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Middle Passage

3.83  ·  Rating details ·  3,714 Ratings  ·  287 Reviews
3 hours on 2 cassettes

The year is 1830. Rutherford Calhoun -- freed slave, womanizer, and thief -- must flee New Orleans because of bad debts and an ill-starred romance. His poorly chosen means of escape is the slave ship Republic, bound for Africa to pick up human cargo. Once at sea, Calhoun encounters a crew of misfits, a captain who teeters between genius and madness,
Audio Cassette, Abridged, 0 pages
Published July 1st 1991 by Penguin-HighBridge (first published 1990)
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Charles Johnson is a highly prolific author, scholar, cartoonist and screenwriter. Middle Passage is perhaps his most celebrated work, having won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1990. In my exploration through the canon of great Black American writers, Mr. Johnson is perhaps the best I've encountered. That is no small praise when he's compared to giants like Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead and Junot Diaz. They all have enriched and enlightened ...more
Andrew Pisano
Dec 04, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 01, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Jan 11, 2012 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 10, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 15, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A northern, manumissioned, educated, black scoundrel who found his way to the French-becoming-overrun-by-Kaintucks mash up of worlds that was 1830 New Orleans, escapes his debts and worse, matrimony, by playing stupid (a skill mastered, and apparently necessary for survival, among educated free blacks when confronted by white idiots who needed to feel that their accidents of womb made them superior - often used in Benjamin January novels) and landing himself (unbeknownst to him) on a slaver. So, ...more
May 30, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: novels
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
It begins deceptively with cheeky humor from the mind of an ex-slave and street urchin making his way, dishonestly but not maliciously, in the world. But when the setting turns early on from New Orleans—deliciously realized as that “town devoted to an almost religious pursuit of Sin”—to the open sea, the mood shifts noticeably. I suppose any book about the Middle Passage has no business being light, and this one delivers on the horror. Our protagonist confronts slavery, mutiny, starvation, disea ...more
What a book. I'd never heard of it until I picked it up--the consequences of growing up in Canada, I guess. I'm so sorry it took me so long to find it--Johnson's style is wonderful, a delight to read, and his hero Rutherford Calhoun is a model of the picaresque. Strange to say that a story about a slave ship could be in any way humorous, but Johnson is a supreme talent and he makes it so. This is a slim book but the plot changes happen so fast that every page is packed. Nothing happens that isn' ...more
Scott Cederberg
Sep 03, 2009 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Phil Overeem
Feb 14, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Chris Demer
This is a great adventure novel, but far more than that. A black freedman, Rutherford Calhoun is a ne'er do well who had educational opportunities, but preferred a life of petty theft, drinking, gambling and womanizing. He plans an escape from a possibly forced marriage (to a plain, prim New England school teacher he meets in New Orleans, where he has drifted.) and debts which he cannot pay. Unfortunately, his plan involves smuggling himself aboard a ship due to depart the following day.

The ship
Aug 25, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Nov 02, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  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
Aug 29, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 Pistelli
Middle Passage begins with an audacious sentence, "Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I've come to learn, is women," which announces its audacious conceit: published just four years after Beloved's solemn Freudian-Faulknerian modernism arrogated slavery to the poetics of trauma and the incommunicable, Johnson's novel recasts the slave narrative in the style of the fictional forms that Europeans were writing at the time of slavery. Middle Passage is a picaresque, a ...more
Craig Pittman
Sep 15, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2016, america
It seems to me that one of the best things about being a member of Goodreads is the process of writing about the book you just finished: expunging and cleansing yourself of all that built up terror and awe of the sheer craftsmanship when it comes to the written word. I finished Middle Passage around five minutes ago, and found it within myself to write something about it here, and by God, it's making me feel really good.

So, what's Middle Passage about? It's about a freed slave who finds himself
Well, this is a confusing book to describe. In 1830s New Orleans, Rutherford Calhoun is a highly educated ex-slave and current thief and general scoundrel. Seeking to escape his debts and avoid marrying his girlfriend, he stows away on a ship, only to discover that it's a slave-ship. He's remarkably nonchalant about this, at least until they reach Africa and load on their captives. After that things take a turn for the worse.

Despite the topic, it's not at all a depressing or grim book; it's a l
Kathy Kattenburg
Oct 12, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The classic Quest novel, in this case about Rutherford Calhoun, a young man, freed from slavery by his dying master, who stows away on a ship which, it turns out, is a slaver bound for West Africa to pick up a load of human cargo. Calhoun starts out a petty thief and ne'er-do-well who sees the ship as a way to escape his creditors and a marriage he doesn't want (more because he wants to continue his carefree bachelor life than because he doesn't love the woman). But during the course of the jour ...more
Miriam Jacobs
Jun 25, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Angela Tyler
Jul 03, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Cheryl Durham
Apr 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Charles Johnson did a phenomenal job with the Middle Passage. The main character, Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed slave from Illinois, thought that he knew what he was running from (debt collectors and a refusal to marry) but not what he was running to. He boarded the Republic, and there, he learned that the ship was leaving New Orleans bound for Africa (bringing back slaves). Rutherford came to realize that his previous life (pickpocketing, womanizing and the like was nothing compared to what ...more
Nathan Marone
Everything that I can say about Middle Passage has already been said. But it bears repeating.

Most good novels manage to do one or two things well. Great novels might do three or four things well. And then there are novels like Middle Passage. Compulsively readable yet beautiful and arcane in its use of language, here is a book that manages to create a character who drops cultural references as though he were the Quentin Tarantino of 1830. Middle Passage patterns itself on stories of great sea a
John Pappas
Aug 31, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 15, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Another story I had not heard, written this time by U of W professor, Charles R. Johnson, and it makes good listening. Glen skipped reading out loud some deeply disturbing passages describing the living conditions of the Africans being transported by slave ship to New Orleans. If you know American history then you've learned about the atrocities committed in the 19th century against our African brothers & sisters.
Elizabeth Andrew
Jan 11, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: adult-fiction
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.
Q: Would my husband choose to sneak aboard a boat to avoid marrying me if he had the chance to do it all over again?
A: Probably!

This is the plan of action Rutherford Calhoun takes to escape a forced marriage with Isadora. He steals away in the night and is all like:

Uh. Bad news, Rutherford. You're actually on an en route slave ship with a bat shit crazy midget captain. A bat shit crazy midget captain that exchanges these words with you shortly after meeting:
"He's aboard now?"
"Hell, no...Chris
Yair Ben-Zvi
Apr 28, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not a perfect or a 'grand' novel by any stretch but I will say that, in many instances, there are seeds of greatness here that I can completely see bearing fruit in later works by this author. Charles Johnson's "Middle Passage" is a bold literary experiment in many ways; firstly, it attempts to wrest the slave narrative from the grip of austerity and arch seriousness and into something far more, well, I won't say 'fun' but I will borrow one of the words used frequently to describe the text: pica ...more
Nov 28, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It took a couple of pages but once I was hooked I almost couldn't put it down. Amazingly, everytime the main character becomes philosophical his observations are timeless. As he describes human behavior, I sometimes wondered if he was analyzing the last few years of political/class warfare. Or civil unrest. Or corporate corruption. The sudden timely relevance caught me off guard several times. And, as depressing as the issue of slavery is, presenting it from the perspective of someone who is str ...more
Urenna Sander
Jul 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In 1830, Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed slave, thief, and cad, wanted to escape Creole, gangster, bill collector, Zeringue, and marrying Bostonian schoolteacher, Isadora Bailey. Rutherford had arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana a year earlier from southern Illinois. He thought the city had beautiful demi-mondaines aplenty in every hue; it was his kind of town, full of excitement. Marriage to a schoolteacher was the farthest thing from his mind.

Rutherford’s only chance of escape from Isadora a
Sep 09, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: poc

"Middle Passage" by Charles Johnson, a 1991 Nation Book Award winner, has been on my to-be-read stack for quite some time. It is the story of a fictional Rutherford Calhoun, a freed slave who stows away on the slave ship Republic, leaving from New Orleans headed for West Africa. Calhoun, a thief, gambler, and “wastrel,” takes the journey in desperation to outrun his debts and a woman who is trying to force him into marriage. The stowaway has no inkling of the horrific voyage he is about to take

May 22, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Oct 02, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
It was a little more heady and literary than I bargained for, but still good. I'd just recommend reading it with a well-educated book club, or in a class setting where you have opportunity to reflect, read criticism and discuss.

One critic, Robert A. Morace writes, "Read one way, the novel is an allegory of the African-American’s struggle for freedom and identity; read another it is a pastiche of its own literary past: slave narrative, Robert Hayden’s poem “Middle Passage,” Edgar Allan Poe’s The
Apr 27, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018
Furthers the sea-faring nightmares of Moby Dick, and the African horrors of Heart of Darkness with a tale of life, mutiny, and rebellion aboard a slave ship. Unexpected humor, powerful, almost hallucinatory descriptions, wrapped up in an epic melodrama. Certainly a modern classic.
As a history major I had a hard time with this book and all the anachronisms. Perhaps after I graduate and I'm not required to spit out exact dates of events and their relation to other events I'll be able to reread this and accept the humor. Some idiot in class said the book was fiction so I shouldn't have a problem with it but the author dropped the names of real people and real events which is NOT fiction. If someone wrote a book that put the events of 9-11 during WWI I'm willing to bet some ...more
Lisa Kusel
May 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Gripping. Horrifying. Elegiac. Terrifying. Poetry in the midst of tragedy. A work of brilliance. I made everyone I know read it.
This history book has a history with me. I picked it at the Creston, CA library in the 1995, which I find interesting since Creston only has a population of 200, and so I would not expect them to have this book. I mean, the library is a hole in the wall. I began reading it and finished the first chapter, but then we were getting ready to move, so I took it back. I remembered how well I enjoyed the writing in it, so I remembered the title. A few years ago I bought the book, and after a few years ...more
Paulette Perhach
Immediately one of my all-time favorite books. Important, funny, riveting, beautiful. I couldn't get enough. Amazing.
Sep 05, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2015
Outstanding picaresque novel-- best book I've read in ages, hilarious and harrowing and full of deep mysteries and profound moral ponderings.
Jan 03, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2015, kwls, ebook
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.
Bill Adams111
May 20, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: literary
The title of this National Book Award winner suggests a historical novel, for the Middle Passage was the sea route used by slavers going from West Africa to the Caribbean. The book invokes important aspects of the slave trade, life at sea in the 1830’s, and the economics and politics of 19th century America, especially in the black community. There is a Melvillean aura of authenticity about it, especially an opening scene in a New Orleans tavern that could have been taken from Moby Dick.

The stor
Mar 30, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I "found" this book via a day calendar that recommends a book each day with a review given. My library informed me this was shelved in our Youth Library.
As I read this suspenseful adventure novel about the sea (via the "Middle Passage") and the nineteenth century slave trade, I kept getting distracted by this positioning of the book in the Youth Library. Obviously, the subjects of this book are adult themes.. starting with the obvious slavery atrocities, murder, language, brutality. Then add the
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Slave ship narratives 2 28 Dec 11, 2013 11:31PM  
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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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“The Apocalypse would definitely put a crimp in my career plans.” 2 likes
“We worked in silence. One thing I liked about the cook was that he knew when to shut up even when he was mubblefubbled and dying to talk. Occasionally, I felt his eyes, like fishhooks, try to catch mine as we squeezed past one another in the narrow galley, but he kept his thoughts untongued. Personally, I was too pitchkettled to trust my own speech.” 1 likes
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