Just as Reed finds evidence of intolerance and monocultural bias in religion, he finds no end of bigotry in his relations with critics and fellow writers. Reed has written a number of laudatory essays about fellow writers, founded his own publishing company, and served as the president of the Before Columbus Foundation, which is dedicated to recognizing the achievements of writers from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. He continues, however, to answer criticism that he is bigoted and intolerant in his views concerning writing and American culture.
One of Reed’s most provocative essays on contemporary writing, “American Poetry: Is There a Center?” is featured in God Made Alaska for the Indians (1982). Reed wrote the essay after attending a benefit poetry reading in 1977. Many of the writers present at the reading had connections with the Buddhist Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, proclaimed to be the center for American poetry by an article in Time magazine, although in this case, as Reed notes, the Buddhists were primarily transplanted Easterners. Reed deconstructs the idea of a center for American poetry by pointing to the multicultural flowering of the arts taking place on the West Coast and in many other areas in the United States. The atmosphere and hype concerning Boulder finally bears out Reed’s thesis that poetry includes many of the components of modern urban civilization: “competition, greed, sexism, and racism.”
Reed’s decentering of American poetry is balanced by his lauding of those writers who he feels best represent the multicultural tradition. Among African American writers, he is especially complimentary of the works of Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Chester Himes, August Wilson, Toni Morrison, and Toni Cade Bambara. Reed has written several essays on the works of Richard Wright, the most detailed being “Native Son Lives!” included in Shrovetide in Old New Orleans. Wright, in Reed’s opinion, is an exemplary writer who went beyond mastery of his art to question the taboos that lie at the center of black-white relations. Hurston, whose revival was occasioned by admirers such as Reed, is noted not only for her fiction, which accurately depicts African American folklife, but also for her extensive nonfiction works, such as her pioneering work on North American Voodoo.
Chester Himes, whose work has also enjoyed a revival, received a positive review from Reed for The Quality of Hurt (1972), the fascinating first volume of his autobiography, covering his years as an Ohio State University fraternity man, an Ohio state prison inmate, an expatriate in Paris, and a literary celebrity. Meanwhile, playwright August Wilson and the novelists Toni Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara are among the contemporary African American writers whom Reed admires most. All these writers function, to paraphrase Reed’s comment on Wilson, as bearers of the African American tradition.
In addition to his concern for writers who sustain the African American tradition, Reed has written essays on numerous other North American writers from outside the Anglo-American tradition. Reed introduces the subject in “The Multi-Cultural Artist: A New Phase in American Writing,” written in 1976 for the French newspaper Le Monde and included in Shrovetide in Old New Orleans. Reed notes, as have many following him, that demographic and other changes have dethroned New York as the centralized capital of American writing. New York, Reed argues, has been replaced by a number of regional centers, especially areas populated by Native Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and Asian Americans. Because of Reed’s California connection, all...