The story is set in 1830. Rutherford Calhoun, a freed slave and a bit of a rogue, stows away on a ship in New Orleans to escape his debts and a forced marriage. What he doesn't realize is that the ship, The Republic, is bound for Senegambia in Africa to pick up a cargo of slaves. Working on board as a cook, Calhoun encounters more than he bargained for: a monstrous captain, a misfit crew, mysterious tribesmen of the Allmuseris, rebellion and confusion.
Such is the tale spun by UW English professor Charles Johnson in his novel, Middle Passage, which won the National Book Award for fiction in 1990. The work reflects years of research by the author in the literature of the sea and the historical details of the slavery trade. It has been characterized as both a rousing sea adventure and a mystical fable in the style of Melville's Billy Budd, reflecting Johnson's training in philosophy.
Johnson was the first African-American male to win the National Book Award since Ralph Ellison in 1953. He has published two other novels, Faith and the Good Thing (1974), and Oxherding Tale (1982), which won the 1983 Washington State Governor's Award for Literature. Johnson's collection of short stories, entitled The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1986), was one of five finalists for the 1987 PEN/Faulkner Award.
The author expresses his creative talents in a broad range of artistic forms. As a cartoonist and journalist in the early 1970s, Johnson published over 1,000 drawings in national publications. And in addition to his novels, short works of fiction, essays, and reviews, he has written over 20 screenplays. One of those, entitled "Booker," received the international 1985 Prix Jeunesse Award, a Writers Guild Award for outstanding script in the television category of children's shows. "Booker" was recently released for home video by Bonneville Worldwide Entertainment. It was aired, in addition to another of his works, "Charlie Smith and the Fritter Tree," on the Disney Channel. In an earlier effort, Johnson created, hosted, and co-produced "Charlie's Pad" (1970), a PBS how-to-draw series that ran nationally for a decade in the U.S. and Canada.
A former director of the creative writing program at the University, Johnson holds the Pollock Professorship for Excellence in English, the first endowed chair in writing at the UW.