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Ishmael Reed (b. 1938)

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811—1896) American novelist

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Flight to Canada

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(1976), Ishmael Reed's fifth novel, extends his permutation of literary forms such as the Western and the mystery to the foundational genre of African American letters, the slave narrative. In it, Reed turns his historical revisionism, formerly directed at the Crusades, the Old West, and the Harlem Renaissance, to the antebellum South and the Civil War.

The two main protagonists of Flight to Canada are Uncle Robin, a house slave who alters his master's will, leaving the plantation to himself, and Raven Quickskill, a runaway slave whose poem “Flight to Canada” is simultaneously the impetus for his escape and the means for tracking him down—suggesting both the power and the risk of writing. Both of these characters—like the central figures in Reed's previous books—are tricksters. They represent different generations (the old folks and the young “blood”) with different strategies for surviving and “getting over.” Uncle Robin, a “radical” alternative to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom, prefers to turn things his way rather than turn the other cheek; moreover, he stays “home” and works to undermine the slaveocracy from within, instead of “flying” north. Raven does fly (by jumbo jet!), but in the end, the promise of Canada proves illusory, and the novel concludes with his return to the plantation. Among other things, Reed implies that freedom is something we have to create, not simply seek.

Reed's use of anachronism (Lincoln's assassination, for example, takes place on television) is a strategy he has employed before, allowing him to challenge the neat, linear ordering of events that characterizes both our writing of history and our sense of time, of “progress.” It also enables him to bring the past into the present in ways that notify us we haven't gone as far as we might think in redressing old problems, in resolving persistent contradictions in the American experiment. Thus, Reed's takeoff on the slave narrative is not just another example of his ongoing effort, begun in his first novel, The Freelance Pallbearers, to play with, and assert the play in, the texts of the African American tradition. Published in the year of the American bicentennial, this story of a runaway slave serves as a reminder that, two hundred years after the establishment of the nation, there still is something “fugitive” about black writing and the experience it articulates.

As has been the case with the majority of Reed's novels, some commentators have persisted in employing a laugh meter to evaluate his work—that is, assessing the degree to which Reed is funny or not. Still, with the exception of Mumbo Jumbo, Flight to Canada is Reed's most critically acclaimed work of fiction. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his essay on Reed in the Dictionary of Literary Biography (vol. 33, 1984), considers Flight to Canada to be a major work, while Edmund White, reviewing the novel for the Nation (18 September 1976), went so far as to call it “the best work of black fiction since Invisible Man.

Hortense Spillers, “Changing the Letter: The Yokes, the Jokes of Discourse, or, Mrs. Stowe, Mr. Reed,” in Slavery and the Literary Imagination, eds. Deborah E. McDowell and Arnold Rampersad, 1989, pp. 25–61.Ashraf H. A. Rushdy, “Ishmael Reed's Neo-HooDoo Slave Narrative,” Narrative 2.2 (May 1994): 112–139.


Subjects: Literature

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