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Charles Johnson's Novels

Writing the American Palimpsest

Rudolph P. Byrd

Publication Year: 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.

Published by: Indiana University Press

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p. xi-xi

I wish to express my gratitude to the following friends and colleagues for their encouragement, and support in the writing of this book: Maximilian Aue, Richard A. Benson, Kimberly Benston, Valerie A. Boyd, Jacqueline Nassy Brown, Randall Burkett, John F. Callahan, Clayborne Carson, Ayoka Chinzera, Johnnetta B. Cole, Lydia...

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pp. 1-10

I wish to begin this examination of the art and imagination of Charles Johnson with an observation by Stuart Hall concerning the intellectual labor that certain types of metaphors are able to perform by virtue of their rather distinctive qualities. In a memorial lecture delivered at the University of Sussex in 1993, Hall writes of what he terms “metaphors of transformation,” which he maintains must perform at least two functions.1 The first function...

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1. Faith and the Good Thing: What is the Nature of the Good?

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pp. 11-60

In one sense, a writer’s first novel is a dialogue in which he or she tests and explores many of the themes and questions that will be revisited in subsequent novels. Often the writer will return to these defining preoccupations because he or she may feel that these aspects were not endowed with the depth and beauty...

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2. Oxherding Tale: Slavery and the Wheel of Desire

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pp. 61-101

Johnson’s meditation on bondage and enlightenment unfolds, with all its force and beauty, on a southern landscape. The setting for Oxherding Tale (1982), Johnson’s second novel, is Spartanburg, South Carolina. Composed between 1975 and 1980, Oxherding Tale was originally entitled The Last Liberation. In its present incarnation, Johnson describes...

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3. Middle Passage: What is the Nature of Freedom?

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pp. 102-143

The third novel in a corpus of four, Middle Passage established Johnson as a national and international figure in letters, and earned him the National Book Award for Fiction in 1990: he was the first African American male author so honored since Ralph Ellison was awarded this prize for his first novel, Invisible Man (1952). This fortuitous event links two writers who...

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4. Dreamer: "If Thou Doest Well, Shalt Thou not be Accepted?"

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pp. 144-192

In Dreamer, Johnson continues to explore a range of ontological and moral questions. Dreamer is a deeply philosophical novel that, like its predecessors Oxherding Tale and Middle Passage, is rooted in the past. In this instance, the past is not Spartanburg, South Carolina, of the 1840s, nor New Orleans of the 1830s. In Dreamer, all thoughts and actions are grounded in...

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pp. 193-197

While Johnson’s artistic project called philosophical black fiction has expanded significantly what he terms “the metaphysical wing” in African American literature, one subtext and unexpected outcome of this ambitious project is an implicit critique of the tradition of racial reasoning that has stained the discipline of philosophy. This tradition achieved its apex...


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pp. 199-212


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pp. 213-215

E-ISBN-13: 9780253111203
E-ISBN-10: 025311120X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253345646

Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2005