Mumbo Jumbo Additional Summary

Ishmael Reed


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Reed’s characteristic use of fluid time, effective in other novels, is particularly apt in Mumbo Jumbo. The Harlem Renaissance, the setting of the novel, has striking parallels to the African American experience of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The fact that the 1920’s were called “the jazz age” indicates how much black culture was affecting the white majority. Mumbo Jumbo traces that influence; the rhythms, the dances, sometimes the words of ragtime and jazz songs came from rituals of the African vodun religion, transplanted to America by the slave trade. Reed documents those connections by footnotes and a partial bibliography at the end of the novel.

The novel is not a documentary, however. The quick-spreading influence of African culture in America is represented as an epidemic, “Jes Grew” (a phrase from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin referring to the character Topsy, whose origins were unknown). The Wallflower Order, a secret society dedicated to maintaining the power of white Western rationalism, seeks to stop the disease. Unlike other plagues, however, instead of harming the hosts, Jes Grew makes them feel better. Thus, the Wallflower Order shows itself to be an enemy of pleasure.

Yet Jes Grew has powerful friends as well as powerful enemies. PaPa LaBas, the HooDoo detective in Harlem, tracks down Jes Grew in order to find it a sacred text and to protect it from the Wallflower Order. The Wallflowers, under the leadership of Hinckle Von Vampton (after they kidnap him), seek to contain Jes Grew by sponsoring black poets, thereby limiting and defining what black literature is. To some extent, that happened in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920 s, though the motives may not have been so overt. Von Vampton is modeled after Carl Van Vechten, among others, who brought the Harlem poets into...

(The entire section is 775 words.)