Philosophical Novelist to Read on Campus

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), May 19, 2002 | Go to article overview

Philosophical Novelist to Read on Campus


Byline: BOB KEEFER The Register-Guard

Charles Johnson hardly knows when to quit.

When he's not writing novels, he's turning out screenplays and short stories. He does literary criticism for The New York Times and The Washington Post. He writes about Buddhism for Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. He won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 1998. He's on a postage stamp in the former Soviet Union.

Oh, yes - did we mention he's a successful cartoonist?

Johnson, whose 1990 novel "Middle Passage" made him the first black writer to win the National Book Award since Ralph Ellison did in 1953, will read from his work at 8 p.m. Thursday in the browsing room of the UO's Knight Library, 1501 Kincaid St.

A book-signing will follow at the free event, which is sponsored by the UO Creative Writing Program.

"I love to create," Johnson said in a phone interview from his home in Seattle, where he teaches writing at the University of Washington. "There is no joy for me greater than making things.

`I don't practice a creative apartheid, where I put things in boxes. If I have an idea for a short story, I will pursue that. Or a novel or screen play, or criticism or drawing. The one thing I've wanted to do all my life was create."

Johnson grew up in Evanston, Ill., an only child. His father worked three jobs. His mother wanted to be a teacher but couldn't because of her health. So her son became her star student.

"I had a happy childhood," he says. "It was a comfortable one."

As a teen-ager, Johnson - who loved drawing - decided he wanted to be a cartoonist. A career in art seemed a little beyond the pale to him and his family, so he studied journalism in college and spent the first seven years of his career as a cartoonist.

Eventually, the form began to feel confining. "There were things I couldn't express in a visual medium. There were different kinds of books I wanted to write."

Those books would spring from a largely 19th century tradition - American philosophical fiction, the stuff of Herman Melville.

"Middle Passage," which took Johnson to national prominence a decade ago, is a sea story - a tale, set in 1830, of Rutherford Calhoun, a free black man who stows away on ship in New Orleans, only to discover it's a slaver bound for Africa. …

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