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Ishmael (Scott) Reed Biography

Nationality: American. Born: Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1938. Education: Buffalo Technical High School; East High School, Buffalo, graduated 1956; University of Buffalo, 1956-60. Career: Staff writer, Empire Star Weekly, Buffalo, 1960-62; freelance writer, New York, 1962-67; co-founder, East Village Other, New York, and Advance, Newark, New Jersey, 1965; teacher, St. Mark's in the Bowery prose workshop, New York, 1966. Since 1971 chair and president, Yardbird Publishing Company, editor, Yardbird Reader, 1972-76, since 1973 director, Reed Cannon and Johnson Communications, and since 1981 editor and publisher, with Al Young, Quilt magazine, all Berkeley, California. Since 1967 lecturer, University of California, Berkeley. Lecturer, University of Washington, Seattle, 1969-70, State University of New York, Buffalo, 1975, 1979, Sitka Community Association, Summer 1982, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, 1982, Columbia University, New York, 1983, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1987, and University of California, Santa Barbara, 1988. Visiting professor, Fall 1979, and since 1983 Associate Fellow of Calhoun House, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut; visiting professor, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, 1980; since 1987 Associate Fellow, Harvard University Signet Society. Since 1976 president, Before Columbus Foundation. Chair, Berkeley Arts Commission, 1980, 1981. Associate editor, American Book Review. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1974; Rosenthal Foundation award, 1975; Guggenheim fellowship, 1975; American Academy award, 1975; Michaux award, 1978; MacArthur fellow, 1998. Agent: Ellis J. Freedman, 415 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10017, U.S.A.



The Free-Lance Pallbearers. New York, Doubleday, 1967; London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1968.

Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down. New York, Doubleday, 1969;London, Allison and Busby, 1971.

Mumbo-Jumbo. New York, Doubleday, 1972; London, Allison andBusby, 1989.

The Last Days of Louisiana Red. New York, Random House, 1974.

Flight to Canada. New York, Random House, 1976.

The Terrible Twos. New York, St. Martin's Press-Marek, 1982;London, Allison and Busby, 1990.

Reckless Eyeballing. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1986; London, Allison and Busby, 1989.

The Terrible Threes. New York, Atheneum, 1989.

Japanese by Spring. New York, Atheneum, 1993.


Catechism of d neoamerican hoodoo church. London, Paul Breman, 1970.

Conjure: Selected Poems 1963-1970. Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1972.

Chattanooga. New York, Random House, 1973.

A Secretary to the Spirits. New York, NOK, 1978.

New and Collected Poems. New York, Atheneum, 1988.


The Rise, Fall and… ? of Adam Clayton Powell (as EmmettColeman), with others. New York, Bee-Line, 1967.

Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (essays). New York, Doubleday, 1978.

God Made Alaska for the Indians. New York, Garland, 1982.

Cab Calloway Stands In for the Moon. Flint, Michigan, Bamberger, 1986.

Airing Dirty Laundry. Reading, Addison-Wesley, 1993.

The Reed Reader. New York, Basic Books, 2000.

Editor, 19 Necromancers from Now. New York, Doubleday, 1970.

Editor, Yardbird Reader (annual). Berkeley, California, Yardbird, 5 vols., 1971-77.

Editor, with Al Young, Yardbird Lives! New York, Grove Press, 1978.

Editor, Calafia: The California Poetry. Berkeley, California, Yardbird, 1979.

Editor, with Al Young, Quilt 2-3. Berkeley, California, Reed andYoung's Quilt, 2 vols., 1981-82.

Editor, Writin' Is Fightin': Thirty-Seven Years of Boxing on Paper. New York, Atheneum, 1988.

Editor, with Kathryn Trueblood and Shawn Wong, The Before Columbus Foundation Fiction Anthology: Selections from the American Book Awards, 1980-1990. New York, Norton, 1992.

Editor, MultiAmerica: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace. New York, Viking, 1997.



"Mapping Out the Gumbo Works: An Ishmael Reed Bibliography" by Joe Weixlmann, Robert Fikes, Jr., and Ishmael Reed, in Black American Literature Forum (Terre Haute, Indiana), Spring 1978.

Critical Studies:

"Ishmael Reed Issue" of Review of Contemporary Fiction (Elmwood Park, Illinois), vol. 4, no. 2, 1984; Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics by Reginald Martin, New York, Macmillan, 1988; Ishmael Reed by Jay Boyer, Boise, Idaho, Boise State University, 1993; Conversations with Ishmael Reed, edited by Bruce Dick and Amritjit Singh. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1995; Ishmael Reed and the Ends of Race by Patrick McGee, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1997; The Critical Response to Ishmael Reed, edited by Bruce Allen Dick with the Assistance of Pavel Zemliansky, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1999.

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In an introduction to an essay collection, Shrovetide in Old New Orleans, Ishmael Reed says: "Many people here called my fiction muddled, crazy, incoherent, because I've attempted in fiction the techniques and forms painters, dancers, film makers, musicians in the West have taken for granted for at least fifty years, and the artists of many other cultures, for thousands of years." Reed's strengths are enunciated here: flexible, vivid language ranging from street argot to lofty estheticism, experimentation with materials and means, and a deep awareness of the mythic roots of all cultures. Reed is an Afro-American ironist, but his gifts and insights are multicultural, multimedia.

Reed's early novels, The Free-Lance Pallbearers and Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, are musical and mythical in conception and development. Using "hoodoo" as a system both of ideas and of language, Reed describes our world in terms of the hero and the prison of society. In The Free-Lance Pallbearers Bukka Doopeyduk is the epigonous hero fighting against HARRY SAM, which is the nation-state transformed into a monstrous personification, a dragon. In similar fashion, the Loop Garoo Kid of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is a shaman-hero (Loupe Garou=werewolf in Creole-French folklore) of a cowboy saga, in which the town of Yellow Back Radio is threatened by Drag Gibson, the stultifying force of the square world. The vaudevillian jokes, surrealism, and wordplays flow at allegro tempo.

In Mumbo Jumbo Reed concentrates on a mythic time (the 1920s) and magic places (New Orleans and Harlem) in U.S. culture. The ideas of hoodoo/voodoo and other Afro-American magic-religious cults figure in Reed's tapestry of the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance. Reed describes the epic struggle between Jes Grew, the black cultural impulse, and the Atonists, i.e., the monotheistic Western tradition. In the narrative, Reed incorporates drawings, photographs, collages, and handwritten texts, along with many scholarly references.

The Last Days of Louisiana Red extends this mythology, bringing many of the same characters and ideas to Berkeley in the 1970s. "Louisiana Red" is the plague of modern technocratic-industrial culture:

Louisiana Red was the way they related to one another, oppressed one another, maimed and murdered one another, carving one another while above their heads, fifty thousand feet, billionaires flew in custom-made jet planes equipped with saunas tennis courts swimming pools discotheques and meeting rooms decorated like the Merv Griffin show set.

In Flight to Canada Reed moves back to the mythos of slavery and the Civil War, applying the same wild, anachronistic expressionism to the central tragedy of the black American culture. In ironic, dramatic terms, Reed answers the "cliometric" revisers of history: "Revisionists. Quantitative historians. What does a computer know? Can a computer feel? Make love? Can a computer feel passion?" Quickskill tears off his shirt. "Look at these scars. Look at them! All you see is their fruit, but their roots run deep. The roots are in my soul."

The Terrible Twos is a comic-mythological tour de force, uniting elements of our culture's Christmas story—Dicken's "A Christmas Carol," the legend of St. Nicholas, the commercial street-corner Santa Claus—into a bizarre satire on greed, racism and inhumanity. Reed chides the U.S. of the 1980s as a mindless, grasping two-yearold, an infant-giant draining the world of resources, hope, and compassion, hiding behind a phony costume of charity and concern. The Terrible Threes updates the sociopolitical allegory to summarize the hedonism, egocentricity, and fatuous self-satisfaction of the Reagan years. It focuses on the impact of TV evangelism, TV political advertising, paranoid militarism, and the all-pervasive role of sales pitches in contemporary America.

With Reckless Eyeballing, Reed returns to the elaborate mythology of racism in the idea of "reckless eyeballing" (i.e., ogling of white women by black men) as a "crime." In his usual high-energy mix of history, folkore, contemporary observation and mythopoeic imagination, Reed investigates the way sexual mores and folklore have colluded with political expediency to stifle U.S. culture.

Reed's brilliant comic vision of American history brings together the basic ingredients of black culture in a rich musical-dramatic form. His expansion of language into a radically personal style points to the richness of that culture as a storytelling source. Reed's wide interests in traditions outside the received mainstream of "Western Culture" courses, in magic, myth, and ritual, make him one of the most forceful and persuasive novelists of the past twenty years.

William J. Schafer

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