Ishmael Reed Reed, Ishmael (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Reed, Ishmael 1938–

Reed is a black American novelist, poet, and editor. A noted satirist, he creates a chaotic fictional world where dogma, whether scientific or religious, presents an ominous threat. Both black and white communities serve as targets for Reed's satire, for his purpose is to show the sacrifice of individuality inherent in accepting any rigid philosophical approach to life. (See also Ishmael Reed Criticism and CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 5, 6, 13 and 174.)

Barbara Joye

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Blacks and whites, avant-garde and mass culture, politics, even Reed's alma mater, the University of Buffalo, have their turn [in The Free-Lance Pall Bearers], Features of the Gothic novel superimposed on an already flimsy plot do not help matters much…. The attempt to turn Bukka [Reed's anti-hero] into a revolutionary ten pages from the end … seems tacked on and insignificant. I know that it was not a last-minute device to wrap up the story because I had the opportunity to read the last chapter and portions of others in manuscript. At that stage the book seemed tighter, more consistent in imagery and subject matter, and much more successful structurally. The printed version may represent misguided editing.

One flaw which must be blamed on the author is the failure of his experiments with dialect in the narrative portions of the book. His rendition of Negro and lower-class white accents (mostly New York-ish) sound all right from the mouths of the appropriate characters but they mingle uncomfortably together mixed in with the dominant Standard English of the narrative…. In considering the book's stylistic blunders, however, one cannot help but note that the direction of Reed's experiment deserves attention. Perhaps his next book will resemble a sort of third-person Huckleberry Finn, amalgamating many tongues of black and white America. For the moment we have only a disorganized collection of excellent ideas and brilliant but isolated vignettes. (p. 411)

Barbara Joye, in PHYLON: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture (copyright, 1968, by Atlanta University; reprinted by permission of PHYLON), Vol. XXIX, No. 4, Fourth Quarter (December, 1968).

Martin Tucker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ishmael Reed can hardly be called a camp follower. [The Free-Lance Pall Bearers] inverts conventional attitudes for sustained comic effect; his feints are brilliant and his punches swift…. [However], he is prone to rely on the injoke, and to join in a growing army of writers who "grotest" too much. This army is losing some of its power to surprise. (p. 508)

Martin Tucker, in Commonweal (copyright © 1968 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), January 26, 1968.

Irving Howe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Testimonials from weighty sources declare Mr. Reed a comic master; he himself announces his style to be "literary neohoodooism"; and I can only crustily say that I read him without a guffaw, without a laugh, without a cackle, without the shade of a smile. Packed with Mad Magazine silliness though his work is, Mr. Reed has one saving virtue: he is hopelessly good-natured. He may intend his books as a black variation of Jonathan Swift, but they emerge closer to the commercial cooings of Captain Kangaroo. (p. 141)

Irving Howe, in Harper's (copyright © by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; excerpted from the December, 1969 issue by special permission), December, 1969.

George E. Kent

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Among novelists writing today, Reed ranks in the top of those commanding a brilliant set of resources and techniques. The prose is flexible, easy in its shift of gears and capacity to move on a variety of levels. The techniques of the cartoon, the caricature, the vaudevillean burlesque, the straight narrative, the detective story, are summoned at will.

But his management of his resources in The Last Days of Louisiana Red fails to create a lasting or deep impression. The novel deals with areas which afford rich soil for the satirist, since rebellious and revolutionary movements are always harassed by paradox and baneful fruit no matter how necessary such movements reveal themselves to be. In the black movement: the attempt to transform criminal activity into political purpose aborting and now revealing a black community as the greatest victim of crime; the ideological shifts which threaten to swing around a circle; the romanticization of a jungle street world whose deadend "hipness" was often sold as true blackness, etc. What we get of such matters in the novel seems to come out of a simplicity which has not first felt the pressure of complexity. Except for an individual statement here and there, the center of values from which the attacks are to be made turn out to be rather vague suggestions about the artist, imagination, symbolic conjure. Or an uncritical and undisciplined endorsement of middleclass striving.

The imaging is a major problem. Approved images of black women are in the category of the...

(The entire section is 636 words.)

Darwin Turner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Who or what is the poet Ishmael? An intellectual anti-intellectual. A religious opponent of religion. A duelling pacifist. A black antagonist champion of blacks. A poet influenced by Yeats, Pound, Blake, and the Umbra poets. A Black Arts poet who attacks Black Arts critics and poets. A satirical creator of myths. An ideologue who derides ideologies. A poet who ranges in allusion from Nixon to Wotan and Osiris. A poet of the topical and the ancient. A poet ignored in Stephen Henderson's trenchant analysis of the blackness of contemporary black poetry (Understanding The New Black Poetry, 1973), but whose poetry offers a point-by-point illustration of Henderson's analysis. Stir these contradictions together in a vat of satire; whirl yourself wildly until dizzy; then pour slowly. The brew is the poetry of Ishmael Reed, to be sipped as delicately as one might sip a potion of 2 parts bourbon, 1 part vodka, and a dash of coke. There is no guarantee that every drinker will like the concoction. Occasionally, the sip is flat. Most often, however, it is quickly intoxicating. (pp. 209-10)

The great theme of black poetry, Henderson argues, is Liberation. For Reed, this term has double meaning: not only to get the white man's foot off his neck but also to escape the nets cast by his black brothers. (p. 210)

In addition to liberation, Reed explores black religion. Although Reed rejects the traditional Afro-American identification with Christianity and the current interest in the religion of Islam, he is no less devout in his desire to restore the black deities—Apis and Osiris…. "Neo-Hoodoo Manifesto" (Conjure) is his most explicit articulation of this religious creed.

Like other contemporary black poets, Reed draws his techniques from the black story-telling tradition to narrate the adventures of imaginary black characters. Reed actually uses the blues form itself, as in "Betty's Ball Blues." Or he hyperbolically describes a black character whose supernatural prowess derives from hoodoo power…. Often, however, Reed, writing in the first person, makes the narrator a hyperbolic character…. Reed infuses his narrative poems with a ribald humor, blending in allusions which demand a reader's knowledge of American history and black history (both in Africa and elsewhere).

For Stephen Henderson, the second element, structure, is the most difficult to isolate. Reed's experiments with typography are relatively conservative. He seems less concerned with the use of space on a page than with the capitalization of all letters in a line to indicate its stentorian quality, and the use of italics or lower-case type to give comic or didactic emphasis. He identifies the "prosey typography" not with black culture but with William Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell."...

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Linda Shell Bergmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The American search for a usable past began with our first writers. American historians, cultural critics, and artists have repeatedly rewritten our history in response to evolving philosophies and social issues. And novelist, both serious and popular, have followed close behind, infusing fictional human relations with historical reality to cultivate—or to create—myths about our past. The old, tenacious forms of historical fiction either glamorize the past, reinforcing old myths of greatness, or revise history by exposing the lust, greed, despair, or irrationality of ages or men once considered stable, moral, and vital. But although contemporary novelists like Roth, Doctorow, Pynchon, Barth, and Ishmael Reed still...

(The entire section is 975 words.)

Allen Belkind

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Reed] has emerged as one of the more promising and prolific of the current young black writers in America. [Shrovetide in Old New Orleans] (articles, reviews, open letters, speeches and interviews) seems to represent everything that Reed has ever published. Such over-inclusion (some less worthy material) must relate to Reed's calling this collection "an autobiography of my mind starting in about 1970."

In his introduction Reed answers those critics who have called his fiction "muddled, crazy, incoherent" by explaining that his mind and method are multi-media oriented and by describing himself as a controversialist: "Stir things up a bit. Wake America from its easy chair and can of beer." Reed's aggressive polemical style, his attack upon American racism, his defense of a black esthetic and his opinions of white critics as bad judges of black writing have not endeared him to the white literary establishment…. Reed's often offensive tone is redeemed in part by his hip colloquial idiom, his penchant for self-dramatization and his passionate interest in everything that relates to African and Afro-American culture.

Especially interesting are Reed's travel-culture essays on the New Orleans Mardi Gras ("Shrovetide") and on post-Papa Doc Haiti ("I Hear You, Doc"). He is sensitive to cultural nuances and writes informatively about Haitian Vodoun, but his political opinions seem eccentric. He depicts Papa Doc Duvalier as a Houngan hero rather than a despot and feels that the Haitian poor (in their extreme squalor) are "happier" than poor American blacks bcause the Haitians have work and identity. Other pieces of interest include Reed's appreciative essay on Chester Himes, various interviews with black artists, a reassessment of Richard Wright and reviews about Josephine Baker and Charlie "Bird" Parker.

Despite father-destroying attacks on established writers—Ellison, Baldwin (very distasteful) and Mailer (excessively mauled)—Reed's collection offers many useful insights into current Afro-American culture. It is also a useful purgative for white complacency and an interesting self-portrait of a complex and talented black writer struggling for understanding and success on his own terms. (p. 635)

Allen Belkind, in World Literature Today (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 52, No. 4, Autumn, 1978.

Stanley Crouch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tom-ing is such a normal thing, particularly in its urban capitol—New York—that one is sometimes shocked when a man, particularly a black man, decides not only to refuse to tom, but goes on the offensive, which, in the literary world, can mean muckraking. Ishmael Reed is such a man, and his most recent book Shrovetide in Old New Orleans…, is a collection of often bitter essays, reviews, and interviews that attack institutions and personages most black artists fume about in private and play the banjo for in public….

Reed's own work draws strongly on popular culture, erudite information, and the technology of our time for a mixture and vindictive juxtaposition that, as in his novel...

(The entire section is 762 words.)