Text: Craig Werner, “ ‘The Insurrection of Subjugated Knowledge’: Poe and Ishmael Reed,” Poe and Our Times: Influences and Affinities, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1986, pp. 144-156 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 144:]



Contemplating the symbolic chaos of a New Orleans Mardi Gras parade, black humorist Ishmael Reed finds “a giant black raven” rising up before him. The raven is part of a float which celebrates “The Spirit of Literature” and bears the names of Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe. The float also includes a “typewriter next to which a Confederate soldier held forth a bayonet.” As Reed concludes, “this float was trying to tell me something.”(1) Rather than speculating on the message, Reed heads off for pitchers of beer and hamburgers. Nonetheless, the apparition hovers throughout his work, pointing to a continuing fascination with the aesthetic message — at once absurd, threatening, trivial and profound — emanating from both Poe the serious artist and Poe the pop icon. In fact, Poe provides a central point of reference in three of Reed’s novels: The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967), The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974) and Flight to Canada (1976). These works reflect and extend an ambivalent Afro-American tradition that alternately repudiates and endorses Poe’s vision. The repudiation derives from an understandable reaction against the racism Poe shared with the vast majority of his contemporaries, northern and southern.(2) The endorsement relates to Poe’s apprehension of the hidden horror of the American psyche, an apprehension fundamental to Afro-American writing. Instead of simply juxtaposing these two orientations, the encompassing ambivalence reflects a deep uncertainty concerning the relationship between Poe and parody. Frequently the pop Poe has been taken more “seriously” (and uncritically) than the “serious” Poe whom academic critics increasingly recognize as a master hoaxer. As a result, the pop Poe may seem an unwitting parody, a hoax on the memory of the hoaxer. Because of the wide currency of the pop image, this hoax transforms Poe into an extremely threatening figure embodying the very drives which he himself satirized in his best work. The juxtaposition of overblown raven and bayonet perfectly captures the ambiguity facing the Afro-American writer confronting Poe. Himself a master ironist, Reed seizes on this ambiguity to test “Reed’s Law” that states: “when a parody is better than the original a mutation occurs which renders the original obsolete.”(3) Poe will no doubt survive Reed’s parodies of “The Raven,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and “Annabel Lee.” Ultimately, however, the parodies may contribute to a mutation in the literary spirit that grants the Confederate soldier his bayonet and denies Charles W. Chesnutt his place on the Mardi Gras float. [page 145:]

Reed’s response to Poe frequently demonstrates his awareness of the Afro-American attraction to Poe’s vision of horror. Where Poe perceived an encompassing psychological horror, however, Afro-American writers concentrate on the social origins and implications of the horror. Evident in stories such as Chesnutt’s “The Gray Wolf’s Ha’nt” and Wallace Thurman’s “Grist in the Mill,” this response received its classic statement in the introductory essay to Richard Wright’s Native Son. Wright wrote: “we have in the oppression of the Negro a shadow athwart our national life dense and heavy enough to satisfy even the gloomy broodings of a Hawthorne. And if Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror; horror would invent him.”(4) Similarly, James Baldwin comments on the murders of the black children in Atlanta in a passage echoing Wright: “Richard Wright once wrote that if Edgar Allan Poe had been born in 20th Century America, he would not have had to invent horror; horror would have invented him. The statement sounded perhaps a trifle excessive, like a gifted actor’s extra flourish. But it does not seem even remotely excessive now. On the contrary, it seems relatively mild, even kind. Certainly nothing in Poe begins to approximate the horror now reigning.”(5) Like Wright and Baldwin, Reed sees the U. S. as a haunted and horrific country. In this view, Poe is the inevitable, even the understated, spirit of a society that refuses to confront the source of its social and psychological diseases.

Reed’s treatment of the horror clearly reflects his knowledge not only of Poe, but of Wright’s treatment of Poe. Even while juxtaposing the apocalypse of “Usher” with that of Native Son, however, Reed provides a disquieting laugh-track that recalls the Afro-American tradition that finds Poe to be a fertile source of and target for parody. Although Wright’s treatment of Bigger Thomas as a social version of the Ourang-Outang of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” intimates this emphasis, Ralph Ellison is clearly Reed’s most distinguished predecessor in parodying Poe. Ellison opens Invisible Man with a racially resonant pun: “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms.”(6) The association of Poe and the movies develops into a major motif in Reed’s parodies. Ellison himself parodies “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether,” itself a hoax, in the Golden Day chapter of Invisible Man. This image of America as a complex hoax, a place where the inmates run the madhouse, pervades The Free-Lance Pallbearers and much of Reed’s later work. For Ellison and Reed, the madness derives partly from the corrupt heritage of racism, partly from America’s unwillingness to accept the implications of its professed pluralism. Rather than embrace the cultural heritages of Africa, Native America, Asia and Egypt, Euro-American culture consigns [page 146:] them to a symbolic underground. Paradoxically, this cultural hoax simultaneously consigns Euro-Americans to a static vision of reality. Clinging to the racist heritage, they embrace superficiality and deny their connection with the underground entirely. As a result, they find themselves trapped in the role of doomed madmen, all the madder for their refusal to admit they are living in an asylum. The destruction visited on Poe characters such as Roderick Usher and William Wilson can easily be seen as a mark of their inability to escape their static realities or to accept their links with the symbolic underground.

Reed refuses to accept this destruction. Accepting the pluralistic American heritage, he plunges into a world where symbols proliferate, where the raven echoes the Bible, Poe’s poem, both Boris Karloff movie versions of the poem (one serious, one openly parodec), Tlinglit Indian mythology, and the highest aspirations of Mardi Gras floatmakers. Surrendering to absurdity, Reed makes no pretense of the kind of rational control invoked by Poe in “The Philosophy of Composition.” Rather, he seeks to embrace the type of madness that Michel Foucault links with higher knowledge in Madness and Civilization. Foucault’s description of madness (primarily in the pre-Classical tradition) as a form of passage relates directly to Reed’s reconstruction of Poe’s sensibility: “Freed from wisdom and from the teaching that organized it, the image begins to gravitate about its own madness. Paradoxically, this liberation derives from a proliferation of meaning, from a self-multiplication of significance, weaving relationships so numerous, so intertwined, so rich, that they can no longer be deciphered except in the esoterism of knowledge. Things themselves become so burdened with attributes, signs, allusions that they finally lose their own form. Meaning is no longer read in an immediate perception, the figure no longer speaks for itself; between the knowledge that animates it and the form into which it is transposed, a gap widens. It is free for the dream.”(7) Both Poe and Reed clearly seek to liberate their images from the organizing principles of social wisdom; both allow the proliferation of meaning. The difference in their visions stems from Reed’s determination to embrace the gap between form and knowledge. Since the “wisdom” of Euro-American culture denies many of the cultural traditions providing the imagery for Reed’s dream, the gap — if one has the courage to plunge into it — allows access to a particularly rich range of liberating knowledge. Where Poe sought an unchanging ideal refuge from both social wisdom and from the tension between form and knowledge, Reed explores the relationships. He enters the gap protected only by a laughter that sounds with desperation, humor, irony and anger. Ultimately, Reed views all stasis — cultural or psychological — as destructive madness. In [page 147:] response he promulgates a kinetic madness that employs a constantly shifting parody as its primary artistic expression. Although the kinetic madness may eventually generate insights making a kinetic sanity viable, Reed’s immediate aim is simply to keep the parodec focus moving in order to deny his readers the sense of certainty which produces stasis.

Drawing with equal ease on the Euro- and Afro-American traditions of parody, Reed echoes both the masking traditions of Afro-American folk culture (used by Chesnutt and Ellison) and the consciously deceptive meta fictional strategies of Samuel Beckett and John Barth. Reed also parodies serious literary forms through the conventions of pop culture and pop culture through those of “serious” art.(8) In this context Reed’s fascination with Poe becomes most readily comprehensible. The Poe of Vincent Price and the Poe of Charles Baudelaire meet in The Free-Lance Pallbearers; the grandfather of the B detective movie and the sophisticated hoaxer are indistinguishable in The Last Days of Louisiana Red. Swept up in the “madness” reflected in his own words, Poe becomes a symbol of American culture far more encompassing than the Wright-Baldwin emphasis on horror would suggest. By parodying an unwanted literary master (Poe of the Confederacy) who himself has been subjected to numerous unconscious parodies (Poe of the B movies), Reed connects himself with a legitimate literary ancestor (Poe of the self-parody), thereby changing a serious parody into a camp statement complete with self-parody (Poe as Reed in whiteface).

At some point adding new levels of parody yields diminishing returns, but the presence of numerous levels highlights Reed’s central strategy. The impossibility of distinguishing among parody, travesty, burlesque and camp reflects Reed’s attempt to subvert the authority of hierarchical voices, to keep the revolution going — socially, artistically, psychologically. The key to Reed’s revolution, and to his argument with Poe, is his rejection of the stasis that threatens to paralyze him — and his pluralistic culture — and to prevent the plunge into the gap between form and knowledge, between reality and dream. Ironically, Reed’s insistence on a kinetic vision subverts his own “Law” by making it impossible to pin down a static “original” to be rendered obsolete through parody. By using Poe to motivate further revolutions, Reed guarantees Poe’s continuing potency as a cultural force. Seen in this light, Reed’s shifting attitude toward Poe is hardly surprising. At times he echoes Poe’s imagery; at times he offers a critique of the imagination and the social ambiance which generated the images. At no time does he encourage complacent rejection of Poe as racist or acceptance of Poe as visionary. To a greater degree than the avatar of horror seen by Wright and Baldwin, Reed’s Poe is as complex as the society that shaped him. [page 148:]

Among the most pervasive Poesque images in Reed’s fiction are the asylum, the plague and the tomb. Reed’s first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers, places protagonist Bukka Dopeyduk in an insane society — HARRY SAM — reminiscent of that in “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether.” Bukka finds himself playing a central role in what frequently seems a B-movie version of “The Raven” as it might have been directed by W. C. Fields and Richard Pryor: “I drunk some likkerand got my head bad. At three o’clock in the morning there came a tap-dap-rapping at my door. A tit-tatklooking at my hollow door. ‘Who is dot rap-a-dap-tapping at my do’ this time of night? What-cha-wont?”(9) Uncertain even whether he is summoner or summoned, Bukka is haunted by a host of “real” specters including Elijah Raven and Lenore, who provide the focus for Reed’s critique of the pop Poe. In seeming contrast to Poe’s raven with its one-word vocabulary, Reed’s Elijah Raven constantly changes voice in an attempt to trick the white man. Although this kinetic approach parallels Reed’s own parodic aesthetic, Elijah Raven manages to progress only from “What’s happening, my man” (p. 9) to “Flint Flam Alakazam!” (p. 9) to “Git It On” (p. 71). Finally he rejects black power entirely and launches a new political rebellion based on saving cereal box tops (p. 109). The inmate may not be any crazier than his keepers, but he seems even less cogent than his feathered namesake.

Similarly, Lenore’s relationship with a Poesque figure contributes to Reed’s vision of a paralyzed society in The Free-Lance Pallbearers. First mentioned by Alfred, a poetic old man speaking in a “Boris Karloff voice” (p. 59), Lenore appears as the familiar Poesque emblem of lost love. Alfred, whose obsession with an idyllic past embarrasses even his friends, offers Bukka a gold watch as a “token from Lenore and the army of unalterable bores” (p. 59). Even Lenore satirizes Alfred’s static obsessions which include his insistence on calling her “the second Helen of Troy” (p. 91). After the church refuses to allow the marriage of Alfred and Lenore (recasting the Poesque motif of incestuous love), Alfred’s remaining friends speak to him only in French, recalling Poe’s Baudelairian partisans. Though she manifests stasis differently from Alfred, Lenore shares the frenetic psychological paralysis which provides Reed’s central image of American society. Slipping out of her role in the Poe movie, she emerges near the end of the novel as a porno movie star, smacking her lips and spouting advertising slogans (p. 110). Ultimately she shares both Alfred’s stasis and Raven’s incoherence.

This paralysis, masquerading as motion, results in an apocalypse echoing both the Poe of literature and the Poe of the movies. The final chapter of The Free-Lance Pallbearers occurs in a giant Victorian house complete with “eerie organ music” (p. 100), steps disappearing “into the hollow of an [page 149:] abysmal throat” (p. 101), moans “coming from that oval-shaped darkness” (p. 101) and hallways lined with “human skeletons in chains” (p.102). Reed alludes to several Poe tales in describing the destruction of the house:. like that in “Usher” it “shook at its very roots” (p.103). Ultimately a whirlpool — which Reed connects with the swirling water in a toilet bowl — sweeps away nearly everyone in the static society of HARRY SAM. The description of the flushing compresses images from Invisible Man (the descent into darkness following the Harlem riot), Afro-American folklore (the crossroads where the spirit Legba appears) and Poe’s “Descent into the Maelstrom”: “AS I RAN TOWARD THE ‘FOUR CORNERS’ INTERSECTION IN THE MIDDLE OF SAM WHERE VIOLENT WHIRLPOOLS OF PEOPLE SEEMED TO BE HEADING PELL-MELL INTO THE CROSSROADS” (p. 106). Bukka himself, like the protagonist of “The Pit and the Pendulum,” escapes personal destruction; but his emergence from one Poe apocalypse simply brings him into the midst of another. Emerging from the underground at the end of the novel, he confronts a comic social version of the red death as he gazes on a flashing neon advertisement “WRITTEN IN CHINESE” (p. 116). Not content simply to undercut the dominant system of social wisdom, Reed emphasizes that his parodic revolution must be an on-going process. The destruction of one dominant hierarchy creates the opportunity for the emergence of another, one which incorporates some of the voices which had previously been consigned to the underground. The location of the gap shifts; stasis encroaches on kinesis; the body politic remains diseased.

The plague becomes the primary Poe allusion in Reed’s novels Mumbo Jumbo and The Last Days of Louisiana Red. Where The Free-Lance Pallbearers parodies the Poe of the horror movies, these novels concentrate on the Poe of the detective story. Where Poe’s Auguste Dupin uncovers the rational explanations for mysterious events, Reed’s hoodoo detective Papa LaBas is a “jacklegged detective of the metaphysical. “(10) Specifically, LaBas investigates the destructive plagues such as Louisiana Red that ravage Reed’s America, discouraging movement and enforcing stasis. Reed describes the “Jes Grew” that worries the social authorities in Mumbo Jumbo as a kinetic anti-plague: “Some plagues caused the body to waste away; Jes Grew enlivened the host” (p. 9). Conversely, the red death in The Last Days of Louisiana Red threatens to destroy the “Gumbo Works,” which carries on the pluralistic heritage of Jes Grew. Ultimately, LaBas and Reed trace the power of Louisiana Red too disorder in America’s collective imagination, a disorder related to fear of sexual and racial complexity. Parodying Dupin, Reed draws attention to the origins of the American horror in a simplistic and [page 150:] simplifying faith in the power of reason to cope with social and psychological ambiguity.

Reed’s multi-valent parody in The Last Days of Louisiana Red focuses on “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” showing a complex awareness of Wright’s use of the same tale in Native Son. It has been argued that Poe’s use of the ape as murderer reveals his own conscious racism, but neither Wright nor Reed seems overly concerned with the biographical issue. Rather, Wright concentrates on exploring the effects of the social acceptance of the image of black man as ape. His primary concern is with the media that portray Bigger both as a murderous gorilla and as a new incarnation of a communist red death. Reed in turn combines these motifs in order to comment on the symbolic red death plaguing America’s unconscious life.(11)

Working with the Poe-Wright association between blacks and apes, Reed replaces the subhuman gorilla-Ourang-Outang with the superhuman baboon Hamadryas. Hamadryas communicates with super-rational sources of wisdom despite his incarceration in the Central Park Zoo, providing an image of the strength of underground knowledge even in bondage. He provides LaBas with important insight into the crucial lines of the mystic text “Minnie the Moocher” as sung by Cab Calloway: “Now here’s a story ‘bout Minnie the Moocher / She was a low-down hoochy coocher / She messed around wid a bloke named Smokey / She loved him tho’ he was a ‘cokey.”(12) Significantly the text providing the crucial knowledge appears to be entirely insane from the viewpoint of the dominant social wisdom. Hamadryas’s advice, more mystical than rational, helps LaBas protect the Gumbo Works from Louisiana Red. The Poe villain becomes an anti-hero in Native Son and finally metamorphoses into the source of spiritual knowledge in The Last Days of Louisiana Red.

Even while recasting the ape in intellectual-spiritual terms, Reed endorses certain aspects of the Poe-Wright image cluster. Murderous apes do appear in The Last Days of Louisiana Red. Hamadryas is charged with fracturing the skull of the white zoo attendant who cuts short LaBas’s visit. Reed suggests that, whatever the level of insight and achievement, any non-white person in America will have what Baldwin called his “private Bigger Thomas living in the skull.”(13) Extending Baldwin’s argument, Reed implies that every white person also internalizes Bigger. The crucial difference between the white and the black Bigger-ape is that the Euro-American typically refuses to acknowledge his madness and attempts to repress it by rational means. The “liberal” scholar-secret agent Maxwell Kasavubu, like Wright’s Boris Max a white spokesman for black culture, is engaged in a critical study of Native Son. Rather than dealing with his material on an [page 151:] emotional level, however, Kasavubu rejects all connection between himself and the Native Son / “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” myth. As a result, he suffers horrific dreams in which he becomes Mary Dalton threatened sexually by a “huge black gorilla” (p. 82). Ultimately his refusal to discuss the dreams results in his total insanity. Falling victim to the madness of Louisiana Red, he metamorphoses from Max to Mary (pp. 155-156) to Bigger himself (p. 156). Max/Bigger goes on the rampage in Berkeley Hills; when he is arrested, he is wearing a chauffeur’s uniform and speaking the Mississippi/Chicago black dialect of the 1940s. As LaBas, Kasavubu has been “driven mad by his own cover” (p. 172). In The Last Days of Louisiana Red then, the white man becomes a black parody of a white parody of a black man/beast. Reed effectively defuses the racial implications of Poe’s imaginative construct, identifying it not as a description of black reality but as an intimation of the red plague threatening the white man’s cultural sanity. The culture that refuses to embrace pluralistic variety, internal and external, may find itself destroyed by the very roles it seeks to repress.

Flight to Canada focuses explicitly on the ways in which imaginative stasis engenders insanity. The raven motif recurs in the name of the protagonist Raven Quickskill, whose name derives from Tlinglit Indian mythology as much as it does from Poe.(14) Significantly, the Indian reference emphasizes movement and rejects hierarchical institutions: “Other slaves, however, sat at attention. They’d begun some kind of Raven cult. He didn’t want to have a cult. A Raven is always on the move. A cult would tie him down.”(15) Conversely, Poe has been immobilized by the paralyzed civilization that forces Raven to keep moving. Reed’s analysis of Poe’s place in the Southern imagination (which he sees simply as an emblem of the dominant EuroAmerican imagination) seems to concentrate on Poe as racist apostle of horror: “Why isn’t Edgar Allan Poe recognized as the principal biographer of that strange war [the Civil War]? Fiction, you say? Where does fact begin and fiction leave off? Why does the perfectly rational, in its own time, often sound like mumbo-jumbo? Where did it leave off for Poe, prophet of a civilization buried alive, where according to witnesses, people were often whipped for no reason” (p. 10)? The phrase “no reason” demands clarification. In fact, Reed uncovers the irrational “reasons,” similar to those in The Last Days of Louisiana Red, for the paralysis of the civilization Poe expresses. Employing an intricate complex of Poesque motifs, Reed attributes the paralysis to America’s fixation on an unreal personal and social past. In addition, by connecting the “perfectly rational” with “mumbo-jumbo,” the title of his own third novel, Reed suggests a buried affinity with Poe in the role of hoaxer. [page 152:]

Reed’s use of Poe as a character in Flight to Canada makes it clear that he is primarily concerned with Poe as distorted by the American imagination. At times the distortions seem harmless; he gives garden party readings and sets the standards for the “dandyish, foppish, pimpish” (p. 141) element of the South. Poe, however, is also adopted by slavemasters such as Arthur Swille who acquires “opiates” from “Eddie Poe” (p. 135). The passage transforms Poe into an emblem of both psychological and social oppression. He is the Oedipal (“Eddie Poe”) father-oppressor who simultaneously parodies Marxist theory by providing “opiates for the massas.” The Oedipal motif recurs when Swille’s murdered son returns from the grave to condemn his father as “one macabre fiend,” continuing “No wonder he has Poe down here all the time” (p. 126).

Throughout the novel Swille lives in a Poesque world dominated by his sexual fixation on his dead sister Vivian. Clearly intended as a parody of numerous Poe characters, Swille repeatedly returns to the crypt to embrace his lost love’s decomposed body (p. 60). His fondest memory restates “Annabel Lee”: “Vivian, my disconsolate damsel, if only you . . . my fair pale sister. Your virgin knees and golden hair in your sepulcher by the sea. Let me creep into your mausoleum, baby. My insatiable Vivian by the sea, remember how we used to go for walks down to the levee and wait for the Annabel Lee. You were only fourteen years old, yet ours is a romance of the days that were” (p. 109). Beneath the romantic surface of the Old South — the South of the steamboat Robert E. Lee — Reed reveals an obscene and destructive fixation on a static past. His description of Vivian’s return from the grave recalls the B movie Poe appropriate to Swille’s psyche. Coming back to life wearing a “filmy scarf, white-death negligee, feet white and ashen, carrying some strange book of obscure lore” (p. 135), Vivian demands that Swille confront the implications of his obsession. She refuses to allow him to return to his wife. She taunts him with echoes of “Annabel Lee”: “You’ll never give up me, will you, brother? Out in my sepulcher by the sea” (p. 135). Returning from the grave like Madeline in “Usher,” she kills her brother with a “fiery kiss.” Even after his death, however, Swille’s obsession haunts him. The final paragraph of his will commits him irrevocably to a static madness: “‘And my final request may sound a little odd to the Yankees who’ve invaded our bucolic haven, but I wish to be buried in my sister’s sepulcher by the sea, joined in the Kama Sutra position below . . . that we may be joined together in eternal and sweet Death’ “ (pp. 168-169). Again, Reed portrays stasis, death and sexual madness as aspects of the same encompassing plague.

Swille’s corruption parallels that of the entire slave-owning society in Flight to Canada. Again, Reed implicates Poe in the imaginative structure [page 153:] supporting the social insanity: “He loved the sound of the screams coming from various parts of the plantation, day and night. Eddie Poe had gone bonkers over his equipment and used some of it in his short stories” (p.108). Although the masters maintain belief in their own superior civilization — the civilization of the Confederate soldier on the Mardi Gras float — Reed clearly portrays the ante-bellum South as an asylum in the hands of the inmates. Juxtaposing Swille’s death with a section of the novel titled “The Burning of Richmond,” Reed asks the question concerning responsibility for the destruction: “Who pushed Swille into the fire? Some Etheric Double? The inexorable forces of history? A ghost? Thought? Or all of these? Who could have pushed him? Who?” (p. 179). Reed offers no simple answer. Focusing on either internal (etheric double), external (history) or mystical (ghost) causes reestablishes precisely the type of hierarchical “social wisdom” that encourages the complacency that doomed Swille and the South. Ultimately, as Reed comments, Poe’s own imagination provides the deepest insight into the maelstrom of the Civil War: “Poe got it all down. Poe says more in a few stories than all of the volumes by historians” (p. 10).

Despite his “attacks” on Poe, there is a kind of kinetically crazy logic in Reed’s decision to focus his counter-vision in Flight to Canada on the multi-valent image of the raven. To reject the history of the “other” — in this case of Poe the white Southerner-would be to perpetuate the Euro-American mistake. Rather than subjecting himself to the resulting destruction, Reed rejects both the denial of and the obsession with a static past. Specifically, Reed re-imagines America, land of slavery and the raven, through the kinetic figure of Raven Quickskill, who is simultaneously Southern writer and runaway slave. Raven gains his power from parodying not only Poe, but the Bible, Tlinglit mythology, and his own creator. Neither his body nor his art can be confined within a static form: “His poem flew just as his name had flown. Raven. A scavenger to some, a bringer of new light to others” (p. 13). This identification of personal identity with written text recalls Robert B. Stepto’s description of the Afro-American “narrative of ascent” in which the hero can attain freedom only by becoming literate in Euro-American terms.(16) Even as he gains control over the text of his own experience, however, the “articulate survivor” (Stepto’s term for the hero of the ascent narrative) risks alienation from the Afro-American culture that nurtured him. The challenge facing Reed’s Raven, therefore, is to avoid picking up the static voice of Poe’s raven.

Reed’s Raven meets this challenge by joining in a complex parody of himself and his creator, a parody that cautions against a static reading of the critique of stasis. When Raven reaches Canada, he finds a land of fast food [page 154:] stands that simply recasts the spiritual poverty of the United States and threatens him with the cultural isolation risked by the articulate survivor. Through Raven’s flight, Reed parodies simplistic conceptions of freedom as a goal to be reached and then statically maintained. All stasis, in a land continually echoing “nevermore,” implies death; the revolution must keep on revolving. To this end, Reed insists on the fluidity of his own text, his own identity. Raven Quickskill’s magnum opus is a poem titled “Flight to Canada,” The poem is part wish-fulfillment, part social criticism, part autobiography, part self-parody. Reed never stops reinterpreting “Flight to Canada” in Flight to Canada. Implicitly and explicitly, he challenges the reader to share the kinetic process of self and social creation. The novel’s first paragraph, which applies equally well to the experience of Reed and of Raven, focuses on the reader’s role in the aesthetic process: “Little did I know when I wrote the poem ‘Flight to Canada’ that there were so many secrets locked inside its world. It was more of a reading than a writing” (p. 7). By placing Quickskill’s poem in his own novel and writing much of the novel in Quickskill’s raven voice, Reed effectively forces the reader to reconstruct the text in much the same way Reed has reconstructed Poe’s. He raises the possibility that his own text is a function of social illness and in fact may play a politically negative role in giving away the “secrets” of Afro-American (or any underground) cultural strategies.

This distrust of even his own text reflects Reed’s concern with what Foucault calls “global” or “totalitarian” theories that subsume individual perceptions within their own alien structures. Therefore, even an imme diately valid perception may contribute to the oppression or repression of further perceptions. Today’s motion is tomorrow’s stasis. Recommending a “non-centralised” criticism “whose validity is not dependent on theapproval of the established regimes of thought,” Foucault endorses an “insurrection of subjugated knowledges.”(17) Reed’s parodies contribute immediately to this insurrection, which by its very nature cannot provide a “wisdom” capable of organizing the subjugated knowledges into a “sane” structure. The very presence of a global wisdom forces the subjugated knowledges to return to the symbolic underground or to become part of the totalitarian regime. Faced with this desperate circumstance, Reed determines to keep one revolution ahead of the hierarchy, to keep seeking and releasing the pluralistic knowledge in Afro-American culture, in Tlinglit mythology. Finally he seeks to disrupt the hierarchy itself by releasing the subjugated knowledge buried by and within the Euro-American imagination, the knowledge flickering through the smile of the B-movie Poe.

No text can be any more sacred than another in this radically pluralistic [page 155:] vision. Poe remains valuable for his insights, whether or not he recognized their implications. Similarly, Reed takes himself seriously only insofar as he can laugh at Raven — his own and Poe’s — and then move on. Providing an analog within his texts for the complex process of parody and self-parody that supports the insurrection of subjugated knowledge, Reed challenges his readers to join in their own underground revolution, to rescue Poe from the stasis of his own vision and enlist him in the revolution against the Confederate Soldier on the Mardi Gras float.

[page 155, continued:]


1.  Ishmael Reed, Shrovetide in Old New Orleans (Garden City, 1978), p. 29.

2.  For the basic argument on Poe’s racism, see Race and the American Romantics, ed. Vincent Freimarck and Bernard Rosenthal (New York, 1971), pp. 2-4. The same volume includes the “Paulding-Drayton Review,” on which much of the case rests. Although there has been much discussion of Poe’s authorship of the review, there seems little reason to doubt the general conclusion drawn by Freimarck and Rosenthal.

3.  Reed, Shrovetide, p. 248. Far a full-scale discussion of Poe’s use of the ironic mode, see G. R. Thompson, Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison, WI, 1979). Other valuable contributions to our understanding of Poe’s ability to employ irony in subtle fashion include Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, “Poe’s ‘Tarr and Fether’: Hoaxing in the Blackwood Mode,” Topic 31(1977),30-40, and James M. Cox, “Edgar Poe: Style as Pose;” VQR 44(1968), 67-89.

4.  Richard Wright, Native Son (New York, 1940), p. xxxiv.

5.  James Baldwin, “Atlanta: The Evidence of Things Not Seen,” Playboy 28, no. 12 (December 1981), p. 142.

6.  Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York, 1952), p. 9.

7.  Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization (New York, 1979), pp. 18-19.

8.  My argument concerning Reed’s use of parody has been profoundly influenced by Leslie Fiedler’s essay “The Dream of the New,” American Dreams, American Nightmares, ed. David Madden (Carbondale and Edwardsville, 1970), pp. 19-27. Fiedler views Poe as the exemplar of the American relationship to the parodic mode and establishes the framework which supportsa reading of Reed as a “true” literary descendant of at least one aspect of Poe.

9.  Reed, The Free-Lance Pallbearers (New York, 1969), p. 26.

10.  Reed, Mumbo Jumbo (New York, 1972), p. 241.

11.  The Poe-Wright connection has been discussed at length in Michel Fabre, “Black Cat and White Cat: Richard Wright’s Debt to Edgar Allan Poe,” PoeS, 4 (1971), 17-20; Linda T. Prior, “A Further Word on Richard Wright’s Use of Poe [page 156:] in Native Son.” PoeS, 5 (1972_, 52-53; and Seymour Gross, “Native Son and ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’: An Addendum,” PoeS, 8(1975), 23.

12.  Reed, The Last Days of Louisiana Red (New York, 1974), p. 34.

13.  Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (New York, 1964), p. 33.

14.  Reed, Shrovetide, pp. 228-229.

15.  Reed, Flight to Canada (New York, 1976), p. 144.

16.  Robert B. Stepto, From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative (Urbana, 1979), p. 167.

17.  Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge (New York, 1980), pp. 80-83.





[S:0 - PAOT, 1986] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe and Our Times - The Insurrection of Subjugated Knowledge: Poe and Ishmael Reeds (Craig Werner, 1986)