Flight to Canada Additional Summary

Ishmael Reed


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In an interview with John O’Brien, Ishmael Reed once defined the novelist as a“fetish-maker” and the novel as an “amulet.” The language he used is instructive in that it “conjures” (another of Reed’s favorite words) a cultural perspective quite different from the more conventional European one that Reed’s densely and enthusiastically intertextual approach opposes and parodically undermines. Against the linear and largely univocal tradition of the European novel, Reed offers a fiction that is both diffuse and multivoiced, close in structure to the Sufi “scatter style” that characterizes Reed’s essays. His innovativeness involves a recycling of older, often previously marginalized (in the West, that is) styles and materials. This recycling is, however, not at all nostalgic. Reed uses material from the past “to explain the present or the future,” he has written. “Necromancers used to lie in the guts of the dead or in tombs to receive visions of the future. That is prophecy. The black writer lies in the guts of old America, making readings about the future.” In the case of Flight to Canada, this past is most specifically and hilariously Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly (1852). Far from being a simple parody, Reed’s novel is, in Jerome Charyn’s words, “a demonized Uncle Tom’s Cabin” that draws upon two additional aspects of Reed’s “Voodoo” (or, alternately, “NeoHooDoo”) aesthetic. First, it brings together past and present at a single spatial-temporal narrative point, and second, it amalgamates a vast variety of materials, of which Stowe’s novel and the slave narratives upon which it is based are only the most obvious. Just as Stowe exploited the slave narrative tradition for her own novelistic and moralistic purposes, Reed exploits Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this time in a self-conscious rather than (as in Stowe’s case) self-effacing manner.

Flight to Canada is divided into three parts. The first, “Naughty Harriet,” makes abundantly clear Reed’s satiric thrust. Reed’s opening gambit does more than ironize Stowe and her novel. It calls into question the very idea of openings, something Michel Foucault was doing at around the same time, though in a far more theoretical manner. Thus, “Naughty Harriet” opens with what in effect may be described as a series of openings. The allusion to Stowe is immediately followed by the poem “Flight to Canada,” signed by Raven Quickskill, whose signature forms an integral part of the poem. The next fifteen pages offer a brief, italicized account...

(The entire section is 1077 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. Although brief and largely introductory in nature, Bell’s discussion is valuable both for its overview of Reed’s career and aesthetic and for its situating of Reed’s work within the tradition of the African American novel.

Cote, Jean-Fracois. “The North American Novel in the United States: Ishmael Reed’s Canada.” Canadian Review of American Studies 26 (Autumn, 1996): 469-480. Cote examines novels written by authors from the United States and explores how their works reflect North American social identity. He offers examples of North American novels, as well as an in-depth analysis of Reed’s Flight to Canada. He interprets the history of the novel and discusses the literary hegemony of the United States over the rest of North America.

Davis, Matthew R. “ Strange History. Complicated, Too.’: Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada.” Mississippi Quarterly 49 (Fall, 1996): 744-755. Davis discusses Reed’s “blend of anachronistic history” as reflected in Flight to Canada. He examines how Reed’s work is theorized, offers a description of his style of writing, and examines his characterization of history.

Dick, Bruce, ed. The Critical Response to Ishmael Reed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Features a wide range of critical opinion concerning Reed’s writings, including Flight to Canada. A detailed introduction surveys the response to Reed’s works, a chronology lists the major events in his life and career, and a bibliography suggests books for further reading.

Fox, Robert Elliot. Conscientious Sorcerers: The Black Postmodernist Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delany. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987. The fiction of Baraka, Reed, and Delany proves that historically informed and historically relevant postmodern fiction is possible. Reed, the most “spontaneous” and “brazen” of the three, deconstructs the black...

(The entire section is 907 words.)