Wideman’s stunning command of language and his experimentation with multiple centers of consciousness are characteristic of his work. He has said that the power of language to reveal character absorbs him. In a New York Times Book Review interview, he reported that he was fascinated by the story of the historical Richard Allen, a former slave of African descent who could write his memoirs in formal English. Research for “Fever” led to Wideman’s full-length work about this event, Philadelphia Fire (1990).
Irony is a prominent feature of the story. The distant omniscient narrator, a survivor of history, speaks sometimes ironically, sometimes with compassion for the sufferers of yellow fever. In contrast to the prevailing view that African Americans were responsible for the disease, the clinical voice describing the autopsy of a fever victim notes that the physical remains cannot be identified as black or white. The devoutly Christian white ministers see no conflict in their decision to expel the African Americans from the church. Richard Allen reveals in his letter his love for his family and his devotion to duty. This portrait, as well as the imaginary narratives created by the author, shows a black American, reviled as less than human, as the most humane character in the story.
A series of realistic descriptions of the grotesque ravages of the disease on the human body and the stench and ghastliness of the streets of...
(The entire section is 477 words.)