Ishmael Reed Additional Biography


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Ishmael Reed’s writing can be said to mirror his own multiethnic descent, which includes African American, Native American, and Irish. His stepfather, Bennie Stephen Reed (an auto worker), later adopted him. He married Priscilla Rose in 1960; they were divorced in 1970. Reed has two children—Timothy and Brett—from his first marriage and a daughter, Tennessee Maria, by his second.

Early in his life his family moved to Buffalo, New York. He attended the State University of New York at Buffalo from 1956 to 1960 but was not graduated. He has published books of essays and poetry, but he is primarily known as a novelist. He has edited two multicultural anthologies: Nineteen Necromancers from Now (1970) and Calafia: The California Poetry (1979). He lives in Berkeley, California, where he teaches at the University of California, and he has been a visiting professor or writer-in-residence at many other schools.

Reed’s first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers, shows most of the elements for which his writing is known. It is the wildly picaresque and often scatological tale of the adventures of an African American, Bukka Doopeyduk, in HARRY SAM, a city that reflects and exaggerates the most repressive aspects of Christian, European culture.

Reed’s best-known novel, Mumbo Jumbo, uses the conventions of the detective story. Papa LaBas (whose name, typically for Reed, refers to the Voodoo god Papa Legba and French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans’ decadent novel Là-Bas, 1891; Down There, 1924) investigates an alleged plague called Jes Grew, which turns out to be spontaneous joy, opposed to the grim power structure of monotheistic European culture.

Reed is widely praised for his style, his imaginative story construction, and his masterly use of elements from many cultural backgrounds, but he is often attacked by African American and feminist critics. He has continually satirized other African Americans, most notably in The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974), in which he refers to many of them as “Moochers.” His criticisms of feminism, most notably in Reckless Eyeballing (1986), are widely considered to be misogynist. Japanese by Spring satirizes the politics of the university.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Ishmael Scott Reed was born Emmett Coleman in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1938. In 1944, he went with his mother to live in Buffalo, New York. There he assumed the last name of his mother’s new husband. Finishing high school in 1956, he continued his studies at Millard Fillmore College, the night school of Buffalo University, where his writing dazzled one of his instructors, who was seconded in his enthusiasm by a number of his colleagues.

Reed was persuaded to transfer to Buffalo University, which he did in 1957. After financial pressures forced his withdrawal before graduation, he went to work as a correspondent for the Empire Star Weekly, a newspaper serving the black community. He was also cohost of a radio program, a job from which he was abruptly fired for interviewing Malcolm X.

In 1962, Reed moved to New York City, where he became involved with the literary community and was editor of the first and best-known subversive newspaper, The East Village Other. His first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers, was published in 1967. Reed moved to California, settling first in Berkeley and soon moving to Oakland’s inner city. In 1970, he published his first volume of poetry, Catechism of d Neoamerican Hoodoo Church.

Reed began teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, and taught there for more than three decades, although he was denied tenure in 1977 and subsequently was employed in...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Ishmael Scott Reed is recognized as an important American satirist, an innovative poet, and a major part of the antirealist countertradition in black American fiction that includes authors such as Clarence Major, James Alan McPherson, Leon Forrest, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. He was born Emmett Coleman to Thelma Coleman and Henry Lenoir in Chattanooga, Tennessee; before he turned two years old, his mother married Bennie Reed and his name was changed. The family moved to Buffalo, New York, when he was four. After he graduated from Buffalo’s East High School, Ishmael Reed attended the University of Buffalo, but financial problems forced him to withdraw before graduation. He then married and moved into the notorious Talbert...

(The entire section is 830 words.)