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Middle Passage

Middle Passage

  • reading group guide
A twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Charles Johnson’s National Book Award-winning masterpiece—"a novel in the tradition of Billy Budd and Moby-Dick…heroic in proportion…fiction that hooks the mind" (The New York Times Book Review)—now with a new introduction from Stanley Crouch.

Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed slave and irrepressible rogue, is lost in the underworld of 1830s New Orleans. Desperate to escape the city’s unscrupulous bill collectors and the pawing hands of a schoolteacher hellbent on marrying him, he jumps aboard the Republic, a slave ship en route to collect members of a legendary African tribe, the Allmuseri. Thus begins a voyage of metaphysical horror and human atrocity, a journey which challenges our notions of freedom, fate and how we live together. Peopled with vivid and unforgettable characters, nimble in its interplay of comedy and serious ideas, this dazzling modern classic is a perfect blend of the picaresque tale, historical romance, sea yarn, slave narrative and philosophical allegory.

Now with a new introduction from renowned poet and critic Stanley Crouch, this twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Middle Passage celebrates a cornerstone of the American canon and the masterwork of one of its most important writers. "Long after we’d stopped believe in the great American novel, along comes a spellbinding adventure story that may be just that" (Chicago Tribune).
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  • Scribner | 
  • 224 pages | 
  • ISBN 9780684855882 | 
  • July 1998
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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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