Thursday, September 8, 2011

THE CHARLES JOHNSON SOCIETY: Are you now or have you ever been...

You can't have high standards of scholarship without having a high standard of integrity, because the essence of scholarship is truth. Dr. John Hope Franklin

 According to its mission statement, "On May 23, 2003, the Charles Johnson Society was founded at the annual conference for the American Literature Association in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Society's goal is to stimulate and encourage interest in philosophical fiction---in particular the works of Charles Johnson---through annual meetings, a web site, a newsletter, and other activities."

The CJ Society has held its annual meetings at ALA in Boston and San Francisco. Whenever the officers of the Society---Linda Furgerson Selzer, John Whalen-Bridge, Gary Storhoff, Marc Conner, and William Nash---gather on the west coast, I try to attend the sessions, soak up their presentations, and just enjoy their company, for as a group they are among the most generous, hard-working, inter-disciplinary, productive, and brilliant literary scholars that I've had the pleasure and privilege of knowing during my 33 years in higher education. And, as you will see in a moment, their research, teaching and publications are not limited by any means to my work. Rather, their current projects cover a wide, ever-expanding and fascinating range of explorations into black American literature and culture, other Western canonical authors, and also Asian philosophy. 

 John Whalen-Bridge (JWB), an Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore, cut through all the bureaucratic red-tape required for establishing the CJ Society (he has served as president), and he also helped create the Norman Mailer Society. With Gary Storhoff, an Associate Professor of English at the University of Connecticut at Stamford, he serves as editor for the SUNY series in Buddhism and American Culture. The works they have published so far are seminal and include The Emergence of Buddhist American Literature;American Buddhism as a Way of Life; and Writing as Enlightenment: Buddhist American Literature into the Twenty-first Century. A high-ranking and life-long practitioner of the martial arts, JWB has also edited with D.S. Farrer the forthcoming book Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge: Asian Traditions in a Transnational World.

Linda Furgerson Selzer, who holds advanced degrees in philosophy and literature, is Society treasurer and an Associate Professor at the
Pennsylvania State University. She is at work on a book entitled Black Authorship in the Digital Age. Her recent articles include "Black American Buddhism: History and Representation" in JWB's and Storhoff's Writing as Enlightenment; "Figuring the Black Body: Obama and the 2008 Election" in MELUS; and an article on Colson Whitehead's novel The Intuitionist in African American Review as well as a forthcoming article entitled "The Digital Public Sphere and Black Life Writing." 

 Former Society president William Nash, Professor of American literature and civilization at Middlebury College, describes his latest research this way:
"My new research focuses on the imaginative geography of the 'ghetto' landscapes of Chicago.  By 'imaginative geography' I mean 'representations of place, space and landscape that structure people’s understandings of the world, and in turn help shape their actions.'  As I consider the imaginative geography of Chicago’s African American community, first as 'ghetto' and later, more specifically as 'the projects,' I am interested in looking at cultural artifacts that I thought contributed significantly to the construction of what I’d say is a national misconception of urban African America.  Native Son is, of course, a great example of this sort of artifact.
    "Against that background of iconic texts like Native Son," Nash continues, "I have been looking for artists and writers whose work countered or at least complicated these ideas, whose work challenged the power imbalance inherent in the construction of space that I’ve been talking about.  This turns around the geographical concept of 'thirdspace.'  For artists, acting in thirdspace means appropriating geographies that were made for one purpose and redefining and occupying them as strategic (real or symbolic) locations.  This becomes a means of reclaiming and reframing the idea of urban African America as more than a place of suffering, victimization, and despair (a la Wright in Native Son and the ‘hood films of the 1990s).  The Chicago sections of Dreamer certainly fit this description.  I’m also interested in the work of visual artist Kerry James Marshall and a range of popular musicians from the late 60s to the present whose work complicates our ideas of the 'ghetto'."

 And last, but certainly not least, is Marc Conner, Professor of English at Washington and Lee University. Like JWB, Conner is a martial artist who will test in two weeks for his 4th degree black belt in American Freestyle Karate; he also has a second degree black belt in Shotokan karate, and teaches at the Lexington Karate School. An indefatigable teacher and scholar, Conner, secretary of the Society, is the author of the forthcoming book The Poetry of James Joyce Reconsidered, which will be published in 2012. With scholar and novelist John Callahan (his first novel is A Man You Could Love), who is the Morgan S. Odell professor of humanities at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon and literary executor for the estate of Ralph Ellison, Conner is at work on The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison. And just as JWB did in 2003 with the CJ Society, Conner this past year shepherded into existence the long overdue Ralph Ellison Society.

 It's clear, I think, that the officers of the CJ Society are enriching American (and world) literary culture in ways both numerous and diverse, and setting---in the spirit of John Hope Franklin's statement in the above epigraph---a very high standard for others to follow. I consider it a blessing to be in regular conversation with each and every one of them, and look forward eagerly to learning from their latest works.

1 comment:

  1. I might add that among the many delights of being in the Charles Johnson Society is the pleasure of working alongside such a dedicated and richly informed group of scholars. I have learned so much from the other folk in the Society. And there is awesome scholarship coming from the Society on Charles Johnson and American letters as a whole. Will Nash's "Charles Johnson's Fiction" (Illinois, 2003) and Gary Storhoff's "Understanding Charles Johnson" (South Carolina, 2004) are indispensable studies of Johnson's work; Linda Selzer's "Charles Johnson in Context" (Massachusetts 2009) explores the historical, literary, and cultural horizons of Johnson's work with amazing insight;Jim McWilliams's "Interviews with Charles Johnson" (Washington 2004) collects the most important interviews Johnson has given over the years; John Whalen-Bridge has published a series of insightful essays on Johnson's work, and he's especially sharp on the Buddhist elements of Johnson's writing; and the Conner/Nash volume, "Charles Johnson: The Novelist as Philosopher" (Mississippi 2007) brings together most of the leading Johnson scholars in a rich array of essays. I've been absurdly blessed to work alongside such smart and gifted people. It's no accident that Johnson's writing attracts good thinkers.