Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Homewood trilogy occupies several important places in black culture. It reveals a major African American writer wrestling with his own history. The story of the persona in the Homewood books is also the story of John Edgar Wideman, who grew up in this neighborhood but who left in more ways than one. The trilogy reveals his return and his rediscovery of the values and strengths that underpin this community’s past and the past of his family. Like Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976), the Homewood books show African American writers a way back to their own heritage.

The trilogy also represents the resolution of the conflict between black and white literary values. In Wideman’s first three novels before the Homewood trilogy, his method was clearly postmodernist, and even his style seemed closely modeled on T. S. Eliot and James Joyce. In the Homewood books, readers watch Wideman working out a way to use all that he has learned about aesthetics to render a black community, to forge, as it were, a black postmodernist discourse. He was successful, as the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for Sent for You Yesterday demonstrates. His works have as much complexity and depth as those of any writer working in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Again and again in these three works, Wideman draws upon black history and folklife to find his motifs and meanings. Even his style, using such forms as call-and-response and the blues, reflects that search. Like Toni Morrison, Ernest J. Gaines, and other contemporary black writers, Wideman has bridged the literary and cultural chasms of the twentieth century and come up with complex and beautiful celebrations of African American life.