could any man, even you, sir, own something like those trees outside? Or take that pitcher there. It’s a fine thing, sure it is now, but it kinda favors the quilts the womenfolk make, you know, the ones where everybody in the quarters adds a stitch or knits a flower, so the finished thing is greater’n any of them. Well, I been thinking on this, what ain’t like that? Nothing can stand by itself. Took a million years, I figure, for the copper and tin in that pitcher to come together as pewter. Took the sun, the seasons, the metalworker, his family and forebears, and the whole of Creation, seems to me, sir, to make that one pitcher. How can I say I own something like that?

  Even Chandler (a very minor character) is presented with some depth. Johnson does not fall for stereotypes and simple one-dimensional insights about his injustice as a slave-owner or his condescension, facts too obvious for Johnson to repeat, much less dwell on. Chandler, after all, is not presented sympathetically, but at the same time, he is correct: Rutherford, at that point, is petty and self-serving, a truth Johnson admits, despite implicitly criticizing Chandler’s religiously fueled condescension. It’s all the author’s empathy towards characters’ realism, and even the worst of them have my grudging respect. Again, it takes skill to manipulate things this way. But, it’s all anti-climactic, as Rutherford melodramatically peppers his conversations with having no kin and other pitiful comments, all of which is incongruently set against a slave mutiny, personal crises, and other far more important matters. Thus, by the time he tackles his own transformation, this melodrama takes on new depth as a snapshot of his former pettiness. In brief, these details (along with many others) pay off in the long run as you’re forced to re-examine bits of dialogue and plot over again. And even smaller details, like Rutherford being a thief, are given an intellectual air rarely applied to such, and by novel’s end Johnson fully integrates them into the thematic whole. As he breaks into Captain Falcon’s cabin, Rutherford notes:

Slipping away from my watch and into his room, easing his door shut with my fingertips, I felt the change come over me, a familiar, sensual tingle that came whenever I broke into someone's home, as if I were slipping inside another's soul. Everything must be done slowly, deliberately, first the breath coming deep from the belly, easily, as if the room itself were breathing, limbs light like hollow reeds, free of tension, all parts of me flowing as a single piece, for I had learned in Louisiana that in balletlike movements there could be no error of the body, no elbows cracking into chair arms in a stranger's space to give me away. Theft, if the truth be told, was the closest thing I knew to transcendence.

  There’s a lot to unpack here. Johnson, in such short space, not only characterizes Rutherford as an intellect and unorthodox, but offers compelling, well-writ description (break-ins as a “tingle,” a “breathing” room, theft as “transcendence”) and wraps the entire thing in a great philosophical aura, connecting it to many of the novel’s themes. It’s too easy to offer a drawling, dull exegesis on crime, society, etc., wrapped in fiction, but to do it so briefly, without pointless moralizing, and hinge it all on one long delicate sentence that rhythmically and sonorously mimics the “balletlike movements” of a thief, is talent.

  Captain Falcon, although not as deep as Rutherford, is nonetheless a great archetype and violates literary conventions. Although representing an ideal slave trader in his great intellect, curiosity, and unorthodox philosophical justifications of slavery, he’s also a paranoid dwarf with an inferiority complex, despite his outward shows of calm and bravado:

Though his legs measured less than those of his chart table, Captain Falcon had a shoulder span like that of Santos, and between this knot of monstrously and between this knot of monstrously developed deltoids and latissimus dorsi a long head rose with an explosion of hair so black his face seemed dead in contrast: eye sockets like anthracite furnaces, medieval lines more complex than tracery on his maps, a nose slightly to one side, and a great bulging forehead that looked harder than whalebone, but intelligent too -- a thinker’s brow, it was, the kind fantasy writers put on spacemen far ahead of us in science and philosophy.

  Falcon’s saving grace is not only his intellect, but also a subtle and almost counter-intuitive connection to the dregs of society, such as the slaves and crew. It’s a complexity that’s obvious as the novel progresses against Falcon’s dense ontological arguments, a curious juxtaposition since Falcon 1) never really grows, merely relating his past to reveal his strengths as a character, 2) propels Rutherford’s own development, 3) practically has an obsessive need for slavery, despite knowing better emotionally. Again, all of this is merely Johnson’s way of undermining stereotypes, for Falcon, no matter how evil, psychotic, or dislikable, nonetheless gets enough creative respect to become a complex human being. Granted, it’s not the complexity of a Rutherford, but serves a very different artistic purpose. And this is by necessity. After all, it’s part of the definition of an archetype -- not lesser, not greater art, but different, as long as the writer knows how to use the archetype. Johnson does, and by making Falcon -- the intellect, the white, muscular powerhouse who is nonetheless an ugly paranoid dwarf doomed to failure -- an ambiguous symbol of impotence, Falcon serves his greatest role as archetype in one of his last scenes. In a carefully crafted reminiscence, Falcon reveals not only his self-awareness as a dwarf, but confronts himself in the face of a rich, handsome, and tall slave trader, all external, seemingly superficial characteristics in the face of their mutual enterprise and wildly different abilities, that nonetheless dominate the conversation and power dynamics. Moreover, although Johnson is mostly characterizing Falcon, he is also describing the entire slave trade in an oblique way:

He let me talk -- get it -- ‘cause even though the lubber could barely write his name he didn’t have nothing to prove in this world. He could buy men such as myself with his pocket change. Buy beauty, if he couldn’t produce it. Buy truth, if he was too busy to think. Buy goodness, even, for what blessed thing on God’s earth don’t have its price? Who ain’t up for auction when it comes to it? Huh? Tell me that. All the while I gabbed, squirming in my seat beneath his family’s coat of arms (the head of a Negro), sipping hot coffee from a cup that kept shaking in my hands, he was just smiling and studying me. Not as one man studies his equal -- and I was more'n his equal on water or in the wilderness -- but the way I've seen Ahman-de-Bellah appraise blacks fresh from the bush. I did not like the feeling, Mr. Calhoun. Nor did I like him. I felt closer, if you must know, to the illiterate swabs and heathens I’d gone through hell with on ships and in the heart of stinking jungles.

  It’s a powerful revelation, partly because Johnson does not depend on any typical, hackneyed description of “being sold without ceremony,” a motif of slave narratives and texts so common that Johnson knew well enough to get close to its spirit, then stay clear of the conventions. Consider just one important part of Falcon’s speech. He dislikes being “appraised,” yet it’s a slave trader appraising another slave trader, as if Falcon is going to be sold without ceremony. It’s an unfamiliar image and far more powerful than if it were applied, as tradition has it, to slaves through similar verbiage. Moreover, the fact that Johnson, a black writer, gives such sympathetic qualities to the book’s villain, is even more evidence of Johnson’s ability to violate what’s acceptable in the writing world and especially in academia. And even if Falcon is not the book’s most complex character, he is by far the most interesting, often an important trait for villains to have as far back as the Aeneid.

  Others get creative treatment, too. Johnson invents an exotic African tribe, the Allmuseri, and charges them with great mystical qualities that play off of the novel’s philosophical strains. They are taken aboard the Republic and enslaved. Rutherford describes them thus:

As I’d heard, they were a remarkably old people. About them was the smell of old temples. Cities lost when Europe was embryonic. Looking at them, at their dark skin soft as black leather against knee-length gowns similar to Greek chitons, you felt they had run the full gamut of civilized choices, or played through every political and social possibility and now had nowhere to go. A tall people, larger even than the Watusi; their palms were blank, bearing no lines. No fingerprints... A people so incapable of abstraction no two instances of “hot” or “cold” was the same for them, this hot porridge today being so specific, unique, and bound to the present that it had only a nominal resemblance to the hot porridge of yesterday.

  Note, although mostly academic critics like Ashrad Rushdy (in “The Phenomenology of the Allmuseri”) consider the Allmuseri “a tribe who have developed their own concepts of history, identity, the performance of doubles, nonlinear and non-binary modes of mentation,” this is only partly and superficially true, and pretty much irrelevant to the text and its essential qualities, anyway. After all, all cultures, and not only those in the novel, develop “their own concepts of history, identity,” etc. -- the Allmuseri are not special in this regard. Also, the Allmuseri are a binary themselves (all the little systems of anti-duality forget about the internal contradictions they beget, such as the anti stuck in front of any such discussion), in that they’re different and obviously turned into an Other, simply because it makes for good art. Philosophically, Johnson is more after a “Unity” (it’s evident in any of his Buddhist writings, including Oxherding Tale), a “plurality” (and not infinity) of meanings, representing various interpretations of some single objective fact. In above passage, the fact is “culture,” with various manifestations (Greek chiton, the “full gamut” of civilizations, etc.). Thus, to Johnson, binaries do exist, but are merely part of one Heraclitean whole. To needlessly pin this vogue English Lit-speak on the author is merely imbuement and silly categorization.

  It’s all a technical objection, both a silly and important one, because dwelling on tiny quibbles misses the point. All of this typical, trendy academic jargon not only needlessly complicates simple phenomena, but inaccurately describes the novel and, above all, says superficial crap irrelevant to it and its quality. Just compare any accessible, well-written and down-to-earth review with 99% of the academic fluff out there, and tell me what enlightens, what’s more useful, and what will stick with you, as tools for understanding this and other novels. It’s much more fruitful, I think, to look at the creative aspects of the above passage. Just look at the characterization, for instance. Johnson at once is philosophically dense and didactic, but offsets this with good description, fluidity (it’s all very well connected to the novel as a whole), and individual manifestations of the tribe. As they act, speak, or betray their little mannerisms, you really feel their other-worldly nature. And given, to borrow the jargon, that the Allmuseri are on the other end of one binary, they are, in a way, objectified as an “Other” by Johnson and the entire crew of the Republic. It’s a deep implication, for Johnson’s saying that, despite popular and downright stupid ideas on the subject, such as those of PoMo, “Others” do exist, and shouldn’t be homogenized. It’s not all abstract pablum, of course, because look at where Johnson takes these ideas via artistic execution. This is what counts. He writes of the Allmuseri chief:

But Ngonyama, his shoulders relaxed, holding his breath for what seemed like hours before he started, fixed his eyes as if he could see through the pig, his right hand gripping the cook's blade as if it had grown right out of his wrist. It was eerie, you ask me. It seemed, suddenly, as though the galley slipped in time and took on a transparent feel, as if everything round us was made of glass. Ngonyama began to carve. He slipped metal through meat as if it wasn't there or, leastways, wasn't solid, without striking bone, and in a pattern I couldn't follow, without hacking or rending - doing no harm - the blade guided by, I think, a knack that favored the same touch I'd developed as a thief, which let me feel safe tumblers falling a fraction of a second before they dropped, tracing the invisible trellis of muscles, tendons, tissues, until the pig fell apart magically in his hands. He left no knife tracks. Not a trace. The cookroom was quiet as a tomb when he finished.

  The ideas, description, and subversion of clichés in this passage is incredible. Note how a rather banal event -- carving a pig -- is turned into a ritual which reveals Ngonyama’s obvious differences from the rest of the crew, Johnson’s philosophical take on the fluidity of barriers, and an evocative connection to Rutherford’s own sense of transcendence as a thief. Again, these two banal, typically non-intellectual facts are given a supremely philosophical spin as Johnson connects them to greater things within Middle Passage. And just look at the seeming cliché in the last line, “quiet as a tomb,” and what it says of Johnson’s talent. It’s an inverted cliché, since in most cases, “quiet as a tomb” is used in inappropriate or familiar settings: mere silence, no matter the context or source. But Johnson has Ngonyama go through a kind of death-ritual, peppered by magic, transformation, and the silent, absolute awe of its observers. Given the subtle undertones of death, as well as the “silence” of the ritual (via the magical lack of muscle, sinew, etc.), the phrase is not only appropriate and evocative, but forces you back into the text through a concrete image of finality. Johnson gives the cliché a new lease on life by understanding its creative limitations and finding a way around them.

  At end, some may point to the “fairy-tale” and “comic” dénouement, but this is simply poor reading. There is no real resolution. It is true Rutherford and Isadora marry, and are finally right for each other, but Rutherford can’t even have sex, much less think of the future in any concrete way, because of his experiences abroad. This is one inversion of the cliché -- the expected simply does not happen. Moreover, although you can point to specific ways Rutherford changes, it’s harder to pinpoint a real direction. In brief, his development is ambiguous as you can’t really verbalize an actual trajectory, except for the most obvious stuff. Sure, he’s probably less petty and materialistic, more willing to settle down, etc., but there’s so much in the novel I haven’t even touched, such as Rutherford’s magical confrontation with the Allmuseri god, his father, the implications of his friendships with Squibb, the Allmuseri, and the rest of the crew, and more, that has profound implications. And sure, Johnson uses stock elements, but it’s how he rearranges and reinterprets them, and the fact that they don’t lead to any tidy resolutions, that counts. Read this novel in combination with Oxherding Tale, and you’ll see familiar narratives in an original, much deeper light.


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