Ishmael Reed Reed, Ishmael (Scott) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ishmael (Scott) Reed 1938–

See also, Ishmael Reed Criticism and CLC, Vols. 3, 5, 6, 13 and 174.

(Has also written under pseudonym of Emmett Coleman) Black American novelist, poet, essayist, editor, and critic.

One of the leading satirists in contemporary black literature, Reed is best known for those novels in which he examines politics, religion, and technology as repressive forces. Although the central target of his work is Western civilization, Reed's primary concern in his writings is the establishment of an alternative black aesthetic. His new aesthetic, termed Neo-HooDoo, focuses on such ancient rites as conjuring, magic, and voodoo. Reed contends that by reclaiming these primordial rituals, black Americans and third world peoples will purge themselves of Western conditioning and will ultimately regain their freedom and mystic vision. Reed identifies this process as necromancy. In an interview, he stated that "people go into the past and get some metaphor from the past to explain the present or the future. Necromancers used to lie in the guts of the dead or in tombs to receive visions of the future. The black writer lies in the guts of old America, making readings about the future."

Reed's parodies of literary genres produce a combination of the ridiculous and the didactic. His first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967), is structured as a nineteenth-century Gothic Bildungsroman. The young hero in the novel undergoes a chaotic search for self-awareness and purpose in a society obsessed with power. In Yellow Back Radio Broke Down (1969), Reed introduces his Neo-HooDoo concept. The novel is a spoof of the Western "dime" novel fused with allegory, contemporary urban culture, and history. Reed extends his Neo-HooDoo concept in Mumbo Jumbo (1972) and The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974). Both novels are mysteries in which a voodoo detective, Papa LaBas, attempts to combat the spells and charms cast by the white establishment to anesthetize the artistic and political black communities. Houston A. Baker contended that Mumbo Jumbo offers "a conspiracy view of history, a critical handbook for the student of the black arts, and a guide for the contemporary black consciousness intent on the discovery of its origins and meaning." Other critics, however, proposed that Reed's attempt to promote Neo-HooDoo obstructed his creative process and feared that his work was becoming repetitious and rhetorical. In his novels Flight To Canada (1976) and The Terrible Twos (1982), Reed abandons Neo-HooDoo for zany farce, complete with the irony and hilarious dialogues that are trademarks of his earlier work.

Reed has also published several volumes of poetry and two collections of essays devoted to black culture. In addition, he founded a publishing company devoted to producing and distributing works of unknown ethnic artists.

(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 5, 6, 13; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 5, 33.)

Edmund White

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Flight to Canada is, of all things, a comic exploration of slavery by the best black writer around. The novel is genuinely funny, for Reed has not rendered faithfully the horrors of servitude but rather created a grotesque Civil War America out of scraps and snippets of the past, the present and the mythic. In the process he has put together a brilliant montage of scenes, potent with feeling and thought, designed to flash on the mind's eye with the brilliance of stained-glass windows in a dark interior. The book is memorable, original and wonderfully entertaining.

The main character, Raven Quickskill, is a slave who runs away from his master, Arthur Swille, hides out in Emancipation City and finally, after the war has ended, makes it over the border into Canada. Until his former owner is dead and buried, Quickskill must remain a fugitive, since Swille has resolved to capture him come what may. Throughout the tale the narration alternates between scenes back at the plantation in Virginia and scenes of Quickskill's precarious freedom. (p. 247)

The acrid merriment that boils under the Southern scenes thrills and disturbs us. How can we like these monsters? What moral sense can we make of a novel in which a fugitive slave ends up a whore and an Uncle Tom inherits a fortune (even if he has to forge his master's will to do so)? Reed's fantasia on the classic themes of black suffering is a virtuoso performance. His...

(The entire section is 491 words.)

Jerome Charyn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Flight to Canada"] is a demonized "Uncle Tom's Cabin," a book that reinvents the particulars of slavery in America with a comic rage. Reed has little use for statistical realities. He is a necromancer, a believer in the voodoos of art. Time becomes a modest, crazy fluid in Reed's head, allowing him to mingle events of the last 150 years, in order to work his magic. We have Abe Lincoln and the Late Show, slave catchers and "white-frosted Betty Crocker glossy cake," Jefferson Davis and Howard K. Smith. Every gentleman's carriage is equipped with "factory climate-control air conditioning, vinyl top, AM/FM stereo radio, full leather interior, power-lock doors, six-way power seat, power windows, white-wall wheels, door-edge guards, bumper impact strips, rear defroster and soft-ray glass."

It isn't simple fun, backdrops for a minstrel show. The author seems to be telling us that the cluttered paraphernalia of our past, present and future are interchangeable, abused extensions of ourselves, flat and unreal. They enslave us, turn us into pieces of property that smother our feelings, inhibit our rage. (p. 5)

The closest thing to a hero is an Uncle Tom, called "Uncle Robin" in the book. Explaining himself to "Massa Swille," Robin says, "I loves it here…. We gets whipped with a velvet whip, and there's free dental care." When his master dies, Uncle Robin inherits the entire estate, after "dabbling" with Arthur's will. "Yeah,...

(The entire section is 483 words.)

Roger Rosenblatt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ishmael Reed's new novel, Flight to Canada, is high and wild comedy, sometimes funny, too often forced, acknowledging a painful life, but not deriving from it…. The time is the Civil War, but the jokes are contemporary—jokes about history, religion, education and politics, which are merely okay; and literary jokes which are better by inches….

Reed's central literary joke is also his most sober point: the impossibility of escape (flight) from bondage except by way of oneself; and the attendant conception of North (Canada) as heaven. Writers of black fiction have been dealing with both ideas since the turn of the century, with Walter White's Flight in the '20s and Wright's crucial chapter ("Flight") of Native Son, and countless versions of "Exodus." In a state of slavery, ancient or modern, the problem is not whether to flee, but where. The so-called "great" migration North changed nothing in and after the long run. By the time Reed takes up the theme, it has become a running gag….

The trouble with Flight to Canada, however, is that its laughter also rides only on words, and the words are not sufficient. If the book were funnier than it is, its seriousness would be more memorable. But too many of Reed's jokes are weak or old standup routines, and when you come to the end of his joy ride you haven't laughed enough to be moved by the change of direction. Comedy has to laugh at something other than itself to bring down the house. Or to build it up again.

Roger Rosenblatt, "North Toward Home," in Book World—The Washington Post, November 14, 1976, p. L4.

Norman Harris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Central to understanding Ishmael Reed's fiction is an analysis of the ways in which he creates and uses literary folklore. It has for him dual purposes: it is practical and theoretical. Practically it serves to advance the plot, provide structure, defend and raise questions about the nature of society. Theoretically it has at its disposal a vast and largely untapped reservoir of African and Afro-American history, folklore and myth. The components of the practical and theoretical categories are intricately interwoven into a fiction which raises external questions of verisimilitude … that are largely absent in the literary folklore of Killens, Chesnutt, Hurston and Alice Walker. Reed labels this confluence of history's external realities and myths' internal or subjective realities "La Bas," a term deeply associated with HooDoo.

In Reed, then, literary folklore can be seen as a structured innovation. The structure relates largely to historical parallels. The history, however, is rewritten through a process that Reed calls necromancy: using the events in the race's past to comment on the present and prophesy about the future. Through necromancy Reed offers us alternative views of slavery, the Harlem Renaissance and the sixties. The innovative aspect is also a function of necromancy: it asserts alternative views of history. This aspect also has a political reality which emerges as a set of reactions to changes in the external world. At such times it attempts to restore order by invoking the old gods, heroes, and heroines and a novel world view which is based on the old ways of HooDoo. His political literary folklore also seeks, however obliquely, to offer alternatives to existing reality. (p. 41)

As literary folklore, Neo-HooDoo and HooDoo differ radically. Neo-HooDoo is largely urban while HooDoo is rural. Consider, for example, the rural conjurers in Chesnutt's Conjure Woman and several of Alice Walker's short stories in In Love And Trouble and then contrast them to Papa Labas in Mumbo Jumbo and The Last Days of Louisiana Red. He is cultured and urbane. His customers arrive in chauffered limousines to "have their heads fitted." In the Chesnutt and Walker stories the conjurers' customers are slaves, or other destitute blacks, who go to the conjurer as more or less a last means of resort. In such cases the problems are specific and limited: a better master or the need to have one's lover returned. Thus HooDoo as literary folklore rarely transcends the resolution of a particular problem. The concern is primarily existential and the larger society, which in most cases is either slave or southern rural, is left unaffected. (pp. 41-2)

Neo-HooDoo takes on whole cultures and thus assumes an epic structure. Linear time is dismissed and replaced by a spatial time which can make ancient history current. Due to its engulfing approach the conjurers in the Neo-HooDoo religion are not, in contrast with the HooDoo conjurers in some Afro-American fiction, specific about their conjurations. Ed Yellings' "Solid Gumbo works" in The Last Days of Louisiana Red is loosely defined and amorphous. We only know that it functions to end the plague of "Louisiana Red." (p. 42)

Among the important themes in Reed's fiction are the conflict of blacks and whites, the function of the white critic, the impact of the white man and black woman on the black man, the "field nigger" as political opportunist and the importance of self-reliance. In each instance the literary folklore involved varies in focus and intensity. In delineating the black/white conflict the ancient African past serves as the basis for explanation while the Afro-American slave experience plays a similar role in explicating the theme of the "field nigger" as political opportunist. Similarly, the role of "LaBas" varies: it may be fundamental and precise in making the role of necromancy clear as in Mumbo Jumbo; or it may be less crucial and more nebulous as in The Last Days of Louisiana Red. The literary folklore, especially necromancy and LaBas, are therefore variable. An explication of the above themes will allow generalizations about the unique politics that influenced them.

In Reed the black/white conflict avoids the stance of a protest novel by being skillfully placed in a historical context which undermines traditional positions on the subject. This occurs most graphically in Mumbo Jumbo where in an extended, though truncated, world history, Black Herman relates the conflict between Set and Osiris and how it evolved into two opposing world views. Set, the killjoy "Atonist" (sun worshipper), is the prototype of a certain type western man: as a progenitor of the military-industrial complex, reason must forever remain separate from feeling. Osiris is the working sensualist who combines reason and feeling. As a jazz musician he travels around the world with his original "Roots" band, blaring out the infectious "Black Mud Sound" of the river Nile. While Osiris is away on a gig—this according to Black Herman—Set takes over and ushers in a kind of Puritanism which outlaws dancing and other sensual delights. When Osiris returns Set challenges him to perform his famous seed trick in which he, Osiris, is buried and then springs up like a new bud. If successful, Set says that he will gladly relinquish his Puritanical reign. Osiris accepts the challenge,...

(The entire section is 2219 words.)

Charles W. Scruggs

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is a mistake to see any one black writer as representative of the "black experience" (whatever that is), and it is even a greater mistake to pin a label on a writer like Ishmael Reed. His name is appropriate—he is a genuine maverick. As a critic of American culture, he has taken on smug feminists, omniscient white scholars (who know Negro literature), and con men of all colors, creeds, and sexes…. As a writer (poet and novelist), Reed belongs to no "school" of Afro-American art, and he has managed to be maligned, with equal intensity, by white and black critics alike…. Although the satire in his novels is frequently outrageous (he delights in using the comic strip as a literary device), it can also be...

(The entire section is 878 words.)

Stanley Crouch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The trouble with The Terrible Twos is that [Reed has] said it all before and said it much better. This time out, he's picked another genre to tear apart with his imposition of varied forms and combinations of perspective. Just as he used Antigone in The Last Days of Louisiana Red to create a brilliant satire that collapsed under the strain of its near-misogyny, and just as he used the western for Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, the detective story for Mumbo Jumbo, the slave narrative and Uncle Tom's Cabin for Flight to Canada, Reed weaves Rastafarianism and a reverse of the Todd Clifton dummy sequence from Invisible Man together with Dickens's A Christmas...

(The entire section is 615 words.)

Ivan Gold

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The notion that contemporary America—with its movie-star President, passion for military hardware, increasing polarization of haves and have-nots—is as politically mature as a 2-year-old child is socially adept, would seem a thin enough idea on which to peg a novel. But while Ishmael Reed's sixth book of fiction, "The Terrible Twos," takes its title from this notion, and some paragraphs are devoted to developing it, this one theme does not begin to exhaust what the novel is about. Like "Mumbo Jumbo" (1972) this latest book is an idiosyncratic mix of political comment, legend, historical analysis, irony, left-handed storytelling, third-world consciousness, pure rage and—amazingly—hope and good will.


(The entire section is 557 words.)

Robert Towers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Terrible Twos is the latest in the series of pop-art novels … which, with their bizarre inventions and liveliness of language, have won for Reed a small but vociferous following. The book takes its title from the well-known proclivities of toddlers, aged two, who, according to the novel's fake Santa Claus, set the standard of maturity for our great republic:

"Two years old, that's what we are, emotionally—America, always wanting someone to hand us some ice cream, always complaining, Santa didn't bring me this and why didn't Santa bring me that…. Nobody can reason with us. Nobody can tell us anything. Millions of people are staggering about and passing out in the...

(The entire section is 491 words.)

Michael Krasny

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I find myself with a troublesome voice sounding off warnings about what I should and should not say about Ishmael Reed's new novel, The Terrible Twos. And I wonder to what extent that voice is a phantom of white liberal guilt I thought I had exorcised.

Exorcism is a good place to begin with Reed. He is the darling of a number of new fiction critics who see him as the all-purpose literary necromancer, the black shaman who conjures vital new myths against the backdrop of the dead carcass of white western aesthetics. This version of Reed as the juju man incanting powerfully pyrotechnic amulets called "words" to rouse us from our cultural decadence is itself a bit moribund. Reed's powers—and I...

(The entire section is 929 words.)

Jerome Klinkowitz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In The Terrible Twos Reed is supposedly outside of history; he sets his story in 1990, when the President is a former male model, the economy is worse than ever, and all that's left to trickle down is Christmas, which a bunch of power-hungry goons who run the country successfully buy and sell. God Made Alaska for the Indians, on the other hand, assembles eight essays and an afterword on environmentalists, Native Americans, literary politicians, prize fight promotions, male sexuality, race relations, the troubles in Ulster as seen by Irish-Americans, and the problems of multicultural artists—all of which deal directly with the demoralizing state of events since 1976. But with Reed in control there's no...

(The entire section is 1202 words.)

Jerry H. Bryant

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I like Ishmael Reed. There is so much of him. He is going on forty-six at the time I write, is still healthy and pugnacious, and has already incarnated himself in more forms than two normal men do in a lifetime…. Not everyone likes him as much as I do. Some call him too conservative. Some call him unreadable. Some call him silly and superficial. But he is so active and productive in so many fields of contemporary American art that he cannot be ignored. In the late sixties, when he was one of a couple dozen young black writers seeking an audience in that atmosphere of black revolutionary chic, he came on as a kind of enfant terrible. Yet, even at the time, before we knew better, his revolution didn't seem that much...

(The entire section is 2602 words.)