Charles Johnson's Novels

Charles Johnson's Novels

Writing the American Palimpsest
Rudolph P. Byrd
Distribution: Global
Publication date: 06/13/2005
ISBN: 978-0-253-11120-3
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2006 AAUP Public and Secondary School Library selection

This is truly a major contribution to African American literary criticism, and it promises to elevate Johnson to the place in the literary firmament he so richly deserves." —Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard University

Charles Johnson came of age during the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. His fiction bears the imprint of his formal training as a philosopher and his work as a journalist and cartoonist with a well-honed interest in political satire. Mentored by the American writer John Gardner, Johnson is preoccupied with questions of morality, which are informed by his knowledge of Continental and Asian philosophical traditions.

In this book, Rudolph Byrd examines Johnson’s four novels—Faith and the Good Thing, Oxherding Tale, Middle Passage (National Book Award Winner), and Dreamer—under the rubric of philosophical black fiction, as art that interrogates experience. Byrd contends that Johnson suspends, shelves, and brackets all presuppositions regarding African American life. This bracketing accomplished, the African American experience becomes a pure field of appearances within two poles: consciousness and the people or phenomena to which it is related.

Johnson’s principal themes are identity and liberation. Intent upon the liberation of perception, for the reader and the writer, Johnson’s fiction aims at "whole sight," encompassing a plurality of meanings across a symbolic geography of forms, texts, and traditions from within the matrix of African American life and culture. And like a palimpsest, Johnson’s texts contain multiple layers of meaning of disparate origins imprinted over time with varying degrees of visibility and significance.

Charles Johnson’s Novels will appeal to fans of the writer’s work, but it also will serve as a helpful guide for readers newly introduced to this brilliant contemporary American writer.

Author Bio

Rudolph P. Byrd (1953-2011) was Associate Professor in The Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts at Emory University. Byrd has also published Traps (IUP, 2001) and I Call Myself an Artist (IUP, 1999).


“A fresh look at the acclaimed African American writer and National Book Award winner. Like a palimspset, Johnson's texts contain multiple layers of meaning of disparate origins imprinted over time. Each is brought to llight here by a keen interpreter of Johnson' work. "With his beautiful evocation of the novels and of Johnson's writing and thinking, one comes away convinced that Byrd is right, but also that the novels are rich enough to support readings that may not be at all concerned with Byrd's interests. . . . " —Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard University”

“Byrd focuses exclusively on the ways in which Johnson experiments with the genre of the novel. . . . Recommended.”
 — Choice

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Table of Contents


1. Faith and the Good Thing: What Is the Nature of the Good?
2. Oxherding Tale: Slavery and the Wheel of Desire
3. Middle Passage: What Is the Nature of Freedom?
4. Dreamer: "If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?"