John Edgar Wideman Essay - Wideman, John Edgar (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wideman, John Edgar (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

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.

Criticism

James W. Coleman (essay date March 1985)

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...

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Jacqueline Berben (essay date Fall 1985)

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...

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John Bennion (essay date Spring/Summer 1986)

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...

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Gary Dretzka (review date 29 November 1987)

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...

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Harold Jaffe (review date March-April 1988)

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...

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Matthew Wilson (essay date March 1990)

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,...

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John Edgar Wideman with Charles H. Rowell (interview date Winter 1990)

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...

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Jacqueline Berben (essay date April-June 1991)

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...

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Ashraf H. A. Rushdy (essay date Fall 1991)

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
...

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Jan Clausen (essay date Spring 1992)

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...

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Michael Gorra (review date June 14 1992)

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.

...

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John Edgar Wideman with Jessica L. Lustig (interview date Fall 1992)

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...

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James Robert Saunders (essay date December 1992)

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...

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Mel Watkins (review date 13 November 1994)

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...

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Mark Shechner (review date March/April 1995)

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...

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Sanford Pinsker (review date Spring 1995)

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...

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Paul West (review date 29 September 1996)

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...

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Gene Seymour (review date 28 October 1996)

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...

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Sven Birkerts (review date 3 November 1996)

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...

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Joyce Carol Oates (review date 27 March 1997)

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...

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Michael Wood (review date 27 November 1997)

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...

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