Charles Johnson's Novels
Writing the American Palimpsest
Published by: Indiana University Press
- Published: June 2005
"This is truly a major contribution to African American literary criticism, and it promises to elevate Johnson to the place in the literary firmament he so richly deserves." —Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard University
Charles Johnson came of age during the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. His fiction bears the imprint of his formal training as a philosopher and his work as a journalist and cartoonist with a well-honed interest in political satire. Mentored by the American writer John Gardner, Johnson is preoccupied with questions of morality, which are informed by his knowledge of Continental and Asian philosophical traditions.
In this book, Rudolph Byrd examines Johnson's four novels—Faith and the Good Thing, Oxherding Tale, Middle Passage (National Book Award Winner), and Dreamer—under the rubric of philosophical black fiction, as art that interrogates experience. Byrd contends that Johnson suspends, shelves, and brackets all presuppositions regarding African American life. This bracketing accomplished, the African American experience becomes a pure field of appearances within two poles: consciousness and the people or phenomena to which it is related.
Johnson's principal themes are identity and liberation. Intent upon the liberation of perception, for the reader and the writer, Johnson's fiction aims at "whole sight," encompassing a plurality of meanings across a symbolic geography of forms, texts, and traditions from within the matrix of African American life and culture. And like a palimpsest, Johnson's texts contain multiple layers of meaning of disparate origins imprinted over time with varying degrees of visibility and significance.
Charles Johnson's Novels will appeal to fans of the writer's work, but it also will serve as a helpful guide for readers newly introduced to this brilliant contemporary American writer.
1. Faith and the Good Thing: What Is the Nature of the Good?
2. Oxherding Tale: Slavery and the Wheel of Desire
3. Middle Passage: What Is the Nature of Freedom?
4. Dreamer: "If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?"
Recent works on the work of Charles Johnson are not lacking, but Byrd's focus is slightly different. His use of the term palimpsest explains the basis for his study. That term also serves as a master metaphor that functions as an ordering and stabilizing linguistic presence in Johnson's complex fictional universe and functions in Johnson's novels in the same manner that Du Bois used the master metaphor of the veil. Asserting that Johnson's protagonists constitute a point of entry into a discourse on race as a social construction, Byrd (Emory Univ.) focuses exclusively on the ways in which Johnson experiments with the genre of the novel. In Faith and the Good Thing, Oxherding Tale, Middle Passage, and Dreamer, Johnson provides a definition of philosophical black fiction that over time increases in both scope and complexity. Byrd argues that Oxherding Tale is a mediation on slavery and enlightenment in which Johnson moves between genres and between schools of Eastern philosophies, and that Middle Passage is a work of historical fiction, a philosophical novel rooted in the past. Although this work has a different focus, Byrd considers many of the same philosophical influences that other critics have already noted. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper—division undergraduates through faculty. —B. Taylo~Thompson
Byrd focuses exclusively on the ways in which Johnson experiments with the genre of the novel. . . . Recommended.~Choice