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Middle Passage

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3.79 of 5 stars 3.79  ·  rating details  ·  2,334 ratings  ·  166 reviews
Winner of the National Book Award

"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 is 1830. Rutherford Calhoun, a new...more
Paperback, 209 pages
Published July 1st 1998 by Scribner (first published 1990)
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Roots by Alex HaleyUncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher StoweThe Color Purple by Alice WalkerWench by Dolen Perkins-ValdezBeloved by Toni Morrison
Books about American slavery
30th out of 167 books — 204 voters
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick DouglassRoots by Alex HaleyAdventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark TwainUncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher StoweBeloved by Toni Morrison
Slavery
20th out of 69 books — 70 voters


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Community Reviews

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Andrew
I liked it quite a bit. I'm not sure what to do with the narrative voice, though. It's, at times, wildly anachronistic and, frankly, unrealistic. This is all the more strange because Johnson is writing into a literary legacy that has a very particular set of tropes--all of which, he easily elides in order to utilize a narrator who's likeable and street-wise sophisticated. Yet this is also a man who is an uneducated, recently freed slave in 1830--a character who has an acute knowledge of continen...more
Roy
What a wonderful, powerful, thought provoking, surprising read. The first two attributes are on account of Charles Johnson's mastery of the written word. His prose grips the reader from first sentence and doesn't let go for a second. It goes by so quickly that I found myself wishing it had been padded to last another 50 pages or more. Why was it surpising? Well, I expected it to focus primarily on the horrific middle passage in which people were enslaved and transported in barbaric fashion from...more
Hattie
Middle Passage by Dr. Charles Johnson

Middle Passage by Charles Johnson

'"I'm not on anybody's side! I'm just trying to keep us alive! I don't know who's right or wrong on this ship anymore, and I don't much care! All I want is to go home."'

This is Rutherford Calhoun's story. Creditors are looking for him. He's a thief and the woman he's courting has a fantastic scheme prepared in order to marry him. Leaving the heat behind him, Rutherford Calhoun takes off from New Orleans aboard a ship named The...more
Steven
This was the perfect foil for Alexie's The Toughest Indian in the World . Johnson's novel is every bit as full of political and cultural commentary, is in fact a devastating indictment of slave-trading, but those points of view rise naturally out of the narrative, appear simply as facts littered about the story, rather than the other way around. There's a reason Johnson's book won the National Book Award and Alexie's didn't: literary art. Comparing these two books in a lit class would be quite u...more
Phil Overeem
This is a fictional Middle Passage travelogue/slave narrative complete with surreal comedy, an African culture-monster in the hold, an Ahabian ship captain, and much metaphorical food to chew on. Loved every page of it. The narrator is an incorrigible thief and coward who undergoes a transformation of character...or maybe doesn't.
Glenda
I had to read this for school, and I honestly wouldn't have read it all the way if it wasn't that I had to for class. Initially, I was put off by the narrator's time-inappropriate voice. Supposedly, we are reading the journal of a freed slave in 1830. However, he sounds like a scholarly modern man.
The more I read, though, the more I understood that this was exactly the writer's intention, and that much of the message of the book lies in this paradoxical narrator. For one thing, I believe the au...more
Angela Tyler
I just finished this amazing book, and all can say is that it is a good thing that I did NOT read it before I wrote Queen Mother. If I had, Middle Passage would have been all up in my head, messing with my story, disturbing my characters and whatnot!

I wouldn't have been able to tell my story with its fortuitous meetings and plot twists without thinking that I was somehow copying this voyage. I wouldn't have been able to write about the dignity of enslaved Africans without thinking about the All...more
Brandy
Maybe I missed whatever the National Book Award people saw in this, but I thought this book was terrible.
Jamrach's Menagerie is a much better book based on similar themes and setting. What kills the book is the narrator. The book is first person,written by a freed slave, as journal entries in a ship's log. I realize that this is a stylistic choice the author has made, but in this case it is a spectacularly stupid one. What freed slave from Illinois, who describes himself as "used to cornfields...more
S Thomas
I had trouble finding my sea legs with this story.
It is an adventure.
It is a tragedy.
It is a commentary on slavery and other social issues.
It has shades of allegory.
In places the language is brilliant.
It is dark.
It is illuminating
At times it dips into philosophy.
At other times it feels like a comic book.
It is many different things, but don't make the mistake by the title that it is historical fiction. It is too anachronistic.
I imagine some readers will come away asking- what was C. Johnson...more
Lobstergirl
Dec 08, 2013 Lobstergirl rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Kanye West
Shelves: fiction, got-rid-of

This was not at all what I was expecting. I expected a realist novel. This is much more a picaresque. It's full of the gruesomeness you'd expect from a novel about a slave ship undergoing a mutiny, but it's also very over-the-top in terms of the richness of the language (the first person narrator is a freed slave, with a great deal of self-education and knowledge for a slave, but no freed slave regardless of how educated would narrate his experiences like Harold Bloom after a few drinks) and the...more
Sultan
This book had been sitting in a box in my basement for years. Someone gave it to me, and because I never quite felt in the mood to sit down and read a book about the Middle Passage, I put it in a box and proceeded to move six times. Two weeks ago, I was down in the basement looking for an extension cord to whip my stepkid with, and I came across that box, and because I was feeling gloomy, I picked up this book. And what a damn treat! It was engaging as hell. I sat down, read the whole thing, and...more
John Pappas
A fascinating, complex story of transformation and liminality, of attempting to transcend the past without destroying it. Combining mythic and metafictional elements with the slave narrative and sea yarn formats, Johnson's tale is resolute without providing resolution. Rather, it uses elements to construct an open ended question about how we shall live together in a democratic society rooted in imperialism and slavery. Troubling-especially in the mixing of tragic and comic modes- but wholly engr...more
Scott Cederberg
Freshman book of some kind at Stanford. I remember it being dreadful. I went to see Charles Johnson speak afterwards; one of the things he talked about was learning words by reading the dictionary. While this is something I myself do/might aspire to do, the book kind of illustrated the worst of that--the vocabulary was graduate school English student, but the depth of the story was young adult novel.
Zepp
Brilliant crazy terrifying and woofish. Has much to learn from genre fiction, esp. sci-fi. Not supra-original, but beautiful and horrific. One of the best short novels I have read, but still leagues away from the interrogative and stylistic qualities of Melville, Dick, and Delaney. Maybe too academic? hmm...
Dorothea
Here's what Charles Johnson says this novel is about:
...my intention was to dramatize and provide details for the specific horrors experienced by Africans crammed into European ships that carried them to the New World. However, during this process it became impossible not to see how thoroughly the societies engaged in the slave trade were transformed by it. Originally, my focus was on the dramatic interplay between the ships, the sailors, the slaves, and the sea. But I soon realized, like someon
...more
R. K. Johnson
What a gem. I picked this book up from local library's display stand and I am so happy I did. It is humorous, insightful and simply alive! I was thoroughly engaged by Rutherford's humour which was both dry and raunchy at times. Definitely a must read!!!

The characterizations of Isadora and all her cats, Ha! Rutherford and his thieving ways which I could not bring myself to be mad at him for. He was just too witty. And Papa. I can't stop laughing. What a masterpiece this was. Reading it, I did not...more
Benjamin
Rutherford Calhoun, a fiesty, horny ex slave - recently freed by a benevolent master in southern Illinois - heads to New Orleans and quickly falls into the underworld, thieving and whoring and carrying on. Through the machinations of a prim and proper school teacher who falls in love with him, however, he is faced with a choice: marriage and the straight-life, or death at the hands of a criminal kingpin. Rather than accept either option, Calhoun stows away on what turns out to be a slave ship, a...more
Jewel
Interesting premise: In 1830, a black American, newly-freed from slavery, runs away from creditors and his own wedding, and stows away on what turns out to be a slaver ship tasked to bring back survivors of an ancient African tribe, plus a secret cargo.

Like all classic stories of seafaring, everything goes to hell and back from there.

The protagonist and narrator, Rutherford Calhoun, a lowlife even before he joins a crew of other lowlives, is a good choice for an antihero perspective. I particula...more
Dale
Wow.

Read by Dion Graham.
7 hours, 4 minutes.



I have rarely heard a narrator's voice so well-suited to a character as is Dion Graham's voice is to Rutherford Calhoun. Middle Passage (winner of the 1990 National Book Award) is written in first person as a personal journal of a ne'er-do-well former slave from Illinois who lives in New Orleans in 1830. Calhoun is forced to go on the run. He stows away on a slave ship bound for West Africa. It is captained by a diminutive American explorer and adventu...more
Sue
This is a book that I came by very inadvertently (in a box of freebies from my daughter) that turned out to be a quick, literary (yes, I said "quick" and "literary" in the same sentence) read that is by turns horrifying and funny. The story is told from the perspective of Rutherford Calhoun, a womanizing scalawag who lands himself in so much trouble with the local organized crime boss that he decides to stow away aboard the first ship departing from the port of New Orleans. This is a particularl...more
Kris McCracken
Tracking the final voyage of an illegal American slave ship in 1830, the novel presents a personal and historical perspective of the illegal slave trade in the United States through the personage of Rutherford Calhoun, a freed slave who unknowingly boards a slave ship bound for Africa in order to escape a forced marriage.

I don’t want to say too much about the story (which is a fair dinkum ripping yarn), other than it is a fine blend of melodrama, mysticism and historical realism. Any book that c...more
Cleo
I really enjoyed Middle Passage a lot. It had a great writing style, and I think the author knew it too. Our narrator is Rutherford Calhoun, a freed slave, who arrives in New Orleans in 1830. After he manages to collect a mountain of debt, and is going to be forced to marry a schoolteacher, he jumps aboard the first boat out of New Orleans, which happens to be a slave ship headed to collect members of a legendary tribe called the Allmuseri. He's "escaped" into a hell worse than the one he left b...more
Dan Quigley
Middle Passage is a novel by Charles Johnson first published in 1990. It is considered Johnson's masterpiece, and he won the National Book Award for it in 1990.

Middle Passage is told by the protagonist, Rutherford Calhoun, a first person narrator, in the form of nine journal entries. It is the coming of age story of a recently manumitted slave from Illinois who has come to New Orleans to establish his life. To escape a forced marriage he unwittingly stows away aboard a slave ship that is leavin...more
Topher
OK, so admittedly I thought that this was going to be a hyper-serious, quasi-historical, Important book about the slave trade. Man, I was wrong. Instead, the book was a comic romp. Rutherford Calhoun is a recently freedman from Illinois who arrives in New Orleans with a serious penchant for wild parties and wild women. When a series of missteps, or, to be more exact, his lifestyle lands him in hot water he must decide to marry the naive schoolteacher that has taken pity on him or, well, pay off...more
Alex
This is by far the best book I've ever had to read for school.

From the cover art, blurbs, and even the author photograph, I assumed this would be an interesting, if a bit dry, book in the vein of Ellison's "Invisible Man." By which I mean it would be an "important book" or that it would be a bit of a slog to read, but the class discussions and secondary theory reading would really provoke a lot of helpful thought.

And while "Middle Passage" is regarded (at least by my Professor) an "important bo...more
Katie Abbott Harris
This slim novel started off decently, but quickly headed downhill; I'm surprised that it won the National Book Award. The story is told via ship log entries by Rutherford Calhoun, a freed slave and thief in early 19th century New Orleans. To escape those he is indebted to as well as a marriage he is being forced into, he sneaks aboard an outbound ship. He quickly learns that the ship is a slaver headed for Africa, led by midget captain, Falcon. After leaving Africa with 40 slaves, treasure, and...more
U. Teresa
Neo-slave narrative that melds parody, pastiche, and a degree of magical realism to relate the 1830 experience of Rutherford Calhoun as he finds himself a once free man now en route to Africa on a slaver. His time during the Middle Passage uncovers the indomitable human spirit during one of the most horrific epochs in history told through literature. The novel stands as one of the best twentieth-century.
Jimmie
This was interesting book and almost felt like a rehash of slavery. The misuri children and all the issues on the ship made this story very fascinating. It was allegorical in a sense and i enjoyed it. I loved the main characters and this story had everything, from rape, to mystical stuff, violence, romance, drama, suffering...everything. Including comedy. I found it quite interesting.
Trevor Shane
Great for about 2/3 and then goes off the rails a bit. The narrative was so compelling and the writing so beautiful for so long and then Johnson drops the narrative almost entirely for Buddhist metaphysics. I dig the Buddhism angle but didn't think he needed to stop telling the story to get the ideas across.
Francesca
This book was required reading for me. I liked the Synopsis of the story and thought it contained great conflict and would hold my interest. However, the plot moved to slow and was hard for me to stay focused. Not my kind of book, but I would recommend it to people who love a more literary heavy book.
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Charles R. Johnson is an American scholar and author of novels, short stories, and essays. Johnson, an African-American, has directly addressed the issues of black life in America in novels such as Middle Passage and Dreamer. Johnson first came to prominence in the 1960s as a political cartoonist, at which time he was also involved in radical politics. In 1970, he published a collection of cartoon...more
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