Everyone from Warren G. Harding to King Tut shows up in this madcap and visionary novel from Ishmael Reed. But the star of the show is not even a person, . America, wrote Ishmael Reed in his novel Mumbo Jumbo, is “mercurial, restless, violent the travelling salesman who can sell the world. MUMBO JUMBO by Ishmael Reed Mumbo Jumbo is a non-fiction novel. When a novel includes a item bibliography, you know we’re in.
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In my writings on music, I have sometimes compared the dissemination of a new performance style to the spread of a disease. This isn’t just a fancy metaphor. The mathematical models used to study the diffusion of innovations come from medical science, and were originally developed to predict the spread of epidemics.
Check out the ishmzel of Everett Rogers for insights into this field of forecasting and trend analysis.
In my twenties, when I worked as a management consulting with McKinsey and the Boston Consulting Group, I applied these formulas to plot the success of new product launches and forecast the impact of idhmael shifts. Later I found that these same mathematical models could help me understand the early spread of jazz, blues and other musical ‘epidemics’ of the past and present. A new cultural meme is a kind of germ, and often the very same conditions that foster one also help spread the other. I doubt that novelist Ishmael Reed ever practiced management consulting, but apparently he learned the same lessons about the diffusion of new musical styles.
Mumbo Jumbo: a dazzling classic finally gets the recognition it deserves | Books | The Guardian
In his novel Mumbo JumboReed writes the story of an ‘epidemic’ of black culture—song, dance, slang and other elements—spreading into mainstream America. Reed sets most of his story in New York during the Jazz Age. An earlier outbreak of ‘Jes Grew’—associated with the rise of ragtime in the s—had been effectively contained.
But now a new, stronger bug is sweeping northward from New Orleans, and threatens to subdue most of the population.
There are “18, cases in Arkansas, 60, in Tennessee, 98, in Mississippi and cases showing up even in Wyoming. The authorities are alarmed. People want to catch this isumael disease. Those who are still rred gather around those already bitten by the bug, and chant “give me fever, give me fever. Here Reed outdoes himself, offering the grandest of conspiracy theories. The Knights Templar, apparently disbanded in the yearare actually still hanging around, and waiting for a chance to stop ushmael Jes Grew epidemic.
But they need to get in line. The Teutonic Knights, founded in the twelfth century, also want to block the disease. And some Masons, a former cop, yellow journalists, Wall Street, politicians the folks at the Plutocrat Club, and a mysterious group known as the Wallflower Order, dedicated to implementing the world- view of an even bigger conspiracy group, known as the Atonists, all have skin in the game literally and metaphorically.
And this conspiracy has been around for a long, long time.
Take the aforementioned ‘Atonists’, for example. Back in ancient Egypt, they worshipped the disk of the sun, known as Aton, but now they represent a coalition of angry monotheists, with everyone from Christians to Freudians offering their support. How can you keep a conspiracy this big a secret? And continue to keep it secret for thousands of years?
Reed doesn’t tell us. Fortunately a few brave souls have figured out the dark, dirty truth, and are willing to take on this enormous coalition of evil doers—in particular, Papa La Bas of the Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral, an upholder of African spiritualism, and his ally Black Herman, a real-life African-American stage magician who performed through the United States during the s and early s. Other historical figures, from Warren G. Harding to King Tut, make their appearance in cameo roles in this book.
Three years after Reed published Mumbo JumboE. But Reed set the tone for this mashup up truth and fiction in his colorful predecessor, and even anticipated Doctorow’s reliance on black music as an emblem for the flux and flow of the era. If anything, Reed is more ambitious.
Mumbo Jumbo: a dazzling classic finally gets the recognition it deserves
He even includes footnotes and a lengthy bibliography at the end of his novel—with citations of everyone from Edward Gibbon to Madame Blavatsky. Photos and artwork are also inserted into the text, which often seems intent on breaking free of ishmae, constraints of the novel, and turning into a radical reinterpretation of the last several thousand years of human society.
This book is packed to the brim with symbols and vaguely coded references. Students of American literary history will easily recognize a parody of white Harlem Renaissance advocate Carl Van Vechten Reed describes Von Vampton as having one blue eye, and wearing a black eyepatch over the other eye—typical of the extravagant symbolism that shows up again and again in this book, and a fitting way of depicting Van Vechten’s role as an intermediary between white and black culture.
But how many readers also pick up on the reference to Warren Hinckle, a flamboyant San Francisco journalist who was at the peak of his fame when Mumbo Jumbo was published, and cut a striking figure in town with a black eyepatch?
Toward the conclusion of Mumbo JumboReed abandons his main characters for thirty pages of revisionist history, “Well, if you must know, it all began s of years ago in Egypt…” The campy, over-the-top style of delivery may convince you that Reed is offering a parody of conspiracy theories.
But his intensity and earnestness also send a message that he believes in them too. This tension is unresolved, and I suspect that choice is deliberate. Reed wants to have it both ways: Yet readers may be confused at the end result.
Does Ishmael Reed really believe that Scott Joplin was institutionalized and given electro- shock treatments by enemies of black music? Does he really think that Warren G.
Harding was our first African-American president before Barack Obama? Is he actually contending that the Roman Emperor Julian was assassinated by Christians? Does he really believe that space ships landed in pre-Columbian Mexico? In other words, Reed has delivered a classic work in the literature of paranoia. Writers nowadays may do some things better than their predecessors, but the generation that lived through McCarthyism, the Cold War, Alger Hiss and Kim Philby had a much better skill at capturing the exotic flavor of the paranoid mindset in narrative form.
The knowledgeable reader will decipher many of the half-hidden references and apply good judgment in deciding how many of Reed’s “facts” can be believed. Others can come along for the ride, and enjoy the color and pageantry of this novel.
But they need to remember the definition of mumbo jumbo, which like this novel, given that appropriate name is a style of speaking in which it’s hard to separate gospel truth from good showmanship.
Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture. His most recent book is The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire. To purchase, click on image. Check out our sister sites: