(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Homewood Trilogy collects in a single volume works originally published individually but conceptualized as interdependent fictions about the specific African American community in Pittsburgh where Wideman was raised. Originally published in the early 1980’s, they resulted from Wideman’s rediscovery, while attending his grandmother’s 1973 funeral, of his childhood community’s richly evocative history. To keep faith with his source material, he initially chose to issue these three volumes as Avon paperbacks rather than in hardcover to improve their accessibility to the black reading public he hoped to reach. The third volume in that series brought Wideman his first PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Each volume draws from the family lore surrounding Wideman’s maternal grandfather John French and his descendants, including two brothers who mirror the author and his youngest brother Rob. The trilogy resulted from Wideman’s discovery that the stories of Homewood’s inhabitants offered him an untapped reservoir of literary raw material. By recovering those stories, he sought to demonstrate “that Black life for all its material impoverishment continues to produce the full range of human personalities, emotions, aspirations.” Moreover, Wideman uses racial experience to challenge delimiting racial categories: “Homewood is an idea. . . . [It] mirror[s] the characters’ inner lives, their sense of themselves as spiritual beings in a realm that rises above racial stereotypes and socioeconomic statistics.”

Recalling Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, the trilogy opens with an elaborate family tree mapping the relationships that provide the work’s imaginative spine. The texts it spawns also become metafictions, absorbing into themselves the many oral forms which have kept the past alive while drawing attention to the writer’s self-conscious difficulties in bending them to his aesthetic design.

The twelve short stories of Damballah demonstrate the human diversity of Homewood’s landscape. Its title derives from African myth: Damballah, the “good serpent of the sky,” proves a benevolent paternal deity whose detachment and wisdom shape the cosmos into a transcendent family. The title story involves an African-born slave named Orion whose spiritual strength rests upon native religious beliefs which he communicates to a slave boy through the repetition of Damballah’s name. When Orion is brutally executed after being falsely accused of sexual misconduct, the child returns his severed head to the natural world he had so revered.

In “The Beginning of Homewood,” the collection’s final tale, Wideman expands the historical context of the present by tracing his maternal ancestry to an escaped slave, Sybela Owens, and her master/lover, whose flight north brought them to Bruston Hill, the symbolic umbilicus of Homewood. Juxtaposed time frames abound in the volume, and Sybela’s tale appears within a contemporary meditation written to “Tommy,” the narrator’s brother, now in prison for murder. His situation raises the same issues of freedom, escape, and spiritual survival addressed in the slave’s story and prompts Wideman to metafictional musings on the act of writing and its relationship to lived events.

Those two tales frame ten other stories of black men and women struggling to maintain or recover an authentic existence in the face of unrelenting danger or disappointment. Among them are John French, the hard-drinking, tough-minded patriarch whose emotional presence dominates the twentieth century history of the French/Lawson clan; Freeda Hollinger French, his wife, whose violent act to save John’s life resonates through the text and expresses the complex emotional dynamic that Wideman maps between black men and women; Lizabeth French Lawson, the narrator’s mother and another heroic embodiment of the integrity and strength of black women facing crushing familial pressures; Reba Love...

(The entire section is 1630 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

In The Homewood Trilogy, which comprises the short-story collection Damballah and the novels Hiding Place and Sent for You Yesterday, John Edgar Wideman re-creates Homewood, the black section of Pittsburgh, and describes the myriad relationships among ancestors and a living African American family in the hundred years since slavery. Damballah is an African voodoo god, “the good serpent of the sky.” The hero of the trilogy is John French, who specializes in a kind of benevolent fatherhood. Wideman’s return to Homewood through these novels convinces readers of his determination to find and understand his identity through tracing his roots as deep as he can. In Damballah and Hiding Place, Wideman furnishes a family tree. Readers are told of his great-great-great grandmother, who fled through the Underground Railroad with a white man to safety in Pittsburgh. Biological roots traced, the job of understanding begins.

One sour apple on the family tree is Tommy. The character Tommy is actually Robby, Wideman’s brother. Tommy and Wideman are complex dimensions in finding the identity that Wideman seeks. The main character in Hiding Place, Tommy, is a fugitive from history as well as the law. He is taken in by Mama Bess, who is family and who represents what family does. Family tries to put together the “scars” and the “stories” that give young people their identities. Essentially, Hiding Place is the story of two lost souls, Mama Bess and Tommy. Mama Bess is lost because she has lost her husband and her son; she becomes a recluse, a fugitive living on a hill overlooking Pittsburgh, away from the family. Tommy is lost because he is too headstrong to listen and finds himself on the run after a scheme to rob a ghetto hoodlum ends in murder. Tommy does not want to hear the stories and learn about the scars; he is too absorbed in preservation.

Sent for You Yesterday, through the characters of Doot and Albert Wilkes, the outspoken blues pianist, suggests that creativity and imagination are important means of transcending despair. Creativity also strengthens the common bonds of race, culture, and class. Homewood Trilogy is a monumental work of investigating and understanding the origins of self and identity.