Academic journal article African American Review

'Oxherding Tale' and 'Siddhartha:' Philosophy, Fiction, and the Emergence of a Hidden Tradition

Academic journal article African American Review

'Oxherding Tale' and 'Siddhartha:' Philosophy, Fiction, and the Emergence of a Hidden Tradition

Article excerpt

Charles Johnson has written a searching introduction to the Plume edition of Oxherding Tale, originally published in 1982, in which he carefully sets forth the genesis and publishing history of his second novel. This edition of Oxherding Tale is the first instance in which Johnson, within the framework of introductory or prefatory remarks, has chosen to reflect upon the processes, both hostile and nurturing, undergirding the writing of a particular work of fiction. Given the novels that bracket Oxherding Tale, Faith and the Good Thing (1974) and Middle Passage (1990), respectively, it is significant that Johnson chooses to begin this much welcomed public reflection upon the setbacks and advances of literary production with Oxherding Tale. There are, I believe, certain motivations for Johnson's decision to bring, as it were, his enlarging readership into his confidence.

Oxherding Tale is perhaps the most widely taught and admired of Johnson's novels, and the author regards it as his "platform" book (xvii). He adds that platform is a "playful reference" to The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, a canonical work in Zen Buddhism. Oxherding Tale is Johnson's "platform" book in the sense, as he writes in the introduction, "that everything else I attempted to do would in one way or another be based upon and refer to it" (xvii). As the pivotal work of fiction that constituted the greatest challenge in intellectual and artistic terms, Oxherding Tale had far-reaching influence on Johnson's subsequent fiction. For example, in Oxherding Tale Johnson begins his exploration of the physical and metaphysical nature of slavery within the framework of Buddhism, Taoism, and. Hinduism. Beyond the painful and patent fact of chattel slavery, in what other ways, ruminates Johnson in Oxherding Tale, can we be enslaved? This is the central question in this metaphysical slave narrative whose title-page, Johnson notes, bears the imprint of the "Taoist symbol for a man travelling on the Way" (xvii). Further, and related to this systematic exploration of the various species of slavery within the framework of Eastern philosophy, the Allmuseri, a fictional African clan, is a defining presence through the character of Reb, the Coffinmaker, in Oxherding Tale, but a dominant presence through the character of Ngonyama in Middle Passage. Plainly, in these and other ways Oxherding Tale has had a profound impact upon the content and intellectual concerns of Johnson's subsequent fiction. It is for this reason that he has taken such pains to reconstruct the context and process of Oxherding Tale's composition and publication.

Certainly, Johnson's foray into literary criticism is, in some sense, a response to certain personal and historical exigencies; that is, a desire to make his own past as an artist visible, coherent, and accessible. Being & Race: Black Writing since 1970 (1988), Johnson's only book of literary criticism, is, in part, an earlier and extended elaboration of this desire. Johnson's more recent and much welcomed public reflection springs, however, from yet another source. There is in his introduction a desire to assess and weigh the aesthetic value of Oxherding Tale in relationship to his other novels. And, in my view, Oxherding Tale remains the work of fiction in which Johnson's artistic and intellectual vision is most fully realized. While Faith and the Good Thing and Middle Passage are unified, coherent, and complex works of art, there is, I believe, a degree of depth, strangeness, and power in Oxherding Tale that is unequaled in the other novels. Johnson himself holds a similar view of the value of his "platform" book. In comparing Oxherding Tale with Middle Passage, the novel for which he was awarded the National Book Award in 1990, Johnson writes that his prizewinning third novel "contains only a fraction of its predecessor's complexity" (xvii). Johnson's candor and lack of sentimentality regarding the artistic achievement of his novels is unusual and admirable. …

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