In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ishmael Reed

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Comparative Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Reception
  • Ishmael Reed and Other Writers
  • Feminism, Womanism, and Ishmael Reed’s Neo-Hoodooism

American Literature Ishmael Reed
Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0087


Ishmael Reed (b. 1938–) was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, grew up in Buffalo, New York, and attended the Buffalo Technical High School between 1952 and 1954. Between 1956 and 1960, he graduated from high school and attended the Millard Fillmore College, the University of Buffalo’s night school division. Reed left the university and headed to New York City and joined the Umbra Workshop. Through the Umbra workshops, Reed learned various techniques of African American literary style, which shaped and launched his literary career. Indeed, he wrote some of his first poems under the influence of the Umbra Workshop, especially the technique of collage, or putting together ideas from African, African American, and Euro-American cultural and literary traditions. Later, Reed developed this technique into Neo-HooDooism or Neo-HooDoo aesthetic, a writing style hewn from African-based voodoo aesthetics. In poems such as “Neo-HooDoo Manifesto,” “The Neo-HooDoo Aesthetic,” and “Catechism of D Neoamerican Hoodoo Church,” collected in Catechism of D Neoamerican Hoodoo Church (1970) and Conjure (1972), Reed defines Neo-HooDoo writing as being characterized by syncretism and synchronicity, which means that Reed makes a collage of disparate elements that neither normally go together nor belong to the same time period. While synchronicity translates into time as circular, similar to time past is present and future, syncretism produces the multiculturalism that permeates Reed’s novels, poems, essays, and anthologies. In Reed’s writings, Neo-HooDooism becomes an expression of African diaspora reconnection and a poetics for multiculturalism. Significantly, Reed has likened his Neo-HooDoo aesthetic to jazz rhythms, and all his creative works tend both to embody jazz themes and to structurally simulate a jazz composition. This is the American literary Neo-HooDoo aesthetic, which informs themes, plots, and characters in Reed’s novels, essays, poems, and plays, including The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967), Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), Mumbo Jumbo (1972), The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974), Flight to Canada (1976), The Terrible Twos (1982), Reckless Eyeballing (1986), The Terrible Threes (1989), Japanese by Spring (1993), Juice! (2011), Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (1978), Writin’ Is Fightin’ (1988), Another Day at the Front (2003), Mixing It Up (2008), Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media (2010), Going Too Far (2012), New and Collected Poems, 1964–2006 (2006), The Plays (2009), The Complete Muhammad Ali (2015), and Black Hollywood UnChained: Commentary on the State of Black Hollywood (2015). Reed’s indelible mark on American letters includes tirelessly providing a multicultural view of American literature by editing anthologies and works by American and world writers across gender, race, and ethnicity.

General Overviews

Although Reed has published more than thirty books, and his multigenre literary career spans more than four decades, only a handful of book-length critical studies of his work have appeared. Worth noting is the fact that Reed’s poetry, drama, and nonfiction have yet to garner major critical studies. Additionally, critics tend to study his 1960s–1970s fiction to the detriment of his equally and aesthetically accomplished later novels, such as The Terrible Twos (1982), The Terrible Threes (1989), Japanese by Spring (1993), and Juice! (2011). Indeed, some critics erroneously claim that Reed’s post-1970s novels are aesthetically weak. On the other hand, Reed seems determined to counter some critics’ prescriptive aesthetics and negative reviews by globalizing his writing through significant and deliberate insertions of other languages, such as Japanese and Yoruba, in his most recent poetry, fiction, and drama. To date, six important critical studies are solely devoted to Reed’s novels. While Martin 1988 examines Reed’s position in the new black aesthetic, Boyer 1993 provides a brief overview of Reed’s writing. Using Lacan’s and Adorno’s critical theories, McGee 1997 significantly contributes to Reed studies. The groundbreaking Dick and Zemliansky 1999 collects some of the most important essays on Reed’s nine novels, from The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967) to Japanese by Spring (1993). Mvuyekure 2007 significantly contributes to Reed studies by providing a postcolonial reading of Reed’s nine novels, while Williams 2007 collects selected essays on Reed’s writing. Essays collected in Sämi Ludwig 2012 contribute enormously to Reed’s scholarship by exploring Reed’s aesthetic legacy in the 21st century.

  • Boyer, Jay. Ishmael Reed. Boise State University Western Writers 110. Boise, ID: Boise State University Press, 1993.

    Small book. General and brief overview of Reed’s writing. Very useful for readers who are new to Reed.

  • Dick, Bruce Allen, and Pavel Zemliansky, eds. The Critical Response to Ishmael Reed. Critical Responses in Arts and Letters 31. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999.

    Significant contribution to Reed scholarship. Organized by decades from the 1960s to the 1990s; collects selected reviews and essays on Reed’s fiction from that period. Contains no article on The Terrible Threes. Includes a significant introduction and an informative interview with Reed.

  • Ludwig, Sämi, ed. On the Aesthetic Legacy of Ishmael Reed: Contemporary Reassessments. Huntington Beach, CA: World Parade, 2012.

    Collects previously unpublished essays by American and European scholars (of different academic backgrounds) who read Reed’s works from different perspectives. Contains an interview with Ishmael Reed and groundbreaking essays on Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Mumbo Jumbo, and The Last Days of Louisiana Red.

  • Martin, Reginald. Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics. New York: St. Martin’s, 1988.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-19166-6

    Although a small book, the first book-length critical study of Reed’s first five novels. Studies Reed’s place in the new black aesthetic. Argues that Reed refuses to abide by aesthetics prescribed by major black aestheticians such as Addison Gayle, Houston Baker, and Amiri Baraka. Important introduction to Reed’s aesthetics.

  • McGee, Patrick. Ishmael Reed and the Ends of Race. New York: St. Martin’s, 1997.

    Second book-length critical study of Reed’s fiction. Critical application of Lacan’s concept of desire and Adorno’s idea of contradictions in a piece of art, which makes much of the evidence new. Second part solely devoted to Mumbo Jumbo. Very significant contribution to Reed scholarship. Subsections make it easier to read.

  • Mvuyekure, Pierre-Damien. The “Dark Heathenism” of the American Novelist Ishmael Reed: African Voodoo as American Literary HooDoo. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2007.

    First major critical study to devote individual chapters to Reed’s nine novels. Analyzes Reed’s novels as postcolonial writing that abrogates and appropriates the language of the master by elaborating its own theory of writing, whereby it achieves its own liberation in a multicultural environment.

  • Williams, Dana A., ed. African American Humor, Irony and Satire: Ishmael Reed, Satirically Speaking. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2007.

    Collects selected essays from the Department of English’s annual Hearts Day conference at Howard University in 2006 to honor Ishmael Reed. Essays discuss how Reed moves “peripheral” cultures back to the center. An informative source on irony and satire in Reed’s work and American culture.

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