(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This title story in John Edgar Wideman’s second collection of short stories is a horrifying fictional account of a historical event, the 1793 yellow fever epidemic that devastated the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, killing more than four thousand people, an estimated one-tenth of the city’s population. The story is told in an episodic montage of narrative voices that demand the reader’s close attention, each voice revealing a distinct point of view. Knowledge of the historical event would enhance the reader’s appreciation of the story but is not essential to its understanding.

The primary narrative position is that of an actual historical figure, Richard Allen, a former slave who bought his own freedom and that of his wife and educated himself, rising to leadership in the black community as founder of the first African American church. Allen speaks at times in first-person stream of consciousness and also, in one instance, in an actual letter from his memoirs. Central to the story is a narrative voice commenting on the events out of an omniscient view of world history. Among other voices are those of a slave in the hold of a ship, a clinician describing the medical phenomena of the disease, a physician of the time (perhaps Benjamin Rush himself), a Jewish immigrant dying from the fever, and three voices speaking from the 1980’s.

The complex interplay of these voices builds a dense layer of episodes that portray the city and its citizens in the throes of disaster. At the time, it was not known that yellow fever is caused by a virus transmitted to humans by infected mosquitoes. After yellow fever breaks out, the...

(The entire section is 675 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“Fever,” the title story in Wideman’s 1989 collection of short fiction, provides an illuminating metaphor for the various episodes of racial antagonism depicted in the volume. As one of the story’s narrative voices explains, “Fever grows in the secret places of our hearts, planted there when one of us decided to sell one of us to another. The drum must pound ten thousand thousand years to drive that evil away.”

The narrative focus of the tale reflects Wideman’s desire to correct the inaccurate historical record about the role of African Americans during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic that devastated Philadelphia. He dedicates the story to the author of one such fraudulent account and relies instead upon the eyewitness record left by black commentators. Among the chorus of voices in the text are those of two black men, one of them the historical Richard Allen and the other his fictionalized brother Thomas, whose differing perspectives on the disaster and its resultant hypocrisies work in counterpoint.

Allen, a former slave, a minister, and the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, is a deeply spiritual man who identifies his vision of the mass emancipation of slaves with the promise of Christianity. Allen has been ordered to serve a Dr. Rush in his ministrations to and autopsies of plague victims. After performing exhausting labor among white people, he turns to the destitute habitations of poor black people whom the disease ravages with equal savagery. There he devotes himself to their spiritual and physical health, despite their contempt.

Like many other elements of the narrative, Thomas’s story further documents the presence of black people in the public sphere of American history: Thomas fought with the rebels in the American Revolution and, as a prisoner of the British, recognized the degree to which he had been denied participation in the society whose ideals he championed. His embittered outlook on the situation now facing black people in...

(The entire section is 821 words.)