Introduction

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Told in a complex intertexual layering that juxtaposes the Philadelphia of the late eighteenth century with that of the 1990’s, The Cattle Killing provides Wideman with an opportunity to reconfigure a common theme in his writing: the mythically resonant patterning of experience across history that can provide clues by which the past may explain—and potentially redeem—the present. The title derives from a legend detailing how the Xhosa people of South Africa allowed false prophecy to dupe them into killing their cattle herds to effect the departure of the white imperialists destroying their world. Tragically, their action furthered the white agenda by depriving the Xhosa of the staples upon which their way of life depended. For Wideman, the analogy to contemporary urban youth violence could not be clearer: Once again, a people desperate for rescue are sacrificing the lifeblood of their society in a pernicious receptivity to the wrong messages.

Wideman offers another example of such cultural miscalculation by dramatizing the racist consequences attending the l793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. Having earlier published a short story entitled “Fever” (1989) on the same subject, this time Wideman adds to the picture of white scapegoating of black people with a study of how the contagion at the city’s core spins into outlying areas beyond the metropolis: No amount of segregation or withdrawal from the collectivity can counter the...

(The entire section is 573 words.)