Which won the 1990 National Book Award for Fiction, marks the culmination of Charles R. Johnson's philosophical exploration and formal innovation to date. Taking the form of ship's log entries, the novel recounts the adventures of Rutherford Calhoun, a freed slave from Illinois who relocates to New Orleans and leads a hedonistic life financed by petty thievery. While there, Rutherford becomes involved with two powerful figures: Isadora Duncan, the proper schoolmistress who treats Rutherford much like her adopted stray animals, and Philippe “Papa” Zeringue, a Creole gangster to whom Rutherford becomes indebted. Isadora learns of and buys Rutherford's debts; in return Zeringue helps her attempt to force Calhoun into marriage. Desperate to escape both oppressors, Rutherford stows away aboard the Republic, unwittingly choosing a slave ship in which Zeringue holds a partial interest.
Aboard the Republic, Rutherford is torn between the disparate influences of evil captain Ebenezer Falcon, a man literally and figuratively twisted and dissolute who seeks both to bed and subordinate him, and the example of the Allmuseri, the tribe of African wizards who, along with their god, make up the cargo of the Republic on her return voyage. Led by the wise and inscrutable Ngonyama, the Allmuseri present an entirely different picture of existence to Rutherford. Living a life characterized by complete harmony and speaking a language that cannot be subdivided into any discrete pieces, the Allmuseri contradict Falcon's rabid individualism. Convinced of the captain's insanity, the crew decides to mutiny and enlists Calhoun's aid, a plot that he reveals to Falcon under duress. His attempts to stop the mutineers are thwarted by the Allmuseri's rebellion, an event that forces Rutherford, one of the few crew members who understands Ngonyama's people, into the position of mediator between rebellious cargo and surviving crew. Enduring a number of painful adventures, Rutherford ultimately returns home in time to prevent Isadora's marriage to Zeringue. He reveals Zeringue's treachery, frees himself from debt, and weds Isadora, settling down to a life he had not previously valued.
The linear plot masks philosophical twists that make the novel quite challenging. Drawing on sources including The Odyssey, Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick and “Benito Cereno,” principles of phenomenology, and the Hegelian slave-master paradigm, Johnson creates a world in which conventional notions of time, language, freedom, and loyalty are tested. Calhoun serves as mediator, both within the text and between audience and text, offering a model for the type of reading necessary to a full comprehension of the fictional landscape's significance.
This novel reinforces many points Johnson makes in Oxherding Tale (1982); however, where the philosophical substructure of the former novel is glaringly obvious, Middle Passage manages to submerge many of the same concerns in a narrative that easily entertains while offering challenging ideas. As a result, the work has attracted a variety of readers and exposed a large portion of the general public to Johnson's aesthetics, thereby firmly establishing him as an important contemporary author.
Charles Johnson and Ron Chernow, In Search of a Voice, 1991, pp. 1–18.Ashraf H. A. Rushdy, “The Phenomenology of the Allmuseri: Charles Johnson and the Subject of the Narrative of Slavery,” African American Review 26.3 (Winter 1992): 373–394.Charles Johnson, “An Interview with Charles Johnson,” interview by Jonathan Little, Contemporary Literature 34.2 (Summer 1993): 159–181.