Brothers and Keepers

by John Edgar Wideman

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Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Brothers and Keepers Analysis

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The first section of Brothers and Keepers, “Visits,” focuses largely on Wideman’s alienation from his brother Robby and the Homewood community. Wideman’s visits to Robby and the community have been infrequent, and when he has visited, he has not really tried to communicate with Robby. He knows Robby only superficially. It is up to him to break out of his world of alienation and develop a better knowledge of Robby and the Homewood community Robby represents.

Most of the second section, “Our Time,” depicts Wideman’s struggle and agonizing growth as he focuses outside himself on Robby’s life and develops an understanding of his brother. One technique Wideman uses to capture this process is to tell the story with Robby’s words, projecting reality through Robby’s eyes. Robby’s voice first takes over the narrative approximately one-third of the way through “Our Time,” and Robby’s voice and Wideman’s voice alternate until the end of the section. This imaginative projection into Robby’s life makes him empathize with Robby as he has never done before.

Sometimes as Wideman listens to Robby talk, he finds himself drifting back into his own inner world, where he is isolated from Robby and secure within his own comforting images of himself. A striking example of this is Wideman’s description of his imagination isolating him from Robby’s reality as Robby describes his tortuous experience in the prison’s Behavioral Adjustment Unit, known as “the hole.” Wideman’s imagination projects his own sanctuary in which he can “savor the sweet solitary pleasure” of his own existence and silences Robby’s description of the hole with the assurance that “you’re the fairest of them all.” Wideman realizes that this is exactly what he must stop doing: He must stop hiding within his own world, made up of his own self-assuring images of himself, and must really listen to Robby and share in his life and experience.

When Wideman truly listens to Robby’s sincere statements about himself, he is forced to admit that he is afraid to face himself and tell the truth about himself like Robby does. As a creative writer, Wideman has had to use his imagination to create his own versions of reality. Now is the time, however, to embrace his brother and his brother’s life, and in the process to compare their lives and gain a better perspective on his own life. Wideman begins to realize that Robby’s open, forthright story about himself frees him (Wideman) because it makes it easier for him to be truthful about himself and tell his own story.

When Wideman is as truthful as possible with himself, he must admit that, to a significant extent, he has used his career as an escape from Robby and the community and used his writing “to make a fiction of my life.” In other words, the writing has been an escape into his own world, where he can remain detached from the important human beings in his life: his brother, his family, and the people in his community.

The epigraph to section 1 of Brothers and Keepers , in which Wideman has not yet grown to know his brother in any depth, implies that the failure to work hard and seriously is Robby’s problem. When Wideman gets to know Robby better in section 2, however, he sees a person of substance and depth. During a long section of more than thirty pages in section 2, Wideman presents the narrative in Robby’s voice, as Robby talks about his life. He explains that, having always wanted to have a good time, he had gotten caught in a destructive life-style. In pursuit...

(This entire section contains 1428 words.)

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of the good-times life-style, he became a petty criminal and was eventually involved in a failed confidence game in which one of his friends accidentally killed a man. Yet a humane, warm, and caring side of Robby also emerges. Beneath everything, Robby was a well-intentioned person who wanted the best for those who were around him. To a large extent, he is in jail because he is a victim of an environment poisoned by racism and the social upheaval of the 1960’s. It is particularly in reading this section in the book that one wonders who the real criminal is, Robby who has stayed in Homewood and tried to make a life there or Wideman who has escaped to Laramie, Wyoming, and the secure world of academia.

In the last section, “Doing Time,” Wideman deepens his quest to get closer to his brother, forcing himself to share more of his experience. On each visit to Robby, Wideman puts himself through the arduous process of traveling from his mother’s house to Western State Penitentiary and, once there, the degrading steps that are necessary before he can see Robby. The harsh quality of Wideman’s experience at least gives him a taste of the humiliation and degradation that Robby suffers every day.

In the second section of Brothers and Keepers, Wideman shows that he is embracing Robby and his experience by presenting an account of the story in Robby’s words and through Robby’s eyes for long sections of the narrative. In the last section, he uses a different technique to show that he and his brother have come together, have reached an understanding: he merges their voices, and hence their visions, in the middle of a paragraph.

The following passage begins with Wideman’s description of Robby as he thinks about his life as a fugitive after the murder and of his attempts to go to school in prison. It ends with Robby’s talking in his own voice about his efforts to complete school.He’s been thinking a lot about the time on the road, the three months as a fugitive when he and his partners crisscrossed the country, playing hide and seek with the law. He’s tried to write some of it down but he’s been too busy. Too much’s been happening. School. He’ll graduate in January. A little ceremony for the few guys who made it all the way through the program. An associate degree in engineering technology and three certificates. Rough. Real rough. The math he’d never had in high school. The slow grind of study. Hours relearning to be a student. Learning to take the whole business seriously while you hear the madness of the prison constantly boiling outside your cell. But I’m gon get it, Bruh. Few more weeks. These last exams kicking my ass but I’m gon get it. Most the fellows dropped out. Only three of us completed the program. It’ll look good on my record, too. But I ain’t had time to do nothing else. Them books you sent. I really enjoy reading them but lately I ain’t been doing nothing but studying.

Wideman’s voice and Robby’s voice merge into one voice with one message about two-thirds of the way through the passage, where the first person begins to be employed. The brothers share equally the pain and struggle of trying to work constructively within the destructive prison environment. At this time, Wideman makes the connection with his brother that he has been trying to make throughout Brothers and Keepers.

From this point to the end of the book, Wideman demonstrates further his closeness to his brother, both in his projection of his brother’s words and vision and the empathic portrayal of his brother in his own words. Wideman demonstrates several times that he understands and is sensitive to Robby’s life. He understands Robby’s feelings about himself and his environment and the circumstances in the Homewood community that helped to push him toward his “crime.” He is sensitive to Robby’s suffering in the harsh, oppressive life he is living in prison. He has accomplished what he set out to do at the beginning of Brothers and Keepers.

Nevertheless, Brothers and Keepers does not have a sentimental or romantic ending. The book ends with a letter from Robby to Wideman. Robby describes prison conditions that are becoming harsher and his severe struggle in this environment. He promises that he will continue to work hard and struggle. The last words of the book are “I SHALL FOREVER PRAY.” The brothers, particularly Wideman, have made progress toward bridging the gap between them. Yet Robby is still in prison, burdened with a sentence vastly out of proportion to his offense, and no one knows when he will be released.


Masterplots II: African American Literature Brothers and Keepers Analysis