Middle passage

by Charles Richard Johnson

Hardcover, 1990




New York : Atheneum, 1990.


A freed slave escapes his bad debts in New Orleans by stowing away on a slave ship en route to Africa.

Media reviews

Both [Middle Passage and The Wizard of Oz] say so much about the illusions of our society and the freedom and disappointments in life; however, the one point that echoes the loudest to me is that Rutherford and Dorothy's experiences lead to self-discovery, which is always a good thing.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Dorritt
First, readers need to understand that this is not a narrative about the slave trade, any more than Moby Dick is about the whaling industry. Instead, it’s a rich and fascinating exploration of the human nature, class, race, religion, slavery, freedom, and – above all – the great American
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experiment … all couched in the lush seductive prose of a poet and scholar who has no compunction inviting philosophy, mythology, world literature, mathematics, and natural sciences to the party.

Though written over 30yrs ago, this story is also “woke” in ways that 1970s U.S. could never have appreciated and contains content that is unnervingly relevant to todays’ society. It’s almost as if Middle Passage has been sitting out there waiting for society to catch up with it.

Where to start? Perhaps with two of literature’s more fascinating characters: Rutherford Calhoun, a freed, African American bondsman and likeable rogue who finds himself unwittingly crewing a slave trading ship across the Middle Passage, and Captain Ebenezer Falcon, the larger-than-life, vain-glorious, sensualist, autodidact, goblin-like, scene-stealing captain of The Republic. Note the ship’s name, because on one level, this book is most definitely an exploration of the American Republic and the “Protestant ethic” upon which it is supposedly built. In both characters, Johnson cunningly juxtapositions all the things that we like to believe make Americans great – our work ethic, our self-taught genius, our unwavering faith in self-determination – with all the traits that simultaneously taint us: our unbound capitalist greed, our conviction of moral superiority. It’s no coincidence that the moment the ship (“parts of which are always being replaced, so that the ship that sets forth on the journey scarcely resembles the ship that arrives at the end of it” – get it?) finally flounders is when these two opposing forces become so incompatible that the whole system rips apart.

Or wait – maybe this is a book about human nature? Johnson suggests this when he has Falcon warn us in advance: “The sea does things to your head, Calhoun, terrible unravelings of belief that aren’t in a cultured man’s metaphysic.” (Moreover, Johnson adds a primitive God locked up in a box in the hold, doubling down on the meta- in metaphysics.) So it should come as no surprise that this is also an exploration of dual nature of humanity – our yearning for a collective utopia (“E Pluribus Unum – from many, one”) vs. our determined individualism; our celebration of peace as a virtue except – of course – for all those times when the price of peace is war. Is contentedness found in one or the other … or in accepting that there is a “Transcendental Fault” that undermines human nature – a deep crack in consciousness itself?

Or wait – maybe this is a book about slavery? A decent book club could spend the entire meeting just parsing the novel’s various views on racism – from the novel’s depiction of the Allmuseri as in many ways more civilized than the “civilization” set to enslave them (which, in turn, begs comparison with certain Native American cultures), to Falcon’s belief that “equal opportunity” is responsible for robbing blacks of the educational rigor they need to flourish, to Calhoun’s meditations on his own identity as a highly-educated, freed black American vs. the relationship he forms with Ngonyama and Baleka - there’s plenty of ground to cover.

But wait – are we sure this isn’t about politics? Because Falcon’s leadership dynamic – “Never explain; never apologize” has a sort of ripped-from-the-headlines feel about it, and there’s that scene where they use conditioning to train the ships’ dogs to loath the captain’s enemies, so that when the time comes, the captain knows he can always call on his dogs to faithfully protect him, regardless of morality … which reminds me of something ….

The truth, of course, is that the novel is all of these and more, all tied up in an unbelievably short, taut narrative stuffed with a cast of magnificently memorable grotesques, rousing sea adventure, outrageously funny anecdotes (dark but genuinely funny), madly creative set-pieces, and possibly some of the most vivid prose I’ve read in ages, efficient where it needs to be efficient (“Had [Cringle] been a woman … he’d be the kind who could do Leibnizian logic or Ptolemaic astronomy but hid the fact in order not to frighten off suitors; or, if a slave, one who could bend spoons with his mind but didn’t so white people wouldn’t get panicky”), funny where it needs to be funny (“Madame Marie Toulouse, a Creole who had spent her young womanhood as the mistress of first a banker, then a famous actor, a minister, and finally a mortician … [having] used the principle of ‘one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, and four to go.’”), and evocative where it needs to be evocative (“… sitting on the rain-leached pier in heavy, liquescent air, in shimmering light so soft and opalescent that sunlight could not fully pierce the fine erotic mist, limpid and luminous at disk …”).

Trust me, you won’t regret the time you spend reading this … or the time you then spend rereading it again and again …!
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LibraryThing member danconsiglio
Amazing! Pirate adventure + slave narrative + elder god straight out of Lovecraft shows up and breaks shit. Hells yeah!!! I stuff this book in every high school student's face who comes into my classroom and asks for something to read.
LibraryThing member RoseCityReader
Middle Passage by Charles Johnson won the 1990 National Book Award. I was reluctant to read it because I thought it was going to be too depressing and preachy. It was depressing at times, but it was also, well . . . goofy. Very engrossing, even exciting, but a little haphazard. It has a
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ne’er-do-well hero, multiple plots, and exciting adventures -- a real sea yarn.

I could not get my brain around the notion that the narrator knew about and referred to things that didn’t happen until decades after the story takes place (he mentions things like time zones and squeegees that didn’t exist in 1830, for example, not to mention philosophical and scientific theories that didn’t develop until much later, such as evolution). But once I decided to let that all flow over me, I enjoyed the book. It certainly packs a lot into its 206 pages.
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LibraryThing member danhammang
A beautiful tale written by a gifted author.
LibraryThing member Katie_H
This slim novel started off decently, but quickly headed downhill; I'm surprised that it won the National Book Award. The story is told via ship log entries by Rutherford Calhoun, a freed slave and thief in early 19th century New Orleans. To escape those he is indebted to as well as a marriage he
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is being forced into, he sneaks aboard an outbound ship. He quickly learns that the ship is a slaver headed for Africa, led by midget captain, Falcon. After leaving Africa with 40 slaves, treasure, and an African "god," the ship suffers many hardships, including mutiny, slave takeover, bad weather, illness, cannibalism, and mystical mumbo jumbo brought on by the "god." The writing has serious flaws: improbable coincidences, events and characters and terrible historical research (events are referenced that occurred AFTER the time period of the novel). The tone of the journal entries did not appear to come from a roguish former slave, even an educated one, more like that of a modern day professor's memoir. Maybe the novel is intended as a parody, and I'm completely missing the point, but I can't find evidence to support that assumption. I can't recommend this.
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