Ishmael Reed Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Does Ishmael Reed’s poetry deal with the same themes as his fiction? Are the styles of the two genres similar?

How is the concept of neo-HooDoo central to Reed’s fiction?

How is Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down a parody of the Western genre? How is it a satire of the Vietnam War era?

How effective is Reed’s manipulation of time in Flight to Canada in supporting his themes?

Compare Flight to Canada to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). How is Reed commenting on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel?

How valid are feminist attacks on Reed for his portrayal of women?

How do the attacks on racism in Reed’s novels differ from those by other African American writers?

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Ishmael Reed may be best known as a satiric novelist, but he also gained a reputation as a respected poet, essayist, and editor. His poetry collections, which include Catechism of D Neoamerican Hoodoo Church (1970), Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970 (1972), Chattanooga (1973), A Secretary to the Spirits (1977), and New and Collected Poems (1988), established him as a major African American poet, and his poetry has been included in several important anthologies. In well-received collections of essays, including Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (1978), God Made Alaska for the Indians (1982), and Writin’ Is Fightin’ (1988), Reed forcefully presented his aesthetic and political theories.

Reed also proved to be an important editor and publisher. Nineteen Necromancers from Now (1970) was a breakthrough anthology for several unknown black writers. Yardbird Lives! (1978), which Reed edited with novelist Al Young, includes essays, fiction, and graphics from the pages of the Yardbird Reader, an innovative periodical that published the work of minority writers and artists. Reed’s most ambitious editing project resulted in Calafia: The California Poetry (1979), an effort to gather together the forgotten minority poetry of California’s past.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Ishmael Reed earned a place in the first rank of contemporary African American authors, but such recognition did not come immediately. Most established reviewers ignored Reed’s first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers, and many of the reviews that were written dismissed the novel as offensive, childish, or self-absorbed. Although Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down was even less traditional than its predecessor, it received much more critical attention and became the center of considerable debate. Some reviewers attacked the novel as overly clever, bitter, or obscure, but many praised its imaginative satire and technical innovation. Moreover, the controversy over Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down stirred new interest in The Free-Lance Pallbearers. Reed’s increasing acceptance as a major African American author was demonstrated when his third novel, Mumbo Jumbo, was reviewed on the front page of The New York Times Review of Books. Both Mumbo Jumbo and Conjure, a poetry collection published in the same year, were nominated for the National Book Award.

Subsequent novels maintained Reed’s position in American letters. In 1975, his The Last Days of Louisiana Red received the Rosenthal Foundation Award, and some reviewers viewed Flight to Canada as Reed’s best novel. Yet his work proved consistently controversial. His novels have, for example, been called sexist, a critical accusation that is fueled by comparison of Reed’s novels with the contemporary powerful fiction written by African American women such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. The charge of sexism is further encouraged by Reed’s satiric attack on feminists in Reckless Eyeballing. Reed has also been called a reactionary by some critics because of his uncomplimentary portrayals of black revolutionaries. His fiction has been translated into three languages, and his poetry is included in Poetry of the Negro, New Black Poetry, The Norton Anthology of Poetry, and other anthologies. In 1998, Reed was awarded the MacArthur “genius” fellowship, a fitting recognition for a writer who consciously attempted to redefine American and African American literature.

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Besides volumes of poetry, Ishmael Reed has published numerous novels, collections of essays, plays, and opera librettos, and has edited several anthologies. Active in dissident literary circles in New York City during the turbulent 1960’s, he thought and wrote about the roles of writers, particularly black writers, in a society in turmoil. In his novels, essays, and plays, he upbraids black writers who model themselves after established white writers by imitating their works. He complains that militants of all persuasions generally lack a sense of humor, something of which Reed could never be accused.

His first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967), parodies the confessional tone found in the slave narratives of the eighteenth century. In his second novel, as in two ensuing ones, Reed employs the Neo-HooDoo aesthetic, a term coined by him in the poem “Neo-HooDoo Manifesto” and used to refer to the use of ritualism in art (“every man is an artist and every artist a priest”). His early poems and essays sustain this emphasis and are often satirical in nature, marked by Reed’s stinging wit. Even within the black literary community, he was viewed as a renegade.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Ishmael Reed was the first person to be a finalist for the National Book Award in two categories in the same year. In 1972, he was nominated in fiction for his novel Mumbo Jumbo and in poetry for Conjure. The latter earned him a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Reed received the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award (1997), the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” award (1998), and the Fred Cody Award for lifetime achievement (1999). He has earned grants from the Guggenheim and Rosenthal Foundations and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the California Arts Council. He also received a Michaux Award and an American Academy Award. The State University of New York at Buffalo (which Reed attended until economic necessity forced him to withdraw) granted him an honorary doctor of letters degree in 1995. In 2003, the Los Angeles Times presented him with the Robert Kirsch Award for his body of work. He won a Gold Medal from the Commonwealth Club of California in 2006 for New and Collected Poems, 1964-2006.

One of Reed’s greatest achievements was to establish an underground newspaper, The East Village Other, in the early 1960’s, when he was active in the Black Arts movement and in the Umbra Writers’ Workshop, where he strengthened his philosophical positions about African American writing. A devotee of multiculturalism, he cofounded the Before Columbus Foundation, an organization devoted to promoting multiculturalism in the United States. Reed is also involved with and deeply committed to a number of literary journals that provide an outlet for writing by some of the most gifted students he teaches in his creative writing classes.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Boyer, Jay. Ishmael Reed. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1993. A brief (fifty-two-page) installment in the publisher’s Western Writers series.

Dick, Bruce, and Amritjit Singh, eds. Conversations with Ishmael Reed. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. A collection of twenty-six interviews with Ishmael Reed, which cover the years 1968-1995. Includes one self-interview and a chronology of Reed’s life.

Dick, Bruce Allen, and Pavel Zemliansky, eds. The Critical Response to Ishmael Reed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Discusses Reed’s novels in chronological order; contains book reviews, essays, an interview in which Reed discusses works in progress, a chronology of his life, and bibliographical information.

Fox, Robert Elliot. Conscientious Sorcerers: The Black Post-Modern Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delaney. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987. Situates Reed within both the tradition of black fiction and the self-conscious style of contemporary postmodernist fiction.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. The section on Reed examines his fiction, especially the novel Mumbo Jumbo, as an extension of the tendency of black English to play deliberately with language.

McGee, Patrick. Ishmael Reed and the Ends of Race. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Looks at Reed’s refusal to meet expectations associated traditionally with African American writers, and examines his use of satire and his antagonism toward political correctness.

Reed, Ishmael. Conversations with Ishmael Reed. Edited by Bruce Dick and Amritjit Singh. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. A collection of twenty-six interviews with Ishmael Reed, which cover the years 1968-1995. Includes one self-interview and a chronology of Reed’s life.

Weisenburger, Steven. Fables of Subversion: Satire and the American Novel, 1930-1980. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995. Discusses Reed’s use of encyclopedic Menippean satire in Mumbo Jumbo.