Charles Johnson in Context
Analyzes the intellectual and cultural influences on an important African American novelist
Author of the National Book Award–winning novel Middle Passage, Charles Johnson belongs to a generation of writers who collectively raised African American literature to a new position of prominence during the late twentieth century. In this book, Linda Furgerson Selzer takes an interdisciplinary approach to Johnson’s major fiction, providing fresh insight into his work by placing it within a broad historical context. In addition to Middle Passage (1990), Selzer focuses on three other novels: Faith and the Good Thing (1974), Oxherding Tale (1982), and Dreamer (1998). She shows how these works reflect Johnson’s participation in the larger cultural projects of several significant but often overlooked groups—young black philosophers who challenged the dominant Anglo-American empiricist tradition during the 1960s and 1970s; black Buddhists of the post–civil rights era who sought to translate an ancient religious practice into an African American idiom; and black public intellectuals who attempted to revive a cosmopolitan social ethic during the 1990s. The cultural histories of each of these groups, Selzer argues, provide important contexts for understanding Johnson’s evolution as a novelist. In the academic experience of black students who entered philosophy programs during the turbulent 1960s, the spiritual concerns of black Buddhists who have only recently begun to speak more publicly about their faith, and the cultural issues surrounding the emergence of a new cohort of African American public intellectuals, we see the roots of the social, moral, and aesthetic vision that informs what some have described as Johnson’s “philosophical fiction.” Selzer’s probing analysis of the influence of each of these contexts not only enriches our understanding of Charles Johnson’s fiction, it also makes a broader contribution to the cultural history of African America during the past half century.
"Moving from the work that has come before her (and to which she herself contributed), Selzer explores Johnson's writing from within three major intellectual contexts, producing an interpretation of Johnson's work and importance that is impressive in its depth and intellectual power. . . . Her readings of his work are rich, and her overarching emphasis on the intellectual 'context' to his work provides a compelling view of not just Johnson's career, but the larger intellectual currents through which he has moved in the last four decades. The result is a very learned study, one that contributes not just to our understanding of one of the most important American writers of this age, but also to several major strands of intellectual history that—if the recent presidential election is any evidence—have become decisive for our time."—Callaloo
"An effective hybrid of literary criticism, literary biography, and cultural history, Linda Furgerson Selzer’s Charles Johnson in Context (2009) reads Johnson’s oeuvre alongside a varied and often overlooked range of philosophical and historical inter-texts. Her wide-ranging study achieves structural cohesion through her thesis that Johnson’s novelistic career may be charted as an intellectual and moral progression toward a unique and expansive vision of social justice. . . . Without question, Selzer presents a refreshing and thoroughly researched perspective on Johnson and his work. . . . Selzer’s study is especially valuable for its identification of understudied but noteworthy cultural terrains such as black Buddhism and black philosophy in academe. These cultural formations prove essential to a more comprehensive understanding of Johnson’s oeuvre, and Selzer’s sustained consideration of them will doubtlessly appeal to Johnson scholars and generalists alike in African American studies."—African American Review