Wideman, John Edgar (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
John Edgar Wideman 1941–
American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Wideman's career through 1997. See also, John Edgar Wideman Criticism.
Wideman, whom critic Don Strachen called "the black Faulkner, the softcover Shakespeare," is best known for novels and short stories that trace the lives of several generations of families in and around Homewood, a black ghetto district of Pittsburgh where he lived until he was twelve years old. His major theme involves the individual's quest for self-understanding amidst personal memories and African-American experiences. Kermit Frazier commented: "The characters in Wideman's fiction can escape neither collective nor personal history and memory, so they are forced to deal with them in some way—be it successfully or ineffectually." Although Wideman deemphasized specifically black issues early in his career, his later works evidence his interest in "bringing to the fore black cultural material, history, archetypes, myths, the language itself,… and trying to connect that with the so-called mainstream." Many critics concur that Wideman's blend of Western and black literary traditions constitutes a distinctive voice in American literature.
Wideman attended the University of Pennsylvania before being selected as the first black Rhodes scholar since Alain Locke in 1905. In England, Wideman studied eighteenth-century literature and the early development of the novel. His first two novels, A Glance Away (1967) and Hurry Home (1969), reflect this formal training as well as his own experiments with narrative technique. Wideman later accepted a fellowship at the prestigious University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Yet he began his college career not as a writer, but as a basketball star. Wideman once remarked: "I always wanted to play pro basketball—ever since I saw a ball and learned you could make money at it." He was recruited as a player by the University of Pennsylvania and began studying psychology, hoping to gain what he called "mystical insight." Ultimately the study of psychology failed to provide him with the type of wisdom he sought, and Wideman changed his major to English. His main con-cern continued to be basketball, and although he played well enough to be named to the Philadelphia Big Five Basketball Hall of Fame, his basketball career ended in college. Wideman began to focus on writing instead of basketball, and within one year after graduating from Oxford in 1966, Wideman's first novel was published. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Wideman was an assistant basketball coach, professor of English, and founder and director of the Afro-American studies program at the University of Pennsylvania; he has also served as a professor of English at the universities of Wyoming and Massachusetts. In addition to these duties, he has been a curriculum consultant to secondary schools nationwide since 1968.
A Glance Away and Hurry Home involve a search for self by protagonists who are confused and dominated by their pasts. In A Glance Away, a rehabilitated drug addict returns to his home, where he renews family and social ties while trying to avoid a relapse; in Hurry Home, a black law school graduate seeks cultural communion with white society by traveling to Europe, then reaffirms his black heritage in Africa. In The Lynchers (1973), Wideman focuses upon racial conflict in the United States during the 1960s. In The Homewood Trilogy, which comprises the short story collection Damballah (1981) and the novels Hiding Place (1981) and Sent for You Yesterday (1983), Wideman uses deviating time frames, black dialect, and rhythmic language to transform Homewood into what Alan Cheuse described as "a magical location infused with poetry and pathos." The interrelated stories of Damballah feature several characters who reappear in the novels and relate tales of the descendants of Wideman's ancestor, Sybela Owens. Hiding Place concerns a boy's strong ties to his family and his involvement in a petty robbery that results in an accidental killing. In his nonfiction work, Brothers and Keepers (1984), Wideman comments upon his brother's involvement in a murder similar to that described in his novel Hiding Place. Sent for You Yesterday won the 1984 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. Through the characters of Doot, the primary narrator, and Albert Wilkes, an outspoken blues pianist, Wideman asserts that creativity and imagination are important means to transcend despair and strengthen the common bonds of race, culture, and class. The eponymous narrator of Reuben (1987) is an ambiguous and enigmatic figure who provides inexpensive legal aid to residents of Homewood. Among his clients are Kwansa, a young black woman whose brutal ex-husband, a recovering drug addict, seeks custody of their illegitimate child as revenge against her, and Wally, an assistant basketball coach at a local university who comes to Reuben because he fears he will be blamed for the illegal recruiting practices of his department. Wally, who may have actually murdered a white man, is possessed by an ingrained hatred that leads him to fantasize of violence against middle-aged white males. Race-related strife, violence, and suffering are also prominent themes in Fever: Twelve Stories (1989). In the collection's title story, Wideman juxtaposes present-day racism in Philadelphia, a city once offering freedom for slaves through the Underground Railroad, with a narrative set during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. In the novel Philadelphia Fire (1990), Wideman combines fact and fiction to elaborate on an actual incident involving MOVE, a militant, heavily armed black commune that refused police orders to vacate a Philadelphia slum house in 1985. With the approval of W. Wilson Goode, the city's black mayor, police bombed the house from a helicopter, killing eleven commune members—including five children—but creating a fire that destroyed approximately fifty-three houses. The book's narrator, Cudjoe, a writer and former Rhodes scholar living in self-imposed exile on a Greek island, returns to his native city upon hearing about the incident to search for a young boy who was seen fleeing the house following the bombing. This fictionalized narrative is juxtaposed with Wideman's address to his own son, who was sentenced to life in prison at eighteen years of age for killing another young man while on a camping trip. In Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society (1994), Wideman again juxtaposes his own personal life with universal concerns. In this volume, he examines his strained relationship with his father and his difficulties with his own son, and then places them within a context of all father-son relationships and America's history of racism. Wideman combines elements of history, religion, and race to form the story in his novel The Cattle Killing (1996); the narrator's memories of his childhood in Philadelphia are woven together with the plight of blacks in the city in the late eighteenth century and the story of the South African Xhosa tribe.
Wideman's unique combination of fact, fiction, myth, and history has allied him with the modernist tradition and solidified his reputation as a leading American author. Novelist Charles Johnson called him "easily the most acclaimed black male writer of the last decade," and renowned critic Robert Bone, author of The Negro Novel in America, called Wideman "perhaps the most gifted black novelist of his generation." Commentary on Wideman's strengths as an author often focuses on the lyrical quality he manages to maintain in his prose while at the same time forging intricate layers of theme and plot and blending fact with fiction. It is Wideman's ability—in both his fiction and nonfiction works—to provide insight into broad, societal issues and personal concerns while retaining a literary mastery over his material that has earned him widespread acclaim and admiration. In assessing his short stories, numerous critics have compared Wideman to William Faulkner; Michael Gorra asserted that such a comparison is legitimate "because both are concerned with the life of a community over time. It is appropriate because they both have a feel for the anecdotal folklore through which a community defines itself, because they both often choose to present their characters in the act of telling stories, and because in drawing on oral tradition they both write as their characters speak, in a language whose pith and vigor has not yet been worn into cliché." Gorra concluded that "the more you read John Edgar Wideman, the more impressive he seems."
∗A Glance Away (novel) 1967
∗Hurry Home (novel) 1970
∗The Lynchers (novel) 1973
†Damballah (short stories) 1981
†Hiding Place (novel) 1981
†Sent for You Yesterday (novel) 1983
Brothers and Keepers (memoir) 1984
Reuben (novel) 1987
Fever (short stories) 1989
Philadelphia Fire (novel) 1990
All Stories Are True (short stories) 1992
‡The Stories of John Edgar Wideman (short stories) 1992
Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society (memoir) 1994
The Cattle Killing (novel) 1996
∗These works were reissued in a collected edition as A Glance Away, Hurry Home, and The Lynchers: Three Early Novels by John Edgar Wideman (1994).
†These works were reissued in a collected paperback edition as The Homewood Trilogy (1985).
‡This volume combines the story collections Damballah, Fever, and All Stories Are True.
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SOURCE: "Going Back Home: The Literary Development of John Edgar Wideman," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, March, 1985, pp. 326-43.
[Coleman is an American educator. In the following essay, he delineates Wideman's return to the thematic realm of family and community in his works following The Lynchers.]
In a 1972 interview [reprinted in Interviews with Black Writers, edited by John O'Brien, 1973], John Edgar Wideman repeatedly stated that in Hurry Home (1969) and The Lynchers (1973) he was interested in portraying the world of his black characters' imaginations. The imagination is a hellish, nightmarish place where the characters suffer the fears and horrors of past and present black reality in America. The story of the black past, present, and future that emerges is negative and hopeless.
The four black conspirators in The Lynchers, who have a revolutionary plan that is supposed to begin with the symbolic lynching of a white policeman and proceed to full-scale revolution by the black masses, are encumbered by hatred and distrust of each other, and fail for this reason. Each of the four characters reveals the nether region of his imagination at some point in the novel, but even some of the more positive thinking of the characters is revealed through a surreal dream consciousness that points to alienation and sterility more than to sustaining myth and...
(The entire section is 6074 words.)
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SOURCE: "'Beyond Discourse': The Unspoken Versus Words in the Fiction of John Edgar Wideman," in Callaloo, Vol. 8, No. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 525-34.
[Berben is a critic and an educator at the Université de Nice. In the following essay, she examines Wideman's use of both direct and indirect methods of communicating themes and meanings in Hiding Place.]
Hiding Place, John Edgar Wideman's 1981 novel about a young black's flight from unjust accusation, reveals the ghetto experience as a honeycomb of psychological and verbal subterfuges, all temporary shelters that must eventually give way before the onslaughts of reality. Wideman shifts back and forth between the narrative devices of indirect and direct interior monologue and dialogue to juxtapose the harsh world of poverty with the realm of dreams and fantasies in which the individual can hide from the unpleasant facts of his life. Language itself is rife with "hiding places" which afford a false sense of security to the unwary. Sincerity speaks in non-verbal forms of communication: gestures, songs, telepathic thoughts, heightened sensitivity, and bonds of kinship. Only names have an equivocal value, now a kind of title to dignity and a mark of permanence, now yet another mask to hide behind and change at will. In this network of deceit, of self-deception and pathological lying, the ability to deal with truth becomes the ultimate test of one's success...
(The entire section is 4765 words.)
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SOURCE: "The Shape of Memory in John Edgar Wideman's Sent for You Yesterday," in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 20, Nos. 1-2, Spring/Summer, 1986, pp. 143-50.
[Bennion is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, he illustrates the role memory plays in shaping the narrative of Sent for You Yesterday.]
Wideman's Sent for You Yesterday has a nontraditional form; the stories of Cassina Way sit "timeless, intimidating, fragile." The plot structure is nonlinear, with time looping rhythmically and point of view shifting rapidly. Readers know about events before they happen; they experience scenes through one character, then reexperience them through another; time moves forward and backward until the characters' comings and goings merge. In addition, deeply introspective language, repeated metaphors, and symbiotic relationships between living and dead characters keep readers stretching to apprehend the book. Like the soap bubble caught in Freeda's fingers, the novel trembles between the foreign and the familiar, vacillating from the undefined to the defined; from ghosts and telepathic transfer to bricks and glass and blood; from the voiceless, timeless, faceless "In Heaven with Brother Tate" to the opening sentence of the first section—"Brother Tate stopped talking five years after I was born"—which introduces the organizing consciousness of the novel, the narrator Doot....
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SOURCE: "Haunting Novel of Rage and Love Packs a Punch," in Chicago Tribune Books, November 29, 1987, p. 6.
[Dretzka is an American journalist and critic. In the following review, he offers a favorable assessment of Reuben.]
I wasn't prepared for this book, the impact it would have on me. Sure, I knew that any novel by John Edgar Wideman would pack a substantial wallop, but the title was misleading.
Reuben, I thought, picking up the galleys, could be about a 5-year-old boy, a racehorse or a sandwich. Indeed, the opening pages didn't reveal much beyond the fact that the book's central character—a wizened, rat-faced old lawyer who lives in a cluttered trailer in Pittsburgh's Homewood ghetto—was eccentric and, perhaps, something of a miracle worker.
But soon the powerful engine within Wideman's vehicle kicked into gear and the full impact of Reuben's story hit me with the force of a runaway truck. This is a profoundly sad work—full of unfulfilled promises, deceptions and rage—but one fueled by high-octane dialogue and explosive characterizations. It left me quaking.
Reuben is a small man—a black dwarf with a humpback—but he casts a long shadow as the father confessor and legal guardian of generations of poverty-stricken Homewood residents.
Wideman, a PEN-Faulkner Award winner who was born in Homewood, introduces us to...
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SOURCE: "Rage," in American Book Review, Vol. 10, No. 1, March-April, 1988, pp. 8-14.
[Jaffe is a noted critic, editor of Fiction International, and author of several books, including Othello Blues (1996). In the following review, he responds enthusiastically to Reuben, noting Wideman's ability to communicate the tremendous depths of rage present within the novel's characters and their surroundings.]
The stunning anger pulsing like an outside heart in Reuben underscores one of the signal questions of our time for the artist: how to forge an oppositional art. Not merely an art that is, or means to be, uncomplicitous with the dominant ideology, but a calculated art specifically designed to infiltrate, rupture, destabilize.
Fredric Jameson, in an essay on the visual artist Hans Haacke, puts it plainly: "It is no longer possible to oppose or contest the logic of the image-world of late capitalism by reinventing an older logic of the referent (or realism). Instead, at least for the moment, the strategy which imposes itself can best be characterized as homeopathic: ever greater does of the poison—to choose and affirm the logic of the simulacrum to the point at which the very nature of that logic is itself dialectically transformed."
That is, by pastiching and displacing the institutionalized simulacra, the artist reveals the ideology...
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SOURCE: "The Circles of History in John Edgar Wideman's The Homewood Trilogy," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, March, 1990, pp. 239-59.
[Wilson is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, he examines how Wideman combines both elements of the history of an individual family and of American society as a whole in The Homewood Trilogy.]
Haydn White, in his essay, "The Burden of History," has argued that much of the imaginative literature of this century has been not only consciously a historical but also actively anti-historical. History, for many writers, has implied the burden of both form and point-of-view: the form of "outmoded institutions, ideas, and values," and a "way of looking at the world," the oppression of historically conditioned vision. This is why, he asserts, "so much of modern fiction turns upon the attempt to liberate Western man from the tyranny of the historical consciousness. It tells us that it is only by disenthralling human intelligence from the sense of history that men will be able to confront creatively the problems of the present." Without disputing White's conclusions, I would like to argue that there are contemporary novels which exploit the opposite impulse and attempt to saturate one in the historical consciousness. Novelists as different as Philip Roth in his Zuckerman novels, Mary Lee Settle in The Beulah Quintet, and John Edgar...
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SOURCE: An interview with John Edgar Wideman, in Callaloo, Vol. 13, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 47-61.
[Rowell is the editor of Callaloo and chairman of the department of English language and literature at the University of Virginia. In the following interview, which was conducted on October 17, 1989, Wideman discusses his life, his writing, and the issues and experiences that inform his work.]
[Rowell:] John, what brought you to writing and publishing creative texts? When you were a student at the University of Pennsylvania, you were captain of the basketball team. Then later you became a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. How did you resist becoming a professional basketball player? In other words, what made you take the risk of becoming a creative writer?
[Wideman:] Well, for me, I guess, it wasn't really a risk. Writing was something I had done as long as I could remember—and I simply wanted to try it seriously, full-time. I was very obviously young and ignorant, and I thought if you wanted to do things and if they were important to you that you could do them. And so I had that kind of optimism and, I guess, in a way arrogance. But story telling and writing have been a part of my life forever, and I have enjoyed them for a long time.
This goes back, Charles, to when I was in grade school in Homewood in Pittsburgh. There was no auditorium in the grade...
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SOURCE: "Promised Land and Wasteland in John Edgar Wideman's Recent Fiction," in Revue Francaise D'Etudes, Vol. XVI, No. 48-49, April-June, 1991, pp. 259-70.
[Berben is writer and educator at the Université de Nice. In the following essay, she uses examples from Toni Morrison's novel, Sula, to illustrate her explication of the significance of land in Wideman's fiction.]
In America, an ex-colony recolonized from within, as everyone knows, the abundance of land itself gave birth to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny and its corollary myth that wealth and power were available virtually for the taking. Within tacit limits. The black slaves and their descendants, many of whom still constitute an underclass blocked in a subservient position, are seldom included among those who control the land factor. Initially, the African relationship with the land of their ancestors had not been one of individual ownership, nor commercial exploitation in the white sense. Land was part and parcel of religion and ritual rather than being an alienable commodity. Hence the logic behind the popular argument that the differences in fundamental values that Glazer and Moynihan, among others, blame for preventing black Americans from melting in and adapting to the mold of mainstream society, springs from blacks' having been virtually cut off from the frontier experience of land conquest that Frederick Jackson Turner posited as...
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SOURCE: "Fraternal Blues: John Edgar Wideman's Homewood Trilogy," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XXXII, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 312-45.
[Rushdy is an educator and the author of The Empty Garden: The Subject of Late Milton (1992). In the following essay, he discusses the significance of the narrator gaining his "blues voice" in the Homewood trilogy.]
What can purge my heart
Of the song
And the sadness?
What can purge my heart
But the song
Of the sadness?
What can purge my heart
Of the sadness
Of the song?
—Langston Hughes, "Song for Billie Holiday"
In Brothers and Keepers, John Edgar Wideman contemplates the difficulty of representing the Other without reducing the representation to just another form of solipsism. One way to do so, he thought, would be for him to attempt self-reflexively to perceive his desire for access to what might potentially be an occult area of intelligence, while at the same time acknowledging the limitations that make for an irreducible ignorance about the Other. He takes his grandfather's favorite saying—"Give 'em the benefit of the doubt"—and makes of it a perceptual scheme for...
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SOURCE: "Native Fathers," in Kenyon Review, Vol. XIV, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 44-55.
[In the following essay, Clausen compares and contrasts John Updike's works—including his 1990 novel Rabbit at Rest—and Wideman's works, particularly Philadelphia Fire.]
Two American boys, both named John, born less than a decade apart ('32 and '41), grow up in different regions of Pennsylvania. Brilliant students (one summa cum laude at Harvard, the other an Oxford Rhodes scholar), they become prolific authors, mining childhood memories to create fictional communities through which they portray American (Euro-and African-) life and values. By the time they reach middle age, their book jackets glitter with mention of prizes and honors and those obligatory, weirdly competitive clichés culled from old reviews: "Most gifted writer of his generation—the New York Times"; "Perhaps the most gifted black novelist of his generation—the Nation."
In 1990, each publishes a major novel featuring a bitterly flawed male protagonist with whom the author appears to identify intensely, and whose troubles he uses to exemplify and probe the social ills of his native land. It is not an epoch supposed to be particularly hospitable to the social element in fiction, yet between them these two books receive three of said native land's top literary prizes. John Updike's Rabbit at Rest wins...
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SOURCE: "The Choral Voice of Homewood," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 97, June 14, 1992, p. 13.
[Gorra is an American educator and critic. In the following review he draws comparisons between Wideman and William Faulkner, and applauds Wideman's characterizations and narrative skills in The Stories of John Edgar Wideman.]
Any American fiction writer who sets the bulk of his work in the same place, or who draws repeatedly on the same characters, inevitably faces comparison with William Faulkner. With John Edgar Wideman's inner city Pittsburgh neighborhood of Homewood that comparison is particularly apt, though not for those simple reasons alone.
It is appropriate because the stretched-to-the-breaking-point syntax with which Mr. Wideman captures his characters' inner lives seems at times an echo of Faulknerese. It is appropriate because both are concerned with the life of a community over time. It is appropriate because they both have a feel for the anecdotal folklore through which a community defines itself, because they both often choose to present their characters in the act to telling stories, and because in drawing on that oral tradition they both write as their characters speak, in a language whose pith and vigor has not yet been worn into cliché. A basketball in Mr. Wideman's "Doc's Story" drops through a hoop Clean as new money"; in child in his "Everybody knew Bubba Riff"...
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SOURCE: "The Art of Memory," in New Republic, Vol. 207, Nos. 4,043 and 4,044, July 13 and 20, 1992, pp. 42-44.
[Birkerts is a noted critic and author of several books, including The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (1995). In the following review, he praises The Stories of John Edgar Wideman and The Homewood Books, calling Wideman "one of our very finest writers."]
Success comes in different ways to different writers. Some may crash their way through with a big first book, and then spend years, even decades, trying to fulfill the promise. Others appear, disappear, and later come stumbling back. Then there are those who stoke a slow and steady fire, waiting for readers and critics to catch up with them. This has been John Edgar Wideman's way—though of course these things don't happen by design. To a large degree they just happen. The writer writes, publishes, and hopes that readers will buy what he has to sell.
Wideman, the author now of seven novels, three collections of stories and Brothers and Keepers (1984) a personal documentary that is probably his best-known work, has been rewarded mostly with honors and reputation-building accolades. Alongside the fireworks of writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, his public reception has been downright humble. There are reasons for this. Wideman's prose is more demanding and his...
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SOURCE: "Home: An Interview with John Edgar Wideman," in African American Review, Vol. 26, No. 3, Fall, 1992, pp. 453-57.
[In the following interview, Wideman discusses the "fictional, constructed landscapes" he created in his works.]
I went to Amherst, Massachusetts, on April 23, 1992, to talk with John Edgar Wideman on the U Mass campus, where he teaches a graduate course in creative writing. Wideman's literary mapping and charting of Homewood's neighborhood streets and people indicate the complexities and paradoxes of contemporary American urban literature. In discussing his portraits of Homewood in Damballah, Hiding Place, Sent for You Yesterday, and Reuben, we explored the ways in which fictional, constructed landscapes can be read.
[Lustig:] You moved from Homewood when you were twelve, yet it's the place that you keep circling back to. I find it interesting that, despite all those years away, it's the primary place in your work, that you keep going back to it as defining home. Maybe you could talk a little about that.
[Wideman:] Okay, but let me start with a distinction. There is a neighborhood in Pittsburgh called Homewood. It was there before I was born, and probably when I'm dead it will still be called that. It's considered a number of streets, houses, population changes—people get old and die. It's real place in that sense....
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SOURCE: "Exorcizing the Demons: John Edgar Wideman's Literary Response," in Hollins Critic, Vol. XXIX, No. 5, December, 1992, pp. 1-10.
[Saunders is a professor of English at Purdue University and critic. In the following essay, he surveys Wideman's works, delineating the author's response to the inherent dualities of sociology, psychology, and image faced by African Americans.]
In his socio-literary classic The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W. E. B. Du Bois characterized African-Americans as being in possession of a double-consciousness in which "one ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body." The notion is a persistent one in the annals of African-American literature. James Weldon Johnson through his narrator in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), makes the further observation that this psychological condition reflects a "dual personality" exacerbated in the psyche of a black man "in proportion to his intellectuality." According to that analysis, the condition assumes an even greater significance in direct proportion to an individual's capacity to comprehend his predicament.
If the narrator in Johnson's novel is correct, then we should be especially concerned about what life has consisted of for a person such as John Edgar Wideman. Raised in the predominantly black,...
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SOURCE: "A Son's Notes," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 99, November 13, 1994, p. 11.
[In the following review, Watkins provides a laudatory assessment of Fatheralong.]
John Edgar Wideman's latest book, Fatheralong, is a hybrid. It is at once a memoir and a meditation on fatherhood, race, metaphysics, time and the afterlife. Mr. Wideman has laid claim to a vast landscape, which he traverses boldly, although occasionally with uneven steps.
As a memoir it is superb. The author brings all of his considerable skills (demonstrated in the novels of his Homewood trilogy and in his short fiction) into play in a quest to understand the simultaneous estrangement and physical connection he felt toward his father.
The book's title is derived from the gospel song "Father Along," a song that for Mr. Wideman suggests the value of "resignation, learning to wait and trust and endure." These are the qualities, he writes, that not only lead to spiritual redemption but also enable a son in to bridge the gulf between himself and his father—"to learn (earn) the Father's name." Coming to terms with that struggle is the central theme of Fatheralong.
To that end, Mr. Wideman provides a string of vignettes and rich details from his early life in Pittsburgh that contrast his father's distance and coldness ("A familiar stranger, Unpredictable, vaguely...
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SOURCE: "Men Will Be Men," in Tikkun, Vol. 10, No. 2, March/April, 1995, pp. 80-82.
[Shechner is an American educator, author, and critic. In the following review, he offers a favorable assessment of Fatheralong.]
I recall the lectures well, lectures verging upon scoldings, about how "the family" or rather that peculiar constellation of two parents living in the same household with their children, was a "bourgeois" or "late capitalist" institution that had little to say for itself in a post-bourgeois, postmodern age. "The two-parent family could be, and in places had been, superseded by an equivalent, even historically antecedent, constellation the "extended kinship group." It performed all the nursing and rearing functions of the nuclear family and was, if anything, more functional for some ethnic and/or economic groups. No one who was subjected, perhaps a decade ago, to this doxology will forget the intransigent self-assurance with which it was delivered or the armory of footnotes with which it was fortified.
The usual target of the arguments was the father, whom contemporary social developments, already well advanced in certain sectors of the population, had consigned to the museum of outmoded social forms. Paternity was a legal fiction, like usury or vagrancy, and, like them, a victim of changing social practice. "Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any...
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SOURCE: "The Moose on the Family Dinner Table," in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 71, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 369-72.
[In the following review, Pinsker responds negatively to Fatheralong.]
Race in America has been compared to a moose on the dining room table: nobody wants to call attention to the carcass despite the fact that antlers are sticking in the potatoes, hooves drip onto people's laps, and the smell keeps getting worse. Rather than acknowledge the obvious, people crane their necks around the rotting slab of flesh and ask those across the table to pass the salt.
John Edgar Wideman is a writer we've learned to trust when it comes to calling a moose a moose—that is, until Fatheralong. Ballyhooed as a meditation on "fathers and sons, race and society," Wideman watchers had good reasons to expect the same personal candor and sensitive trenchant social analysis he brought to Brothers and Keepers, his 1984 account of a brother jailed on a murder charge. How could the same family circumstances and Pittsburgh ghetto that produced him—a University of Pennsylvania graduate and Rhodes scholar: well spoken, ambitious, successful—also give rise to a brother who becomes a street punk and then one more sad statistic in the justice system? What propelled one brother toward restraint and standard English while the other gave way to jive talk and increasingly...
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SOURCE: "Too Great a Sacrifice," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXVI, No. 39, September 29, 1996, p. 5.
[West is an author and critic. The following is his highly favorable review of The Cattle Killing.]
One of the men within John Edgar Wideman believes that over the centuries irreparable harm has been done to the black race, and he agonizes over this in his eight novels. Another Wideman, the thinker and scholar, is the Phi Beta Kappa graduate, Rhodes Scholar and two-time winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award. A third Wideman is the lyrical novelist, a stylist dedicated to reverie and musing, little concerned with plot or continuity, almost a symbolist. His novels fuse these simultaneous selves in varying ways and by now compose a shimmering collection. Few American novelists offer a mix this complex or satisfying, and Wideman's new novel gives us more of the same.
Let me explain. At the center of The Cattle Killing is an itinerant 18th-century black preacher in Philadelphia, a Tiresias figure who speaks from the dead center of the racial mess, sweeping the horizon with a glass that takes in not only America but South Africa and Europe. If slavery is an index to the inevitable decline and fall of Western civilization, this guy is its Spengler, but he has help is telling that story from both Wideman the savant and Wideman the aesthete. George Stubbs, the English painter of flayed...
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SOURCE: "Dream Surgeon," in Nation, Vol. 263, No. 13, October 28, 1996, pp. 58-60.
[Seymour is an American journalist, editor, and author of such works as Jazz: The Great American Art. In the following review, he reflects on the absence of imagination in modern society and responds favorably to Wideman's treatment of the subject in The Cattle Killing.]
Dream is dead. I should have known about it sooner, but I rarely bought the Sandman comic book in separate installments, preferring the bigger, glossier compilations. So it was only when I read The Kindly Ones (DC Comics Vertigo), which appears to be the final collection of stories from Neil Gaiman's extraordinary graphic fantasy series, that I found out that Dream—a k a Sandman, Lord Morpheus—had ceased to be. Worse, there isn't much left of Morpheus's kingdom except the corpses of his loyal followers and a tender-hearted raven named Matthew, his lone surviving acolyte, Meanwhile, Dream's godlike siblings roam the Superhighway of the Subconscious. Gaiman, after all, calls them the Endless. Among their number are Desire, Destruction, Delirium and, sexiest and sweetest of all, Death herself.
Whatever Gaiman's reasons for finishing off his pale, sad hero, it seems both appropriate and redundant for Dream to have checked out at Millennium Minus Four and Counting. The very notion of artful dreaming has wandered...
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SOURCE: "The Fever Days," in New York Times Book Review, November 3, 1996, p. 20.
[Birkerts is a noted critic and author of several books, including The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (1995). In the following review, he offers a negative appraisal of The Cattle Killing.]
In August 1793, an epidemic of yellow fever broke out in Philadelphia. Chaos prevailed. Doctors (including Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence) struggled for cure and containment. The rich either barricaded themselves in their houses or fled, while the less fortunate shifted for themselves. There was widespread looting. What better test for the City of Brotherly Love?
The novelist and short-story writer John Edgar Wideman has had a longstanding interest both in Philadelphia and in this particular historical moment. His previous novel, Philadelphia Fire, applied a collage technique to various events leading toward and away from the 1985 Move bombings, laying down severe indictments on both sides of the color line. And the title story of his 1989 collection. Fever, offered up a fragmented documentary account of the 18th-century epidemic. Now, with his latest novel. Mr. Wideman looks to give that historical material a more symphonic treatment. But symphonic in the modern, not classical, style—structurally intricate, with jagged rushes of episodic...
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SOURCE: "Troubles I've Seen," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLIV, No. 5, March 27, 1997, pp. 39-40.
[Oates is a noted author, educator, and critic; her works include We Were the Mulvaneys. In the following review, she offers a favorable assessment of The Cattle Killing.]
In a probate-office storage vault in Abbeville, South Carolina, an elderly white ex-history professor is showing a black writer from Massachusetts, whose slave ancestors lived in the Abbeville region, itemized documents relating to the sale and possession of slaves. The black writer is grateful for the historian's generous assistance (though the historian has never met the writer before, he has volunteered to spend several days with him), and so it comes as a considerable shock to the writer that, as he gazes down at the back of the historian's head, he feels an "ice-cold wave of anger [at him]…. at the back of his thin, freckled bald skull," and an impulse to do injury.
It was Professor Lomax's skull I had envisioned shattering, spilling all its learning, its intimate knowledge of these deeds that transferred in the same "livestock" column as cows, horses, and mules, the bodies of my ancestors from one white owner to another. Hadn't the historian's career been one more mode of appropriation and exploitation of my father's bones…. Didn't mastery of Abbeville's history, the power and...
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SOURCE: "Living in the Enemy's Dream," in London Review of Books, Vol. 19, No. 23, November 27, 1997, pp. 25-6.
[In the following review, Wood delineates Wideman's handling of the various themes, characters, and subjects in The Cattle Killing and Brothers and Keepers.]
'Maybe this is a detective story,' a character thinks in John Edgar Wideman's novel Philadelphia Fire (1990). It's a reasonable suspicion, and would be for anyone in any of Wideman's books that I've read. But they are not detective stories. Often structured around a quest, for a missing child, a vanished woman, a former self, a meaning, an answer, they finally take the form of a flight, as If from a horror too great to bear or name, a shock one can only circle again and again, and at last abandon. 'Do I write to escape, to make a fiction of my life?' Wideman asks in his memoir Brothers and Keepers (1984). 'Wasn't there something fundamental in my writing, in my capacity to function, that depended on flight, escape?' But Wideman is not avoiding the shocks and horrors, he is allowing himself to be haunted by them, evoking their aftermath in a series of deft and ingenious pictures, taken from all kinds of angles by a restless imagination. The aftermath, though, is as close as he gets, and the need to flee even from that is a measure of the force of the original blast.
What blast? Was there just one? A...
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Finney, Ron. "To Repair the Two Relations." Los Angeles Times Book Review (23 December 1984): 6.
Outlines the narrative of Brothers and Keepers.
Review of Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society, by John Edgar Wideman. Harvard Educational Review 65, No. 4 (1995): 683-84.
Favorable review of Fatheralong, in which the critic declares that Wideman "presents a timely, critical, and cogent discussion on the paradigm of race and its injurious impact on Black people."
Mullen, Bill. "Looking Back." Partisan Review 61, No. 3 (1994): 528-31.
A laudatory survey of Wideman's works, including Philadelphia Fire, The Stories of John Edgar Wideman, and The Homewood Books.
Pinckney, Darryl. "Aristocrats." New York Review of Books 42, No 8 (11 May 1995): 27-34.
Offers mixed commentary on Fatheralong. Pinckney also discusses two works by other authors who treat racial and familial issues.
―――――. "Cos I'm a So-o-oul Man: The Back-Country Blues of John Edgar Wideman." Times Literary Supplement 4612 (August 23, 1991): 19-20....
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