A Celebration of Individualism Somewhere in America -- Perhaps Illinois -- Is Home

George F. Will

December 13, 1990|By George F. Will

Washington.

RUTHERFORD CALHOUN is one of those rapscallions who have enlivened American literature since Huck Finn decided civilization made him itch, and lit out for the territories. Calhoun is a ne'er-do-well who instead of going down a river on a raft stowed away on a ship to escape the twin horrors of debts and marriage. The ship turned out to be bound for Africa to collect cargo: slaves. And Calhoun is black.

So is his creator, Charles Johnson, who teaches at the University of Washington and has written, without setting out to do so, an emancipation proclamation for black writers. It is his novel ''Middle Passage,'' winner of the National Book Award. It is an example of triumphant individualism, on the part of both Calhoun and Mr. Johnson.

Calhoun is a freed slave from southern Illinois whose former master assuaged his guilt by tamping great gobs of learning into Calhoun. Calhoun arrived in New Orleans around 1830 speaking like Spinoza but determined not to be ''a credit to his race,'' a phrase that made him gag. He lived for pleasures, particularly the thrill of theft, until forced to choose either domesticity or punishment by a frightening creditor. Instead, he went to sea, a free black on the crew of a ship bringing slaves to American investors, one of whom was black. Mr. Johnson wants you to know that black experiences have been various.

''Middle Passage'' reflects Mr. Johnson's years of research in the literature of the sea and the hair-raising facts of slavery. The verisimilitude about the smells, sanitation and diseases aboard ship includes details about the captain, who is a ''tight packer'' (of slaves; Mr. Johnson explains how it was done). When a slave died in transit, the captain would cut off the ears to verify to the investor that the victim had been aboard.

In opaque remarks opaquely reported, a National Book Award juror suggested that the politics of ideology and ethnic entitlements, a poison in the teaching of literature nowadays, had seeped into the NBA process. But in felicitous remarks made when accepting the award, Mr. Johnson made clear what his novel itself makes clear: The ''message'' of the book is the absence of the sort of ''message'' that stultifies art.

Mr. Johnson noted that he is the first black male to win the award since Ralph Ellison won in 1953 for ''Invisible Man.'' Mr. Ellison's aim, says Mr. Johnson, was creation of ''a black American personality as complex, as multi-sided and synthetic as the American society that produced it.''

A black literature of protest, stressing victimization, appeared about three decades ago. It was, says Mr. Johnson, inevitable and important -- and limiting. Literature, he says, should be a form of discovery. A writer should not know in advance what, or at least all of what, he is going to say. Literature that is an extension of an ideology, that is didactic to the point of preachiness, lacks the power to change the reader's perceptions as the writer's perceptions change. A serious writer ought to be not only surprising, but himself surprised.

In ''Invisible Man'' (perhaps the finest American novel since ''The Great Gatsby''), Ralph Ellison made vivid how blacks are made ''invisible'' where racial perceptions obliterate perceptions of individuality. That is what white America did to black Americans.

But there is a form of suffocation that blacks can inflict upon themselves. It is to insist on a literature of orthodoxy, a literature of protest which insists on group consciousness. Against this, Mr. Ellison was adamant: ''Our task is that of making ourselves individuals.''

Calhoun learns from his voyage, and especially from his encounter with the dignified but inaccessible (to him) culture of the slaves. He learns that he is a Yankee sailor.

A white crew member tells Calhoun: The slaves, too, are black, but they are not like you. Crew members call him Illinois, and by the end of the novel Calhoun knows that somewhere in America, perhaps Illinois, is home. The novel is about -- quietly about -- patriotism.

''If,'' Calhoun muses, ''this weird, upside-down caricature of a country called America, if this land of refugees and former indentured servants, religious heretics and half-breeds, whoresons and fugitives -- this caldron of mongrels from all points of the compass -- was all I could rightly call home, then aye: I was of it. There, as I lay weakened from bleeding, was where I wanted to be.''

Mr. Johnson anticipates in the 1990s a black fiction ''of increasing intellectual and artistic generosity, one that enables us as a people -- as a culture -- to move from narrow complaint to broad celebration.'' I think he means celebration of the possibilities of American individualism. I know that his novel, and the award, are reasons for celebration.

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