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Texas Studies in Literature and Language 45.4 (2003) 375-390

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Charles Johnson's Middle Passage:
Fictionalizing History and Historicizing Fiction

Marc Steinberg

Charles Johnson's Middle Passage owes much to contemporary and postmodern themes and techniques, as it asks us to reconsider any preconceived notions we might have of identity, history, and historical accuracy. But the novel can also be placed in the slave narrative tradition, a tradition that concerns individual growth in spite of tremendous odds and contains an explicit political agenda. However, after reading the novel, one wonders to what extent the story's lead character, Rutherford Calhoun, does grow, does develop into a different, changed, and, assumedly, better person, and, furthermore, to what end is Johnson's political commentary concerning slavery, freedom, and the contemporary status of African American men and women. Johnson radically rewrites the traditional slave narrative, filling in a number of interpersonal, philosophical gaps whose absences are evident in the originals. His focus is varied, with interests in relationships, home, narration, and revision. He especially focuses on the veracity of written history, the connections and distinctions between what is written and what has been experienced. He demonstrates how slippery the written document can be and how it might readily be re-inscribed and overwritten for positive or sinister ends. Johnson is also profoundly interested in the nature of writing/
creating/producing. By fictionalizing a historical event, he suggests that history, once it takes form as words, can be viewed as a fiction (something which might or might not contain truths and omissions).

Unlike many other contemporary writers, then, Johnson's interest goes beyond recovering history, for he demonstrates that by fictionalizing historical events, he can assume power over them. Hence, he demonstrates that history is fiction. Johnson apparently believes that by producing a fiction that looks like "truth" (the novel), he can "overwrite" those historical fictions that look like truth (the classic slave narratives). Just as Calhoun overwrites the captain's logbook, Johnson overwrites the tradition of the slave narrative and historical writing about slavery that claims to be "true." [End Page 375]

One way in which Johnson revises this tradition is through an understanding of the historical "self" and the historical text. His comments on intersubjectivity, in this regard, are very revealing. Many of the critical responses to Johnson's novel have focused on the matter of intersubjectivity; perhaps this is because many of Johnson's own comments in interviews and critical writings have focused on this. In his work, Johnson has shown great interest in debunking notions of racial and cultural difference; we are, essentially, and in spite of any apparent differences, intimately connected with one another and with one another's ancestors. In his critical prose study Being and Race, Johnson claims that "anyone knowledgeable about genetics . . . can show you that if you go back 50 generations in the life of any person, he or she shares a common ancestor with every other person on this planet. None of us can be less closely related than 50th cousins. 'Race' dissolves when we trace the gene back to A.D. 700" (43). Johnson later poetically notes that "if we go deeply enough into a relative perspective, black or white, male or female, we encounter the transcendence of relativism" (44). The phrase, logically explored, suggests that since all beings are not too far removed, all human action and interaction are connected. A ripple in the wave, you might say, affects the whole body of water. 1 The same notion of connectedness holds true for texts, as well, for each text comments on its predecessors and is, in turn, concurrently shaped by its predecessors. Johnson therefore tries not to simply write a slave-like narrative, but rather to open up his novel to all other slave narratives and texts (hence, the novel's reliance on literary, historical, and philosophical allusion and the incorporation of characters from Herman Melville's novella, "Benito Cereno"). In the novel, text and character emerge as a process of consciousness-building and meta-awareness. 2...


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