Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In the eternal conflict between the forces of order and the forces of anarchy, Reed clearly stands on the side of the latter. Hence he would prefer to use such terms as “oppression,” “tyranny,” “ignorance,” “intolerance,” and “incomprehension” to describe the defenders of the status quo, and “progress,” “change,” “freedom,” “creativity,” “imagination,” “fantasy,” and “peace” to identify those who defy traditional restrictions. Reed attacks Protestantism as a restrictive religious movement, morally, sexually, and aesthetically; the federal government as an avowed enemy of Jeffersonian democracy, which Reed uses as a symbol of the ideal state; and capitalists such as cattle baron Drag Gibson as absolute despots. Among the oppressed are the younger generation, artistic geniuses, the alienated individualist, Indians, and African Americans. These are people who have no political or economic power but, if they can attune themselves, have access to the secret forces of life, represented in the novel as HooDoo.

The Christian religion suffers blasphemous abuse from Reed. Judas is Loop’s personal Loa because he put his finger on the devil. Christianity has been the enemy of black people for two thousand years. When the Pope comes to draw Loop away from Earth to the restrictive confines of Heaven, Loop explains that Christianity is only part of the total cosmic scene and Jesus only one of God’s sons. Buddha is another, and Loop a third. The Western world not only has neglected the cosmic jester but also has identified him with the devil. When this Dionysian force is...

(The entire section is 662 words.)

Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Early in the novel, when Loop debates Bo Shmo, Reed makes Loop his mouthpiece:No one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o’clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled by demons.

This statement encapsulates Reed’s central theme: A work of art must not be restricted by any a priori concept of the “poetic”; art can be “anything.” Because all experience has a poetic dimension, the novelist can include virtually any material in a novel. Reed himself says that his novel was partly inspired by a poem about plumbing repair manuals. The novelist—particularly the African American, who is often told by others what to write—should feel no obligation to choose a specific subject or political theme.

As if to demonstrate his theme, the narrative is controlled not by probabilities and likelihoods established by characters and action, as in realistic plots, but by Reed’s imaginative quirkiness. His novel resembles the “ready-mades” of Dadaist art: new and unexpected combinations of objects. His narrative shifts according to unpredictable and startlingly improbable moments in the action. For example, Bo says that Loop “can’t create the difference between a German and a redskin”; as if to prove Bo wrong, Germans, acting much like film “redskins,” attack and burn down Yellow Back Radio. In another example, Drag says a thing is “not worth a green horse’s dream”;...

(The entire section is 417 words.)