Although Middle Passage is one of the greatest novels ever written, it really wasn’t supposed to be, as Charles Johnson has the perfect set-up for dull PC bathos. The plot, the characters, and many of its ideas all imply cliché and utter failure in imitation of other failures. Just consider the synopsis and you’ll see what I mean. Rutherford Calhoun, a black New Orleans rascal and ex-slave, spends his days gambling, drinking, and accumulating debt. To avoid trouble and cut ties with his fat, religious, and pristine girlfriend, Isadora, he becomes a stowaway on what turns out to be a slave ship, the Republic. He has a transformative experience along the Middle Passage, returns home a changed man, defeats his enemies, and marries his now-slim and beautiful lover. It sounds disastrous, but it’s precisely how Johnson subverts these clichés and expectations that makes the novel so great. All details are calculated, the dialogue is rich and philosophical, and descriptions are full of humor, wit, and evocation appropriate to the scene and overall text. Nothing is forced or out of place. That Johnson veers so close to platitude and avoids it shows he’s conscious of what makes good writing. And that this is not Johnson’s first but second great novel (the first being Oxherding Tale) means he’s simply one of the best writers you’ll ever read.
The only ‘truly’ (i.e., prototypically) dense and complex character in Middle Passage is Rutherford. And this is not criticism. I use the word ‘truly’ with hesitation because there’s more than one way to create compelling characters, much less compelling books which may or may not have prototypical characterization. Other characters, however, do not necessarily grow, at least not in Rutherford’s varied and ambiguous directions. Again, this is not criticism, for at the very least, other characters are great archetypes, as in Shakespeare’s tragedies, who are stand-ins for unique ideas and serve clever counterpoints to Rutherford, who is prototypical, in that he’s unique, interesting, likable, has complex motives and behavior, and grows. He’s extraordinarily observant and educated, his own ideas playing off of the archetypes’, all of which is far beyond what’s expected of a former slave. As he experiences his terrifying ordeal, he changes, subtly criticizing himself via juxtapositions of scene and dialogue even he isn’t aware of. For example, although he complains of Jackson’s (his brother) “betrayal,” it’s eventually revealed this was nothing more than convincing their ex-Master, Chandler, to share all property equally with the slaves, rather than giving it to the brothers, for Jackson, in a beautiful, philosophical, and quotable speech on property and ownership, argues they are educated, healthy, and thus need less:
I know Rutherford has thought about this too. But it don’t seem right to ask for myself. I could ask for land, but how could any man, even you, sir, own something like those trees outside? Or take that pitcher there. It’s a fine thing, sure it is now, … Continue reading →