Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Brothers and Keepers Analysis

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,...

(The entire section is 1428 words.)