Authors: Charles Johnson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and short-story writer

Identity: African American

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Faith and the Good Thing, 1974

Oxherding Tale, 1982

Middle Passage, 1990

Dreamer, 1998

Short Fiction:

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, 1986

Soulcatcher, and Other Stories: Twelve Powerful Tales About Slavery, 2001

Teleplays:

Charlie Smith and the Fritter Tree, 1978

Booker, 1984

The Green Belt, 1996

Nonfiction:

Black Humor, 1970 (cartoons and drawings)

Half-Past Nation Time, 1972 (cartoons and drawings)

Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970, 1988

Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery, 1998 (with Patricia Smith)

I Call Myself an Artist: Writings by and About Charles Johnson, 1999 (Rudolph P. Byrd, editor)

King: The Photobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., 2000 (photographs by Bob Adelman)

Turning the Wheel: Essays on Writing and Buddhism, 2003

Edited Text:

Black Men Speaking, 1997 (with John McCluskey, Jr.)

Biography

Charles Richard Johnson has played a leading role in expanding the boundaries of African American literature. Johnson has observed that before the 1970’s black fiction was characterized by an “overwhelming technical and thematic one-dimensionality.” In exploring new directions, Johnson has shown that although it is important to identify and work within the tradition of black American literature, writers must not be constrained by preconceptions that limit art to social realism.{$I[AN]9810001070}{$I[A]Johnson, Charles}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Johnson, Charles}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Johnson, Charles}{$I[tim]1948;Johnson, Charles}

Johnson began to draw at an early age. His father disapproved of a career in commercial art, but the cartoonist and writer Lawrence Lariar gave Johnson support and guidance and helped him to realize his ambitions; at the age of seventeen, Johnson published his first drawing. When Johnson entered Southern Illinois University in Carbondale he began to pursue journalism, though this study too eventually gave way to the fiction writing that began to preoccupy him. In 1970, at the age of twenty-two, Johnson published his first book of drawings, Black Humor, followed two years later by another book of drawings, Half-Past Nation Time. After graduating in 1971 Johnson again entered a new field, writing, coproducing, and hosting the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) television series Charlie’s Pad, which aired for fifty-two episodes. After Charlie’s Pad Johnson continued his relationship with television, but he continued to pursue his interests in other media as well.

While at work on an M.A. in philosophy at Southern Illinois University, for example, Johnson supported himself with photojournalist work in the Carbondale area. This was a prolific period for him, and he produced six novels in two short years under the guidance of his creative writing instructor, John Gardner. In later years he came to think that these early novels were, as he described it, “misery-filled protest stories about the sorry condition of being black in America.” At the time he was under the influence of writers such as James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and John A. Williams, struggling with the function of fiction and trying to apply his philosophical ideas to the black experience. Undoubtedly Gardner played a significant role in Johnson’s development. By the time Johnson presented Gardner with his novel Faith and the Good Thing, which was published in 1974, he had begun to weave together many elements that before had seemed distinct and separate.

In Faith and the Good Thing, Johnson uses the oral tradition of the folk fable, composing his novel as if it were to be spoken. Yet he is also reworking that traditional theme of movement from a rural to an urban world, a theme that had been important in the lives of black Americans since the beginning of the twentieth century. By the time his novel appeared, Johnson had married a fellow student, Joan New, and together they had moved to Stony Brook, New York, where Johnson began work at the State University of New York (SUNY) toward a Ph.D. in phenomenology and literary aesthetics. During this time he continued to write for television and wrote his first film script, a docudrama entitled Charlie Smith and the Fritter Tree. When he went to Texas to produce it, he met the actor Glynn Turman, and it was from watching Turman and his creative performances that Johnson shed the creative slump he believed he had been suffering since 1974. He decided that in fiction he must try to combine all the different aspects of the visual media, and that he would have to be director, producer, actor, stagehand, cameraman, gaffer, and key grip all at once. Upon his return to Stony Brook he began composing short stories.

By the time Johnson’s second novel, Oxherding Tale, was published, he had accepted a position as the director of the creative writing program at the University of Seattle; he left his dissertation at SUNY unfinished. Oxherding Tale, rather than concentrating on the aspects of a single character, as Faith and the Good Thing had done, centers on a group of characters. A contemporary version of the traditional slave narrative of such writers as Frederick Douglass, Oxherding Tale shows how Johnson continually reexamines the roots of his genre. Despite using a muted voice, the book is a dramatic monologue that relies on the fable as a frame for the narrative. Oxherding Tale represents a further step in the development of Johnson’s world of seemingly conflicting elements–reality, philosophy, and myth.

Johnson continued to work in different forms, including fiction and teleplays. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice collects his stories from 1977 to 1985, including the highly acclaimed “Exchange Value,” which appeared in an anthology of the best American short stories of 1982. In 1988 Johnson published his first work of literary criticism, Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970, in which he outlines the new directions taking shape in black American literature.

In 1990, Johnson entered the literary limelight with the publication Middle Passage, set in 1830. Johnson explores several aspects of African American experience through Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed slave stowing away on a slave ship to escape marriage, and through the ship’s “cargo,” captured members of the fictional Allmuseri tribe of wizards. Johnson charts Rutherford’s growth from a self-serving opportunist to a responsible man and adds a new dimension to the slave narrative tradition by creating a narrator who speaks in an intellectual voice. The novel intentionally evokes, and sometimes mocks, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and “Benito Cereno” and Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.), among others. It was honored with a National Book Award, making Johnson the first African American man to receive the prize since Ralph Ellison won for Invisible Man (1952).

Johnson’s fourth novel, Dreamer, begins during the summer of 1966 in the midst of the Chicago riots, the Civil Rights movement, and the Vietnam War and continues to the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis. The book is narrated a young civil rights worker accompanying Martin Luther King, Jr., while King’s thoughts and emotions are offered in italicized sections of the narrative.

In 2001, Johnson further enhanced his reputation with the publication of the short-story collection Soulcatcher. Subtitled Twelve Powerful Tales About Slavery, it presents stories of the effects and experience of slavery, each one based on historical fact–Martha Washington’s management of her slaves, a boy chained inside a slave ship, a lynching in Indiana, a hunter of escaped slaves searching a market in Boston, an early Quaker meeting exploring the idea of African resettlement, and the day after Emancipation.

BibliographyAfrican American Review 30, no. 4 (Winter, 1996). A special issue of the journal devoted to Johnson’s work. Most of the essays consider Johnson’s novels, but there are some references to the short fiction. The strength of the issue is the variety of viewpoints it presents, ranging from political assessments to philosophical excursions. Uneven but often informative.Byrd, Rudolph P. Charles Johnson’s Novels: Writing the American Palimpsest. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. A helpful guide for new readers of Charles Johnson, offering insight into his four novels.Byrd, Rudolph P., ed. I Call Myself an Artist: Writings by and About Charles Johnson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999. An intelligently chosen, eclectic collection of works by Charles Johnson, which includes an autobiographical essay and several essays explaining his aesthetic perspective and theories of literary composition. There are also two interviews with Johnson and an extensive section of critical discussions of Johnson’s work, including an essay by the editor on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which explains Johnson’s employment of the philosophical perspectives of Alfred North Whitehead.Coleman, J. W. “Charles Johnson’s Quest for Black Freedom in Oxherding Tale.” African American Review 29, no. 4 (Winter, 1995): 631-644.Connor, Marc C., and William R. Nash, eds. Charles Johnson: The Novelist as Philosopher. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. A close examination of Johnson’s fictional and philosophical writings and how they are connected. All of his works are discussed here, including essays and book reviews.Gleason, William. “The Liberation of Perception: Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale.” Black American Literature Forum 25 (Winter, 1991): 705-728. One of the most perceptive critiques of the spiritual dimension of Johnson’s writing, an important component often overlooked by other commentators.Johnson, Charles. “An Interview with Charles Johnson.” Interview by Charles H. Rowell. Callaloo 20 (Summer, 1997): 531-547. An insightful and wide-ranging interview in which Johnson comments on his early years as a political cartoonist and his hope for an emerging body of philosophical African American fiction. He notes the limitations of naturalism and stresses the critical importance of form in fiction, explaining how he deliberately imposes form on a novel or story.Little, Jonathan. Charles Johnson’s Spiritual Imagination. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997. A critical study of Johnson’s work, with a chapter on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, arguing that the short fiction, in contrast to novels like Oxherding Tale and Middle Passage, offers a pessimistic view of human existence, dwelling on the “nightmarish and destructive side of his (Johnson’s) integrative aesthetic and social vision.” The individual stories are approached with insight and are effectively related to Johnson’s other work. Little concludes the chapter with an assertion that “the short stories often resonate with more power, depth and ambiguity” than the longer books.Rowell, Charles H. “An Interview with Charles Johnson.” Callaloo 20 (Summer, 1997): 531-547. An insightful and wide-ranging interview in which Johnson comments on his early years as a political cartoonist and his hope for an emerging body of philosophical African American fiction. He notes the limitations of naturalism and stresses the critical importance of form in fiction, explaining how he deliberately imposes form on a novel or story.Scott, D. M. “Interrogating Identity: Appropriation and Transformation in Middle Passage.” African American Review 29, no. 4 (Winter, 1995): 645-655.Travis, M. A. “Beloved and Middle Passage: Race, Narrative, and the Critics’ Essentialism.” Narrative 2, no. 3 (October, 1994): 179-200.Ventura, Michael. “Voodoo and Subtler Powers.” The New York Times Book Review, March 30, 1986, 7. Ventura’s thoughtful essay contends that The Sorcerer’s Apprentice might best be understood as a “good short novel” in that each story works as a commentary or extension of the next or previous one. His sense of central themes and ongoing concerns is illuminating.
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