Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

One of the main ideas of the novel never appears as explicit statement. While a chronological arrangement of events controls the structure—except for the poem-preface and the opening chapter, and the simultaneity of certain scenes in the North and South that follow sequentially—the attitude toward time is hardly conventional, that is, not that to which one is accustomed in a piece of fiction. Reed superimposes the present on the past. He accomplishes the merger through language, using twentieth century diction to describe nineteenth century events and attitudes. He refers to facts, technology, events, movements, and people that a nineteenth century character could not know. Mingling with the events of the 1860’s are the names of Yul Brynner, Barbara Walters, and Harry Reasoner. Pabst Blue Ribbon, flower children, and Nazi concentration camps are bedfellows with the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s drinking habits, the Native American, and fugitive slave laws. The whole country listens to the Emancipation Proclamation on the radio and watches Lincoln’s assassination on television. Harriet Beecher Stowe captures her interview with Uncle Robin on cassette tape. Whatever else Reed intends—and certainly the absurdity is highly entertaining—he is declaring (as he frequently does) that there is nothing new under the sun. He suggests strongly that all is vanity.

Flight to Canada is a demythologizing of American life. The list of...

(The entire section is 571 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Reed has defined his “Neo-HooDoo” aesthetic as a stance rather than as a school, a means for undermining the dominant culture’s grip and thus opening up a space in which can be heard a multiplicity of multicultural voices previously marginalized, co-opted, or silenced. In his own novels, Reed does more than merely allow such voices to be heard. He espouses his aesthetic, openly and polemically in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), Mumbo Jumbo (1972), and The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974), and less pugnaciously and more successfully in Flight to Canada. More than an ironic and irreverent retelling of American history, Reed’s eclectic novel incorporates often unfamiliar material, opening up old wounds, pointing to the scars, leaving the seams ragged, refusing either to monologize or homogenize. Read in terms of the Neo-HooDoo aesthetic, Swille’s love for his dead sister does double service. More than a grotesque joke at Swille’s expense, it points to Swille’s love of the dead, including dead traditions, his obsession with sameness and purity, including racial purity, and his opposition to change of any kind.

A thoroughgoing revisionist, Reed uses satire, parody, farce, invective, and allegory to create a narrative space free of Western hegemony—free, that is, from narrowly Western notions of theme, plot, character, time, and space. His crafting of an alternative story of American history,...

(The entire section is 405 words.)