John Edgar Wideman

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The oldest of five children born to Bette French and Edgar Wideman, John Edgar Wideman grew up in Homewood, a black community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, whose history roughly parallels that of Wideman’s family in the North. After attending racially integrated Peabody High School, where he excelled in sports and also graduated as valedictorian, John was awarded the Benjamin Franklin scholarship to the then-barely integrated University of Pennsylvania. There he was recruited for the varsity basketball team in 1959 and as a forward won All-Ivy League recognition as well as a place in the Philadelphia Big Five Basketball Hall of Fame—accomplishments that encouraged his dreams about playing in the National Basketball Association (NBA). At Penn, Wideman also excelled academically, earning election to Phi Beta Kappa and a Rhodes scholarship upon graduation. After earning a B.A. in English in 1963, he went on to earn a B.Phil. in 1966 as a Thoron Fellow at Oxford University, and his writerly fate was sealed.

Having distinguished himself as a writer even as an undergraduate, Wideman was accorded a Kent Fellowship to attend the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1966 and published his first novel, A Glance Away, in 1967. Hired by his alma mater in 1966, he later headed Penn’s Afro-American Studies program from 1971 to 1973 and rose to the rank of professor of English; he also served as assistant basketball coach from 1968 to 1972. Other academic appointments have included posts at Howard University; the University of Wyoming, Laramie; the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Baruch College of City University in New York; and Brown University. He also holds an honorary D.Litt. from the University of Pennsylvania (1985). Named a Young Humanist Fellow by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1975, he conducted a State Department lecture tour of Europe and the Near East in 1976 and also held a Phi Beta Kappa lectureship. Following the publication of Philadelphia Fire (1990), Wideman won the American Book Award for Fiction and became the first writer to receive a second PEN/Faulkner Award(1991). He also secured a Lannan Literary Fellowship in 1991 and a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1993. The Cattle Killing earned the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction in 1996. In 1998, he was accorded the Rea Award for the Short Story in honor of his considerable accomplishments in the genre; in 2000, he earned an O. Henry Award for best short story of the year.

Wideman has candidly acknowledged that his early achievements came at a psychological cost, however. As a young man Wideman had distanced himself from the perceived constrictions of his African American identity, only to discover that the personal alienation thus produced mirrored the condition of doubleness described by W. E. B. Du Bois and others as the consequence of growing up black in twentieth century America. Wideman has made this odyssey away from and back to his roots a frequent theme of his writing, using it to affirm the contemporary African American intellectual as someone fully in touch with the wide range of expression defining his cultural traditions.

As a Rhodes scholar in England, Wideman had concentrated his studies on the eighteenth century origins of the novel, a field far removed from the cultural environment from which he had sprung—and which ill-prepared him for requests from African American students at Penn that, as a new faculty member in the mid-1960’s, he teach courses in black literature. To accommodate them, he began investigating the rich tradition of black American literary expression that has energized his own creative choices ever since. Besides adapting black American and African...

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mythologies, folk arts, and storytelling methods to create his distinctive narrative technique, he frequently publishes essays about black literature and cultural production involving such diverse figures as Du Bois, writer Charles Waddell Chesnutt, activist Malcolm X, musician Thelonius Monk, athlete Michael Jordan, actor Denzel Washington, and director Spike Lee. In doing so, he extends the synthesizing intellectual reach of Du Bois himself.

Married in 1965 to Judith Ann Goldman, Wideman has three children: Daniel, Jacob, and Jamila. Dan is a published writer, and Jamila a successful athlete whose leadership of Stanford’s women’s basketball team propelled her into the professional ranks of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). Youngest son Jake has painfully complicated this family history since, as a mentally ill teenager, he committed a 1986 murder for which he received a life sentence in the Arizona penal system—a grim reprise of the crisis surrounding Wideman’s youngest sibling, Rob, who is serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania’s Western Penitentiary.

Wideman’s first highly acclaimed memoir, Brothers and Keepers (1984), examines Rob’s story as a vehicle for John’s continued racial ambivalence as a self-made man compromised by the haunting mirror image that Rob presents. His son’s tragedy has similarly entered into Wideman’s writing: It provides a major frame of reference in the later memoir Fatheralong (1994), nominated for the National Book Award. The murder of nephew Omar Wideman, Rob’s twenty-one-year-old son, inspired Two Cities (1998); Wideman dedicates the novel to the young man with the words “We didn’t try hard enough.” A third memoir, Hoop Roots (2001), lyrically evokes basketball’s existential and aesthetic meanings for its author as its elegiac tone mourns not only his failing body but the end of his thirty-plus years of marriage.

Critics have long remarked on the striking juxtaposition of Wideman’s sophisticated literary style (characterized by modernist and postmodernist complexities of voice, metaphor, and structure) with his graphically realistic subject matter. A Glance Away deals with the world of a drug addict. Hurry Home (1970) depicts the deeply divided sensibility of an upwardly mobile young man whose efforts to escape the ghetto through education yield to the purposeful recovery of his African American heritage. The Lynchers (1973) examines American racial terrorism. In The Homewood Trilogy—published as a set in 1985, its separate parts originally published as Damballah (1981), Hiding Place (1981), and Sent for You Yesterday (1983)—Wideman explores the origins and decay of a black urban community. Reuben (1987) interweaves the stories of a self-proclaimed attorney and two of his clients: a prostitute trying to secure custody of her child and a directionless former athlete implicated in a bribery scandal.

With Philadelphia Fire, Wideman emphasizes the place “the City of Brotherly Love” holds in his imagination alongside Pittsburgh. That novel recounts the horrific firebombing of the MOVE compound in 1985 by the city’s first black administration under Mayor Wilson Goode. The Cattle Killing explores older historical tragedies from Philadelphia’s racial past, while Two Cities literally draws together his two “hometowns”—Pittsburgh and Philadelphia—as a comparative matrix for the varieties of national neglect that have exacerbated the crises of African American urban life.


Critical Essays