Flight to Canada Essay - Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

Ishmael Reed

Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

Reed’s fiction demands to be read in terms of a dual critical context, its parts at once overlapping and conflicting. One is the African American literary tradition, which begins with and remains largely influenced by the slave narratives written in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The slave narratives are autobiographical in focus, moral in intent, and realistic and documentary in approach. Far more than any other African American writer, Reed has, as Jerry Bryant has pointed out, “cut his links” to that tradition. The other side of Flight to Canada’s critical context is postmodernism, particularly as it manifests itself in the new kind of historical novel written by Reed, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, E. L. Doctorow, and others. (It is worth noting that Reed is the only African American writer included in Joe David Bellamy’s pioneering 1974 collection The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers. ) This is not to imply that Reed’s fiction represents a flight from the African American tradition to the postmodern. It represents instead a flight from the narrow manner in which the former came to be defined and accepted. Instead of perpetuating the slave-narrative line, of which Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) is undoubtedly the best known and most influential example, Reed emancipated the tradition itself by tracing it back further still, to its roots in older African and African...

(The entire section is 414 words.)