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Middle Passage

Middle Passage

  • reading group guide
  • 1award
Winner of the National Book Award

“A novel in the honorable tradition of Billy Budd and Moby Dick…heroic in proportion… fiction that hooks into the mind.” — The New York Times Book Review

“Long after we’d stopped believing in the great American novel, along comes a spellbinding adventure story that may be just that.” — Chicago Tribune

“It’s a joy to read fiction in which there is a cultivated vision at work...the greatest victory of Dreamer is the light it shines on the life of Martin Luther King Jr.”

—Dennis McFarland, The New York Times Book Review

“In their remarkable simplicity these stories reach into...the African American experience with surprising freshness and the fluency of years of gathered wisdom. This book is a deeply satisfying reading adventure.” — Black Issues Book Review
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  • Scribner | 
  • 224 pages | 
  • ISBN 9780684855882 | 
  • July 1998
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Read an Excerpt

Entry, the first June 14, 1830<

Of all the things that drive men to sea, 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. Both Isadora and my creditors, I should add, who entered into a conspiracy, a trap, a scheme so cunning that my only choices were prison, a brief stay in the stony oubliette of the Spanish Calabozo (or a long one at the bottom of the Mississippi), or marriage, which was, for a man of my temperament, worse than imprisonment -- especially if you knew Isadora. So I went to sea,... see more

Reading Group Guide

Middle Passage
Charles Johnson

Questions and Topics For Discussion


  1. Narration


Middle Passage is the story of an adventurer who takes to the high seas. It is also the story of a writer. As the narrative’s protagonist Rutherford Calhoun explains, “Only the hours I spent hunched over the skipper’s logbook kept me steady…Then, as our days aboard the Juno wore on, I came to it with a different, stranger compulsion—a need to transcribe and thereby transfigure all we had experienced, and somehow through all this I found a way to make my peace with the recent past by turning it into Word” (pp. 189-90)

  • Consider the role of storytelling in the novel. How do the stories recorded by Rutherford Calhoun enable him to make sense of his experiences, and thus perhaps aid him in coping with the many moral and other challenges he faces?
  • Consider the role of storytelling in your own life. What stories are important to you? And how do these stories help you cope with and make sense of your experiences?
  • The quotation cited above expresses a positive function of storytelling. Are there also examples in the novel of characters who have fallen victim to false stories, either their own or those of others?
  • The term metafiction refers to fictional works that call attention to their own making, breaking the illusion that the
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About the Author

Charles Johnson
Photo Credit:

Charles Johnson

Charles Johnson, a 1998 MacArthur fellow, is the S. Wilson and Grace M. Pollock Endowed Professor of English at the University of Washington in Seattle. His fiction includes Dr. King's Refrigerator, Dreamer, and Middle Passage, for which he won the National Book Award. In 2002 he received the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Seattle.

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