(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.)

The Homewood Trilogy Summary

(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.

The Homewood Trilogy The Novels

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The three volumes of what is known as the Homewood trilogy were originally published as separate Avon paperbacks. The novel Hiding Place and the short-story collection Damballah were published in 1981, and the novel Sent for You Yesterday in 1983. Following the critical success of the three works—Sent for You Yesterday won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction—Avon Books reissued them in a paperback titled The Homewood Trilogy (1985). The University of Pittsburgh Press published a hardback edition of the three works in 1992 as The Homewood Books.

In his preface to the 1992 edition, John Edgar Wideman explains the trilogy’s evolution—the three different works were written simultaneously, he says—and its significance:The three books offer a continuous investigation, from many angles, not so much of a physical location, Homewood, the actual African-American community in Pittsburgh where I was raised, but of a culture, a way of seeing and being seen. Homewood is an idea, a reflection of how its inhabitants act and think. The books, if successful, should mirror the characters’ inner lives, their sense of themselves as spiritual beings in a world where boundaries are not defined by racial stereotypes or socioeconomic statistics.

Wideman’s goal in the three volumes, he declares in this preface, “is to celebrate and affirm.”

Damballah, the volume that opens the trilogy, is a collection of twelve stories that have a unity of place. The setting in nearly all the stories is Homewood, a predominantly black section of Pittsburgh. Wideman begins Damballah with three separate prefaces: an epigraph “to robby,” his brother, that begins “Stories are letters”; a passage called “damballah: good serpent of the sky,” from a book on Haitian voodoo; and “a begat chart” that lays out the family tree underpinning so many of these stories. The family tree begins with a slave, Sybela Owens, who fled north in the nineteenth century, and ends with John, the persona of the author, born in 1941. The three elements of many of Wideman’s stories are in these prefaces: distinctly biographical foundations, roots in African American folklore and myth, and communicative functions as personal “letters” to family, friends, and readers.


(The entire section is 965 words.)

The Homewood Trilogy Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Damballah. A young slave sees his fellow slave Orion, who refuses to disavow his god, Damballah, or to obey his white master, dragged into the barn to be killed. Later, the boy listens as the ghost of Orion retells his stories, then throws Orion’s head into the river.

Many years later, John French and his wife, Freeda Hollinger French, are living in Homewood. When Lemuel Strayhorn’s dog finds a dead black baby in the garbage, Lemuel gets John to help him bury the body. On one occasion, Freeda puts her hand through the glass of a window to keep her husband out of trouble. On another, after his little daughter Lizabeth eats a caterpillar, John eats one too, so that they will die together if the bugs are...

(The entire section is 962 words.)