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Authors: Charles Johnson

Middle Passage

BOOK: Middle Passage
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“A novel in the honorable tradition of
Billy Budd

. . . heroic in proportion . . . fiction that hooks into the mind.”


t 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
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.

“Long after we'd stopped believing in the great American novel, along comes

a spellbinding adventure story that may be just that.”


. C
, author of
received the National Book Award for
Middle Passage
in 1990. Currently the Pollock Professor of English at the University of Washington, he lives in Seattle with his wife and their two children.


Cover design by Tom Stvan
Cover painting by Wilberforce House, Kingston-Upon-Hull
   City Museums, Art Galleries and Archives, U.K.
Author photograph by Jerry Bauer
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Praise for
Middle Passage,
1990 Winner of the National Book Award

“Heroic . . . engrossing . . . in the tradition of
Billy Budd
Moby Dick
. . . fiction that hooks into the mind.”

—The New York Times Book Review

“A rousing adventure yarn that resonates with and echoes the spirit of early sea stories . . . Johnson has fashioned a tale of travel and tragedy, yearning and history, and done so from a different, rarely explored viewpoint. . . .
Middle Passage
is a story of slavery, often brilliant in its structure and riveting in the way it's told.”

—San Francisco Chronicle

“Middle Passage
is both unexpectedly funny and highly intellectual.”

—The Washington Post

“Highly readable . . . by turns mimicking historical romance, slave narrative, picaresque tale, parable, and sea yarn, indebted to Swift, Coleridge, Melville, and Conrad.”

—Los Angeles Times Book Review

“A vivid and compelling work.”


“A fascinating allegory of the way black and whites came together in this country . . . Johnson's remarkable novel challenges us.”

—USA Today

“A savage parable of the black experience in America . . . blending confessional, ship's log, and adventure . . . in luxuriant, intoxicating prose.”

—Publishers Weekly

“Middle Passage
resonates . . . a spirited adventure tale daringly spun off the realm of myth.”




The Sorcerer's Apprentice
Oxherding Tale
Faith and the Good Thing


Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970


Black Men Speaking
 (coedited with John McCluskey Jr.)


Half-Past Nation Time
 Black Humor

1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

1990 by Charles Johnson

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

First Scribner trade paperback edition 2005

and design are trademarks of Macmillan Library Reference USA, Inc., used under license by Simon & Schuster, the publisher of this work.

The Library of Congress has cataloged the Atheneum edition as follows:
Johnson, Charles Richard, 1948–
Middle passage / Charles Johnson.
p.   cm.
I. Title.
PS3560.03J35M5    1990
813'.54——dc20   90-32713

ISBN-13: 978-0-684-85588-2
ISBN-10:    0-684-85588-7
eISBN-13: 978-1-439-12503-8

Many thanks to Dr. Robert Westerfelhaus and his colleagues on the College of Charleston Reading Guide Committee, Mary Burkard, Catherine Holmes, John Newell, Jack Parson, Scott Peeples, and Bernard E. Powers, Jr., for providing the reading group guide on
Middle Passage.

To Joan
for the last twenty-two years

Homo est quo dammodo omnia

Saint Thomas Aquinas

What port awaits us, Davy Jones'
or home? I've heard of slavers drifting, drifting,
playthings of wind and storm and chance,

their crews

gone blind, the jungle hatred
crawling up on deck.

Robert Hayden
“Middle Passage”

Who sees variety and not the Unity wanders
on from death to death

Brihad-aranyaka Upanishad

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Chapter 1: Entry, the first June 14, 1830

Chapter 2: Entry, the second June 20, 1830

Chapter 3: Entry, the third June 23, 1830

Chapter 4: Entry, the fourth June 28, 1830

Chapter 5: Entry, the fifth June 30, 1830

Chapter 6: Entry, the sixth July 3, 1830

Chapter 7: Entry, the seventh Same Day

Chapter 8: Entry, the eighth August 1, 1830

Chapter 9: Entry, the ninth August 20, 1830


A Scribner Reading Group Guide

Laud Deo

Journal of a Voyage intended

by God's permission

in the
, African

from New Orleans to the Windward

Coast of Africa

Entry, the first
JUNE 14, 1830

Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I've come to learn, is women. In my case, it was a spirited Boston schoolteacher named Isadora Bailey who led me to become a cook aboard the
. Both Isadora and my creditors, I should add, who entered into a conspiracy, a trap, a scheme so cunning that my only choices were prison, a brief stay in the stony oubliette of the Spanish Calabozo (or a long one at the bottom of the Mississippi), or marriage, which was, for a man of my temperament, worse than imprisonment—especially if you knew Isadora. So I went to sea, sailing from Louisiana on April 14, 1830, hoping a quarter year aboard a slave clipper would give this relentless woman time to reconsider, and my bill collectors time to forget they'd ever heard the name Rutherford Calhoun. But what lay ahead in Africa, then later on the open, endless sea, was, as I shall tell you, far worse than the fortune I'd fled in New Orleans.

New Orleans, you should know, was a city tailored to my taste for the excessive, exotic fringes of life, a world port of such extravagance in 1829 when I arrived from southern Illinois—a newly freed bondman, my papers in an old portmanteau, a gift from my master in Makanda—that I
dropped my bags and a shock of recognition shot up my spine to my throat, rolling off my tongue in a whispered,
“Here, Rutherford is home.”
So it seemed those first few months to the country boy with cotton in his hair, a great whore of a city in her glory, a kind of glandular Golden Age. She was if not a town devoted to an almost religious pursuit of Sin, then at least to a steamy sexuality. To the newcomer she was an assault of smells: molasses commingled with mangoes in the sensually damp air, the stench of slop in a muddy street, and, from the labyrinthine warehouses on the docks, the odor of Brazilian coffee and Mexican oils. And also this: the most exquisitely beautiful women in the world, thoroughbreds of pleasure created two centuries before by the French for their enjoyment. Mulattos colored like magnolia petals, quadroons with breasts big as melons—women who smelled like roses all year round. Home? Brother, for a randy Illinois boy of two and twenty accustomed to cornfields, cow plops, and handjobs in his master's hayloft, New Orleans wasn't home. It was Heaven. But even paradise must have its back side too, and it is here (alas) that the newcomer comes to rest. Upstream there were waterfront saloons and dives, a black underworld of thieves, gamblers, and ne'er-do-wells who, unlike the Creoles downstream (they sniffed down their long, Continental noses at poor, purebred Negroes like myself), didn't give a tinker's damn about my family tree and welcomed me as the world downstream would not.

BOOK: Middle Passage
9.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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