The oldest of five children born to Bette French and Edgar Wideman, John Edgar Wideman grew up in Homewood, a black community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, whose history roughly parallels that of Wideman’s family in the North. After attending racially integrated Peabody High School, where he excelled in sports and also graduated as valedictorian, John was awarded the Benjamin Franklin scholarship to the then-barely integrated University of Pennsylvania. There he was recruited for the varsity basketball team in 1959 and as a forward won All-Ivy League recognition as well as a place in the Philadelphia Big Five Basketball Hall of Fame—accomplishments that encouraged his dreams about playing in the National Basketball Association (NBA). At Penn, Wideman also excelled academically, earning election to Phi Beta Kappa and a Rhodes scholarship upon graduation. After earning a B.A. in English in 1963, he went on to earn a B.Phil. in 1966 as a Thoron Fellow at Oxford University, and his writerly fate was sealed.
Having distinguished himself as a writer even as an undergraduate, Wideman was accorded a Kent Fellowship to attend the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1966 and published his first novel, A Glance Away, in 1967. Hired by his alma mater in 1966, he later headed Penn’s Afro-American Studies program from 1971 to 1973 and rose to the rank of professor of English; he also served as assistant basketball coach from 1968 to 1972. Other academic appointments have included posts at Howard University; the University of Wyoming, Laramie; the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Baruch College of City University in New York; and Brown University. He also holds an honorary D.Litt. from the University of Pennsylvania (1985). Named a Young Humanist Fellow by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1975, he conducted a State Department lecture tour of Europe and the Near East in 1976 and also held a Phi Beta Kappa lectureship. Following the publication of Philadelphia Fire (1990), Wideman won the American Book Award for Fiction and became the first writer to receive a second PEN/Faulkner Award(1991). He also secured a Lannan Literary Fellowship in 1991 and a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1993. The Cattle Killing earned the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction in 1996. In 1998, he was accorded the Rea Award for the Short Story in honor of his considerable accomplishments in the genre; in 2000, he earned an O. Henry Award for best short story of the year.
Wideman has candidly acknowledged that his early achievements came at a psychological cost, however. As a young man Wideman had distanced himself from the perceived constrictions of his African...
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