Charles Johnson in Context

Charles Johnson in Context

Linda Furgerson Selzer
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Charles Johnson in Context
    Book Description:

    Author of the National Book Award–winning novel Middle Passage, Charles Johnson belongs to a generation of writers who collectively raised African American literature to a new position of prominence during the late twentieth century. In this book, Linda Furgerson Selzer takes an interdisciplinary approach to Johnson’s major fiction, providing fresh insight into his work by placing it within a broad historical context. In addition to Middle Passage (1990), Selzer focuses on three other novels: Faith and the Good Thing (1974), Oxherding Tale (1982), and Dreamer (1998). She shows how these works reflect Johnson’s participation in the larger cultural projects of several significant but often overlooked groups—young black philosophers who challenged the dominant AngloAmerican empiricist tradition during the 1960s and 1970s; black Buddhists of the post–civil rights era who sought to translate an ancient religious practice into an African American idiom; and black public intellectuals who attempted to revive a cosmopolitan social ethic during the 1990s. The cultural histories of each of these groups, Selzer argues, provide important contexts for understanding Johnson’s evolution as a novelist. In the academic experience of black students who entered philosophy programs during the turbulent 1960s, the spiritual concerns of black Buddhists who have only recently begun to speak more publicly about their faith, and the cultural issues surrounding the emergence of a new cohort of African American public intellectuals, we see the roots of the social, moral, and aesthetic vision that informs what some have described as Johnson’s “philosophical fiction.” Selzer’s probing analysis of the influence of each of these contexts not only enriches our understanding of Charles Johnson’s fiction, it also makes a broader contribution to the cultural history of African America during the past half century.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-161-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. 1 From Philosophy to Black Philosophical Fiction
    (pp. 1-50)

    At one thought-provoking moment in Charles Johnson’s second novel,Oxherding Tale(1982), the protagonist, Andrew Hawkins, comes upon a wood carving of himself that has been sculpted by the master artisan Reb, the African American slave and descendant of the fictional Allmuseri tribe that so often figures creatively in Johnson’s fiction. As Andrew reflects on the four-sided figure, he is fascinated by the representation of his earlier life that he sees chiseled there and puzzled by the fourth side of the sculpture, which remains blank—an unmarked surface that hints both at the possibilities that lie latent in Andrew’s unrealized...

  6. 2 From Marx to Marcuse in Faith and the Good Thing
    (pp. 51-104)

    Charles Johnson’s first published novel,Faith and the Good Thing(1974), begins with the strange and remarkable death of Faith’s mother, Lavidia. Compulsively and somewhat mysteriously, Lavidia makes a count of each inhalation she takes, convinced that when she draws her four hundred–millionth breath, she will die. And precisely after taking that breath, Lavidia does die, setting Johnson’s narrative in motion with her final, cryptic words of advice to her daughter: “Girl, you get yourself a good thing” (4). Lavidia’s injunction raises several philosophical questions for readers of Johnson’s fiction—questions, most obviously, about precisely what a “good thing”...

  7. 3 The Emergence of Black Dharma and Oxherding Tale
    (pp. 105-156)

    In the mid-1990s Rosa Parks was asked to choose the single photograph that best epitomized her life for inclusion in a book titledTalking Pictures. The editors of the volume solicited photos from people they considered to be “the most interesting people of our era,” and they urged contributors to choose the single photo that “mattered most” to them (Heiferman and Kismaric 10). Surprisingly, Parks—whose December 1, 1955, protest against racial segregation on city buses in Montgomery, Alabama, is widely considered to be a defining moment in the civil rights movement—chose a picture not of her activities in...

  8. 4 The Rise of the New Black Intellectual and the Varieties of Cosmopolitanism in Middle Passage
    (pp. 157-210)

    Charles Johnson’sMiddle Passage(1990) entered the literary marketplace at the precise moment when several scholars who were prophesying the demise of the American public intellectual were in the process of being proved stunningly incorrect. In 1987 Russell Jacoby argued in his well-known bookThe Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academethat American public intellectuals were in decline. The independent scholars of an earlier generation who wrote for a broad readership were being replaced by university professors who wrote only for other specialists: “Where the Lewis Mumfords or Walter Lippmanns wrote for a public, their successors ‘theorize’...

  9. 5 The Return of the King and the Logic of Conversion in Dreamer
    (pp. 211-254)

    By putting into play multiple forms of cosmopolitanism on board a single ship inMiddle Passage, Johnson joins in the efforts of late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century thinkers to reconsider cosmopolitanism in ways that reclaim the normative force of universals while honoring more local allegiances—including national, ethnic, and family bonds. In his 1998 novelDreamer, Johnson complicates his analysis of the relationship between universal norms and local commitments by entering a different cultural conversation: a newly invigorated debate that unfolded among public intellectuals beginning in the 1990s over the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Through his participation in this...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 255-272)
    (pp. 273-292)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 293-306)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 307-307)