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NPR Arts & Life

A Look Back On 'Middle Passage': The Evolution Of A Literary Classic

ARUN RATH, HOST:

A young man stows away on a rickety ship and sails the ocean in a tale of struggle and survival on the high seas. So begins many an adventure novel, but "Middle Passage" has a twist. Our hero is a free black man in 1830s America, and the ship is carrying slaves. Charles Johnson won a National Book Award when his novel was published 25 years ago. It is now considered an American literary classic. For this anniversary, Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's Code Switch team spoke with Johnson about his novel and its evolving themes.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: A lot of people describe "Middle Passage" in highfalutin terms. It's deeply philosophical, a metaphoric look into the American psyche on race and so forth. Ask Charles Johnson what his book is about, though, and he will tell you this.

CHARLES JOHNSON: "Middle Passage" is first and foremost, at least for me, a sea adventure story, a rousing sea adventure story.

BATES: And that it is. There are aspects of "Moby-Dick" and "Billy Budd" and "Huckleberry Finn" in "Middle Passage." And like the narrators in Melville's sailing sagas and Twain's adventures down the Mississippi, "Middle Passage" has a memorable narrator in former slave Rutherford Calhoun.

JOHNSON: Rutherford Calhoun is a rogue. He's a free man who goes from Illinois to New Orleans. But yet, at his young age, he doesn't know the meaning of freedom, that freedom involves responsibility.

BATES: Rutherford is allergic to responsibility. He's amassed a growing pile of debts and some murderously irate creditors and, perhaps for him scariest of all, a young woman who is determined to marry him and make him respectable. So he does what a lot of men did back then. Here's how "Middle Passage" opens.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) Of all the things that drive men to see, 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 Republic.

BATES: He finds out in short order that wasn't such a smart idea.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) What lay ahead in Africa, then later on the open endless sea, was, as I shall tell you, far worse than the fortune I had fled in New Orleans.

BATES: For one thing, Johnson says, the Republic was a rickety pile of timber.

JOHNSON: And so you have carpenters on board. And they're constantly rebuilding the ship as they sail across the Atlantic, right, because it's constantly being torn apart and remade. That is a metaphor for this country. We are constantly remaking it and rebuilding it.

BATES: For another, the Republic is a slave ship; the most despised seagoing vessel because of the misery that is its cargo. Stowaway Rutherford becomes the unpaid assistant to the ship's cook and is the only black hand on board. But when they reach Africa, they take aboard a group of people from a mystical tribe, the Allmuseri, and Rutherford has to ponder his relationship to them. He and they are both black, but they see him not as a brother, but as a white person who is darker on the outside. And even though they have significant differences, both Rutherford and the Africans have the same goal during their sea odyssey.

JOHNSON: It's about survival. It's how will they survive? How will Rutherford and the Allmuseri get home?

BATES: Especially since home is in completely opposite directions for Rutherford and the Allmuseri. Halfway through the book, there's a mutiny; both sailors and Africans revolt. And the Republic is adrift, moving first toward Africa then toward the states depending on who's steering. Johnson says this gives Rutherford time to think about what he previously felt was his outsider status.

JOHNSON: They're lost at sea, and Rutherford, he comes to understand that home is America. It's a painful place. This is 1830. He's a free man in 1830, right. But as a painful place to be. He understands also, though, that without black Americans, there would be no America; that black Americans built this country along with whites.

BATES: Twenty-five years ago, these allegories of race and place captivated a lot of readers. And, says Sherrie Young, they still do. Young works at the National Book Foundation, which gives the awards. She says in rereading "Middle Passage," Rutherford's position, a black American caught between the rebelling slaves and the mutinous white crew, felt familiar to her.

SHERRIE YOUNG: If you are the only African-American, you're told you need to pick a side. And I think that was one theme, as I was reading, that kind of stuck in my head, how this is something that actually happens now. People are always told they need to pick a side.

BATES: The sides are always changing as Americans continue to mature and evolve, says Charles Johnson. And just as Rutherford Calhoun eventually matures in "Middle Passage," so will this country.

JOHNSON: America is an experiment in a process like that. And I think as long as we're not locked into stasis and no change, as long as there is change, then I think there's a basis for optimism.

BATES: Even when things look less than optimistic in the present. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.