Sunday, January 10, 2010

Middle Passage

by Charles Johnson

Thumbs Down

Rutherford Calhoun is a freed slave from southern Illinois. After his master's demise, he ran away to seek his fortune. Actually, in this first person account, he makes no bones about the fact that he ran away to seek a life of dissipation in New Orleans. After he finds such a life, his outstanding debts combine with the conniving of a female friend, drive him to stow away on a ship he later learns is a slave vessel. The rest of the story examines philosophically, the effects of slavery on the psyche of the African race and the various ways it manifests itself in the ensuing personalities of those who would later come to be called African Americans. This within the guise of a seafaring tale.

There is already enough said about the potential for historical revisionism within the angry blot of America's slave history. But in order to read the book with any amount of plausibility, one has to accept as fact many things the historical accuracy of which is continually debated within anthropological and historical scholarship.

The biggest drawback for me is that the book is presented as the journal of an emancipated, but educated free slave in about 1830, The protagonist, Calhoun, frequently lapses into soliloquies containing philosophical and historical details that firstly, would not be likely to be known by even an educated slave from a rural area of southern Illinois. Worse yet, many of the philosophies and historical views upon which he ruminates were not yet developed at that time. A few of them, such as those of Kant and Hegel, might have been under development, but with little or no chance at their being widespread enough to have been accessible to even the free men in southern Illinois.

After sneaking into the captain's cabin, Calhoun describes "Etruscan vases, Persian silk prayer carpets, and portfolios of Japanese paintings on rice paper." I wondered at that point whether such a character would be able to identify things like these. Later he sees the captain with a "Tyrian robe of Chinese design."

When the ships boy, Tommy O'Toole saw a vision, of sorts, he spoke a strange language, a combination of "Bushman, Cushite, and Sudanic tongues." I'm not convinced an emancipated slave would be so quick to identify all of them.

The leader of the Allmuseri slaves, Ngonyama, with rudimentary English, was able to relate the whole of his people's history, including their beginnings in Mohenjo-Daro. With minimal checking, I found that the original name of the city is unknown; and even the modern discovery of it was not made until 1920.

Historical inconsistencies such as these really detract from the believability of the characters and story line.

The author tosses names about constantly. We hear about Ptolemeic astrology and Leibnizian logic; El Greco-like subject for sculptors; Sisyphean pursuits; the Bardo-Thodol; Faust; Hegelian equation; Peter Paul Rubens; Vedic sorrow; Teresa of Avila, Aristippus, Bacon, Berkely; Ancillon, de Maistre, Portalis; Bach, Beethoven; Jan van Ruysbroek; William Law; a Platonic cave; Parmenidean meaning and Heraclitean change; and so on. A reader cannot help but wonder whether the author was looking for a canvas upon which to show off his learning.

I suppose one could use the book as an opportunity to fill in the blanks of his or her own education. I looked up a few things, but after awhile, I kind of skimmed over many names. I guess in the game of who knows the most, I will have to cry, "Uncle!"

Two brief positive notes, 1) The plot takes a very satisfactory curve at the end. It totally caught me off guard. And 2) In the context of discussing some of these philosophies and historical figures with my very educated husband, I knew Heraclite was a philosopher, he didn't. (I had to include that, because it really doesn't happen very often. Yes, Joe, I'm gloating.)


  1. Gloat all you want, meine zaftig frau.

  2. Wow, I don't remember adding that comment. Just call me Sybil.