- Charles Johnson in Context
An effective hybrid of literary criticism, literary biography, and cultural history, Linda Furgerson Selzer’s Charles Johnson in Context (2009) reads Johnson’s oeuvre alongside a varied and often overlooked range of philosophical and historical inter-texts. Her wide-ranging study achieves structural cohesion through her thesis that Johnson’s novelistic career may be charted as an intellectual and moral progression toward a unique and expansive vision of social justice. Specifically, she demonstrates how his experiences as a black doctoral student of philosophy in the 1960s and 1970s shaped his interest in the ethical and existential parameters of race, experience, and identity; how his engagement with Buddhist thought intensified during the 1980s and 1990s, and influenced his efforts to rearticulate ideals of African American enfranchisement in a post-civil rights America; and how his involvement in black public intellectual discourse, especially in regard to cosmopolitan thought and to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., enabled a teleological consolidation of the author’s intellectual, spiritual, and activist inclinations. Although the framework of the progress narrative occasionally harbors ideological blind spots, Charles Johnson in Context is thoroughly researched, theoretically savvy, and presented with considerable interdisciplinary dexterity. It is a welcome and substantial addition to the growing body of research on Johnson.
Positioning Johnson among the influential if “exceedingly small” group of academicians at the vanguard of establishing African American philosophy as a “legitimate” course of study (19), Selzer shows how his relationship to the Western philosophical tradition has been that of a skeptical devotee. On one hand, she identifies Johnson’s challenges in facing a discipline that reacted to integrationist efforts with institutional and epistemological hostility (49). On the other hand, she notes Johnson’s enduring, “deeply felt passion” for philosophical inquiry, and his eagerness to redress the “historical failure of the discipline to recognize that black experience participates in the universality traditionally required for philosophical legitimacy” (49, 38). In Selzer’s view, the author’s ambivalent attachment to the profession of philosophy is manifested not only in the thematic contours of his early fiction (in the short story “Alethia,” for example, the protagonist is a philosophy professor whose white colleagues appear to “have become skeptical about the practice of philosophy [End Page 295] at the precise moment when he entered the discipline” ), but also in his very turn to the literary arts as a necessary supplement to the “calcified discourse of academic philosophy” (47).
In Selzer’s view then, Johnson’s literary career emerges as an extension of, and as a critical supplement to, his philosophical training. Through creative writing, he continues his quest for a politically conscious, morally responsible, and intellectually rigorous vision of social citizenship. In parallel form, the figure of the knowledge quest that is at once embodied and metaphysical, particular and universal, becomes a prominent motif in Johnson’s writing. For example, in Johnson’s first novel Faith and the Good Thing, the eponymous protagonist is a questing figure driven by her mother’s deathbed injunction to find herself “a good thing.” Selzer shows that Faith’s concretized and thinly veiled considerations of Marx, Reich, Freud and Marcuse are patterned upon Johnson’s own intellectual progression. Through thorough and accessible readings of Marx (and others) as placed alongside Johnson’s fiction and nonfiction, she demonstrates how Marxism provides a compelling diagnostic tool for the ills that Faith and her acquaintances suffer. The task of accessing the “good,” however, requires a creative energy that exceeds the diagnostic function, and it is through the protagonist’s recognition of the impulse toward “plenitude” that the novel finally advocates artistry as a necessary supplement to (critical Marxist) philosophy(96). Selzer skillfully connects Faith’s teleological reclamation of “an aesthetic orientation to the world” to Johnson’s intensifying “faith in fiction,” both of which implicitly figure the “good” as a mindful, imaginative, and generative way of life (93).
Johnson’s second novel, Oxherding Tale, also takes shape as a quest narrative, though here he explores the creative ideal through a framework of Eastern thought...