Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Wideman’s stunning command of language and his experimentation with multiple centers of consciousness are characteristic of his work. He has said that the power of language to reveal character absorbs him. In a New York Times Book Review interview, he reported that he was fascinated by the story of the historical Richard Allen, a former slave of African descent who could write his memoirs in formal English. Research for “Fever” led to Wideman’s full-length work about this event, Philadelphia Fire (1990).

Irony is a prominent feature of the story. The distant omniscient narrator, a survivor of history, speaks sometimes ironically, sometimes with compassion for the sufferers of yellow fever. In contrast to the prevailing view that African Americans were responsible for the disease, the clinical voice describing the autopsy of a fever victim notes that the physical remains cannot be identified as black or white. The devoutly Christian white ministers see no conflict in their decision to expel the African Americans from the church. Richard Allen reveals in his letter his love for his family and his devotion to duty. This portrait, as well as the imaginary narratives created by the author, shows a black American, reviled as less than human, as the most humane character in the story.

A series of realistic descriptions of the grotesque ravages of the disease on the human body and the stench and ghastliness of the streets of...

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Fever

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

In his earlier novels and short stories, John Edgar Wideman established his major theme: the individual’s search for meaning in life, in the context of his own past and the past of his people. Whether his characters are drug addicts, as in A Glance Away (1967), musicians, such as Albert Wilkes in Sent for You Yesterday (1983), or successful professionals, such as the law-school graduate in Hurry Home (1969), they all must face the fact that every human being must endure suffering and loneliness, must struggle to overcome despair. The characters in the twelve stories collected in Fever have the same problems as those in Wideman’s earlier works. Some of them seek escape through violence, alcohol, and drugs—and eventually perish. Others survive by reaching out to others, either through creativity or through compassion.

The problem of alienation is central to all of the stories in this collection. In “Doc’s Story,” for example, the black narrator has lost his white girlfriend. Now he has nothing to live for but soaking up the spring sun, playing basketball, smoking joints, drinking wine, and listening to stories. It is one of these stories which gives him hope, hope because in it a character of mythical stature overcomes a seemingly impossible handicap. That character is Doc, a man who once played basketball in the narrator’s neighborhood, but who has since disappeared. Even after losing his sight, Doc was able to defeat his challengers. Listening to the account of one such game, the narrator is inspired. If a blind man could achieve such a triumph in the desperate atmosphere of Regent Park, certainly it should be possible for the narrator and his girlfriend simply to patch up their relationship. There is, however, one problem: The white girl might not be able to participate in her black lover’s response to the myth, any more than she had understood his stories from his racial past. As the story ends, it is obvious that despite his longing for her, the narrator is beginning to understand that his white girlfriend always lacked the imagination to comprehend his feelings. Rejecting his myths, she had rejected him long before she left him.

In other stories, Wideman writes about other attempts of individuals different in race, sex, and outlook to bridge the gap between them. For example, in “The Statue of Liberty,” it is a sexual fantasy which draws two joggers into a third person’s world. Because it is based on self- indulgence rather than on compassion, on a desire to use others rather than to understand them, such a fantasy, even if realized, could hardly be expected to unite human beings in a real relationship. The fact that in the story “Valaida” Mr. Cohen and Valaida Snow are still affectionately united in memory, even though they have not seen each other for decades, is far more significant. In a Nazi concentration camp, Valaida, a black dancer, had taken a young Jewish boy’s beating and saved his life. In the prologue to the story, Valaida recalls the boy with pity; she does not know whether he lived or died. Then Wideman moves his focus to Cohen, as he tries to tell his black maid Clara Jackson about what another black woman had done for him. Ironically, Clara is too preoccupied with her own preparations for celebrating the birth of Christ to recognize Cohen’s attempts to break down the barriers between them, Jew and black, employer and employee. Remembering Valaida, however, Cohen himself experiences a moment of vision in which he sees Clara’s family as his own.

The idea that blacks and Jews can sometimes understand one another because both have been persecuted is central in “Hostages,” which begins with a conversation between two friends, a Jewish woman and a black man. The woman has become aware of the world’s emphasis on differences between people rather than on universal humanity. Her own mother, though Jewish, had loathed her daughter’s first husband, a dark-skinned Israeli who...

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Fever Historical Context

18th-Century Philadelphia
In 1682, colonial Pennsylvania’s capital city Philadelphia was founded by Quakers, a Protestant sect...

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Fever Literary Style

Point of View
‘‘Fever’’ does not maintain any one consistent point of view. Much of the story is told from Allen’s...

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Fever Compare and Contrast

1790s: African Americans in Pennsylvania number 10,274; the white population numbers 424,099.

1990s: African...

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Fever Topics for Further Study

What insights can you draw about late 18thcentury race relations from ‘‘Fever’’? Explain your answer.

Investigate the...

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Fever What Do I Read Next?

Narrative (1794) by Absalom Jones and Richard Allen is a personal memoir of Philadelphia’s 1793 yellow fever epidemic.

...

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Fever Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Mitgang, Herbert. A review of Fever. The New York Times, December 5, 1989, p. C21.

Rosen,...

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Fever Bibliography

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Sources for Further Study

Esquire. CXII, August, 1989, p.122.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI I, September 1, 1989, p.1280.

Library Journal. CXIV, November 1, .1989, p.113.

The New York Times. December 5, 1989, p. B2(N).

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, December 10, 1989, p.1.

Tribune Books. October 29, 1989, p.7.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, November 5, 1989, p.7.

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