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Charles Johnson

Charles Johnson: The Novelist as Philosopher

Herman Beavers
Gena Chandler
Marc C. Conner
William Gleason
William R. Nash
Linda Selzer
Gary Storhoff
John Whalen-Bridge
Copyright Date: 2007
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    Charles Johnson
    Book Description:

    Essays by Herman Beavers, Gena Chandler, Marc C. Conner, William Gleason, William R. Nash, Linda Selzer, Gary Storhoff, and John Whalen-Bridge

    InCharles Johnson: The Novelist as Philosopher, leading scholars examine the African American author's literary corpus and major themes, ideas, and influences. The essays explore virtually all of Johnson's writings: each of his novels, his numerous short stories, the range of his nonfiction essays, his many book reviews, and even several unpublished works.

    These essays engage Johnson's work from a variety of critical perspectives, revealing the philosophical, cultural, and political implications of his writings. The authors seek especially to understand "philosophical black fiction" and to provide the multifocal, "whole sight" analysis Johnson's work demands.

    Johnson (b. 1948)--author ofDreamer,Oxherding Tale, and the National Book Award-winningMiddle Passage--draws upon influences as diverse as Richard Wright, Herman Melville, Thomas Aquinas, Franz Kafka, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He combines rigorous training in western philosophy with a lifelong practice in eastern religious and philosophical traditions. He has repeatedly told interviewers that he became a writer specifically to strengthen the interplay between philosophy and fiction.

    Marc C. Conner is associate professor of English at Washington and Lee University. William R. Nash is associate professor of American studies and director of African American studies at Middlebury College.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-507-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    MCC and WRN
  4. INTRODUCTION Charles Johnson and Philosophical Black Fiction
    (pp. xi-xl)

    “I am,” Charles Johnson states, “first and foremost, a writer of philosophical fiction” (McWilliams, “An Interview” 275). This marriage of the art of fiction and the traditions of philosophy stands behind everything Johnson writes, from his novels to his short stories to his essays (both literary and philosophical—they are one and the same to Johnson) to his book reviews. Johnson’s wide-ranging education and background have provided him with a formidable training in these disciplines: raised in the AME Church with a substantial background in Christianity and the Bible, he is also a formal student of western philosophy, holding a...

    (pp. 1-19)

    If historically the line between fiction and philosophy has often been blurred—as Plato’s dialogues, Nietzsche’s aphorisms, and the twentieth-century proliferation of existentialist literature in a number of genres all attest—this is especially true in the case of African American philosophy, which by necessity in America has had its roots in nonacademic forms of writing. As John P. Pittman points out inAfrican American Perspectives and Philosophical Traditions(1997), to define philosophy only in terms of a specialist discourse is to leave out “an entire world of intellectual life, and for traditionally excluded groups, any ‘representation’ at all” (xii)....

  6. “IN-ITSELF-FOR-ME” Decomposition and Art in Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale
    (pp. 20-39)

    In October 1999, New York’s Brooklyn Museum became the staging ground for an important exhibition of Britain’s new and emerging young artists. The museum’s director, Arnold Lehman, marked the exhibition as “the most creative energy [in art] that’s come out of Great Britain in a very long time” (“The Art of Controversy”). That exhibition, “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection,” represented an official American “coming-out” party for a collection of contemporary British artists who were challenging the boundaries of taste and aesthetics in the contemporary art world while simultaneously challenging the historical biases against the value of British...

  7. BONDAGE AND DISCIPLINE The Pedagogy of Discomfort in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
    (pp. 40-56)

    ReadingThe Sorcerer’s Apprenticeprompted me to revisit Paolo Friere’sPedagogy of the Oppressed, in part because the question of failed pedagogy frames the opening and closing stories in the collection. But I also decided a turn to Friere was appropriate because reading Johnson’s stories and discovering in them the investment in Eastern philosophical tenets characteristic of his other works of fiction, I determined that if pedagogy was at issue in these stories, it is best described as apedagogy of discomfort.In light of the ways that we find aspiration and desire working in each of these stories, I’m...

  8. TO UTTER THE HOLY The Metaphysical Romance of Middle Passage
    (pp. 57-81)

    “The highest and, indeed, the truly serious task of art,” states Nietzsche, is “to save the eye from gazing into the horrors of night and to deliver the subject by the healing balm of illusion from the spasms of the agitations of the will” (Birth118). For Nietzsche, this constitutes the supreme achievement of Attic tragedy, in which the frenzied and annihilating power of Dionysus is contained by and expressed through Apollo’s “healing balm of blissful illusion” (127). Consequently Nietzsche defines “the tragic myth” as the “symbolization of Dionysian wisdom through Apollinian artifices” (131). It would seem that the more...

  9. “GO THERE” The Critical Pragmatism of Charles Johnson
    (pp. 82-105)

    Despite the extensive attention paid by scholars to the philosophical underpinnings of the work of Charles Johnson—despite even the grandiose yet entirely fair claim by Johnson himself that “there is more engagement with philosophy—Western and Eastern—in my work than you will find anywhere in the history of black American literature” (Nash, “A Conversation,” 222)—certain philosophical traditions crucial to Johnson’s writing remain underexplored. Foremost among these is American pragmatism, a tradition whose concerns may at first seem far removed from the emphatically spiritual and idealistic vision foregrounded in Johnson’s creative work. And yet when we turn to...

    (pp. 106-126)

    Charles Johnson is an extraordinarily innovative American writer whose work revolves around profound ethical issues. Because his ethics emerge from the philosophy he studied in graduate school, his ethical outlook is complex and difficult to discern—primarily because his is a dissenting voice from current philosophical schools of ethics.¹ Contemporary Western philosophy usually treats ethics as primarily the moral evaluation of specific actions.² However, such an approach is insufficient for a novelist with Johnson’s convictions. Johnson’s philosophical inclination is the evaluation of the whole person, in evaluating character traits that make an individual good and that lead to a worthwhile...

  11. INVISIBLE THREADS Charles Johnson and Feminine Civility
    (pp. 127-149)

    In this essay I would like to make the case for a kind of feminism in Johnson’s work, a feminism that makes visible foundational feminine virtues within African American culture in part by revealing the effects of strong women and in part by rendering the misogynism against which this feminism defines itself. My argument runs against the grain of most though not all work on Johnson. While critics focusing on racial hybridity in Johnson’s work have celebrated his integrationalist aesthetic (Little and Storhoff), those who have focused on gender have more often found Johnson’s fiction unsatisfactory.¹ Some even draw on...

  12. “AT THE NUMINOUS HEART OF BEING” Dreamer and Christian Theology
    (pp. 150-170)

    When John Gardner first read the manuscript ofOxherding Talein 1980, he exclaimed, “This is a new Charles Johnson” (Johnson, “Introduction,” xvii). The response to Johnson’s 1998 novel,Dreamer, could well be the same: the novel announces a dramatic shift in Johnson’s primary concerns, in terms of the aesthetics, the politics, and the philosophical dilemmas that the novel engages. Most strikingly,Dreamerreveals a new religious investigation for Johnson, one that both complements and complicates his earlier explorations of spirituality and the ethical life. The radical difference ofDreameris first suggested in the epigraphs that open the novel:...

  13. THE APPLICATION OF AN IDEAL Turning the Wheel as Ontological Program
    (pp. 171-181)

    In “Shoulder to the Wheel” (2003), an interview with my fellow Johnson scholar (and good friend) John Whalen-Bridge, Charles Johnson explains what led him to publishTurning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing(2003). The author notes, “in this phase of my life, what I call Act Three, I finally had to declare myself someone devoted to the dharma” (“Shoulder” 301). The work certainly does that; indeed, this collection of sixteen essays (seven on Buddhism, nine on writing) marks the fullest overt written articulation of elements that Johnson has “tuck[ed] into” his fiction from the publication ofFaith and...

    (pp. 182-190)
    (pp. 191-192)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 193-199)