Despite my protestations that I had never before reviewed a book of fiction, the late Colin Walters, then books editor at the Washington Times, insisted that I try my hand at reviewing Charles Johnson’s novel, Middle Passage, which went on to win the National Book Award for fiction.
This book review appeared in The Washington Times on Monday, July 23, 1990. I believe it was the last occasion (among many) when that newspaper published one of my book reviews.
High-seas adventure for a freedman stowaway on a slave trader’s ship
By Charles Johnson
Atheneum, $17.95, 209 pages
REVIEWED BY RICHARD SINCERE JR.
A blend of mysticism and historical realism, Charles Johnson’s third novel, “Middle Passage,” has the potential to be some Hollywood scenarist’s movie blockbuster.
Though it lacks a hero like Indiana Jones or a villain like Darth Vader, it has all the other elements — love and romance, high-seas adventure and cannibalism — that provide an evening of light entertainment.
Set in 1830, the tale begins in New Orleans, where Rutherford Calhoun, a freed slave who has turned thief and vagabond, stows away aboard a ship in order to escape a shotgun marriage arranged by the local gangland boss, Papa Zeringue.
The ship turns out to be the Republic, bound for Senegambia to pick up a cargo of slaves — and much more. Like other novels that deposit their protagonists in unlikely, uncivilized situations, “Middle Passage” shows the literal sea change that Calhoun, the protagonist and narrator, undergoes as he learns cooperation, responsibility and comradeship after an earlier life as a ne’er-do-well.
Throughout, Mr. Johnson draws together disparate and seemingly unrelated plot strands into a Dickensian web of coincidence that unpredictably brings us back full circle.
The novelist says in the book’s press release that his intention in writing the novel was to create “a genuinely philosophical black American fiction." This book certainly contributes to that goal.
While one might expect salty speech from sea dogs and gangsters, one does not expect a discourse on metaphysics. Hence Calhoun can discuss the German idealist philosopher G.W.F. Hegel and the cosmos with the Republic’s captain, Ebenezer Falcon, a dwarf with an overpowering and driven personality — a 3-foot-3-inch Capt. Ahab.
Mr. Johnson has quite consciously chosen to ignore the expectations (should we say prejudices?) of readers by drawing characters who are well-read, well-traveled, well-mannered and well-moneyed — despite their origins as slaves or children of slaves, or their descent into drunkenness and despair.
The writer is also a master of irony and measured understatement. Take this passage, in which Calhoun is seeking a tavern, to drown his sorrows before he marches unwillingly up the wedding aisle:
“The place was packed with seamen. All armed to the eyeballs with pistols and cutlasses, scowling and jabbering like pirates, squirting jets of brown tobacco juice everywhere except in the spittoons — a den of Chinese assassins, scowling Moors, English scoundrels, Yankee adventurers and evil-looking Arabs. Naturally, I felt pretty much at home.”
Later, upon being discovered on board the Republic, Calhoun is confronted with the ship’s first mate: “Of all the faces present his seemed the most sympathetic. In other words, his was the only one not pitted by smallpox, split by Saturday night knifescar, disfigured by Polynesian tattoos, or distorted by dropsy.”
Despite his diligent attention to historical detail, Mr. Johnson has marred the narrative slightly by a few anachronisms that a sharp editor should have caught.
Though the story is meant to have been written in the summer of 1830, there are references to “the Missing Link between man and monkey” (Charles Darwin’s fame was some 30 years away); to a man with “more wives than a Mormon elder” (Joseph Smith was just getting started in upstate New York in 1830); and to “time zones,” a concept not introduced until 1883.
Remarkably, despite the overarching presence of the slave trade and the vivid depictions of the mistreatment of Africans by their captors, Mr. Johnson has little that is explicitly negative to say about race relations in the antebellum American republic.
Despite his black skin, Calhoun is treated as an equal by his shipmates, so long as he can do the job he is assigned. Calhoun’s erstwhile fiancée, though black, travels in polite-society circles. Calhoun’s ex-master, a Protestant clergyman steeped in Thomist philosophy, treats his two favorite slaves (Calhoun and his brother) as sons. Blacks and whites interact untroubled aboard a cruise ship.
Nonetheless, Mr. Johnson does make some subtle comments about modern issues. Is it an accident that the ill-fated vessel of “Middle Passage” is christened the Republic? Could the following lines about the black mob boss Papa Zeringue have any bearing in contemporary urban society?
“For some blacks back home, those who did not know the full extent of his crimes, Papa was, if not a hero, then a Race Man to be admired. ... Once he bought a business, he never — absolutely never — sold it back to white men, because he feared if it left black hands it might never return.
“Aye, for many he was a patron of the race, a man who lent money to other blacks, and sometimes backed stage plays written by Negro playwrights in New Orleans. Could evil such as his actually produce good? Could money earned from murder, lies, and slave trading be used for civic service?”
“Middle Passage” is not easy to read. It is intellectually challenging and purposefully complex. Charles Johnson has made a fine contribution to historical fiction with this tragicomic treatment of our national shame, slavery.
Richard E. Sincere Jr. is a Washington free-lance writer and critic.