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Soulcatcher and Other Stories.

Charles Johnson. Soulcatcher and Other Stories. San Diego: Harvest Original, 2001. 125 pp. $12.00

Charles Johnson's first collection of short stories, The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1986), contains eight "tales and conjurations." The stories had been published in several venues over the course of seven years (1977-1984) and differed significantly in their subject matter. Two stories are set in slavery-one involving a slave who acts out his benign master's unspoken and most violent desires, and the other involving two former slaves, a father and a son, who learn to fight the "old slave reflex" against emotional investment and to "surrender" to the sorcery of familial love. Two other stories are dystopias: one about two brothers who are ensorcelled by the money they find in the apartment of a dead, miserly housemaid, and the other about the breakdown of a community of pet shop animals who fail to value their commonalities while insisting on their species-and specious-differences. The remaining four stories deal with individuals who are in some way discovering either the complexity of their identities or the il lusory nature of personal identity itself. Whatever differences there are in their overt subject matter, the stories are connected in raising philosophical issues that had long been and remain deeply important to Johnson. These are stories about what happens when we do not discover and revel in what Johnson calls the "complex skein of relatedness" that connects us; they are stories about the various symptoms of that incurable state of illness Johnson describes as "selfhood."

Johnson's second collection of short stories, Soulcatcher, differs from the first in terms of subject and process of composition. All the stories are about slavery, and all were written in one month. The reason behind both the choice of subject and the impressive speed of composition is that the twelve stories in the volume were originally composed for and published in Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery, the companion volume to the PBS series produced by Orlando Blackwell. The circumstance of their original publication explains much about the stories themselves. Because they were meant to complement the narrative account of American slavery in Africans in America, the stories are arranged chronologically. The first two are set in colonial America; the next three concern figures associated with or living during the American Revolution. The following four stories take up events from the late-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, and the final three stories look at the intellectual and social ferment of the 1850s.

What marks the most obvious difference between the first and second collections is the attention Johnson gives to form in the second volume. Let me begin by noting that anyone who has read Johnson's novels or criticism knows that he is a craftsman who values and eloquently defends the profound importance of literary form. No form, he writes in Oxherding Tale, "loses its ancestry." The meanings particular forms evoke continue to "accumulate in layers of tissue as the form evolves." The role of the writer, he comments in Being and Race, is to "honor" the form and to "move the form forward" through the possibilities made real by the author's historical period. A writer as committed as Johnson to recognizing the significance of form, then, is certain to be concerned with form in all published work. So let me be clear that I am not denying Johnson's attention to form in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, but merely noting that he brings more focused energy to formal play and innovation in Soulcatcher.

In fact, as he states in the preface to the collection, one of the primary goals he set for himself in writing these stories was to deploy "a repertoire of formal variations" as he attempted to create a "diversity of narrative styles that would make each story aesthetically vivid." Using voices ranging from "authorial omniscience (third-person-limited)" to "alternating first-person monologues," and techniques as different as fictitious diary entries and mock-newspaper articles, Johnson has certainly succeeded in his task of making these stories formally diverse.

But it is more than just the author's attention to form that makes this collection memorable and worthwhile. The stories in Soul catcher are not so consistently magical and bristling with philosophical energy as are those in The Sorcerer's Apprentice but they do bring to the fore other aspects of Johnson's rich meditation on American history and culture. The first two stories give us insight into different modes of resistance. In one story, the young boy Malawi becomes a griot during the middle passage when his older brother passes along his people's history. The title of the story, "The Transmission," puns on two different kinds of transmission, physical and cultural, one into slavery and the other beyond it. The second story, evoking Nat Turner in its title, "Confession," describes the actions of those who participated in the 1739 Stono Rebellion. One mode of resistance, Johnson suggests, is to fight physically, another to keep alive the cultural traditions that give meaning to those who fight enslavement.

Johnson stages a different debate between culture and resistance in the third story, "Poetry and Politics," an inconclusive but suggestive dialogue between Phillis Wheatley and her mistress on the proper role of the black writer torn between a desire for polemics and a talent for creating beauty. The next two stories are also about women who have to make choices about what lives to lead in a time of national crisis. In one, a former slave who escapes and joins the British military reflects on what it means to be without a country or a national identity; in the other, the newly widowed Martha Washington meditates on the dangers she faces when her slaves know from her husband's will that they would be manumitted at her death. All three stories set during the American Revolution involve women, and all of them raise questions about the concrete and metaphorical meanings of slavery. The first of the three stories concludes with the former slave Phillis Wheatley's bemusement at the fact that George Washington ends his letter to her by calling himself her "servant," while the third story cleverly has Martha Washington ponder the ironies of feeling herself "enslaved" to the black people she owns as she tries to make herself "free of the errors of George Washington."

The next two stories look at two different free communities through the voices of quite different representatives. In "The Plague," we read the enraged 1793 diary entries of Philadelphian Richard Allen as he contemplates the costs wrought by the immediate disease of yellow fever and the more pervasive one of racism. In "A Report From St. Dominique," Thomas Jefferson's fictitious consul writes a letter reporting on the state of Haiti in the wake of the successful revolution.

The final five stories deal with the situation of black Americans from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the eve of the Civil War. One is a study of the free black community of Philadelphia's 1817 vote on colonization; another is a prose description of Frederick Douglass's recovery from the assault he suffered in Pendleton, Indiana, interspersed with selections from George Moses Horton's poem "The Slave's Complaint." Three of the stories deal with the effects of the Fugitive Slave Bill of 1850. The title-story describes a slave community violently resisting the recapture of one of its members; another story is a fable about a civic politician's plight when all the black people in his city leave the day after the Bill takes effect; and the final story contains a chorus of voices commenting on the Anthony Burns case in Boston.

The final story ends with the voice of Henry David Thoreau, who concludes that one of the "most important things we can do... is never forget." The fictional Thoreau is referring specifically to the betrayal of Anthony Bums, but the real Charles Johnson, I suspect, is talking about slavery in general. And what we must never forget, his fine collection of stories about the cauldron of slavery asserts, is that African American labor built, African American culture sustained, and African American ideals kept alive a country built from the crooked timber of Founders who owned and oppressed as well as led the first Americans.

[c] 2002 Asharf H. A. Rushdy
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Author:Rushdy, Ashraf H.A.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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