Jim McWilliams, ed. Passing the Three Gates: Interviews with Charles Johnson.
Few living authors can match the complexity, the philosophical depth, and the skills in craft possessed by Charles Johnson. The author of four superb novels, three collections of short stories, two books on aesthetics, two volumes of cartoons, and numerous other fiction and nonfiction projects, Johnson ranks among the most important and innovative writers of serious fiction in post-World War II American letters. He has also emerged over the past decade as one of this country's distinct and daring voices in social, political, and cultural concerns. Passing the Three Gates: Interviews with Charles Johnson is thus an extremely timely and useful book. Consisting of 20 interviews Johnson has given over the course of his career (the first dates to 1978, four years after Johnson's first novel, and the most recent occurred in 2003),
this collection offers a thorough immersion in the content and development of Johnson's thought on a dazzling array of issues. Several recent books, particularly Will Nash's Charles Johnson's Fiction (Illinois, 2003), Gary Storhoff's Understanding Charles Johnson (South Carolina, 2004), and Rudolph Byrd's Charles Johnson's Novels (South Carolina, 2004) demonstrate the increased attention being given to Johnson's work. And Johnson's own latest book, Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (Scribner, 2003), is a powerful addition to his body of writing, as is his recent collection of short stories, Dr. King's Refrigerator and Other Bedtime Stories (Scribner, 2005). Passing the Three Gates contributes significantly to this growing interest in Johnson's writing. It offers essential material for the reader interested in Johnson's life and work, and also interested more broadly in contemporary American literature.
The most significant aspect of Passing the Three Gates is the range and depth of biographical information the book offers on Johnson's career. McWilliams has gathered virtually every important interview Johnson has given, and the interviews progress chronologically, offering an invaluable and singular account of Johnson's development from the late 1970s through the early years of the twenty-first century. Even the fine book-length studies of Johnson by Nash, Storhoff, and Jonathan Little (Charles Johnson's Spiritual Imagination, Missouri, 1997) offer only a one-chapter overview of Johnson's life. McWilliams's book is likely the most informative biographical account of Johnson that we will see for several decades, until an authorized biography appears. Many essential elements of the author emerge from these interviews: his shift from cartoon-drawing to philosophy to fiction writing; his religious development from the AME church to Buddhism; the importance to him of family, and of his father and mother; his emergence out of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement, and the response in his writing to both trends; his martial arts background; and much more. Equally valuable is the way his key concepts are placed in the context of his aesthetic progression: the development of his mythical Allmuseri tribe from his early writings all the way to his most recent novel Dreamer (1998); the return of Christianity as an important concept to his thought, despite (or because of) his immersion in Eastern thought; and the importance to him of John Gardner as mentor, writing instructor, editor, and overall inspiration for Johnson's vision of what the writer should be. Even the repetition in the discrete interviews is helpful (and there is far less than one might expect--McWilliams has skillfully sifted through the nearly 300 interviews that Johnson estimates he has given in his career), as this repetition buttresses the importance of many of the dominant issues in Johnson's writing.
Equally important as the biographical element of this book is its articulation of Johnson's emergence as a powerful, challenging, and particularly timely American intellectual. He speaks forth on an astonishing range of issues, always with a measured, informed, and rigorously philosophical understanding of American thought. In the 1992 Phoebe Bosche interview, he speaks powerfully on the importance of responsibility in Black America; in the Marian Blue interview of 1993, he asserts, "I don't believe in any form of racial essentialism at all. I think environment is far more important"; in an interview with Jonathan Little in 1993, he claims as his inheritance the thought of all American figures, regardless of race or class; in the Michael Boccia interview of 1996, he praises the defense of freedom of expression in America, and wonders if such freedom would be maintained if the cultural nationalists and afrocentrists had their way; in the Will Nash interview of 1998, he claims that as a Buddhist he is convinced that race is "an illusion." The entire book is filled with positions and claims charged with relevance to the American scene today. Johnson's standing as public intellectual, and as a force to be reckoned with in all cultural debates in America, is well recognized; but this book expresses his thought with a coherence and complexity that heretofore has not been available. Thus the audience for this book expands beyond the literary to include all of those engaged in the American culture wars.
The pieces that McWilliams includes form rare Johnson scholarship. M. L. Lyke's interview for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1990 is obscure, but in it Johnson gives his most powerful statement on the diversity of the Black American experience. Similarly, Bosche's interview in the hard-to-find Raven Chronicles includes one of Johnson's most extended comments on the work of Ralph Ellison, his main precursor in American fiction, as well as his argument against hatred in Black American writing. And my personal favorite, Tim Allen's conversation with Johnson published in Phinney Ridge Review, a weekly neighborhood magazine from the northwest Seattle region! Nobody has seen this piece, yet here we find an extensive discussion of Johnson's martial arts studio in Seattle, and detailed descriptions of his martial arts style and philosophy. This broad selection is essential material for understanding Johnson's work: it is no accident that he is immersed in the choy li fut style of kung fu, which is Chinese in origin and closer to Buddhist thought than the external, "hard" Japanese-based karate styles. Finally, readers will be fascinated by the conclusion of Linda Davies's 1993 piece from Glimmer Train Stories, which closes with Johnson confessing to a recurring dream of shipwreck, near-drowning, and final rescue. As Johnson states, he has never told this dream to anyone, and its presence in this book is fascinating and provocative.
McWilliams offers a fine introduction that contextualizes and assesses each interview and its place in Johnson's career. In addition, he emphasizes the scholarly attention paid to Johnson in major critical journals in the wake of Middle Passage (1990). Moreover, McWilliams analyzes the range of interests of the interviews: several emphasize Johnson's writings, but many treat his approaches to the writer's craft from a writerly, as opposed to an analytical, point of view; and some focus on Johnson's personal life and his interests beyond the writer's craft. All are revealing and offer insight into this multifaceted man of letters. Finally, McWilliams appends the most complete bibliography to date of works by and about Johnson.
For his part, Johnson himself has written a superb foreword to the book, in which he reflects on the strange experience of revisiting these interviews and "encountering himself as a stranger." Here Johnson comments on the twists and turns that his own thought and craft have taken over the decades, and describes the relations between his statements in the interviews and the fiction and nonfiction he was composing at the time. He also notes how his development fits into the changing America of his lifetime, and describes his abiding obsessions with "the same issues of craft and culture" throughout his career. In this foreword Johnson gives another expression of his central task: the composition of "a complex, multi-layered philosophical novel." The challenges involved in such a task permit us to see the writer's mind at work. Johnson's achievement is already considerable, and his legacy will be powerful, even if currently overshadowed by that of more popular authors of his day. Passing the Three Gates makes a strong contribution to understanding the importance of Charles Johnson in his place and time.
Marc C. Conner
Washington & Lee University
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|Author:||Conner, Marc C.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2005|
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