Brothers and Keepers

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Brothers and Keepers, an autobiographical account of the relationship between novelist John Wideman and his brother Robby, who is serving a life sentence without parole for murder, is a fascinating book both for its reconsideration of central patterns of Afro-American cultural expression and for what its reception reveals concerning the position of black writers in the literary mainstream. Combining normally distinct autobiographical modes—the fugitive slave narrative, the passing narrative, the revolutionary autobiography, the celebration of family roots—Wideman makes an important contribution to the autobiographical genre, one which to some extent shapes the entire Afro-American literary tradition. In some ways, however, the reception of both book and author demands equally close attention. Reviewed on the front page of The New York Times Book Review and named as one of the Review’s outstanding books of 1984, Brothers and Keepers catapulted Wideman to sudden prominence; he has since contributed a front-page essay to The New York Times Book Review and a long article to Sports Illustrated, been featured on 60 Minutes, written cover blurbs for books such as Russell Banks’s Continental Drift, and been included in several published surveys of literary figures. Clearly, Wideman deserves this recognition. Equally clearly, it derives only tangentially from the quality of Brothers and Keepers. Most important, the response seems to have almost nothing to do with the realities John Wideman places uncompromisingly at the center of his book: the realities of life for Robby Wideman, inside or outside of prison.

This seems particularly ironic, for Brothers and Keepers draws much of its power precisely from John Wideman’s intensive questioning of his comparatively limited previous success. Reared in Pittsburgh’s Homewood ghetto, John Wideman moved on first to the University of Pennsylvania on a basketball scholarship and later to a career as novelist and faculty member at the overwhelmingly white University of Wyoming. Counterpointing his experiences with those of his younger brother, who, despite a real if unpolished intellectual talent gravitated toward a street life centered on drugs and crime, John meditates at length on the price of his own success, which involved a degree of subtle and indirect denial of connection with his racial and familial history. Never simplistic or romantic about the brutalities of Afro-American street life and careful not to deny the benefits of his own contact with Euro-American culture, Wideman nevertheless expresses uncompromisingly his anger over the forces separating his culture from Robby’s. Against this background, the literary establishment’s recognition of Wideman—who has published six previous works of fiction of which only the 1984 P.E.N. Faulkner Award-winning Sent for You Yesterday received more than passing attention—raises serious questions. Critical acclaim focusing on Wideman’s subject matter seems doubly ironic. First, the situation of young black men such as Robby in the urban ghettos and prisons of the United States hardly developed overnight; Afro-American writing from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s The Sport of the Gods (1902), Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), and Ann Petry’s The Street (1946) through Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (1965) and The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) stresses the aimlessness and despair of street life. Second, Robby’s story had previously been presented in slightly fictionalized form in the novel Hiding Place (1981) and in “Tommy” and “Solitary” in Wideman’s short-story cycle Damballah (1981). Clearly, a deep concern on the part of critics for Robby’s experience cannot account fully for the success of John’s work.

Two alternative explanations for Wideman’s success—one literary, the other political—deserve consideration. The political explanation concerns a deeply rooted pattern of treatment of Afro-American writers. Dating back to William Dean Howells’ sponsorship of Dunbar in the 1890’s, the Euro-American literary establishment has typically recognized individual Afro-American writers as “official spokesmen.” Wright, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, and, most recently, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker have all attained substantial recognition for relatively brief periods. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with such recognition, its transitory quality suggests that the white critics and editors conferring it have little real understanding of the works or authors’ literary importance. More serious, elevation of an official writer frequently serves to justify or mask the continuing failure of the mainstream to...

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Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

At the time that he published Brothers and Keepers, John Edgar Wideman had been a Rhodes Scholar, had published six books of fiction, and was a successful university professor. A main impetus behind the book was Wideman’s concern for helping his brother Robby, who, unlike Wideman, had continued to live in the black community of Homewood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and had been unjustly convicted of murder. His brother’s plight and Wideman’s feeling that his brother was reaching out to him for help made him realize that he needed help as well, because he had separated himself physically and emotionally from his brother and from Homewood. Wideman had to write Brothers and Keepers to reestablish his relationship with his brother and his community, just as he had to give moral and spiritual support to his beleaguered brother. His occupation and his success had, ironically, been instrumental in creating a gap that Wideman knew he had to cross emotionally and psychologically.

Brothers and Keepers consists of three parts: “Visits,” “Our Time,” and “Doing Time.” The second section, in which Wideman describes his growth while he spends time with his brother on visits to prison, comprises more than one hundred of the book’s 243 pages. The first section is a relatively short one (fifty-four pages) in which Wideman sets the background to his quest to reach his brother. The third section, seventy-six pages long, portrays...

(The entire section is 576 words.)

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In an author’s note, John Edgar Wideman states that Brothers and Keepers is “an attempt to capture a process that began in earnest about four years ago: my brother and I talking about our lives.” The author’s desire to understand the remarkable divergence in the arcs of those lives lies at the heart of the book. While the two brothers grew up in the same household just ten years apart, John became a star athlete, university professor, and celebrated author, while Robby was sentenced to life in prison for armed robbery and murder without possibility of probation or parole. As Wideman writes, “The world had seized on the difference, allowed me room to thrive, while he’d been forced into a cage. Why did it work out that way? What was the nature of the difference? Why did it haunt me?”

Based upon his interviews with Robby in prison, Brothers and Keepers is, according to Wideman, a “mix of memory, imagination, feeling and fact.” The narrative alternates between John’s formal literary voice and Robby’s street vernacular. The book is divided into three main sections, “Visits,” “Our Time,” and “Doing Time”; a postscript contains Robby’s graduation speech from a prison educational program in engineering technology.

Wideman states early on that “you never know exactly when something begins,” and, accordingly, the events of the book do not follow chronological order. Brothers and Keepers begins on February 10, 1976, as the fugitive Robby, an accomplice to a murder committed during a holdup, enjoys a daylong respite with his brother, who is a professor at the state university in Laramie, Wyoming. Robby is arrested in Colorado the following day.

The narrative then shifts into the past to consider the lives of the brothers’ grandparents, who lived in Pittsburgh at the turn of the century. The author then recalls his own encounters with racism at the University of Pennsylvania some fifty years later. “To maintain any semblance of dignity and confidence,” he writes, “I had to learn to construct a shell around myself.” The upkeep of that shell exacted a high price, however, as Wideman states that “the brighter, harder, more convincing and impenetrable the shell became, the more I lost touch with the inner sanctuary where I was supposed to be hiding.” The “Visits” section closes in 1981 with a description of the penitentiary where Robby is held and an analysis of the effect of the physical layout on prisoners’ psyches.

In relating his tale of the fatal robbery, Robby says, “It all started with Gar dying.” The “Our Time” section begins with the story of Garth’s death, the cause of which the author attributes to negligent care for an internal disease—in his view, the episode is a microcosm of the poor health care afforded to African Americans in general. His friend’s death leaves Robby outraged and ever more rebellious. As his narrative continues,...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bidinger, Elizabeth. The Ethics of Working Class Autobiography: Representation of Family by Four American Authors. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2006. Discusses representations of class and domesticity in Brothers and Keepers and compares the book to novels by Russell Baker, Agate Nesaule, and Bobbie Ann Mason.

Bonetti, Kay. “An Interview with John Edgar Wideman.” Missouri Review 9, no. 2 (1986): 75-103. Extensive interview in which Wideman discusses his work, childhood, education, literary influences, African American vernacular, African American literature, and American culture in general.


(The entire section is 487 words.)