Brothers and Keepers (Magill's Literary Annual 1985)
Brothers and Keepers, an autobiographical account of the relationship between novelist John Wideman and his brother Robby, who is serving a life sentence without parole for murder, is a fascinating book both for its reconsideration of central patterns of Afro-American cultural expression and for what its reception reveals concerning the position of black writers in the literary mainstream. Combining normally distinct autobiographical modes—the fugitive slave narrative, the passing narrative, the revolutionary autobiography, the celebration of family roots—Wideman makes an important contribution to the autobiographical genre, one which to some extent shapes the entire Afro-American literary tradition. In some ways, however, the reception of both book and author demands equally close attention. Reviewed on the front page of The New York Times Book Review and named as one of the Review’s outstanding books of 1984, Brothers and Keepers catapulted Wideman to sudden prominence; he has since contributed a front-page essay to The New York Times Book Review and a long article to Sports Illustrated, been featured on 60 Minutes, written cover blurbs for books such as Russell Banks’s Continental Drift, and been included in several published surveys of literary figures. Clearly, Wideman deserves this recognition. Equally clearly, it derives only tangentially from the quality of Brothers and...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Nonfiction Series)
At the time that he published Brothers and Keepers, John Edgar Wideman had been a Rhodes Scholar, had published six books of fiction, and was a successful university professor. A main impetus behind the book was Wideman’s concern for helping his brother Robby, who, unlike Wideman, had continued to live in the black community of Homewood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and had been unjustly convicted of murder. His brother’s plight and Wideman’s feeling that his brother was reaching out to him for help made him realize that he needed help as well, because he had separated himself physically and emotionally from his brother and from Homewood. Wideman had to write Brothers and Keepers to reestablish his relationship with his brother and his community, just as he had to give moral and spiritual support to his beleaguered brother. His occupation and his success had, ironically, been instrumental in creating a gap that Wideman knew he had to cross emotionally and psychologically.
Brothers and Keepers consists of three parts: “Visits,” “Our Time,” and “Doing Time.” The second section, in which Wideman describes his growth while he spends time with his brother on visits to prison, comprises more than one hundred of the book’s 243 pages. The first section is a relatively short one (fifty-four pages) in which Wideman sets the background to his quest to reach his brother. The third section, seventy-six pages long, portrays...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
In an author’s note, John Edgar Wideman states that Brothers and Keepers is “an attempt to capture a process that began in earnest about four years ago: my brother and I talking about our lives.” The author’s desire to understand the remarkable divergence in the arcs of those lives lies at the heart of the book. While the two brothers grew up in the same household just ten years apart, John became a star athlete, university professor, and celebrated author, while Robby was sentenced to life in prison for armed robbery and murder without possibility of probation or parole. As Wideman writes, “The world had seized on the difference, allowed me room to thrive, while he’d been forced into a cage. Why did it work out that way? What was the nature of the difference? Why did it haunt me?”
Based upon his interviews with Robby in prison, Brothers and Keepers is, according to Wideman, a “mix of memory, imagination, feeling and fact.” The narrative alternates between John’s formal literary voice and Robby’s street vernacular. The book is divided into three main sections, “Visits,” “Our Time,” and “Doing Time”; a postscript contains Robby’s graduation speech from a prison educational program in engineering technology.
Wideman states early on that “you never know exactly when something begins,” and, accordingly, the events of the book do not follow chronological order. Brothers and Keepers...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bidinger, Elizabeth. The Ethics of Working Class Autobiography: Representation of Family by Four American Authors. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2006. Discusses representations of class and domesticity in Brothers and Keepers and compares the book to novels by Russell Baker, Agate Nesaule, and Bobbie Ann Mason.
Bonetti, Kay. “An Interview with John Edgar Wideman.” Missouri Review 9, no. 2 (1986): 75-103. Extensive interview in which Wideman discusses his work, childhood, education, literary influences, African American vernacular, African American literature, and American culture in general.
Brown, Chip. “Blood Circle.” Esquire, August, 1989, 122-132. Biographical profile of the author focusing on his reaction to a murder committed by his sixteen-year-old-son Jacob in 1986. Discusses Jacob’s case in relation to Robby’s and explores its effects on Wideman.
Coleman, James W. Blackness and Modernism: The Literary Career of John Edgar Wideman. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. The first book-length study of Wideman’s work. Analyzes Wideman’s major fiction, from A Glance Away through the novel Reuben (1987), from the perspectives of modernism and postmodernism. Makes several references to the relationship between the author’s fictional characters and...
(The entire section is 487 words.)