American Literature Charles Johnson
Keith Byerman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0146


Charles Richard Johnson (b. 1948) was born in Evanston, Illinois. He demonstrated a talent for drawing at an early age and later established his first reputation as a cartoonist, both in college and on PBS. His first two book-length publications were cartoon collections in which he engaged the assumptions of the black arts movement. He majored in journalism at Southern Illinois University, where he also worked with the novelist John Gardner. Under Gardner’s influence, he wrote six novels that were not published. He then earned a master’s degree in philosophy while continuing his work with Gardner. He went on to a PhD program in philosophy and aesthetics at SUNY–Stony Brook. He joined the faculty of the University of Washington in 1976, where he remained his entire career. Though his early writing did not earn him much of a popular or critical reputation, it did establish certain concepts that have remained consistent throughout his career. His first published fiction was Faith and the Good Thing, a novel that linked philosophy, black folklore, surrealism, and realism in taking its female protagonist from the rural South to the streets of Chicago and back again. In his second novel, Oxherding Tale, he added Buddhism to the mix in the creation of the first of his neo-slave narratives; it is based on the oxherding tales of Zen Buddhist writing and painting. A high point in his career was reached with Middle Passage in 1990, which won the National Book Award. For this work, he conducted research on sea narratives, going back to ancient times. He joins this tradition with the slave narrative and philosophy, as the protagonist voluntarily joins the crew of a slave ship on its journey to and from Africa, where they take captive members of an African tribe that lacks Western perspectives on identity and material reality. His fourth novel, Dreamer, applies these concerns to a story of the end of the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Johnson creates a double who trained as a Buddhist monk but has become cynical in part because of his war experiences. Johnson’s interests in spirituality, race, and philosophy are also reflected in his three volumes of short fiction, his documentary work Africans in America, his work as an editor, and his collection of photographs of King. These same topics have also limited his audience because his attention to ideas does not make him an easy fit in the marketing of African American literature. Despite these limitations, he has received a MacArthur Award, and his work has been translated into several languages.

General Overviews

In part because of Johnson’s interest in ideas, he has drawn considerable scholarly attention since the end of the twentieth century, including several book-length comprehensive studies. Most of these, quite naturally, focus on the intersection of Eastern religion and Western philosophy. Storhoff 2004 is the most detailed about the influence of Buddhism, while Little 1997 shows the development of ideas over time. Byrd 2005, Nash 2003, and Selzer 2009 in various ways trace the social, political, and historical aspects of the work. Of these, Linda Selzer’s work, building on the others, is the most thorough. Byrd 1999 brings together scholarly studies covering the works published to that point, in addition to selections from Johnson’s own writing.

  • Byrd, Rudolph P. Charles Johnson’s Novels: Writing the American Palimpsest. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.

    Analysis of the four novels in terms of “philosophical black fiction,” a phrase Johnson coined to define his approach to experience and identity.

  • Byrd, Rudolph P., ed. I Call Myself an Artist: Writings by and about Charles Johnson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

    An important collection of fictional excerpts, cartoons, essays, and reviews by Johnson; interviews with him; and scholarly articles about his work. Provides a useful sampling for readers unfamiliar with Johnson or his work.

  • Little, Jonathan. Charles Johnson’s Spiritual Imagination. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997.

    As the first book-length study of Johnson, this work traces his artistic development from cartooning to the postmodern Middle Passage. Engages his shift in political views and his increasing use of spiritual and philosophical material. Positions each of the novels in terms of the fiction of an earlier writer.

  • Nash, William R. Charles Johnson’s Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

    Emphasizes Johnson’s engagements with racial issues in the process of rejecting race as a fundamental category of being. Ties this concern to the use of Western and Eastern philosophies in examining the novels and short fiction.

  • Selzer, Linda Furgerson. Charles Johnson in Context. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009.

    Surveys the religious, philosophical, intellectual, and aesthetic contexts for Johnson’s fiction. Traces the role of Marxism, Buddhism, and cosmopolitanism in the major novels. Especially good at laying out the intellectual history of each concept as it relates to Johnson’s intellectual development.

  • Storhoff, Gary. Understanding Charles Johnson. Understanding Contemporary American Literature. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.

    This book serves as an introduction to the major ideas and artistic concerns of Johnson, from Faith and the Good Thing to Dreamer. Sees Buddhism as the key to interpreting the fiction.

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