Often called the greatest African American writer of the late twentieth century, John Edgar Wideman explores the issue of black identity from the vantage point of a boy from Homewood, the son of a waiter, who achieved great success in the white community. Attending the University of Pennsylvania on a scholarship, Wideman was a fine student, popular with his classmates, and a star basketball player. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and selected as a Rhodes scholar, only the second African American in history to win that high honor. Returning to the United States, he became a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was involved in starting a black studies program and began writing fiction. In his early works, Wideman remained in the mainstream of American literature. Even though he experimented in form, he was never far from James Joyce or from his own contemporaries. It was not until the 1970’s, when he moved to Wyoming to concentrate on his writing, that Wideman broke free of tradition. During the eight years between the publication of The Lynchers (1973) and that of Damballah, the first volume in The Homewood Trilogy, Wideman evidently found both his own voice and his own identity.
Wideman’s voice is in fact the blending of the many voices of his characters. Although the author’s persona, John Lawson, appears frequently, he is usually doing the listening and the questioning rather than the talking. For a time, he may serve as a narrator, if only to repeat what he hears, but then he tends to disappear, and other characters report their thoughts, memories, or dreams.
Because Wideman sees the swirling internal lives of his characters, which are by nature baroque, as at least as important as their external lives, there is nothing minimalist about his writing. Despite his wealth of material, however—his multitude of voices and the drifts through time that...
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