Study Guide

John Edgar Wideman

John Edgar Wideman Essay - Wideman, John Edgar (Short Story Criticism)

Wideman, John Edgar (Short Story Criticism)

Introduction

John Edgar Wideman 1941–-

American short story writer, novelist, memoirist, and essayist.

The following entry presents criticism of Wideman's short fiction works from 1989 through 2000. See also, John Edgar Wideman Criticism.

Wideman is best known for his short stories and novels that trace the lives of several generations of families in and around Homewood, a black ghetto district of Pittsburgh. In these fictional works, his dominant thematic concern involves the individual's quest for self-understanding amidst personal memories and African American experiences. Most critics assert that Wideman's blend of Western and African American literary traditions constitutes a distinctive voice in American literature.

Biographical Information

Wideman was born on June 14, 1941, in Washington D.C., and spent his early years in Homewood, a section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This area has been a recurring setting for his later fiction. His family later moved to Shadyside, a more prosperous section of Pittsburgh, and he attended the integrated Peabody High School. After graduation, Wideman attended the University of Pennsylvania, receiving his B.A. in 1963. He was 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. He later accepted a fellowship at the prestigious University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. 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; in fact, he became that university's first African American tenured professor. 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. Wideman has received many awards for his work, including the PEN/Faulkner Award and American Book Award for his novel Philadelphia Fire (1990) in 1991 and a MacArthur fellowship in 1993.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Wideman's The Homewood Trilogy (1985), which comprises the short story collection Damballah (1981) and the novels Hiding Place (1981) and Sent for You Yesterday (1983), utilizes deviating time frames, African American dialect, and rhythmic language to explore life in the Homewood area of Pittsburgh. 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. Race-related strife, violence, and identity are 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. The pieces in All Stories Are True (1992) are autobiographical in nature and concern such themes as storytelling, family history, and memory. In “Backseat,” the male protagonist's memories of a former girlfriend lead to recollections of his family's history—particularly of his recently-deceased grandmother. “Everybody Knew Bubba Riff” presents the perspectives of friends and family on the life and death of Bubba, a tough, troubled man. A ten-page story composed of a mixture of interior monologues, critics have found parallels between “Everybody Knew Bubba Riff” and the fiction of James Joyce and William Faulkner.

Critical Reception

Critics contend that 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. 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. His short stories are noted for their ability 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 and have lauded the ways in which his short stories and novels address the role of the African American artist in society as well as Wideman's own personal evolution as a writer and an individual.

Principal Works

Damballah 1981

*The Homewood Trilogy (novels and short fiction) 1985; also published as The Homewood Books, 1992

Fever: Twelve Stories 1989

All Stories Are True 1992

The Stories of John Edgar Wideman 1992

A Glance Away (novel) 1967

Hurry Home (novel) 1970

The Lynchers (novel) 1973

Hiding Place (novel) 1981

Sent for You Yesterday (novel) 1983

Brothers and Keepers (memoir) 1984

Reuben (novel) 1987

Philadelphia Fire (novel) 1990

Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society (nonfiction) 1994

The Cattle Killing (novel) 1996

Two Cities (novel) 1998

Hoop Roots (memoir) 2001

The Island: Martinique (travel memoir) 2003

*Includes Damballah, Hiding Place, and Sent for You Yesterday.

Criticism

Susan Fromberg Schaeffer (review date 10 December 1989)

SOURCE: Schaeffer, Susan Fromberg. “We Are Neighbors, We Are Strangers.” New York Times Book Review (10 December 1989): 1, 30-1.

[In the following review, Schaeffer surveys the dominant themes of the stories in Fever: Twelve Stories.]

Images of blindness, of masks, of facades, of mirrors, of reflections, dominate Fever [Fever: Twelve Stories], this strange and powerful book of 12 short stories by John Edgar Wideman. Mr. Wideman's characters seek glimpses of their own faces in other people's eyes, in cups of coffee, in the surfaces of newly polished shoes. It is as if all of them were confused by the face, the mask, which is either white or black, the difference in color seeming to signify difference where no difference exists.

Mr. Wideman is best known for his Homewood Trilogy—a collection of short fiction and two novels based on the black Pittsburgh neighborhood of his childhood. He is also the author of Brothers and Keepers, a meditation on the divergent paths taken by Mr. Wideman, a Rhodes scholar, and his brother, Robert, who is serving a life term in prison for murder. In most of his previous works, the author has focused on the pull of home and the often ambivalent connection between the past and the present.

These new stories—about the nature of the attachment between an old white man and his cleaning woman (“Valaida”), or the sexual fantasies of a white woman watching a young black jogger (“The Statue of Liberty”), or the plague of yellow fever that struck Philadelphia at the end of the 18th century (“Fever”), or a family gathering in which a pet dog takes center stage (“Little Brother”)—all, in the end, ring changes upon one idea: black or white, beneath the skin we are all the same and we ought to love one another.

This idea is hardly new; almost everyone claims to believe it, yet it seems, if we can go by the evidence of newspapers and what we see around us, one of the most difficult ideas to grasp. The tragedy of this—our failing to comprehend the obvious fact of our sameness—is what obsesses Mr. Wideman in these stories. His achievement is to take this idea from the world of concepts and, through the alchemy of his prose, convert it to flesh-and-blood truth. God, Mr. Wideman tells us in the title story, is a bookseller: “He publishes one book—the text of suffering—over and over again. He disguises it between new boards, in different shapes and sizes, prints on varying papers, in many fonts, adds prefaces and postscripts to deceive the buyer, but it's always the same book.”

Fever is Mr. Wideman's book of suffering. What makes it so odd is its perspective, which is, somehow, not quite human but godlike, not limited by the conventions of ordinary storytelling. His narrators often seem to be looking down upon the planet with genuine omniscience; at any given moment, they know what multitudes of people are thinking. These narrators can take apart the characters they observe as a watchmaker takes apart a clock, yet it is as if they tell their stories from a great distance. They are oddly impartial; they seem to speak with the neutrality of gods, and because they see so much, the sorrow they feel is also godlike, at times overwhelming. Mr. Wideman's narratives frequently jump from one speaker to another, as the mosquito that brings yellow fever in the title story moves from one body to another. When a story does not entirely succeed, this device confuses, exasperates and causes unnecessary difficulties. But when it is successful, as it is in “Fever,” an almost unbearably anguished meditation on human nature in plague time, the power and sadness of the story are enormous, its vision triumphant.

The title story is almost majestic in its evocation of the goodness and evil of the human heart. An...

(The entire section is 1608 words.)

James W. Coleman (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Coleman, James W. “Damballah: The Intellectual and the Folk Voice.” In Blackness and Modernism: The Literary Career of John Edgar Wideman, pp. 79-96. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.

[In the following essay, Coleman provides a stylistic and thematic overview of Damballah, asserting that the major themes of the short story collection “center on the folk characters' use of black cultural tradition and around the black intellectual's integration into the black community.”]

In Damballah (1981), the second book of the Homewood Trilogy,Wideman presents a wide range of black folk characters who draw on various aspects...

(The entire section is 7457 words.)

Randall Kenan (review date 1 January 1990)

SOURCE: Kenan, Randall. “A Most Righteous Prayer.” The Nation 250, no. 1 (1 January 1990): 25-7.

[In the following review, Kenan discusses the defining characteristics of the stories comprising Fever: Twelve Stories.]

“Do not look for straightforward, linear steps from book to book,” wrote John Edgar Wideman in the 1985 preface to his Homewood Trilogy. “Think rather of circles within circles within circles, a stone dropped into a still pool, ripples and wavemotions.” In Fever [Fever: Twelve Stories], Wideman has troubled the water again, refining his already elliptical and dense prose; in the process he has reinvented black English and...

(The entire section is 1836 words.)

Darryl Pinckney (review date 23 August 1991)

SOURCE: Pinckney, Darryl. “'Cos I'm a So-o-oul Man.” Times Literary Supplement (23 August 1991): 19-20.

[In the following mixed assessment, Pinckney maintains that “the range of characters in his recent collection of stories, Fever: Twelve Stories, is agreeably broad, the situations are carefully realized; the short story is perhaps Wideman's true form.”]

Black writing in the United States is in full reaction against the psychological realism and apocalyptic fantasies of the 1960s that were a form of bringing news from the other, hidden, hip side of town. It is most commonly expressed as a matter of audience, alternative discourse, reclaiming black...

(The entire section is 2916 words.)

Michael Gorra (review date 14 June 1992)

SOURCE: Gorra, Michael. “The Choral Voice of Homewood.” The New York Times Book Review (14 June 1992): 13.

[In the following favorable review of The Stories of John Edgar Wideman, Gorra compares Wideman's short fiction to that of William Faulkner.]

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...

(The entire section is 1436 words.)

Sven Birkerts (review date 13 July 1992)

SOURCE: Birkerts, Sven. “The Art of Memory.” The New Republic 207 (13 July 1992): 42-9.

[In the following review, Birkerts asserts that Wideman is America's leading African American male writer and provides a thematic overview of his short stories.]

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...

(The entire section is 3781 words.)

Judith Rosen (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Rosen, Judith. “John Edgar Wideman.” In Writing for Your Life, edited by Sybil Steinberg, pp. 530-35. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.

[In the following essay, Rosen describes an interview with Wideman in which the author discusses the major thematic concerns of his stories and his insistence on publishing his fiction in paperback form.]

John Edgar Wideman is a man who disdains labels, who refuses to allow either his life or art to be boxed in or dismissed by descriptive terms like “black writer.” The problem, he says, “is that it can be a kind of back-handed compliment. Are you being ghettoized at the same time as you are being praised?”

...

(The entire section is 1998 words.)

James Wood (review date 7 May 1993)

SOURCE: Wood, James. “The Voices of Homewood.” Times Literary Supplement (7 May 1993): 21.

[In the following mixed review, Wood provides a stylistic analysis of the stories in All Stories Are True.]

To make writing flow like speech—to make a pool seem like a stream—may be the hardest thing in fiction. For it is the old difficulty of careful dishevelment: to get the drift of speech without too much float, the slop of detail and imprecision without surrendering selection and form, to sound unliterary only by the most literary means.

This is what John Edgar Wideman's stories of African-American speech attempt, and at their worst they can seem too...

(The entire section is 1195 words.)

Doreatha Drummond Mbalia (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Mbalia, Doreatha Drummond. “‘How Would They Know?’: Conclusion.” In John Edgar Wideman: Reclaiming the African Personality, pp. 113-21. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Mbalia compares Wideman's earlier stories to his later ones.]

Just as I had completed what I hoped to be the next to the last draft of this work, Wideman published his third collection of short stories, The Stories of John Edgar Wideman. I read the New York Times review of the collection before I bought it. In fact, it was the review which determined for me the necessity to include the collection in this work. For the review...

(The entire section is 3775 words.)

Keith E. Byerman (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Byerman, Keith E. “Voices from Beyond: All Stories Are True.” In John Edgar Wideman: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 56-77. Twayne Publishers, 1998.

[In the following essay, Byerman delineates the unifying themes and stylistic aspects of the stories comprising All Stories Are True.]

Some of the stories in All Stories Are True (1992) continue the concern with family and personal history, whereas others develop the experimental potential of other voices. In the five pieces selected for discussion—“All Stories Are True,” “Everybody Knew Bubba Riff,” “Backseat,” “Newborn Thrown in Trash and Dies,” and “Signs”—much of the...

(The entire section is 9141 words.)

Claudine Raynaud (essay date summer 1999)

SOURCE: Raynaud, Claudine. “‘Mask to Mask. The ‘Real’ Joke’: Surfiction/Autofiction, or the Tale of the Purloined Watermelon.” Callaloo 22, no. 3 (summer 1999): 695-712.

[In the following essay, Raynaud explores the relationship between writing, creative imagination, and reality in Wideman's “Surfiction” as well as the story's link to Charles Chesnutt's short story “A Deep Sleeper.”]

I think it was Geral I first heard call a watermelon a letter from home. After all these years I understand a little better what she meant. She was saying the melon is a letter addressed to us. A story for us from down home. Down home being...

(The entire section is 10965 words.)

Fritz Gysin (essay date summer 1999)

SOURCE: Gysin, Fritz. “John Edgar Wideman's ‘Fever’.” Callaloo 22, no. 3 (summer 1999): 715-26.

[In the following essay, Gysin provides historical background to Wideman's “Fever” as well as a stylistic analysis of the story.]

“Telling the story right will make it read.”

(Damballah)

“Certain things had to have happened for any of it to make sense.”

(Philadelphia Fire)

“Fever” is the title story of a book that heralds Wideman's imaginative return to Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly...

(The entire section is 6020 words.)

Tatiana Weets (essay date summer 1999)

SOURCE: Weets, Tatiana. “The Negotiation of Remembrance in ‘Across the Wide Missouri’.” Callaloo 22, no. 3 (summer 1999): 727-39.

[In the following essay, Weets asserts that the role of music and pictures in “Across the Wide Missouri” “underlines the help necessary to tell a story and signals the shortcomings of writing as a mode of preserving memories.”]

Damballah, published in 1981 by John Wideman, is a text with numerous screening thresholds that cannot be crossed without due preparation. In fact, for the uninitiated reader, the assemblage of letters constituting the book's title corresponds to no previously encountered meaning. The title's...

(The entire section is 6669 words.)

Sheri I. Hoem (essay date summer 2000)

SOURCE: Hoem, Sheri I. “‘Shifting Spirits’: Ancestral Constructs in the Postmodern Writing of John Edgar Wideman.” African American Review 34, no. 2 (summer 2000): 249-62.

[In the following essay, Hoem investigates the role of “ancestral constructs” in Wideman's “Damballah” and The Cattle Killing.]

We are difference … our reason is the difference of discourses, our history the difference of times, our selves the difference of masks. That difference, far from being the forgotten and recoverable origin, is this dispersion that we are and make.

(Michel Foucault)

One of the hallmarks...

(The entire section is 8792 words.)

Michael Trussler (essay date summer 2000)

SOURCE: Trussler, Michael. “Literary Artifacts: Ekphrasis in the Short Fiction of Donald Barthelme, Salman Rushdie, and John Edgar Wideman.” Contemporary Literature 41, no. 2 (summer 2000): 252-90.

[In the following essay, Trussler draws parallels between the ekphrastic elements of Donald Barthelme's “The Balloon,” Salman Rushdie's “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers,” and Wideman's “What He Saw.”]

Have you noticed, my boy, that the painting here is based on Homer, or have you failed to do so because you are lost in wonder as to how in the world the fire could live in the midst of the water? Well then, let us try to get at the...

(The entire section is 14310 words.)