John Edgar Wideman Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Wideman’s writing, from fiction to memoir to literary criticism, testifies to his deeply felt commitment to document the African American experience by subjecting it to the illuminating lens of art. His work combines a personal journey to recover a cultural tradition he had once shunned with postmodernist literary methods.

Wideman dramatizes the challenges facing black men in a racist society that continually compromises their masculinity and demands ingenious strategies for reinventing male integrity. Family and community provide the bedrock of that integrity, and history is the fluid medium through which it must travel.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

John Edgar Wideman was the first of five children born to Bette French and Edgar Wideman. His youth was spent in the African American community of Homewood, within the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and his fiction draws heavily upon the experiences of his family across a century of Homewood history. As a youth, Wideman demonstrated the same blend of athletic and academic ambition that often distinguishes his fictional characters and dramatizes their divided allegiances. Upon graduation as Peabody High School valedictorian, Wideman received a Benjamin Franklin scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania and subsequently played for its basketball team, hoping someday to be drafted by the National Basketball Association. Selected for the Philadelphia Big Five Basketball Hall of Fame and tapped for Phi Beta Kappa, Wideman also won a Rhodes scholarship; upon completion of his B.A. at the University of Pennsylvania in 1963, he attended Oxford University, where, in 1966, he earned a B.Phil. as a Thouron Fellow. Having been an active writer since his undergraduate years, Wideman secured a Kent Fellowship from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1966. His first novel, A Glance Away, appeared in 1967, winning for him immediate attention as a significant new voice in contemporary American letters.

Alongside his creative endeavors, Wideman steadily pursued an academic career. In 1966, he accepted a teaching position at the University of...

(The entire section is 541 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Born in Washington, D.C., on June 14, 1941, John Edgar Wideman initially aspired to be a professional basketball player. Consequently, he served as both a Benjamin Franklin Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania and captain of the school’s championship basketball team. A member of Phi Beta Kappa, he was graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1963 with a B.A. in English. Promptly selected as only the second black Rhodes Scholar in history, he received his B.Ph. degree from Oxford University in 1966, specializing as a Thouron Fellow in the eighteenth century novel. He then spent one year as a Kent Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, subsequently returning to lecture at his alma mater, Pennsylvania....

(The entire section is 231 words.)