John Edgar Wideman Critical Essays

John Edgar Wideman American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Over the course of his writing career, Wideman has composed fiction that synthesizes twentieth century aesthetic concerns with the thematic emphases of the African American literary tradition. His stylistic indebtedness to T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and William Faulkner demonstrates modernist preoccupations with myth and ritual, fractured narrative, surreality, and polyphonic voicings. Wideman maps the creative possibilities of colliding the two traditions. In Philadelphia Fire, for instance, the protagonist Cudjoe, his name and sensibility rich in Africanist associations, assiduously updates William Shakespeare’s The Tempest to expose the shared dispossession of diasporan Africans both within and beyond the United States.

Wideman also has a postmodernist affinity for fantasy and deconstructive self-reflexiveness as means of conveying how the psyche processes the incoherencies of daily life, particularly those generated by the irreconcilable paradoxes of racism. A fusion of fiction and autobiography regularly marks his work, although he pointedly insists that his life and his writing are distinctive and separate frames of reality that he does not confuse—he knows and enforces the distance between them, however naïvely reviewers may conflate the two.

Wideman’s preoccupation with the consequences of racism actually prevents his wholesale adoption of postmodernist sleight of hand. While he documents the mind’s entrapment within its own subjective fabrications, his fiction does not withdraw into apolitical minimalism or self-enclosed fabulation apart from the social matrix in which his characters exist. Moving beyond the realist or naturalistic mode of previous generations of black writers, Wideman’s postmodernism identifies concepts of racial difference as divisive and deluding cultural fictions, and it dramatizes the equally powerful role of the imagination in dismantling such fallacies. By collapsing traditional distinctions between narration and dialogue, he creates a fluid linguistic matrix that does not try to approximate the “reality” of the psyche so much as the power of language to fuse different modes of experience.

Wideman’s literary techniques also express his belief in the accessibility of a collective African American racial memory kept alive through networks of family, community, and culture. Thus his narratives often juxtapose disparate time frames to emphasize the organic relationship between past and present—particularly as it is embodied across generations within the same family, as in The Homewood Trilogy and Brothers and Keepers. This same structuring device produces a free-floating, transchronological consciousness in novels such as The Cattle Killing, which dramatizes time’s mythic recurrences—a mixed message of hope alongside despair. The cri de coeur that suffuses Philadelphia Fire makes clear that what most profoundly concerns Wideman at the turn of the twenty-first century is the escalating rupture of that consciously nurtured connection across generations of African American families—a rupture born of increasing dysfunction among those persecuted and abandoned by the larger society’s greed and racist indifference.

Similarly, Wideman elides the voices and thoughts of characters who share a given narrative, producing a continually shifting kaleidoscope of perspectives that evokes the dense interior lives of his subjects. Among those voices, the writer himself often steps from behind the mask of narrator to discuss directly the challenges posed by a subject, character, or plot, particularly in relation to an immediate personal crisis with which he himself, as John Wideman, is also wrestling. In doing so he crafts a fluid, uninhibited voice that merges the linguistic plasticity of Joycean stream of consciousness with the lyrical soarings of jazz improvisation and hip-hop playfulness.

Wideman has proven adept across genres ranging from the short story to the novel to the memoir to the essay, all of them infused with a characteristic linguistic fluidity reviewers regularly compare to a soaring jazz solo. The short story allows him to pursue separate character analyses that, when juxtaposed within the covers of a single text, comment upon one another thematically. While following the same polyphonic construction, his novels integrate seemingly disparate narrative strands into more tightly unified patterns. In both forms he explores the thesis that the imagination can generate potentially healing linkages and discover illuminating echoes among fragments—an activity always complicated, however, by the suspicion that the cloudedness of human vision makes real communication among individuals flawed, if not impossible.

The clearly autobiographical subtexts informing so much of his fiction erupt full blown in Wideman’s highly acclaimed memoirs, where he confronts more openly the elusiveness of actual experience and his imaginative need for invention to redress life’s brutal gaps and incoherencies. Wideman explains in Hoop Roots, his meditation on the meaning of basketball in his life, that inWriting autobiography, looking back, trying to recall and represent yourself at some point in the past, you are playing many games simultaneously. There are many selves, many sets of rules jostling for position. . . . I still want more from writing. . . . More than the [fiction-making] puppeteer’s invisibility. . . . Want to share the immediate excitement of process, of invention, of play. . . . Seeking more means self-discovery. Means redefining the art I practice. . . . [W]anting to compose and share a piece of writing that won’t fail because it might not fit someone else’s notion of what a book should be.

The Homewood Trilogy

First published: 1985 (includes Damballah, 1981; Hiding Place, 1981; Sent for You Yesterday, 1983)

Type of work: Short-story collection and two novels

The three separate works united under this title record the human history of a black neighborhood in Pittsburgh through several generations of the Hollinger/French family.

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 Jackson, a gospel singer whose faith and artistry combine to create the song of a people; and Tommy Lawson, French’s grandson, whose reliance on drugs and crime dramatizes Homewood’s collapse beneath the mounting hopelessness of its citizens and the cynical indifference of the larger society. Based on Wideman’s brother Rob, to whom Damballah is dedicated, Tommy offers an early fictional examination of the varied family crises that recur in Wideman’s writings.

Hiding Place, the second volume in the trilogy, provides a novelistic interpretation of Rob’s story. Expanding his characterization of the aged “Mother” Bess Simkins, introduced in “The Beginning of Homewood,” Wideman elaborates on her relationship with a young man that had been previously sketched in that story. The granddaughter of Sybela Owens, Bess still lives on Bruston Hill as the novel opens, but while she signifies Tommy’s family heritage, she long ago retreated from any real intercourse with the community.

Bess’s isolation ends when Tommy, fleeing capture following an abortive robbery/murder, seeks refuge in her home. Like her, Tommy is hiding on many levels as he avoids honestly assessing his own responsibility for his circumstances. In Bess he encounters a hostile critic and responds by withdrawing into sleep. Still, through their confrontational exchanges, both recognize the need to reenter life, with all its attendant grief and outrage.

The alternating voices that structure the text include a youth named Clement whose simplemindedness offers another version of the self-involved, solipsistic dreaminess into which the other two characters retreat. Yet as Bess’s errand boy he not only links her to the outside world she has shunned but also expands the human geography of the novel. Because Clement intuits realities that are obscured or falsified by the defensive facades constructed by other individuals in the novel, he offers an implicit critique of the ruses that thwart authenticity in the ghetto.

Wideman’s sword thus cuts two ways in his examination of Homewood. Intensely aware of the role played by racism in the deterioration of his old neighborhood and the loss of spiritual purpose among its inhabitants, he just as sharply insists on the need for black men and women to attend to their own souls by rejecting the duplicities by which they distort the truth and cheapen their lives. Bess and Tommy both undergo this kind of soul-searching, a process that leads them to turn away from the “deadness” of their lives. Tommy chooses to return to town and confront whatever awaits him, and Bess, seeing the police corner him on the water tower outside her home, decides to leave Bruston Hill to testify on his behalf. The closing scene is apocalyptic; searchlights cut the darkness, and bullets fly as the police pursue Tommy. Bess’s shack bursts into flames while she plans her departure. Violence serves as the companion and catalyst to their respective existential reckonings.

Sent for You Yesterday, the novel earning Wideman’s first PEN/Faulkner Award, opens with an epigraph announcing that “[p]ast lives live in us, through us.” As in the preceding works of the trilogy, Wideman intertwines narratives belonging to different generations and spun out of individual memories. This time he solidifies the imaginative sensibility that unites them into a character nicknamed Doot, who also happens to be Tommy’s older brother. Doot is actively engaged not only in collecting the stories of his familial past but also in clarifying his own temporal and emotional relationship to them as a means of reversing his estrangement from Homewood. Tommy’s crisis becomes one axis of the trilogy; Doot’s penetrating self-scrutiny as an equally remorseful prodigal son seeking return provides another. Each revolves around the imaginative model of black manhood represented by John French.

At the heart of the novel is Albert Wilkes, a legendary Homewood musician whose affair with a white woman leads to the killing of her policeman husband (Wilkes’s guilt is still highly contested in the community). Seven years later, he returns to Homewood and is gunned down by white lawmen in the house where he was raised, sitting at the piano he had always instinctively known how to play. Among those who embody Wilkes’s legacy is Brother Tate, an orphan adopted by the same couple who raised Wilkes and who, as a young man, spontaneously demonstrates the same musical genius.

Its title, Sent for You Yesterday, taken from a blues song, signals up front how deeply involved the novel is with the musical legacy through which African Americans have documented and interpreted their experience. Because Brother is an albino, his incongruous “white blackness” serves as an ironic metaphor for a society fixated on racial categorizations. When his young son Junebug is finally killed by his half siblings for his inherited surface difference, Brother confronts the fratricidal character of all racism and its violent consequences for the human family.

Brother’s story intersects with that of his adoptive sister Lucy and his closest friend, Carl French, Doot’s uncle. Through Lucy and Carl, lifelong lovers whose failure to marry seems the natural consequence of their intimate knowledge of one another, Doot untangles the...

(The entire section is 6357 words.)