Middle Passage is a novel by Charles Johnson first published in 1990. It is considered Johnson's masterpiece, and he won the National Book Award for it in 1990. Middle Passage is the coming of age story of a recently manumitted character by the name of Rutherford Calhoun. To escape a forced marriage he unwittingly stows away aboard a slave ship leaving New Orleans for the west coast of Africa.
The novel has a great deal of humor, philisophical speculation, social commentary on race relations, and reflections on what it means to establish a personal identity. The author is an acknowledged devotee of fellow Illinois writer John Gardner, a leading theorist on the post-modern movement in fiction. Johnson's novel is thus unequivocably post-modern. As all works in this traditiion do, it plays around with narrative conventions. Therefore, we see an African tribal god also captured and brought over on the slave ship. This god suffers from contradictions, like being so omnipotent he could create a rock so heavy he couldn't lift it. Nevertheless, Johnson avoids the excesses of many post-modern authors and never strays too far from his narrative. The novel stays on the main dilemma posed by the story line: on whose side is an African American employed to serve on a slave ship supposed to be? Jonson's novel is erudite, challenging, engaging, and thoroughly entertaining.
Nine journal entries
The story is told by the protagonist, Rutherford Calhoun, a first person narrator, who writes nine journal entries in order to tell the reader what is occurring. The entries could be titled as follows:
- Why Rutherford decides to stow away.
- Discovery. Meeting the crew and captain; earning a place on the ship; learning the purpose of the voyage.
- Picking up the African cargo.
- The return voyage; the captain befriends and confides in Rutherford.
- Trouble abrewing in terms of mutinies and insurrections; whose side is Rutherford on?
- The Africans take the ship.
- Rutherford accepts responsibilty for all lives and tries to save anyone remaining.
- The storm and the shipwreck.
- Rutherford's rescue and return to New Orleans.
Johnson's novel is worth reading, if for no other reason you will never read another quite like it. The horrors of the Middle Passage Africans suffered on their way to slavery are all included: the inhumane conditions, the tight-packing, and the whippings. However, this is not the primary focus of the novel. I believe Middle Passage is really more about the Middle Passage of Rutherford's journey to manhood after his manumission.