Ishmael Reed's Long Fiction


In Critical Survey of Long Fiction, 1987


Principal long fiction

The Free-Lance Pallbearers, 1967; Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, 1969; Mumbo Iumbo, 1972; The Last Days oj Louisiana Red, 1974; Flight to Canada, 1976; The Terrible Twos, 1982; Reckless Eyeballing,1986.

Other literary forms

Ishmael Reed may be best known as a satirical novelist, but he is also a respected poet, essayist, and editor. His four poetry collections Catechism of D Neoamerican HooDoo Church (1970),Conjure (1972), Chattanooga (1973), anda Secretary to the Spirit (1977) have established him as a major Afro-American poet, and his poetry has been included in several important anthologies. In two well received collections of essays Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (1978) and God Made Alaska for the Indians (1982) Reed has forcefully presented his aesthetic and political theories. He has also proved to be an important editor and publisher. 19 Necromancers from Now (I 970) was a breakthrough anthology for several unknown black writers. Yardbird Lives! (1978), which Reed edited with 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.


Ishmael Reed has earned himself a place in the first rank of contemporary Afro-American authors, but such recognition did not come immediately. Most. established reviewers ignored Reed's first novel The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967), and many of the reviews that were written dismissed the novel as offensive, childish, or self-absorbed. Although Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969) was even more nontraditional than its predecessor, it received much more critical attention and became the center of considerable critical 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-Lanace Pallbearers. Reed's increasing acceptance as a major Afro-American author was demonstrated when his third novel Mumbo Jumbo(l 972) was reviewed on the front page of the New York Review of Books. Both Mumbo Jumbo and Conjure, a poetry collection published in the same year, were nominated for the National Book Award.

Four subsequent novels have maintained Rood's position in American letters. In 1975, Reed's The Last Days of Louisiana Red received the Rosenthal Foundation Award, and some reviewers viewed Flight to Canada (1976) as Reed's best novel. However, his work has consistently been controversial. His novels have, for example, been called sexist, a critical accusation that. is fueled by comparison of Reed's novels with the recent, powerful fiction written by Afro-American women such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. The charge of sexism is further encouraged by Reed's satirical attack on feminists in Reckless Eyeballing (1986). 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 has been included in Poetry of the Negro,New Black Poetry, theNorton Anthology of Poetry, and other anthologies.


The jacket notes to Chattanooga (1973) glibly recount Reed's life: "born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, grew up in Buffalo, New York, learned to write in New York City and wised up in Berkeley, California." Each residence played a crucial role in Reed's development.

Ishmael Reed was born the son of Henry Lenoir and Tiielnia Coleman, but before he was two years old, his mother remarried auto worker Bennie Reed. When he was four years old, his mother moved the family to Buffalo, New York, where she found factory work. Reed graduated from Buffalo's East High School in 1956 and began to attend Millard Fillmore College, the night division of the University of Buffalo, supporting himself by working in the Buffalo public library system. A satirical short story "Something Pure," which comically portrayed Christ's return as an advertising man, brought Reed the praise of an English professor and encouraged him to enroll in day classes. Reed attended the University of Buffalo until 1960 when he withdrew because of money problems and the social pressures his financial situation created. He moved into the notorious Talbert Mall Projects, and the two yeirs he spent there provided him with a painful but valuable experience of urban poverty and dependency. During these last years in Buffalo, Reed wrote for the Empire Star Weekly, moderated a controversial radio program for station WVFO, and acted in several local stage productions.

From 1962 to 1967, Reed lived in New York City. As well as being involved with the civil rights movement and the black power movement, Reed served as editor of Advance, a weekly published in Newark, New Jersey. His work on the Advance was admired by Walter Bowart, and together they founded the East Village Other, one of the first and most successful "underground" newspapers. An early indication of Reed's commitment to encouraging the work of minority artists was his organization in 1965 of the American Festival of Negro Art.

In 1967, Reed moved to Berkeley, California and began teaching at the University of California at Berkeley. Although he was turned down for tenure in 1977, he continued to teach there and at other universities: the University of Washington, the State University of New York at Buffalo, Yale, and Dartmouth. In 1971 with Al Young, Reed founded the Yardbird Publishing Company, which produced the Yardbird Reader (1971-1976), an innovative journal of ethnic writing and graphics. The Reed, Cannon, and Johnson Communications Company, which later became Ishmael Reed Books, was founded in 1973 and has published the work of William Deniby, Bill Gunn, Mei Mei Bressenburge, and other ethnic writers. In 1976, Reed and Victor Cruz began the Before Columbus Foundation. In all of his publishing ventures, Reed has tried to expose readers to the work of Asian Americans, Afro-Aniericans, Chicanos, and Native Americans in an effort to help build a truly representative and pluralistic national literature.


Ishmael Reed is a conscious part of the Afro-American literary tradition that extends back to the first-person slave narratives, and the central purpose of his novels is to define a means of expressing the complexity of the Afro-American experience in a manner distinct from the dominant literary tradition. Until the middle of the twentieth century Afro-American fiction, although enriched by the lyricism of Jean Toomer and Zora Neale Hurston, concentrated on realistic portrayals of black life and employed familiar narrative structures. This tendency toward social realism peaked with Richard Wright's Native Son(1940) and Black Boy(] 945), but it is continued today by authors such as James Baldwin. Reed belongs to a divergent tradition, inspired by Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1951), a countertradition that includes the work of Leon Forrest, Ernest Gaines, James Alan McPherson, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker.

Because be believes that the means of expression is as important as the matter, Reed argues that the special qualities of the Afro-American experience cannot be adequately communicated through traditional literary forms. Like Imamu Baraka, Reed believes that Afro-American authors must "be estranged from the dominant culture," but Reed also wants to avoid being stifled by a similarly restrictive countertradition. In Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (1978) Reed says that his art and criticism try to combat "the consciousness barrier erected by an alliance of Eastern-backed black pseudo-nationalists and white mundanists." Thus, Reed works against the stylistic limitations of the Afro-American literary tradition as much as he works with them. Henry-Louis Gates, Jr. has compared Reed's fictional modifications of Afro-American literary traditions to the Afro-American folk custom of "signifying," maintaining that Reed's novels present an ongoing process or "rhetorical self-definition."

Although Reed's novels are primarily efforts to define an appropriate Afro-American aestlictic, his fiction vividly portrays the particular social condition of black Americans. In his forward to Elizabeth and Thomas Settle's Ishmael Reed: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography (l 982), Reed expresses his bitterness over persistent racism and argues that the personal experience of racism that informs his art makes his work inaccessible and threatening to many readers: "I am a member of a class which has been cast to the bottom of the American caste system, and from those depths I write a vision which is still strange, often frightening, 'peculiar' and 'odd' to some, 'ill-considered' and unwelcome to many." Indeed, Ishmael seems an ironically appropriate name for this author of violent and darkly humorous attacks on American institutions and attitudes, for the sharpness and breadth of his satire sometimes make him appear to be a man whose hand is turned against all other men. His novels portray corrupt power brokers and their black and white sycophants, operating in a dehumanized and materialistic society characterized by its prefabricated and ethnocentric culture; yet, Reed's novels are not hopeless explications of injustice, for against the forces of repression and conformity he sets gifted individuals who escape the limitations of their sterile culture by courageously penetrating the illusions that bind them. Moreover, in contrast, to many white authors whose are engaged in parallel metafictive experiments, Reed expresses a confident belief that "print and words are not dead at all."

Reed's narrative technique combines the improvisational qualities of jazz with a documentary impulse to accumulate references and allusions. In his composite narratives, historical and fictional characters coexist in a fluid, anachronistic time. In an effort to translate the vitality and spontaneity of the oral, folk tradition into a literature that can form the basis for an alternative culture, Reed mixes colloquialisms and erudition in novels which are synchretized from a series of sub-texts. The literary equivalent of scat singing, his stories-within-stories parody literary formulas and challenge the traditional limits of fiction.

Reed claims that his novels compose "an art form with its own laws," but he does not mean to imply that his work is private, for these "laws" are founded on a careful but imaginative reinterpretation of the historical and mythological past. The lengthy bibliography appended to Mumbo Jumbo satirizes the documentary impulse of social realist authors, but it also underscores Reed's belief that his mature work demands scholarly research in order to be decoded. This artistic process of reinterpretation often requires the services of an interlocutor, a character who explicitly explains the events of the narrative in terms of the mythological past. Reed's novels describe a vision of an Osirian/Dionysian consciousness, a sensuous humanism that he presents as an appropriate cultural alternative for non-white Americans. His imaginative reconstructions of the American West, the Harlem Renaissance, the American Civil War, and contemporary American politics, interwoven with ancient myths, non-European folk customs, and the formulas of popular culture, are liberating heresies meant to free readers from the intellectual domination of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Reed's first novel The Free-Lance Pallbearers is set in a futuristic America called HARRY SAM: "A big not-to-be-believed out-of-sight, sometimes referred to as O-BOP-SHE-BANG or KLANG-A-LANG-A-DING-DONG." This crumbling and corrupt urban world is tyrannized by Sam himself, a vulgar fat man who resides in Sam's Motel on Sam's Island in the middle of the lethally polluted Black Bay that borders HARRY SAM. Sam, doomed by some terrifying gastro-intestinal disorder spends all of his time on the toilet, his filth pouring into the bay from several large statues of Rutherford B. Hayes.

The bulk of the novel, although framed and periodically informed by a jiving narrative voice, is narrated by Bukka Doopeyduk in a restrained, proper English that identifies his passive faith in the establishment. Doopeyduk is a dedicated adherent to the Nazarene Code, an orderly in a psychiatric hospital, a student at Harry Sam College, and a hapless victim. His comically futile efforts to play by the rules are defeated by the cynics who manipulate the unjust system to their own advantage. In the end, Doopeyduk is disillusioned, leads a successful attack on Sam's Island, uncovers the conspiracy that protects Sam's cannibalism, briefly dreams of becoming the black Sam, and is finally crucified.

The Free-Lance Pallbearers is a parody of the Afro-American tradition of first-person, confessional narratives, a book his narrator describes as "growing up in soulsville first of three installments--or what it means to be a backstage darky." Reed's novel challengess the viability of this Afro-American version of the Bildungsroman, in which a young protagonist undergoes a painful initiation into the darkness of the white world, a formula exemplified by Wright's Black Boy (l 945) and Baldwin's GoTell it on theMountain (1953). In fact,the noveI suggests that Afro-American authors' use of this European form is as disabling as Doopeyduk's adherence to the dictates of the Nazarene Code.

The novel is an unrestrained attack on American politics. HARRY SAM, alternately referred to as "Nowhere" or "Now Here," is a dualistic vision of an America that celebrates vacuous contemporancity. The novel, an inversion of the Horatio Alger myth in the manner of Nathaniel West, mercilessly displays American racism, but its focus is the corruptive potential of power. Sam is a grotesque version of Lyndon Johnson, famous for his bathroom interviews, and Sam's cannibalistic taste for children is an attack on Johnson's Vietnam policy. With The Free-Lance Pallbearers Reed destroys the presumptions of his society, but it is not until his later novels that he attempts to construct an alternative.

Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is set in a fantastic version of the Wild West of popular literature. Reed's protagonist, the Loop Garoo Kid, is a proponent of artistic freedom and an accomplished voodoo houngan who contrasts markedly with the continually victimized Doopeyduk. Armed with supernatural "connaissance" and aided by a white python and the hip, helicopter-flying Chief Showcase, the Kid battles the forces of realistic mimesis and political corruption. His villainous opponent, is Drag Gibson, a degenerate cattle baron given to murdering his wives, who is called upon by the citizens of Yellow Back Radio to crush their rebellious children's effort "to create [their] own fictions."

Although Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down satirizes American's eagerness to suspend civil rights in response to student protests of the Vietnam War, its focus is literature, specifically the dialogue between realism and modernism. The Loop Garoo Kid matches Reed's description of the Afro-American artist in 19 Necromancers from Now: "a conjurer who works JuJu upon his oppressors; a witch doctor who forces his fellow victims from the psychic attack launched by demons." Through the Loop Garoo Kid, Reed takes a stand for imagination, intelligence, and fantasy against rhetoric, violence, and sentimentality. This theme is made explicit in a debate with Bo Shmo, a "neo-social realist" who maintains that "all art must be for the end of liberating the masses," for the Kid says that a novel "can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o'clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled by demons."

Reed exhibits his anti-realist theory of fiction in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down through his free use of time, characters, and language. The novel ranges from the eighteenth century to the present, combining historical events and cowboy myths with modern technology and cultural detritus. His primary characters are comically exaggerated racial types: Drag Gibson represents the white's depraved materialism; Chief Showcase represents the Indian's spirituality; and the Loop Garoo Kid represents the Afro-American's artistic soul. Reed explains the novel's title by suggesting that his book is the "dismantling of a genre done in an oral way like radio." "Yellow back" refers to the popular dime novels; "radio" refers to the novel's oral, discontinuous form; and a "broke-down" is a dismantling. Thus, Reed's first two novels assault America in an attempt to "dismantle" its cultural structure.

In Mumbo Jumbo, Reed expands on the neo-hoodooism of the Loop Garoo Kid, in an effort to create and define an Afro-American aesthetic based on voodoo, Egyptian mythology, and improvisational musical forms, an aesthetic that can stand up against the Judeo-Christian tradition, rationalism, and technology. Set in Harlem during the 1920's, Mumbo Jumbo is a tragicomical analysis of the Harlem Renaissance's failure to sustain its artistic promise. Reed's protagonist is PaPa LaBas, an aging hoodoo detective and cultural diagnostician, and LaBas' name, "over there" in French, reveals that his purpose is to reconnect Afro-Americans with their cultural heritage by reunifying the Text of Jes Grew, literally the Egyptian Book of Thoth. Reed takes the phrase Jes Grew from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Topsy and James Weldon Johnson's description of Afro-American music's unascribed development, but in the novel Jes Grew is a contagion, connected with the improvisational spirit of ragtime and jazz, that begins to spread across America in the Twenties. It is an irrational force that threatens to overwhelm the dominant, repressive traditions of established culture. LaBas' efforts to unify and direct this unpredictable force are opposed by the Wallflower Order of the Knights Templar, an organization dedicated to neutralize the power of Jes Grew in order to protect their privileged status. LaBas fails to reunify the text, a parallel to the dissipation of the Harlem Renaissance's artistic potential, but the failure is seen as temporary, and the novel's indeterminate conclusion looks forward hopefully to a time when these artistic energies can be reignited.

The novel's title is double-edged. "Mumbo Jumbo" is a racist, colonialist phrase used to describe the misunderstood customs and language of dark-skinned people, an approximation of some critics' description of Reed's unorthodox fictional method. But "mumbo jumbo" also refers to the power of imagination, the cultural alternative that can free Afro-Americans. A text of and about texts,Mumbo Jumbocombines the formulas of detective fiction with the documentary paraphenalia scholarship: footnotes, illustrations, and a bibliography. Thus, in the disclosure scene required of any good detective story, LaBas, acting the part of interlocutor, provides a lengthy and erudite explication of the development of Jes Grew that begins with a reinterpretation of the myth of Osiris. The parodic scholarship of the Mumbo Jumbo undercuts the assumed primacy of the European tradition, and strenuously argues that Afro-American artists should discover their distinct heritage.

In The Last Days of Louisiana Red, PaPa LaBas returns as Reed's protagonist, but the novel abandons the parodic scholarship and high stylization of Mumbo Jumbo. Although LaBas again functions as a connection with a non-European tradition of history and myth, The Last Days of Louisiana Red is a more traditionally structured than its predecessor. In the novel PaPa LaBas solves the murder of Ed Yellings, the founder of the Solid Gumbo Works. Yellings'business is dedicated to combatting the effects of Louisiana Red, literally a popular hot sauce, but figuratively an evil state of mind that divides Afro-Americans. Yelling's gumbo, like Reed's fiction, is a mixture of disparate elements, and it has a powerful curative effect. In fact, LaBas discovers that Yellings is murdered when he gets close to developing a gumbo that will cure heroin addiction.

In The Last Days of Louisiana Red Reed is examining the self-destructive forces that divide the Afro-American Community so that they fight one another "while above their heads ... billionaires flew in custom-made jet planes." He shows how individual's avarice leads to conspiring with the establishment,, and he suggests that some of the most vocal and militant leaders are motivated by their egotistical need for power rather than by a true concern for oppressed people. Set in Berkeley, California, The Last Days of Louisiana Red attacks the credibility of the black revolutionary movements that sprang up in the late Sixties and early Seventies.

Flight to Canada, Reed's fifth novel, is set in an imaginatively redrawn Civil War South, and it describes the relationship between Arthur Swille, a fabulously wealthy Virginia planter who practices necrophilia, and an assortment of sociologically stereotyped slaves. The novel is presented as the slave narrative of Uncle Robin, the most loyal of Swille's possessions. Uncle Robin repeatedly tells Swille that the plantation is his idea of heaven, and he assures his master that doesn't believe that Canada exists. Raven Quickskill, "the first one of Swille's slaves to read, the first to write, and the first to run away," is the author of Uncle Robin's story.

Like much of Reed's work, Flight to Canada is about the liberating power of art, but in Flight to Canada Reed concentrates on the question of authorial control. All of'the characters struggle to maintain control of their stories. After escaping from the plantation, Quickskill writes a poem "Flight to Canada," and his comical verse denunciation of Swille completes his liberation. In complaining of Quickskill's betrayal to Abraham Lincoln, Swille complains that his former bookkeeper uses literacy "like that old Voodoo." In a final assertion of authorial control and the power of the pen, Uncle Robin refuses to sell his story to Harriet Beecher Stowe, gives the rights to Quickskill, rewrites Swille's will, and inherits the plantation.

In The Terrible Twos Reed uses a contemporary setting to attack the Reagan administration and exploitative nature of the American economic system. In the novel, President Dean Clift, a former model, is a mindless figurehead manipulated by an oil cartel that has supplanted the real Santa Claus. Nance Saturday, another of Reed's Afro-American detectives, sets out to discover St. Nicholas's place of exile. The novel's title suggests that, in its second century, the United States is acting as selfishly and irrationally as the proverbial two year old. The central theme is the manner in which a few avaricious people seek vast wealth at the expense of the majority of Americans.

Reckless Eyeballing is also located in the present, and Reed employs a string of comically distorted characters to present the idea that the American literary environment is dominated by New York women and Jews. Although Reckless Eyeballing has been called sexist and anti-Semitic by some, Reed's ostensible target is a cultural establishment that creates and strengthens racial stereotypes, in particular the view of Afro-American men as savage rapists. To make his point, however, he lampoons feminists, using the character Tremonisha Smarts, a female Afro-American author who has written a novel of violence against women. Reed's satire is probably intended to remind readers of Alice Walker's The Color Purple.

Because the novel's central subject is art and the limitations our society places on an artist, it is appropriate that Reed once again employs the technique of a story within a story. Ian Ball, an unsuccessful Afro-American playwright, is tile novel's protagonist. In the novel Ball tries to succeed by shamelessly placating the feminists in power. He writes "Reckless Eyeballing," a play in which a lynched man is posthumously tried for "raping" a woman with lecherous stares, but Ball, who often seems to speak for Reed, maintains his private, chauvinistic views throughout.

Ishmael Reed has created a substantial body of fiction that has established him as an important satirist. His innovative narrative techniques have stretched the limits of the American novel and dramatically broadened the scope of Afro-American literature. It remains to be seen how his recent conflict with feminists will affect his career.

Other major works

POETRY: Catechism of D Neoamerican HooDoo Church, l970; Conjure: Selected Poems, l 972; Chattanooga,l 973; A Secretary to the Spirits,1977.

NONFICTION: Shrovetide in Old New Orleans,l 978; God Made Alaska for the Indians, 1982.

ANTHOLOGIES: 19 Necromancers from Now, l 970; Yardbird Lives!,edited with Al Young, 1978; Calafia: The California Poetry, 1979.


Fabre, Michel. "Postmodern Rhetoric in Ishmael Reed's Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down," in The Afro-American Novel Since 1960. Edited by Peter Bruck and Wolfgang Karrer. Amsterdam: B. R. Gruner, 1982, pp. 167-188.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "The 'Blackness of Blackness': A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey," in Critical Inquiry. 9 (June 1983), pp. 685-723.

Lindroth, James R. "From Krazy Kat to Hoodoo: Aesthetic Discourse in the Fiction of Ishmael Reed," in Review of Contemporary Fiction. 4 (Summer 1984), pp. 227-233.

O'Brien, John. "Ishmael Reed," in Interviews with Black Writers. New York: Liveright, 1973, pp. 165-183.

O'Brien,John. "Ishmael Reed,"in The NewFiction.Edited by Joe David Bellamy. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1974, pp. 130-142.

Settle, Elizabeth A. and Thomas A. Settle, eds. Ishmael Reed: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.

Schmirtz, Neil. "Neo-HooDoo: The Experimental Fiction of Ishmael Reed," in Twentieth Century Literature. 20 (April 1974), pp. 126-140.

Carl Brucker

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