John Edgar Wideman Essay - Wideman, J(ohn) E(dgar)

Wideman, J(ohn) E(dgar)

Wideman, J(ohn) E(dgar) 1941–

Wideman is a Black American intellectual novelist.

John Edgar Wideman's Hurry Home is a story of blackness told in a very private, poetic, sensitive way. A sequence of lifelike events, a pattern of relationships among identifiable people, can be seen in the glinting, running river of prose. But so can nightmares, Moorish warrior kings, the visions of Hieronymus Bosch, water and night and stillborn children more symbolic than real, and a young, modern American Negro who remembers being locked in a slave ship 300 years ago….

Hurry Home is primarily an experience, not a plot: an experience of words, dense, private, exploratory, and nonprogressive. The clusters of words are sometimes clever (sometimes too clever); sometimes "literary," in an overconscious way; sometimes as elusive as cigarette smoke. But they are sometimes also eloquent, vivid, and direct. They represent the voice of a highly cultured man (but cultured for what between Oxford and the Washington slums, between the slave ships and the Prado?), a painfully sensitive black American who is trying to find a shape, a pattern of words that will allow him to ask certain deep, personal, existential questions. (p. 40)

David Littlejohn, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 2, 1970.

[The Lynchers] is an "important" black novel…. Large analogies … come to mind when reading this novel. The inclusion of a "Matters Prefatory" section containing historical documents on slave revolts and lynching suggests Melville's use of quotation in preface to Moby-Dick. Also, the analogy to Melville goes deeper in the pervasive vein of irony that juxtaposes the romantic expectations of the characters with the intransigence of experience's refusal to take beautiful and natural form. Analogies to Melville may be as invidious as analogies to War and Peace, but they do place the novel more closely in its national framework where its importance lies. (p. 99)

[The] "crisis of the Negro Intellectual" [is an issue] faced directly in the novel in the conflict between Littleman, the crippled genius whose idea it is to lynch a white policeman as a way to save the spirit of the black community and who is willing to sacrifice a few insignificant black lives to that higher purpose, and Orin Wilkerson, the school-teacher who finally destroys the bizarre plot for its inhuman implications. The issue is also faced implicitly in the relation between The Lynchers and the other major works in the tradition of black novels, particularly Wright's Native Son, the novel that led black writers away from the minstrel-novels of the Harlem Renaissance into serious naturalistic fiction that spoke of and to the condition of the black masses. Being a crime and punishment novel, Native Son provides an opportunity to judge social institutions for their inability to make a true judgment. The inadequacy of the jury's judgment of Bigger Thomas in condemning him to death for the murder of Mary Dalton is counterpointed by Bigger's own process of self-definition, his complexly related feelings of pride and compassion through which he can come to his own judgment of himself and society. Justice is the main theme of The Lynchers as well, but in substituting execution (or punishment) for trial (or judgment) as the central metaphors, Wideman leads us to a deeper, more primitive awareness of the fantasies of violence and frustration than Wright does. (p. 100)

[Wideman's] characters represent aspects of the black mind; they are figures for the sense of impotence, the frustrations, aggression and selfishness that have been at the center of the recent black experience. Through this range of characterization that suggests the allegorical without being restricted by its technical demands, Wideman has confronted not merely the crisis of the Negro intellectual, but has placed that crisis in the context of the more general crisis of all black Americans. In Invisible Man Ellison provided as a figure for the black social condition in white society the battle royal, whether it be a mob of blindfolded black youths knocking each other down for the entertainment of a Southern town's white fathers or a ghetto riot in Harlem. Wideman brilliantly develops this image by juxtaposing the family and social quarrels that finally undercut all the relationships and many of the characters of the novel against the images of beauty, order and control in the basketball games in the city playground. His terms exemplify a critical awareness of the narrowness of abstraction in Ellison's terms and provide a richer and more varied image of life. (p. 102)

Philip Keith, "Philadelphia Story," in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Winter, 1974, pp. 99-102.

Much of the force of Wideman's novel [The Lynchers] resides in its presentation of the ways in which the myth takes over the conspirators' mind. While there is violence, talk of revolution, salty dialogue, and much naturalistic detail in The Lynchers, it is not a novel of the angry black, nor is it a novel where story or suspense dominates. Rather Wideman tells his story in a complex way, reducing the impact of suspense and the dramatic. Time is jumbled; Wideman relies heavily on interior monologue. Joycean also is the dash at the beginning of the speech to indicate dialogue. For Littleman, the originator of the conspiracy, especially, history is a nightmare from which he is trying to escape. A novel about revolution, The Lynchers is not a novel for revolutionists. Rather it suggests in its psychological approach how myth can overwhelm a mind. The revolutionist is a special kind of magician. (p. 104)

Joseph M. Flora, in The Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1975), Winter, 1975.