- Whose Daughter is Johnnie? Revisionary Myth-making in Carolivia Herron’s Thereafter Johnnie
I see a greater and greater commitment among black women writers to understand self, multiplied in terms of the community, the community multiplied in terms of the nation, and the nation multiplied in terms of the world. You have to understand what your place as an individual is and the place of the person who is close to you. You have to understand the space between you before you can understand more complex or larger groups.—Alexis De Veaux
Carolivia Herron’s intriguing first novel, Thereafter Johnnie (1991), has earned high praise from such luminaries as Gloria Naylor, Henry Louis Gates, and Carlos Fuentes. Yet Barbara Christian, who also praises the novel, predicts that it will disturb feminists. The problem isn’t that Herron’s theme is incest, but rather that the daughter, Patricia Snowdon, is depicted as coldly destroying her middle-class African-American family—her mother, Camille, and her sisters, Cynthia Jane and Eva—in order to possess her father, John Christopher. Patricia also violently rejects an abortion which John Christopher, a surgeon, wants to perform; instead she chooses to give birth to the child of their incestuous union, a daughter whom she calls “Johnnie.” Although Johnnie is mute until age fourteen—a muteness that begins in infancy, when she witnesses the last incestuous act 1 —it is she who tells us of her origins: “And god said to Patricia, ‘your moment is ended. Before this birth all the ages of your people have longed for you, but from the moment the child is born, thereafter Johnnie is the soul of your nation.’ And so it was I was born once upon a time” (133). Named Kristen Dolores at birth, which means “‘she before whom Christ sorrowed,’ that is to say, Johnnie” (133), the child is the second coming prophesied in Revelations. If Christ sorrowed before her, then Kristen sorrows after him; hence, “thereafter Johnnie.”
As this act of naming indicates, and as critics have noted, Thereafter Johnnie is a complex novel, rich in allusions to myth and literature. Carlos Fuentes compares Herron’s tragic vision to Faulkner’s, and Gloria Naylor calls her the James Joyce of Afro-American and American literature. A fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library and at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, as well as director of the Epicenter for the Study of Comparative Epics at Harvard, Herron has drawn upon her prodigious knowledge to write Thereafter Johnnie. The novel is an “epic achievement,” Barbara Christian declares, with an epic structure “composed of 24 parts like Homer’s Odyssey [End Page 472] and [which] like it demonstrates that sex is religion is nation, that, to use a Freudian term, ‘family romance,’ is a nation’s soul” (“Epic Achievement” 6). Yet, as I shall demonstrate, the novel is not simply an epic, but a dialogized epic—that is, a multi-voiced historicized narrative—and it is not only a family romance, but a rewriting of the family romance. As Christian says, “Herron brings to this work prodigious scholarship; yet this novel, first and foremost, is an extraordinary act of the imagination, of passion” (“Epic Achievement” 6). In this extraordinary act of imagination, Herron dramatizes father-daughter incest as the curse of slavery, but in their fulfillment of the curse, the Snowdon family plants the seed of a new nation, a mother-country.
The many allusions to patriarchal myths in Thereafter Johnnie may initially identify Carolivia as a daughter of European myth-making fathers, but I shall argue that Herron’s imaginative audacity is inherited from her African-American foremothers. Nevertheless, the novel might be described as a re-telling of the Biblical story of Lot—the story of a father seduced by his daughters—in the voices of his daughters. It is this aspect of the novel, the daughter’s complicity in incest, that makes Herron’s depiction of incest significantly different from those of Walker and Morrison, as Christian points out in her review:
What feminists may find disturbing in this novel is not the theme of incest per se. Herron figures different forms of...