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Middle Passage


Middle Passage Cover



Reading Group Guide

Questions and Topics For Discussion

1. Narration

Middle Passage is the story of an adventurer who takes to the high seas. It is also the story of a writer. As the narrative's protagonist Rutherford Calhoun explains, "Only the hours I spent hunched over the skipper's logbook kept me steady...Then, as our days aboard the Juno wore on, I came to it with a different, stranger compulsion — a need to transcribe and thereby transfigure all we had experienced, and somehow through all this I found a way to make my peace with the recent past by turning it into Word" (pp. 189-90)

  • Consider the role of storytelling in the novel. How do the stories recorded by Rutherford Calhoun enable him to make sense of his experiences, and thus perhaps aid him in coping with the many moral and other challenges he faces?
  • Consider the role of storytelling in your own life. What stories are important to you? And how do these stories help you cope with and make sense of your experiences?
  • The quotation cited above expresses a positive function of storytelling. Are there also examples in the novel of characters who have fallen victim to false stories, either their own or those of others?
  • The term metafiction refers to fictional works that call attention to their own making, breaking the illusion that the world created by the writer is real. Instead of wanting us to forget that the story is a work of fiction that has been made up, authors of metafictional texts keep reminding us that the world they have created is artificial. In what ways is Middle Passage metafictional?
  • Why do you think Johnson chose a metafictional approach to telling his story? Think about the names Johnson assigns to people, places and things. There are characters named Rutherford Calhoun, Squibb, Cringle, and Falcon, a country called Bangalang, and slave ship christened the Republic.
  • What are the implications and ironies of some of the names Johnson uses in Middle Passage? The Republic was unstable physically and the crew was constantly rebuilding it. The ship was, according to Calhoun, "a process" (p. 36). Cringle says that the ship would not remain the same as it was when leaving New Orleans; the Middle Passage would change it.
  • Is the ship the metaphor for the process of life itself?
  • If so, what is Johnson saying about the human condition? The historical Middle Passage was a source of horrific emotional, physical, and spiritual suffering for millions of Africans. In addition, it served as their introduction to the dehumanizing institution of slavery. Johnson has been criticized for transforming that grim reality into a comic (at least in part) adventure story.
  • Do you agree with these criticisms?
  • Why or why not?
  • 2. Freedom and Bondage

    Issues related to freedom and bondage play an important role in Middle Passage. The institution of slavery is an obvious form of physical bondage. Johnson seems to suggest that minds can be enslaved as well as bodies.

  • Consider the ways that characters in the novel are enslaved — to marriage, to money, to ignorance, to habit, to false traditions, to debt, etc. Is anyone in the novel free? If so, who?
  • What characters are enslaved? To what are they enslaved? Are they aware of their enslavement? Can they become free? And if so, how?
  • What does freedom mean for Rutherford Calhoun? For you?
  • 3. Identity and Transformation

    Liminality is a sociocultural state of being in which a person is betwixt and between, neither this nor that, belonging to two groups and to none. The condition of being liminal often gives on license to do things and go places typically denied others. Rutherford Calhoun says that he Middle Passage has rendered him a "cultural mongrel" (p. 187), and thus liminal.

  • In what ways is Rutherford Calhoun both a part of and separate from American society?
  • In what ways is he similar to and different from his African-American contemporaries?
  • In what ways is he both a party of and separate from the ship's social system?
  • What freedoms and what limitations arise from Rutherford Calhoun's liminality? Throughout Middle Passage, there is a sustained examination of issues related to ethnic/racial identity, whether "White" or "Black," "pure bred" or mixed race Creoles, "American" or "African," etc.
  • Is "race" biological? Cultural? Social? Is it a useful category? Why or why not?
  • In what ways have attitudes toward race changed since the mid-nineteenth century? In what ways have attitudes remained the same?
  • 4. Union and Transcendence of Opposites

    Johnson's work frequently draws upon Eastern philosophy, and in this respect, Middle Passage is no exception. An appreciation of duality is central to many Eastern approaches to understanding the role complementary opposites (e.g., male/female, free/enslaved) play in shaping our lives and the universe we inhabit. When reading, be attentive to these dualist couplings of seeming opposites.

  • Consider the opposition of shore and sea in the novel and the qualities that Johnson attaches to each. Why does Calhoun, who seeks freedom on the sea, long for "solid ground" (p. 204) at the novel's end?
  • What other oppositional pairings can you find? Are any transcended? If so, how?
  • 5. Quest

    American literature is filled with men and boys who leave the restrictions of society behind to seek a new, free life on the untamed frontier. In many respects, men of the sea have much in common with the rugged frontiersmen who followed the dictate "Go West, Young Man" in seeking both their fortune and freedom.

  • How does Rutherford Calhoun's sea tale follow the pattern of such mythic American quests?
  • Is the sea, like the frontier, a place to test his masculinity? (See p. 41) Does he successfully leave the past behind and stage his own rebirth? Rutherford Calhoun also observes at one point that there was an exaggerated sense of "manhood" on shipboard, one developed in the absence of women, who are said to be a civilizing influence. This conception of ship life seems to suggest that the sea is an antidote to the weakness of "civilization and urban life," which is viewed as feminine.
  • Do you agree that men are truly wild and women truly civilized? Why or why not?
  • How is this dynamic played out in the relationship between Rutherford Calhoun and Isadora Bailey.
  • 6. Historical Issues

    Johnson's Middle Passage is a work of fiction rather than historical scholarship. As such, creative license is taken with the historical setting in which the book's narrative is situated. One example of such license is the author's inclusion of anachronisms in the story he tells. An anachronism is something (or someone) that is historically out of place, such as a microwave in a movie set during the American Revolution. There are many anachronisms, most far less obvious than the microwave, in Johnson's Middle Passage. There is, for instance, a mention of the Piltdown Man, an archeological hoax perpetuated in the early twentieth century, long after the time in which Johnson's narrative is set.

  • When you notice an anachronism, mark it, and as you read the book, try to come up with some possible reasons as to why an author would intentionally insert them into his story. In addition to inserting anachronisms into his tale, Johnson also invents people, places, and things that never existed in any historical context. The Almuseri, for example, are a fictional tribe. They are described as an ancient people of achievements when Europe was still embryonic, the repository of the achievements of all on the continent who had gone on before. There is also mention of "headhunting natives" residing near Bangalang (p. 44). The inclusion of such nonhistorical inventions may be used to serve a large literary purpose.
  • What aspects of the author's portrait of the African background are least accurate?
  • What aspects are more accurate?
  • What Our Readers Are Saying

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    Average customer rating based on 1 comment:

    karenb223k, December 6, 2007 (view all comments by karenb223k)
    The title of this book is very good,it explaines alot and helps you know alittle about what the book is about. i have read this book and i will recomend it to everyone to read its very interesting.try it
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    Product Details

    Johnson, Charles R.
    Scribner Book Company
    Johnson, Charles R.
    Johnson, Charles
    New York :
    Historical - General
    Adventure stories
    Historical fiction
    African Americans
    Afro-Americans -- Fiction.
    General Fiction
    General Fiction
    Sea stories
    Literature-A to Z
    Edition Description:
    Publication Date:
    July 1998
    Grade Level:
    8 x 5.25 in 6.265 oz

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    Related Subjects

    Featured Titles » National Book Award Winners
    Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

    Middle Passage New Trade Paper
    0 stars - 0 reviews
    $15.00 In Stock
    Product details 224 pages Scribner Book Company - English 9780684855882 Reviews:
    "Synopsis" by , It is 1830. Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed slave and irrepressible rogue, 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 and self-discovery.

    Peopled with vivid and unforgettable characters, nimble in its interplay of comedy and serious ideas, this dazzling modern classic is a perfect blend of the picaresque tale, historical romance, sea yarn, slave narrative, and philosophical novel.

    "Synopsis" by , A twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Charles Johnson’s National Book Award-winning masterpiece—"a novel in the tradition of Billy Budd and Moby-Dick…heroic in proportion…fiction that hooks the mind" (The New York Times Book Review)—now with a new introduction from Stanley Crouch.

    Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed slave and irrepressible rogue, is lost in the underworld of 1830s New Orleans. Desperate to escape the city’s unscrupulous bill collectors and the pawing hands of a schoolteacher hellbent on marrying him, he jumps aboard the Republic, a slave ship en route to collect members of a legendary African tribe, the Allmuseri. Thus begins a voyage of metaphysical horror and human atrocity, a journey which challenges our notions of freedom, fate and how we live together. Peopled with vivid and unforgettable characters, nimble in its interplay of comedy and serious ideas, this dazzling modern classic is a perfect blend of the picaresque tale, historical romance, sea yarn, slave narrative and philosophical allegory.

    Now with a new introduction from renowned writer and critic Stanley Crouch, this twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Middle Passage celebrates a cornerstone of the American canon and the masterwork of one of its most important writers. "Long after we’d stopped believe in the great American novel, along comes a spellbinding adventure story that may be just that" (Chicago Tribune).

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