Wideman, John Edgar (Short Story Criticism)
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.
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.
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.
*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.
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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...
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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 of the black cultural tradition—including stories, folk beliefs and rituals, religious songs, and religious rituals—to triumph over racism, poverty, hardship, and pain. Wideman now brings a black voice to themes that received a mainstream modernist treatment in the early books. Wideman speaks in a black voice even louder and deeper than his black voice in Hiding Place because the range of characters and folk forms, rituals, and beliefs is broader. Here, in contrast to Hiding Place, the emphasis from the first part of the book is on ways in which folk voices effectively deal with problems.
The most important thing Wideman does in Damballah, however, is to describe the black intellectual-writer's...
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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 (re)made it, elegant, suave, as elastic as ever: “Ball be swishing with that good backspin, that good arch bringing it back, blip, blip, blip, three bounces and it's coming right back to Doc's hands like he got a string on the pill,” he writes in “Doc's Story,” a story about stories, a nigh-fantastical tale of a blind man and the man who inexplicably watches him and ponders over lost love.
Wideman began evolving the style evidenced in these stories in his Homewood Trilogy, most markedly in the 1983 PEN/Faulkner award-winning Sent for You Yesterday and further still in 1987's Reuben. It is his own patented stream of consciousness, sliding easily through tense and point of view; and, when it...
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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 history, control of the word, or a return to black communal values now that humanism's mask of universality has been seen through. Hence the slyly innocent fabulations of Toni Morrison, or the outrageous historical revisionism of Ishmael Reed. The wish to be rid of the burden of being both artist and apostle of integration has defined black American writing since James Baldwin's pot-boilers. The impulse to look to what is considered authentic black life is hardly new, but it has come in phases since the Harlem Renaissance. Protest alternates with going back to the roots. In his day, Richard Wright expressed it as a class division, a choice between middle-class faiths and the “formless folk utterance”, the “sensualization” of suffering...
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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 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 of 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”; a child in his “Everybody Knew Bubba Riff” gets asked if he has “got teeth in them feet boy chewing...
(The entire section is 1436 words.)
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 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 subject matter is less sexy. And black women writers have a much larger constituency of readers than their male counterparts.
But Wideman's train...
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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?”
His writing, too, refuses to be pigeonholed. He has written one work of nonfiction, Brothers and Keepers, which was nominated for the National Book Award; three novels, including the PEN/Faulkner Award-winning Sent for You Yesterday; and two collections of stories. In addition, he is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he has taught for the past three years.
But Wideman the writer/professor is inextricable from Wideman the man dogged by tragic past, which is ever present in his work. In Brothers and Keepers, Hiding Place and Damballah especially, he has tried to better understand the twists of fate that have made him what he is, while his brother,...
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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 dishevelled and too careful. In Wideman's hands, the traditional narrated short story, that rather prim parishioner, becomes a junction of street-voices (the streets in this case being the black section of Pittsburgh known as Homewood). There are no quotation marks in these stories, and in a sense there is no narrator—just a crowd of voices, with the narrative handed round, like a pipe, from speaker to speaker. Sometimes a new voice appears after each paragraph, sometimes after a page or two. There are lapses, repetitions, refrains. The effect is a kind of sleeplessness, and one reads these stories in a swoon, and sometimes a frenzy, of continuousness.
It feels like a new kind of short-story writing; alas, it must run...
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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 emphasized the beauty of the older, Homewood stories, implied in fact that the works included in the Homewood Trilogy were more lyrical and thus more powerful works of art than the more recent ones included in the new collection:
Many non-Homewood stories in this volume tackle the thorny subject of relations between the races … these stories are fairly conventional tales that could have been written by any competent graduate of a fiction-writing class. They lack the assurance of the Homewood stories and their ease of language and liberty of form.1
I was doubtful. How can the works produced by Wideman in his early, European-centered period be more powerful than...
(The entire section is 3775 words.)
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 narrative consists of interior monologues and personal memories. At the same time, each story expands outward to consider some aspect of the public realm, including prison life, child abuse, racism, politics, and sexuality. Comments on media, education, and urban decay are also incorporated. With these stories, Wideman further loosens the short-story form; his style is, depending on one's perspective, a postmodernist one of pastiche or the digressive and associational one of traditional (folk) storytelling. Perhaps the best way to describe his method is to think of it as the intersection of the two modes for the purpose of bringing together a variety of concerns. He has available a range of narrative strategies not limited by commitment to...
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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 everywhere we have never been, the rural South, the old days, slavery, Africa. That juicy striped message with red meat and seeds, which always looked like roaches to me was blackness as cross and celebration, a history we could taste and chew. And it was meant for us. Addressed to us. We were meant to slit it open and take care of business.
—John Edgar Wideman, Damballah (my emphasis)
There is no absolute meaning; it is exactly the other way round: meaning is the meaning of an impossible.
—Serge Leclaire, Démasquer le réel (117)
“Surfiction” is one of the “stories” included in John Edgar...
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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.”
“Certain things had to have happened for any of it to make sense.”
“Fever” is the title story of a book that heralds Wideman's imaginative return to Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly Love,” whose hypocritical failure to fulfill that promise in the 20th century he had already tried to expose in The Lynchers (1973) before he had found his unique voice in a series of novels located in his native Pittsburgh, especially The Homewood Trilogy (1985). It is under heavy personal pressure that Wideman wrote Reuben (1987), his novel about a black outsider who becomes a lawyer to the poor in Pittsburgh, and then published Fever [Fever: Twelve Stories], his second book about Philadelphia. Wideman has been widely praised for his powerful language, his imaginative use of myth and ritual when dealing with the past, and his sensitive approach to characterization and focalization. If our knowledge of...
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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 opaqueness thus performatively announces the central issue of the book: how can memory be transcribed into words and given readable form. The sign “Damballah” only serves to visually and phonetically trace a rich curve with vowels and consonants alternating in a ternary mode and in which there is an oscillation between the matte sonority of the occlusives and vocalic clarity. We may be sensitive to the melodious and even tactile properties of the word. But more than this, its pronunciation prepares us to enter a territory of the unknown, the meaning of which escapes us.
Once past the title, the reader discovers a letter addressed to Robby, the author's imprisoned brother. It defines every story as a letter, “stories...
(The entire section is 6669 words.)
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.
One of the hallmarks of discourses often differentiated by the term minority is that they evoke some form of ancestor as a means of negotiating the presence of the past. In fact, Toni Morrison has argued that a fundamental aspect of black literature is the “presence or absence of an ancestor.” According to Morrison, the ancestor functions as an elder who, rather than constituting a parental figure, is a kind of “timeless” entity that provides a certain “continuum in Black or African-American art.” The presence of the ancestor can be seen in the work of writers such as Ralph Ellison and Toni Cade Bambara, but Morrison also notes that the absence of the ancestor in works by writers like Richard Wright and James Baldwin results in an element of...
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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 meaning of it. Turn your eyes away from the painting itself so as to look only at the events on which it is based.
Visually oriented arts frequently express a longing for literature's differentiating capacities. Genre painting looks to its exploration of temporal consequence, and film often includes voice-overs to confer upon an image the intimate authority of narratorial speech. Conversely, from Homer's describing Achilles' shield in the Iliad to W. H. Auden's pondering Pieter Brueghel's paintings in “Musée des Beaux Arts,” literary texts have repeatedly sought after the spatial simultaneity accorded the plastic arts. Defining ekphrasis as “the...
(The entire section is 14310 words.)
Baker, Lisa. “Storytelling and Democracy (in the Radical Sense): A Conversation with John Edgar Wideman.” African American Review 34, no. 2 (summer 2000): 263-72.
Wideman discusses the role of the African American artist in society.
TuSmith, Bonnie, ed. Conversations with John Edgar Wideman. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998, 224 p.
Collection of interviews with Wideman.
Byerman, Keith E. John Edgar Wideman: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998, 120 p.
Full-length critical study of Wideman's short fiction.
Hood, Cara. Review of Fever, by John Edgar Wideman. Voice Literary Supplement 18 (December 1989): 7-8.
Review that considers Fever: Twelve Stories as a collection of stories about storytelling.
Julien, Claude. “The Silent Man's Voice in ‘The Statue of Liberty’.” Callaloo 22, no. 3 (summer 1999): 740-49.
Explores the thematic concerns of Wideman's “The Statue of Liberty.”
Mbalia, Dorothea Drummond. John Edgar Wideman: Reclaiming the African Personality. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1995, 132 p.
Traces Wideman's literary...
(The entire section is 262 words.)