Sunday, September 11, 2011


There's many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher. Flannery O'Connor

Over the years, and on several occasions, I've mentioned how in 1971 when I was 23-years-old I wrote an early draft of the novel Middle Passage that I set aside because I considered it to be unsuccessful. That naturally raises the question, why did I feel it failed? Allow me to use today's E-Channel post to provide a full reply to that question.

 In 1969 black students at my undergraduate college took on, in addition to their load of regular coursework, the creation of the first Black Studies classes on our campus. At that time, there were no black professors to offer such a curriculum. So black graduate students from different departments---history, philosophy, sociology---assumed the roles of lecturers. My friend Tom Slaughter, who was then a black graduate student in Philosophy and later earned his Ph.D. in that field when we were doctoral students at SUNY Stony Brook (philosopher Don Ihde directed both our dissertations), was one of those young lecturers, and it was he who got me involved. A handful of undergraduates were trained to lead weekly discussion groups, myself among them. 

I recall seriously neglecting my official spring courses to prepare for leading my small discussion group of fellow students. I studied, for eight hours a day, John Hope Franklin’s massive, ground-breaking From Slavery to Freedom because it contained everything about black American history that I had not been told about in integrated elementary and secondary schools in Evanston, Illinois. This was an alternate curriculum, a creatively assembled crash course that began to answer my questions about the history and contributions of people of African descent to the world----knowledge that was truly liberating, personal, and completely unknown to the white students sitting beside me in my official classes. 
During that year, one of the black graduate students in history placed on the overhead projector a cross-section of a slave ship: the now famous image of Africans crammed “spoon-fashion” into the hold. That image, which hitherto I had not seen (or, if so, never so powerfully), burned itself into my mind. Sitting in a sea of about 300 students, I knew that some day (I knew not when) and somehow (I knew not how) I had to extensively research and dramatize what those unnamed and unvoiced black people squeezed like cattle into the belly of a European slaver endured on their journey to the West. This need was not merely academic. It was visceral, as profoundly personal and urgent as scholarship and art can be.
 So for a class in black history I took later with a visiting black professor from the St. Louis, Missouri area, I began my research on the Atlantic slave trade, using that material first for my term paper for that class, then as the basis for a novel. 

But you have to remember, in 1971, I'd been seriously writing fiction for just a year. This was the period (1970-72) when I trained myself to produce 10 pages of fiction a day, five days a week, and completed the draft for a novel every 10 weeks (or every academic quarter), which resulted in six novels finished by the fall of 1972 when I began the seventh one, Faith and the Good Thing, with writer John Gardner looking over my shoulder.
 In all honesty I have to say that I began that first draft of Middle Passage too early in my novel-writing career. Put simply, pulling off everything that novel required was above my pay-grade when I was 23-years-old. The problems it had were both conceptual and in terms of execution. It was written too quickly, and before I was skillful with such matters as narrative voice, formal variations, and the poetic possibilities of literary prose. Furthermore, my research at the time led me to narratives written by white slave ship captains. That was the correct choice for literary form, i.e., a slave ship's log. But in my earliest version of Middle Passage the log is also kept by a white captain (Imagine the novel you know being narrated in first-person by Capt. Ebenezer Falcon). That fictitious slave ship captain was simply never able to understand and identify fully with the Africans in the hold of his ship. They remained chattel for him, not people.

 Therefore, I put that draft away, turned to writing other novels and stories between 1972 and 1983, doing a great deal more research into slavery along the way for Oxherding Tale (where I developed some crucial strategies I would use again later in Middle Passage, i.e., how do I create a protagonist/narrative who is a highly educated slave, and how do I make the antebellum world speak to contemporary issues of race and culture), and developed more fully my skills as a technician of language and form. By the time I returned to that story in 1983, its protagonist, the person keeping the ship's log for The Republic, was Rutherford Calhoun, a free black man. A more roguish version (or picaro) of the more genteel Andrew Hawkins in Oxherding Tale. Unlike the white captain in the early draft, he is a black American who completely understands the white crew, the Western world and is positioned to embrace and be transformed by his experience with the Africans taken on board: the Allmuseri, the most spiritually advanced tribe on this planet. For Rutherford, then, the middle passage becomes a spiritual odyssey and a meditation on the question, "Where is home?" 

In contrast to the novel's 1971 draft, the one written between 1983 and 1989 provided the kind of multi-leveled "ground situation" that allowed for greater complexity and the exploration of many philosophical questions. That's the kind of fertile situation I always need when I write a novel: a plot (the writer's equivalent to the philosopher's argument, as John Gardner once put it), and characters so potentially rich that I can invest in them all my own burning intellectual and emotional concerns during the time of the book's composition. I always write every novel as if it is the last thing I will ever write or say, a kind of literary Last Will and Testament, or summing up of everything I think, feel, believe, and know at a particular moment in my life. I write it as if I might be fatally hit by a car right after taking the manuscript to the post office. (For that reason, every novel I've published since 1974 exhausts me, and is a kind of emptying out of my entire life onto the page.) Fortunately, the draft of Middle Passage written in the 1980s was capacious enough for me to realize those goals.

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