(I haven’t given up on these. I’ve been writing writing writing on my latest manuscript, really trying to be professional, stay the course, keep my thoughts cued into what I’ve been working on, and the result has been a slower output for the blog. And, I’ve been writing all these intercoursing poems. And, this particular entry was difficult to write.)
In 1990, Charles Johnson won the National Book Award for his beguiling high seas adventure cum philosophical rumination on the effects of slavery, Middle Passage.
The story follows a young hustler named Rutherford Calhoun, making his roguish way through early 19th century New Orleans. He’s a bit of a cad and a bit of a rake, who hires on to a slaving ship to escape marrying Isadora, a schoolteacher who has manipulated Calhoun’s creditors into applying pressure on him.
Johnson captures the New Orleans flavor of Kate Chopin: polyglot, multicultural, multi-lingual, racially complex. Here he has young Rutherford as he first enters New Orleans:
“New Orleans, you should know, was a city tailored to my taste for the excessive, exotic fringes of life, a world port of such extravagance in 1829 when I arrived from southern Illinois—a newly freed bondman, my papers in an old portmanteau, a gift from my master in Makanda—that I dropped my bags in a shock of recognition shot up my spine to my throat, rolling off my tongue as I whispered, “Here, Rutherford is home.” So it seemed those first months to a country boy with cotton in his hair, a great whore of a city in her glory, a kind of glandular Golden Age. She was if not a town devoted to an almost religious pursuit of Sin, then at least to a steamy sexuality. To the newcomer she was an assault of smells: molasses commingled with mangoes in the sensually damp air, the stench of slop in a muddy street, and, from the labyrinthine warehouses on the docks, the odor of Brazilian coffee and Mexican oils. And also this: the most exquisitely beautiful women in the world, thoroughbreds of pleasure created two centuries before by the French for their enjoyment.”
And this passage, which unfolds right near the first page, shows how deeply satisfying—and fun—Johnson’s prose style is. He creates magic in these pages.
The ship, aptly named the Republic, is run by a tyrannical polymath named Falcon. He’s set his ship on a tribe called the Allmuseri. His interests are more in the artifacts of the enslaved people than the slaves themselves. He’s also a dark philosopher in the pessimistic vein. Much of the novel is a grand maritime adventure in the vein of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym. And like Poe’s only novel, Middle Passage turns weird, nasty, and cannibalistic.
Calhoun is an octoroon, and at first has nothing but disdain for the pitiful cargo. But he slowly begins to see that his part in the larger slave system is terrible.
There are arguments, storms, a mutiny.
And the cruel, calculating Falcon has something mysterious onboard indeed; he claims to have captured the god of a small tribe of Africans.
The book is a marvelous recasting of the high seas adventure as a rigorous moral examination of strength, power, and moral culpability. Here’s another taste of Johnson’s very fine writing style, with Falcon giving one of his many speeches to the young Calhoun:
“Another thing about not being physical most of the time is that it can’t understand any of the sciences based on matter, like geometry. Heh heh. It can’t do geometry, you see, ’cause it’s a god.’
‘Are you saying even a god has limitations?’
‘That I am. And not only limitations, lad. I daresay it has downright contradictions. For example, a god can’t know it’s own nature. For itself, it can’t be an object of knowledge. Do you see the logic here? The Allmuseri god is everything, so the very knowing situation we mortals rely on—a separation between knower and known—never rises in its experience. You might say empirical knowledge is on man’s side, not God’s. It’s our glory and grief both, a function of the duality of the mind I mentioned a moment ago.’”
The novel is so much fun, in fact, that the terror and horror of the historical middle passage sneaks up on you.
Slavery is so horrifying—hundreds of years of torture, murder, dismemberment and dehumanization—that novelists can’t convey the cosmic horror of it while also maintaining any sort of story. In fact, the hundreds of years of the slave trade is so unaccountably horrific it seems obscene to try and create fiction—with its cascading ambiguities—out of it. (Think the famous line of writing poetry after World War I.)
Johnson understands this, and so approaches things with a light touch. But he’s up to grand subversion in this swashbuckler.
He mixes genres. He breaks rules. In the middle of the novel there’s (possible) magic. He’s philosophical. One of his major points is devastating, and sneaks up on you. Slavery wasn’t just about individual suffering; entire civilizations—their language, folklore, totems, food, culture and even gods, too—were hijacked, appropriated or destroyed.
Johnson’s clever narration tucks the horrors of slavery into Calhoun’s coming of age and (ever so slow) moral awakening. In a king of fictional sleight of hand, Johnson has all these little tragic splinters poking through Calhoun’s selfishness. We’re reading for the plot, something out of H. Ryder Haggard. But we remember the suffering.
Here’s a sample, of the Allmuseri first being led aboard the ship:
“Once the Allmuseri saw the great ship and the squalid pit that would haouse them sardined belly-to-buttocks in the orlop, with its dead air and razor-teethed bilge rats, each slave forced to lie spoon-fashion on his left side to relieve the pressure against his heart—after seeing this, the Africans panicked. Believe it or not, a barker told us they thought we were barbarians shipping them to America to be eaten. They saw us as savages. In their mythology Europeans had once been members of their tribe—rulers, even, for a time—but fell into what was for these people the blackest of sins. The failure to experience the unity of Being everywhere was the Allmuseri vision of Hell. And that was where we lived: purgatory. That was where we were taking them—into the madness of multiplicity—and the thought of it drove them wild. A one-handed Allmuseri thief attacked Cringle with a belaying pin and was shot by the mate. . . . A woman pitched her baby overboard into the waters below us. At least two men tried to follow, straining against their chains, and this sudden flurry of resistance brought out the worst in Falcon, if you can imagine that. He beat them until blood came. . . .
It was then my hair started going white.”
W.E.B. DuBois is a towering figure in our country’s culture, a polymath thinker, essayist, novelist, and civil rights trail-blazer. His strand of black high intellectualism is alive in Johnson, who writes in the same philosophical tradition. Only, Johnson is a hell of a storyteller, too.
On one level, the novel is a lean high seas adventure. But there are layers, narrative, allegorical, linguistic.
One trick he’s done is to appropriate the white adventure narratives of H. Ryder Haggard. The hero is every bit as naughty and dishonest as Alan Quartermain, something out of Rudyard Kipling, a hustler, a liar, a speculator.
So the pulp fictions of Haggard, the linguistic awareness of Chopin, the philosophical high-mindedness of DuBois, as well as the grand nautical tradition of Melville and Conrad. In fact, Middle Passage is in a kind of dialogue with Conrad’s The Nigger on the Narcissus. (What a pairing these two novels would be for a college class!) There are echoes of Edgar Allen Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym, the traditional excitement blasted through with flashes of phosphene high weirdness.
We can add another strand, as Johnson is also grappling with Huckleberry Finn, both with the content of that exemplary novel and its form.
Johnson is sly. He’s similar to Percival Everett—a very fine novelist—in his deconstruction of genre tropes, while simultaneously fulfilling them.
And this great syncretic novel, through grand synthesis and appropriation, has taken back a stretch of cultural space. He’s subverted the colonialist narrative.
Rudyard, eat your heart out.
There is a caveat to this marvelous little novel: the cover. Every cover I’ve seen is horrible and misleading, portraying a sort of young adult coming-of-age story. It’s horrid, cheesy, bespeaking of the culture wars of the 90s, only with book designers suffering from severe aphasia. I avoided it for years. And I know, that whole book/cover thing, but I don’t like reading ugly books.
There’s this one, which is so poorly designed it’s as if the publisher wanted the book to fail:
Such a bad cover for such a great book.
And this one, which isn’t much better:
This one isn’t just bad, but horribly misleading.
In fact, I owned a copy of this novel—a friend gave it to me and I kept it due to the writer’s reputation—but I didn’t read it for years. I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Don’t repeat my mistake. It’s great.
1990 was not a great year for American fiction. Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King (admittedly, it was one of his better novels, The Stand), Robert Ludlum, Elizabeth George, and Scott Turow all published novels, the era of the big-name, blockbuster pulp from dudes approaching middle age. Kurt Vonnegut released Hocus Pocus, one of his lesser works. Thomas Pynchon published Vineland, similarly seen as lightweight. Joe Landsdale and Elmore Leonard put out novels.
Around the world, Orhan Pamuk, Ian McEwan, Roddy Doyle, P.D. James, and Hanif Kureishi, all put out novels. (And yes, there aren’t many women on either of those lists.)
The year held some great novels, though. James Ellroy published his dense, labyrinthine L.A. Confidential. Tim O’Brien released his novel in stories, The Things They Carried. Both are fabulous novels.
But Middle Passage is something special. A diamond-hard gem. You just have to look past the cover.
 I love it. But, goddamn, it’s a freaky deaky disturbing novel.
 Fraser, in Flash for Freedom, delivers one of the most horrifying depictions of slavery, tucked inside a comic picaresque novel.
 It’s a fabulous, if deeply troubling, novel. See footnote 1.