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Charles Johnson in Context

Linda Furgerson Selzer

Publication Year: 2009

Author of the National Book Award–winning novel Middle Passage, Charles Johnson belongs to a generation of writers who collectively raised African American literature to a new position of prominence during the late twentieth century. In this book, Linda Furgerson Selzer takes an interdisciplinary approach to Johnson’s major fiction, providing fresh insight into his work by placing it within a broad historical context. In addition to Middle Passage (1990), Selzer focuses on three other novels: Faith and the Good Thing (1974), Oxherding Tale (1982), and Dreamer (1998). She shows how these works reflect Johnson’s participation in the larger cultural projects of several significant but often overlooked groups—young black philosophers who challenged the dominant Anglo-American empiricist tradition during the 1960s and 1970s; black Buddhists of the post–civil rights era who sought to translate an ancient religious practice into an African American idiom; and black public intellectuals who attempted to revive a cosmopolitan social ethic during the 1990s. The cultural histories of each of these groups, Selzer argues, provide important contexts for understanding Johnson’s evolution as a novelist. In the academic experience of black students who entered philosophy programs during the turbulent 1960s, the spiritual concerns of black Buddhists who have only recently begun to speak more publicly about their faith, and the cultural issues surrounding the emergence of a new cohort of African American public intellectuals, we see the roots of the social, moral, and aesthetic vision that informs what some have described as Johnson’s “philosophical fiction.” Selzer’s probing analysis of the influence of each of these contexts not only enriches our understanding of Charles Johnson’s fiction, it also makes a broader contribution to the cultural history of African America during the past half century.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press


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Title page, copyright page

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p. vii


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pp. ix-x

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p. xi

I wish to thank the Africana Research Center of Penn State University for supporting my research with a generous travel grant. The College of the Liberal Arts and the Department of English at Penn State also provided helpful assistance. I owe a special debt of gratitude to Bernard Bell and Aldon Nielsen for their insightful comments on earlier versions of the entire manuscript...

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1 From Philosophy to Black Philosophical Fiction

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pp. 1-50

At one thought-provoking moment in Charles Johnson’s second novel, Oxherding Tale (1982), the protagonist, Andrew Hawkins, comes upon a wood carving of himself that has been sculpted by the master artisan Reb, the African American slave and descendant of the fictional Allmuseri tribe that so often figures creatively in Johnson’s fiction. As...

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2 From Marx to Marcuse in Faith and the Good Thing

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pp. 51-104

Charles Johnson’s first published novel, Faith and the Good Thing (1974), begins with the strange and remarkable death of Faith’s mother, Lavidia. Compulsively and somewhat mysteriously, Lavidia makes a count of each inhalation she takes, convinced that when she draws her...

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3 The Emergence of Black Dharma and Oxherding Tale

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pp. 105-156

In the mid-1990s Rosa Parks was asked to choose the single photograph that best epitomized her life for inclusion in a book titled Talking Pictures. The editors of the volume solicited photos from people they considered to be “the most interesting people of our era,” and they urged...

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4 The Rise of the New Black Intellectual and the Varieties of Cosmopolitanism in Middle Passage

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pp. 157-210

Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage (1990) entered the literary marketplace at the precise moment when several scholars who were prophesying the demise of the American public intellectual were in the process of being proved stunningly incorrect. In 1987 Russell Jacoby argued in his wellknown...

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5 The Return of the King and the Logic of Conversion in Dreamer

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pp. 211-254

By putting into play multiple forms of cosmopolitanism on board a single ship in Middle Passage, Johnson joins in the efforts of latetwentieth- and early-twenty-first-century thinkers to reconsider cosmopolitanism in ways that reclaim the normative force of universals while honoring...


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pp. 255-271


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pp. 273-291


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pp. 293-306

E-ISBN-13: 9781613761618
E-ISBN-10: 1613761619
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558496989
Print-ISBN-10: 155849698X

Page Count: 320
Illustrations: 5 illus.
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 794701561
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Charles Johnson in Context

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Subject Headings

  • Johnson, Charles Richard, 1948- -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • African Americans in literature.
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