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Middle Passage

3.81 of 5 stars 3.81  ·  rating details  ·  2,768 ratings  ·  194 reviews
It is 1830. Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed slave and irrepressible rouge, is desperate to escape unscrupulous bill collectors and an impending marriage to a priggish schoolteacher. He jumps aboard the first boat leaving New Orleans, the Republic, a slave ship en route to collect members of a legendary African tribe, the Allmuseri. Thus begins a daring voyage of horror a ...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 StoweKindred by Octavia E. ButlerIncidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet JacobsThe Color Purple by Alice Walker
Books about American slavery
28th out of 218 books — 244 voters
Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher StoweRoots by Alex HaleyNarrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick DouglassAdventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark TwainBeloved by Toni Morrison
14th out of 86 books — 76 voters

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Community Reviews

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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
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
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
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 ...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.
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
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
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
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
Craig Pittman
I finished this book a couple of days ago, but I have waited to review it until now because I couldn't figure out what to say about it. "Middle Passage" is a mishmash of styles and tropes, a mix of entertainment, erudition and enlightenment the likes of which I can't recall ever encountering before. I enjoyed it immensely and even snapped at someone for interrupting me when I was near the end. I wanted to see what happened. Yet the author's ultimate intent eludes me still.

The best part of the bo
Bobby Bermea
Middle Passage is a bizarre book. I wanted to like it much more than I did. It's strengths are pretty strong but it's weaknesses, for me, had much more of an impact. It's short, barely two hundred pages, and it's one of the few books I would say that I wanted to be much longer. At one point towards the end, Rutherford Calhoun, our narrator, can't tell his fiance all that had happened to him because it "would take a thousand more nights than Scheherazade needed to beguile King Shahryar." Well, wh ...more
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
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
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
Amanda Morgan
Outstanding picaresque novel-- best book I've read in ages, hilarious and harrowing and full of deep mysteries and profound moral ponderings.
What a great book! To use a sailing term I did hit the "doldrums" about 3/4 of the way though but I pushed on and was greatly rewarded by the beautiful ending.
Jose Caldwell
I never would have read this if not to help someone with a class. The author is a genius in many respects. Almost every other line has a bit of wit thrown in it. I think there are many people who will enjoy this style. At the same time though, I felt it bogged the flow down quite a bit, making what is more or less a short novel by my standards into a chore to get through. I can see how there are a lot historical, literary, and philosophical/spiritual themes and concepts throughout, and I suppose ...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
Miriam Jacobs
I read this book about halfway, not getting it, before I realized that Charles Johnson is writing not exactly fable - more like myth - in Middle Passage, as opposed to fictive truth. The speaker is a manumitted eighteen-year old New Orleans slave, writing an 1830 ship log account of a voyage - Greek in proportion, Melvillian in symbolic import - that is somehow empty in central characterization. This speaker, despite his youth and former social status, has the wit and prescience to mouth French ...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.
Elizabeth Andrew
Fabulous! I haven't had so much fun--and been so ethically surprised and challenged by a plot--in ages! I read MIDDLE PASSAGE in preparation for hearing Charles Johnson speak at the Key West Literary Seminar. I'm so pleased to now know this brilliant scholar who's unafraid to play with serious, difficult historical moments and people and who brings vast compassion to his story-telling.
I generally thought this was a good book, and I enjoyed the new setting of fiction based on non fiction. Middle passage is on a man who sails to Africa to avoid a bad life in the U.S which is good toward the target audience. However the presentation was what ruined the book, the ending seems to be a start to a squeal but never made it there. Another problem with this book is that it was written or printed in 1990 in which it used some vocabulary against African Americans that is shamed on today ...more
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...
Here's what Charles Johnson says this novel is about: 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
Middle Passage by Charles Johnson takes place in the 1830s during the slave trade. It gives us a perspective on what it might have been like on a 19th century slaver. Johnson mentions how the slaves were tightly packed and bunched on their sides in disgusting rooms below deck and some methods the crew used to keep the slaves alive; such as making them dance for the crew to give them exercise. He also threw in facts about anything from branding the slaves to what the crew did if a slave happened ...more
National Book award 1990 - Middle Passage is a novel about a emancipated slave, Rutherford Calhoun in New Orleans who runs into money problems early in the novel and is being forced into marriage. Instead of the fate of death he stows away on a shape that turns out to be headed for Africa to pick up slaves. The book is written from Calhoun's perspective as a log which gets explained as the story progresses. The Captain of the ship is a combination of Captains Queeg and Bligh - a little OCD and c ...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
Albert Kendrick
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
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
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
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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
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