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Novelist, journalist, screenwriter, cartoonist

johnson philosophy writer university

Charles Johnson is a multitalented, versatile, and prolific African American teacher, writer, screenwriter, and martial artist. He has been creating and producing since the age of seventeen. Johnson is best known for his novels Middle Passage and Dreamer and the short story collection Soulcatcher . He has been teaching at the University of Washington in Seattle since 1976 and holds the S. Wilson and Grace M. Pollock Professorship for Excellence in English (the first chair in writing at the University of Washington) and teaches fiction. He has to his credit four novels, two collections of short stories, two books of political cartoons for which he did the drawings, numerous essays and interviews, over twenty screenplays, and translations of his work into several languages, including Japanese, Dutch, Russian, and Italian.

Johnson, a Buddhist, a philosopher by training, and a writer of historical, philosophical fiction, can be aptly called a Renaissance man. In 1990, Johnson won the National Book Award for Middle Passage , his third published novel, and became the first African American male to receive that award since Ralph Ellison in 1953 for Invisible Man . The American Academy of Arts and Letters says, “Charles Johnson is a storyteller with a philosopher’s intellect and a historian’s belief in the power of the past to shape the present. But he is before all else a true storyteller. In his short stories, he ingeniously braids history, philosophy, and imagination in making postmodern fiction of the highest order.”

Charles Richard Johnson was born on April 23, 1948 in Evanston, Illinois to hard-working parents, Benjamin Lee and Rudy Elizabeth Jackson Johnson. His mother was a voracious and eclectic reader who liked the unique, exotic, and beautiful. As a result, Johnson was exposed to diverse reading material and grew up reading widely. He read on such subjects as yoga (the beginning of his interest in Buddhism), dieting, Christian mysticism, Victorian poetry, and costume design; such works as James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan Trilogy , Daniel Blum’s Pictorial History of the American Theatre 1900–1956 , and Candide ; and such authors as Rilke, Richard Wright, Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Sartre, P. G. Wodehouse, and Dickens. He and his mother often shared and discussed books.

While in Evanston Township High, an integrated school, Johnson read, wrote, and drew. Even at this early point in his life, he was self-disciplined. He challenged himself to read one book a week and increased it to three when he found how easy it was. Writing was for fun; when he was twelve, his mother gave him a blank book and from that time on he kept a diary and later he kept a journal. His career goal was to become a cartoonist and illustrator. For him drawing was his main pleasure. By the time he entered Southern Illinois University in 1966 as a journalism major, he had published three short stories in addition to some artwork. The best of his early works appears in Paul Mandelbaum’s First Words: Earliest Writing from Favorite Contemporary Authors (1993), Tonya Bolden’s Tell All the Children Our Story (2001), and John McNally’s Humor Me: An Anthology of Humor by Writers of Color (2002).

At Southern Illinois University, he drew both for the school and town newspapers. At this time he developed his lasting love for philosophy; in 1971, he earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism and moved directly into the master’s program in philosophy. When he was a graduate student in philosophy and working on his seventh novel, he met John Gardner (writer, teacher, critic, and cartoonist). Gardner was to become his literary guide and his friend. Johnson says he was inspired by Gardner’s concept of moral fiction, demanding that the writer make a commitment to technique, imagination, and ethics. Gardner encouraged the writer to know form and technique, to try new forms, styles, and techniques, and always to stretch beyond the last work and not to be repetitious. In 1973, Johnson earned a master’s degree in philosophy and in 1988 he earned his Ph.D. in philosophy at the State University of New York at Stoney Brook.

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