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Originally published Monday, August 24, 2009 at 12:05 AM

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Retired UW professor still enlivening the literary world

University of Washington Professor Charles Johnson, who retired this month, has signed on to turn Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" into a play for Intiman Theatre.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Bedtime Stories

An evening of short-story readings to benefit Humanities Washington is set for 6 p.m. Oct. 2 at the Arctic Hotel. Reception and dinner, $150.

Librarian Nancy Pearl will moderate, joined by author and Bedtime Stories co-founder Charles Johnson, poet Samuel Green, authors Margot Kahn and Bharti Kirchner.

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To the literary world, Charles Johnson is an icon, a gifted philosopher and one of the most provocative writers in decades, known for his moderate approach to the emotional topic of race.

But to his adopted city, Johnson is a benefactor who uses his gifts to enrich the city he calls home.

Johnson, 61, came here in the late 1970s to teach at the University of Washington's Department of English. Last week he retired, having mentored countless young writers, taught classes in literary criticism and fiction and directed the creative-writing department. He has published 17 books, more than 20 screenplays, numerous essays, articles, short stories, literary reviews and more than 1,000 drawings in national publications.

In retirement, Johnson plans to do more for the city he calls home.

At Bedtime Stories, a Humanities Washington fundraiser in October that he co-founded, he'll read a story he wrote. And he's at work on the stage adaptation of Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" for Intiman Theatre's "American Cycle" series; the play has a tentative opening set for 2011. In 2006, he worked with Intiman for the adaptation of Richard Wright's "Native Son."

The Illinois native won the National Book Award in 1990 for his novel "Middle Passage," about a 19th century slave-ship rebellion. He also won Guggenheim and a MacArthur genius grants, and was elected to the Academy of Arts and Letters.

Johnson acknowledges the nation's history of racial injustice, but at the same time says that it's humanity, instead of color, that matters.

As Intiman artistic director Bartlett Sher said: "He understands why these stories need to be told now in the theater to help our community ask the biggest human questions, because he himself asks the biggest questions constantly."

The turning point for Johnson's career — and a spotlight for Northwest writers in general — came when he won the National Book Award.

"From the time I started writing fiction seriously in 1970, the only national literary prize I ever wanted was the one Ralph Ellison won in 1953, the National Book Award. So I felt a sense of fulfillment, like a dream had come true," Johnson said.

Ellison was the first black male, and Johnson the second, to win the award. At the ceremony Johnson read a tribute to Ellison, who also was there and replied that he thought he had been forgotten.

So, it was natural that Johnson would seek to turn Ellison's book about an educated black man and his own culture, into a play. For years, Johnson taught it.

"Today our writers tend to write for a particular race, class or gender audience," Johnson said. "Ellison, by contrast in his masterpiece, was always chasing the universal," an invisibility that spoke to human experience.

In June, Johnson was granted an honorary Doctor of Letters by Washington and Lee University for his "great contribution to American culture by putting forth powerful and sometimes controversial ideas about the African-American experience." He rejects the idea that there is a narrowly defined way of being black in America and says "that race is an illusion, asserting that we all share a common humanity that unites apparent differences of race."

As Johnson's classroom time came to a close in the spring, the tribute dinners began. Johnson was inducted into Seattle's Rainier Club in May. At the time, UW President Emeritus William Gerberding, who could not attend, sent a statement: "I cannot resist saying that he has always been a voice, at times a somewhat lonely voice, for sobriety and balance in his writings on that most explosive of American topics: race."

David Guterson, author of "Snow Falling on Cedars," also was Johnson's student.

"I was an undergrad and living not far from Charles," Guterson said recently. "One day he came by my house for something and, in a free moment, looked through my bookcase. It was full of what I thought then were interesting titles, but the only thing Charles pulled from the case was a novel called 'The Philosopher's Stone,' by Colin Wilson. He was excited about it in a way I never saw him get excited about the better-known 'literary' writers other teachers got excited about.

"We went outside, arguing about novels. What constituted greatness? I told him that I had recently read Dickey's 'Deliverance' and much admired it; he said it fell short in that its villains were villains and not human beings. Yes, I said, but what about Dickey's prose? We stood by his car and got contentious and insistent. To this day I like 'Deliverance' but can't see it on the shelf without remembering that conversation or Charles' point.

"A good teacher sticks with you and is still in your head decades later."

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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