The winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 1990 was Middle Passage by Charles Johnson. The title is a reference to the long and often terrifying transport of African slaves across the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean to the New World. The historical context of the significance of the title is that the term “middle passage” became synonymous with the inhuman treatment of those forcibly taken against their will from their homeland to be sold into bondage in a strange land populated by a sadistic society.
The episodic narrative of Middle Passage takes the form of a dated diary penned by Rutherford Calhoun, a freed slave from Illinois who lies his way into a job on a slave trade vessel and, when his deception is uncovered, agrees to work undercover for the captain to help investigate a planned mutiny by the slaves. The stylistic conceit of an educated slave writing about playing a double role during a slave uprising on a transport ship is central to the thematic sense of duality as well as the structural foundation. By telling the story as a personal narrative seen through the eyes of a black man raised in but not as a part of white society, Rutherford Calhoun fully inhabits the double narrative of African-Americans of which W.E.B. DuBois speaks. Underlining this cultural imposition of seeing things through the eyes of comparison is the metaphorical language dispersed throughout his journal accounts.
The pages are filled with simile that seeks to find meaning and definition through contrast and association. This style seamless reflects the personal journey of discovery of his own meaning and definition. Over the course of the novel, Rutherford changes profoundly. He starts out as an utter rogue whose plan to escape a forced marriage is to steal his way into a job on a ship that he does not realize is used for trafficking slaves. While the novel is clearly a larger indictment of slavery, it is really another Picaresque novel that thrusts one man into an insane world packed with insane character and incident to test whether he can learn to become a better human or give in to insanity himself.
Rutherford Calhoun may start out as a little big man seeking only to escape responsibility. However, by the time the ship he is on has charted its final course through the Middle Passage, he has become a big little man who has found his small niche within the world and is content.