Middle passage

by Charles Richard Johnson

Paperback, 1991




New York, N.Y., U.S.A. : Plume, [1991]


In 1830, Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed slave leading a dissolute life in New Orleans, finds himself forced into marriage.

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 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 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 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 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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LibraryThing member danhammang
A beautiful tale written by a gifted author.
LibraryThing member goosecap
As for the personal side of the novel, I like Rutherford I guess, although he’s unfortunately rather realistic in terms of average people and what happens to the downtrodden—not acting ‘the right way’ did Not begin in 1968–although he does have a nice hero’s journey and comes out okay.
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Actually at first the book didn’t quite take to me that well, in terms of ‘interest’, but now that I’m at the end I have to say that it’s quite pretty.

As for the social side and the big takeaway, I have to say that for me it’s that the pre-slavery Africans were Not benighted savages without culture or whatever. This book helped me to understand what I read in the “African American Heritage Hymnal”: “In much of American and Western history individuals for generations have been led to believe that the African humanity housed in the bowels of slave ships was a mass of ignorance, illiteracy, superstition, and madness. It was the work of a slave culture to transport all intrinsic and extrinsic wickedness of the slave trade, the slave masters, and the slave mistresses throughout the western world through contrived myths that would seek to partially exonerate the oppressors and miseducate the victims. This was partly successful. However, there are two quotes, often used by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from William Cullen Bryant and Thomas Carlyle—“Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again” and “No lie can live forever”—that demonstrate how the myths of the slave masters were exposed and vetoed. There is a European proverb that says: “Lies have short legs.” Eventually, truth will overtake falsehood. It might take an hour or two, or even a century or two. Therefore, there was in slave culture an inherent contradiction that would eventually contribute to its downfall. But the walls of tyranny do not fall gently.”

Or, more simply, the Allmuseri are pretty fracking cool, and they were cool a long time before they got kidnapped and smuggled into slave ships.

And it’s appropriate, you know, to see that, because Christ did not come to help us exploit people or lie to them, and I think in the future, in the good days of God, eventually people will have to see that the people of God do have links to the “primitive peoples” of the world, and that although all cultures are in a state of becoming and are not perfect, these cultures can be redeemed and have the kindness brought out of them, because they already have value, and not only the “classical” cultures that even and sometimes even especially were for European crusaders the One Thing, you know…. We will have to see that, if we do not want people to take the other horn of the dilemma and say, Christianity is not all “modern” and “rational” and, though we will not say so, “European”, and so it must be condemned so that people can become, not, in the main, indeed, *scientific* atheists who smugly explain that the abstract belief “God” is not “true” regardless of what it leads to, but, generally some sort of variation of the theme of buy-nice-things-materialists who are friendly and like their friends when they feel good, and believe in the God of holiday indulgences and other corporate guidelines as long as things work out for them.

But I did like the reference to the Odyssey, you know. —But at night, Black Penelope unweaves the Garment of Destiny….
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LibraryThing member burritapal
A story of a ship that leaves New Orleans for the west coast of Africa to pick up a load of kidnapped Allmuseiri who've been stolen to sell for slaves. It's told from the viewpoint of a man who stows away on the ship to escape marriage. A death-dealing storm on the way back home changes the plans
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or the rich men who commissioned the voyage. Vivid imagery.
I'm left with questions about what happened to the god on board?
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National Book Award (Finalist — Fiction — 1990)
National Book Critics Circle Award (Finalist — Fiction — 1990)




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