(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

A satiric interpretation of Ishmael Reed’s America in the early 1990’s, Japanese by Spring is the story of a typical (though fictitious) California college in the final years of the George Bush administration. Japanese by Spring is written in three parts of unequal length, and concludes with an epilogue. Part 2 could be considered merely a brief interlude (at ten pages, it is half the length of the epilogue), except that it advances the plot sharply and is a focal point of the action in the novel.

The story begins with a brief biography and character sketch of the protagonist, Benjamin “Chappie” Puttbutt. The son of two African American career Air Force officers, Puttbutt was sent to the Air Force Academy in the 1960’s. There, Puttbutt went through a rebellious black consciousness stage, but he took a conservative turn after a tragic love affair with the wife of his Japanese professor. Unnerved by the experience, Puttbutt becomes a pacifist and ends up teaching English at Jack London College.

As the novel opens, a decision is pending on whether or not Puttbutt will be granted tenure. The tenure decision dominates the entire first section of the novel. Puttbutt does everything he can to appear to be a team player: When black students are lynched on campus, Puttbutt tells the press that the students deserved their beatings because of their excessive demands. Yet there are signs of trouble for Puttbutt.

The first sign is in the classroom. Some of the more bigoted white students, notably Robert Bass, Jr., the son of a local industrialist who contributes heavily to the college, openly ridicule him in class.

Puttbutt tries to be conciliatory on all fronts: Many liberal professors (especially the dean of “Humanity,” Robert Hurt) are outraged at the blatant racism of the attack on Puttbutt, but the college president, Bright Stool, quiets demands for Bass’s expulsion. The chair of the African studies department, Dr. Charles Obi, who should be most...

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Dick, Bruce, ed. The Critical Response to Ishmael Reed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Focusing on Reed’s nine published novels, this volume features a wide range of critical opinion concerning Reed’s writings, including Japanese by Spring. A detailed introduction surveys the response to Reed’s works, a chronology lists the major events in his life and career, and a bibliography suggests books for further reading.

Hume, Kathryn. “Ishmael Reed and the Problematics of Control.” PMLA 108 (May, 1993): 506-518. This essay’s academic jargon may pose a problem for some readers, but it is valuable as a cogent summary of many attacks, largely feminist, on Reed’s fiction. Viewing the theme of power and control as one of Reed’s major contributions to contemporary fiction, Hume demonstrates that Reed’s use of the theme reveals as much about him as it does about America. Reed’s frequent use of grotesque violence is explained as a function of the theme of control.

Kato, Tsunehiko. Review of Japanese by Spring, by Ishmael Reed. MELUS 18 (Winter, 1993): 125-127. Explores Reed’s satirical tone in Japanese by Spring, which is targeted toward “reactionary elements that have clout over power structures.” Although Reed fights against Eurocentrism in the novel and supports multiculturalism, Kato takes him to task for overlooking the many accomplishments of black scholars and feminists.

Playhell, Benjamin. “The Gospel According to Ishmael.” World and I 8 (August, 1993): 320-327. Playhell argues that Reed’s novel takes to task nearly all deeply held beliefs stemming from the multicultural movement, including radical feminist and African American ideological views.

Singh, Amritjit, and Bruce Dick, eds. Conversations with Ishmael Reed. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 1995. Interviews with Reed that cover his life, career, and reasons for writing. Reed discusses several of his works in detail.