Last September, Charles Johnson retired from his position as the S. Wilson and Grace M. Pollock Professor in the UW Department of English after spending 33 years of his career here as novelist, author, teacher, colleague, and mentor. His career has been extraordinarily prolific—its sheer breadth among its most impressive aspects. Author of four distinguished novels (Faith and the Good Thing, Oxherding Tale, Middle Passage, Dreamer), he has had success as a cartoonist, historian (for the PBS series and book Africans in America), literary and social critic (including his notable critical work, Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970), short story writer, screenwriter, and reviewer.
Among his many honors, he received the National Book Award for Fiction in 1990 for Middle Passage (the first African American to win this prize since Ralph Ellison in 1953) and was named one of the highly prestigious MacArthur Fellows in 1998. He has twice received the Washington State Governor’s Award for Literature and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2003.
For many of its practitioners, creative writing is, by necessity, a deeply solitary activity; most books are not written in public, certainly not ones with the philosophical depth and intellectual reach of Charles Johnson’s works. Yet the socially oriented, ethical core of his writing is evident across all of its manifestations, and manifest, too, in how well he has filled the role of mentor. The continuities of history that his work perpetually calls upon us to recall are matched by the human continuities that he has created, reaching back to his own teacher, John Gardner, and forward to countless students and apprentice writers who have benefited and grown from the time he spent with them. Gracious, humane, intently reflective, his grace with words creates a model to which we would do well to aspire...even knowing that most of us will fall short of it far more often than he ever will.