Middle Passage (1990) is a historical novel by Charles R. Johnson about the final voyage of an illegal American slave ship. Set in 1830, it presents a personal and historical perspective of the illegal slave traffic in the United States, telling the story of Rutherford Calhoun, a freed African-American who unknowingly boards a slave ship bound for Africa in order to escape a forced marriage. Thus begins a voyage of horror and self-discovery.
The book won the 1990 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction.
Review: Middle Passage
“Johnson’s picaresque novel begins in 1830 when Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed Illinois slave eking out a living as a petty thief in New Orleans, hops aboard a square-rigger to evade the prim Boston schoolteacher who wants to marry him. But the Republic , no riverboat, turns out to be a slave clipper bound for Africa. Calhoun, a witty narrator conversant with the works of Chaucer and Beethoven and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, hates himself for acting as henchman to the ship’s captain, a dwarfish, philosophizing tyrant. Before the rowdy, drunken crew can spring a mutiny, African slaves recently taken on board stage a successful revolt. Blending confessional, ship’s log and adventure, the narrative interweaves a disquisition on slavery, poverty, race relations and an African worldview at odds with Western materialism. In luxuriant, intoxicating prose Johnson ( The Sorcerer’s Apprentice ) makes the agonized past a prism looking onto a tense present” –Publishers Weekly
Praise for Middle Passage
“In their remarkable simplicity these stories reach into…the African American experience with surprising freshness and the fluency of years of gathered wisdom. This book is a deeply satisfying reading adventure.” — Black Issues Book Review
“A novel in the honorable tradition of Billy Budd and Moby Dick…heroic in proportion… fiction that hooks into the mind.” — The New York Times Book Review
“Long after we’d stopped believing in the great American novel, along comes a spellbinding adventure story that may be just that.” — Chicago Tribune
“It’s a joy to read fiction in which there is a cultivated vision at work…the greatest victory of Dreamer is the light it shines on the life of Martin Luther King Jr.” —Dennis McFarland, The New York Times Book Review
See also Quotes from Middle Passage.