Rutherford Calhoun

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Charles R. Johnson (b. 1948)

Ralph Ellison (1914—1994)


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The protagonist of Charles R. Johnson's novel Middle Passage (1990), Calhoun acts as interpreter for the Allmuseri, a tribe of African wizards Johnson created as a representation of his philosophical-aesthetic program. In the aftermath of a shipboard rebellion, Calhoun keeps the slave ship Republic's logbook, simultaneously informing the reader of his history and tracing his further development. Presenting a people's alternative senses of time, history, language, and fidelity, Rutherford becomes like the Allmuseri as he grows to understand them. His is the sole perspective offered; as he grows through contact with the Allmuseri, the reader's consciousness evolves as well.

Calhoun's position in the text identifies him with a host of protagonists; three significant predecessors are Herman Melville's Ishmael, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and Johnson's own Andrew Hawkins of Oxherding Tale (1982). Like his forebears, Rutherford seeks self-knowledge through a series of adventures. Also like them, Rutherford must face a number of hostile forces that would limit his search and destroy him; furthermore, he must expand his definition of evil in the process. Drawing on the legacy of earlier writers and his own work, Johnson in Rutherford offers the fulfillment of his program, moving the reader from a look at an alternative mind-set to a chance to experience it. In Oxherding Tale, the reader learns a great deal from the solitary Allmuseri character; in Middle Passage Johnson expands his initiation and makes the reader part of the tribe. Johnson thereby achieves his goal of expanding people's consciousnesses through hermeneutical reading, a “real-life” process modeled in his fictional universe.

William R. Nash

Subjects: Literature.

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