John Edgar Wideman

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John Edgar Wideman American Literature Analysis

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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...

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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 narrative skeins that make up the novel’s fabric, on which he embroiders his own imaginative designs.

Carl’s history painfully forecasts a recurrent twentieth century pattern. A war veteran, Carl returns to a country which short-circuits the ambitions of eager young black men and women. His art school lessons are abandoned when a “helpful” instructor warns that there are no jobs for him, and his best friend withdraws into silence and apparent suicide following Junebug’s racist persecution. All three—Carl, Lucy, and Brother—descend temporarily into drug addiction, with Carl’s cure incomplete given his continued dependence on methadone. Yet Doot develops a keen respect for their resiliency and spirit. Wideman balances his determination to validate the lives and sufferings of such individuals with the need to show them wrestling with their own demons in a struggle to maintain their dignity. The Homewood Trilogy poignantly evokes the deeply felt humanity of a community by resisting the naturalistic reductionism so often resorted to by writers to “explain” the lives of the disenfranchised.

Brothers and Keepers

First published: 1984

Type of work: Memoir

Writing about his youngest brother’s crime and punishment, Wideman investigates many interrelated personal and social issues.

Brothers and Keepers demonstrates Wideman’s complex personal, sociological, and artistic response to his brother Rob’s life sentence for murder in 1978. In it he sees writ large the pathological interplay of white exploitation, racist neglect, and internal despair that have intensified, rather than lessened, in America’s cities since the 1960’s. Like the narrator of The Homewood Trilogy, Wideman presents himself with a bittersweet awareness that, in contrast to Rob, his lifelong efforts to straddle black and white cultural expectations have made him an incongruous figure in both worlds. The book opens in 1976 with the writer in the doubly white world of a snowy late winter in Laramie, Wyoming, where he teaches at the university, waiting intuitively for word from his fugitive younger brother even as he also deals with the aftermath of his infant daughter Jamila’s traumatic birth.

In facing Rob when he does arrive, and in their subsequent meetings in jail over the years, Wideman recognizes that their polarized circumstances provocatively express the duality of the African American’s psychological legacy in the United States. Ironically, each has pursued a path he has equated with the American Dream of material success and personal self-definition: John in the “safe” and deracinated terms of career and family championed by white society, Rob along more dangerous lines that challenge racist obstacles through illegal channels promising the glamor of the outlaw. Both men, despite their very different choices, now find themselves fumbling to recover what they sacrificed in pursuit of America’s elusive seduction of “making it.” Wideman also contextualizes his personal and familial anguish within a layered analysis of the American penal system that renders imprisonment a political, cultural, and existential condition.

With a characteristically self-referential technique, Wideman rachets up the complexity of his narrative by making his own suspect motives in writing Rob’s story one of his themes: he understands the exploitative potential of what he is doing and takes great pains to circumvent it. This study of two brothers caught in a tragedy that brings them back into meaningful relationship to one another also documents Wideman’s complex struggle to subordinate his voracious fictionalizing imagination and colonizing ego so as to allow his brother’s emergent voice to take ownership of his own story. The resultant text employs numerous linguistic styles as Wideman searches for a medium that will do justice to its disparate sensibilities.

John himself speaks in differing voices, sometimes using the formal constructions of standard English and other times employing black spoken vernacular. Rob himself enters the text from equally various directions. While Wideman freely admits to adopting fictional strategies in re-creating conversations held with Rob at the prison, he also includes letters and poems his brother has actually written, as well as a speech Rob gave upon receiving his associate’s degree through a prison education program. Moreover, John confesses that Rob’s critiques of his older brother’s usurping tendencies prompted John to rewrite an earlier draft of the memoir.

Thus chastised, Wideman tries to shake off the writer’s tricks with which he typically makes a subject his own, Yet he invariably relies on just such tricks to construct a powerful narrative with the power to move and elucidate even as they inevitably distort Rob’s heroic efforts to come to terms with the life he has led and the future he now faces. In a potent echo of The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), Rob’s story becomes the familiar existential odyssey of the individual who, in losing his life, finds it—one that Wideman doubts he himself could survive. While the book initially provokes the obvious question as to why one brother has “gone bad” when another has “made good,” it finally asserts Rob to be the better man, possessing far greater spiritual courage and stamina than his publicly accomplished sibling.

Wideman cannot manipulate the facts to construct a satisfactory resolution to Rob’s tale—no amount of authorial skill can overturn Rob’s sentence or the governor’s refusal of a pardon, and John’s published testament to Rob’s strength cannot ensure that he will escape the ravages of encroaching despair or the very real threats posed by hostile guards and other inmates. The book’s abrupt ending dramatizes the limits of the writer’s imagination to effect real change in his brother’s life, a realization bleakly consonant with Wideman’s postmodernist skepticism in the ultimate reach of those imaginative fabulations which form his own raison d’être.

“Fever”

First published: 1989 (collected in Fever, 1989)

Type of work: Short story

A minister struggles to transcend racist injustices while providing care for victims of Philadelphia’s 1793 yellow fever epidemic.

“Fever,” the title story in Wideman’s 1989 collection of short fiction, provides an illuminating metaphor for the various episodes of racial antagonism depicted in the volume. As one of the story’s narrative voices explains, “Fever grows in the secret places of our hearts, planted there when one of us decided to sell one of us to another. The drum must pound ten thousand thousand years to drive that evil away.”

The narrative focus of the tale reflects Wideman’s desire to correct the inaccurate historical record about the role of African Americans during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic that devastated Philadelphia. He dedicates the story to the author of one such fraudulent account and relies instead upon the eyewitness record left by black commentators. Among the chorus of voices in the text are those of two black men, one of them the historical Richard Allen and the other his fictionalized brother Thomas, whose differing perspectives on the disaster and its resultant hypocrisies work in counterpoint.

Allen, a former slave, a minister, and the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, is a deeply spiritual man who identifies his vision of the mass emancipation of slaves with the promise of Christianity. Allen has been ordered to serve a Dr. Rush in his ministrations to and autopsies of plague victims. After performing exhausting labor among white people, he turns to the destitute habitations of poor black people whom the disease ravages with equal savagery. There he devotes himself to their spiritual and physical health, despite their contempt.

Like many other elements of the narrative, Thomas’s story further documents the presence of black people in the public sphere of American history: Thomas fought with the rebels in the American Revolution and, as a prisoner of the British, recognized the degree to which he had been denied participation in the society whose ideals he championed. His embittered outlook on the situation now facing black people in the plague-ridden city stems from the opportunistic shifts of white opinion during the epidemic. While slaves were initially blamed for importing the disease following a bloody revolt in the Caribbean, black people were later declared immune from its ravages and coerced to serve sick and dying white people. Each of these civic fictions exposes the denial of humanity responsible for the broader cultural pathology which is Wideman’s principal target.

Philadelphia operates as symbolic setting for this story on religious as well as political grounds. Its Quaker egalitarianism does not preclude Allen’s being refused a place at the Communion table with white Christians, nor does the city’s birthing of the young republic ensure that its African American citizens will be accorded the same economic opportunities available to the waves of European-born newcomers. Rather than boasting a vigorous democratic climate, Wideman’s Philadelphia festers in a stagnant environment whose waters breed contagion both literally and metaphorically. Nor is water the only sinister natural element pervading the landscape; apocalyptic fire fills the streets of the city as a grim purgative for its soul-sickness.

Added to the individualized voices of Richard and Thomas Allen is the combative monologue of Abraham, a dying Jewish merchant who describes his own experiences with bigotry as he aggressively challenges Allen’s continued attentions to the white Christian populace. Abraham alludes to the Lamed-Vov, or “Thirty Just Men” of Judaic tradition, designated by God “to suffer the reality humankind cannot bear” and pay witness to the bottomless misery and depravity of existence. Richard Allen stands as one such figure among many in these stories whose compassion in the face of unbearable injustice and grief offers the only hope for salvation that Wideman can envision.

Wideman’s fractured narrative perspectives jarringly emphasize that no one “story” exists independent of the wider human drama playing itself out across time. Within his textual montage, he melds such disparate elements as a newly enslaved African making the Middle Passage, a series of scientific descriptions of the fever and its assumed insect carriers, and a report of autopsy results documenting the physical devastation visited upon black and white plague victims alike. This polyphonic orchestration of voices links slave and freedman, black and white, Christian and Jew, historian and eyewitness.

To underline the timeliness of this meditation, Wideman introduces toward the end of the story the voice of a contemporary black health care worker contemptuous of his elderly white charges and the society that has discarded them. Finally, within a single paragraph, Wideman links the disease wasting Philadelphia’s citizens in the late eighteenth century to the actual 1985 bombing of a black neighborhood ordered by the city’s first black mayor, Wilson Goode, to eradicate the black counterculture group MOVE. About “Fever,” Wideman claimed that “I was teaching myself different ways of telling history.” With the publication of Philadelphia Fire in 1990, he returned to the MOVE incident as evidence of the worsening of America’s continued “national schizophrenia” about race.

Philadelphia Fire

First published: 1990

Type of work: Novel

Drawing together personal and societal tragedies—his younger son’s ongoing imprisonment and the 1985 firebombing of an outlier community in Philadelphia—Wideman indicts an America whose brutal indifference to the disenfranchised, especially children, is achieving new levels of murderousness.

Philadelphia Fire, the work for which Wideman won an unprecedented second PEN/Faulkner Award, seethes with its author’s indignation over fifty years of unabated neglect and outright hostility toward African American inner-city communities by political elites and average citizens alike. Yet neglect alone does not explain the central event commemorated in the novel: the city government’s 1985 firebombing of a West Philadelphia working-class neighborhood to eradicate a group calling itself MOVE, which had become a profound embarrassment to the administration of its first black mayor, Wilson Goode. The conflagration that resulted from this police action killed eleven people, five of them children; it also burned fifty-three homes to the ground and rendered 262 members of the larger community homeless.

Having spent much of his own young manhood in “the City of Brotherly Love,” Wideman clearly took personally the failure of African American leaders to recognize the desperate need for hope and connection that had driven persons such as his fictional Margaret Jones—a hardworking single mother of two—into the realm of “the King,” James Brown, the charismatic MOVE leader whose antiestablishment stance and lifestyle voiced a challenge to the injustice with which so many of his followers had been raised: “He be preaching what Jesus preached except it’s King saying the words. Bible words only they issuing from King’s big lips. And you know he means them and you understand them better cause he says them black, black like him, black like you. . . .”

Wideman does not make the MOVE compound itself the focal point of his narrative, however. His protagonist, a middle-aged African American expatriate named Cudjoe, offers another variation on the Widemanesque artist-intellectual estranged from his community but brought jarringly back to reclaim it in the wake of catastrophe: in this case, after watching Philadelphia’s globally televised apocalypse from the other side of the world. Specifically, Cudjoe has been drawn back to the United States by the tale of a child who fled the ruins of the MOVE compound only to disappear into the bowels of the city. Determined to find the orphaned boy named Simba, he leaves behind the Greek island where he himself had abdicated the demands of family, career, and art. Recovering “Simmie” thus serves not only as a symbolic self-rescue but also as personal and collective mea culpa for the criminal neglect of children by adults entrusted with their well-being.

Investigating the subcultures where Simmie might have landed, Cudjoe learns of Kaliban’s Kiddie Korps, a gang-like enclave of youngsters—“gangsters”—whose ironic “KKK” signature graffiti also includes the slogan “MPT” (for “Money Power Things”). Given that their elders’ active sabotaging of the next generation’s health, safety, and humanity has left them to fend for themselves, they in turn enthusiastically embrace a predictably brutal war against their elders, of whom they say “Olds are Vampires. They suck youngs’ blood.”

The gang’s Shakespearean allusion to Caliban, malcontent enslaved “native” of The Tempest, offers only one of the play’s vectors operating in the novel. Cudjoe himself had tried in the mid-1960’s to stage an early postcolonial reinterpretation of the play, casting inner-city children in the roles. His history—withdrawal into his own island existence—evokes comparison to the play’s magician-despot Prospero, whose confession (“This thing of darkness/ I acknowledge mine.”) provides one of the intertextual sutures between Cudjoe’s story and the autobiographical material into which Wideman moves mid-novel.

In this fiction lamenting failed fathers and blasted children, Wideman makes his own grieving confusion over son Jake’s ongoing incarceration and mental decay part of the fabric of the text. Moving back and forth between first and third person (as he also does in Cudjoe’s sections), as he contemplates his own artistic struggles with tumultuous material, he finds the comforts available to him in working with brother Rob to compose Brothers and Keepers elude him in Jake’s case: “How does it feel to be inhabited by more than one self? Clearer and clearer, in my son’s case, that he is more and less than one. . . . To take stock, to make sense, to attempt to control or to write a narrative of self—how hopeless any of these tasks must seem when the self attempting this harrowing business is no more reliable than a shadow, a chimera. . . . ” Clearly, Jake too has affinities with the lost Simba for whom Cudjoe desperately searches on the ravaged streets of Philadelphia.

Finally, then, it is Philadelphia’s iconic status as birthplace of the American Dream—and emblem of its profound betrayal—that gives shape to the mélange of personal disasters with which Wideman is wrestling.

Opening with an epigraph drawn from William Penn’s 1681 injunction on the city’s founding—“Let every house lie placed . . . that it may be a greene Country Towne which will never be burnt, and always be wholesome”—it ends with a nod to James Baldwin’s 1960’s warning of further racial cataclysm to come: Caught amid a mob “Screaming for blood,” at it moves “over the stones of Independence Square,” Cudjoe recalls “The dreadlocked man promised more fire next time.”

Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society

First published: 1994

Type of work: Memoir

Returningto the memoir form, Wideman spins a web of imaginative reconnection to his emotionally remote father, Edgar, and his psychologically damaged son Jake.

Fatheralong begins as a meditation on the lifelong shallowness that Wideman perceives in his ties to his own father, Edgar, and his recent efforts to redress the situation by cultivating a belated understanding of him. He hopes that such understanding might also foster the recovery of a larger male kinship across generations to reverse the psychic fatherlessness that he has come to regard as the normative condition of black sons in white America.

Two-thirds of the way into the text, however, John briefly alludes to his own imprisoned son—a situation he now shares with Edgar, father of Rob—the title subject of Wideman’s celebrated 1984 work Brothers and Keepers. In a horrific extension of the family tragedy that had seen Rob given a life sentence for a murder resulting from a bungled robbery, John’s younger son Jake had, at age sixteen, inexplicably murdered another teenager in an Arizona motel and had been given his own life sentence. Once again, then, the memoir form permits Wideman an imaginative vehicle to help contextualize his pain and confusion. In Fatheralong, he eventually dissolves all pretense of narrative distance by composing an open letter directly to Jake, the mystery of whose psychotic self-destruction “all these father stories” have, he admits, been an attempt to elucidate.

Fatheralong announces virtually from the outset Wideman’s hard-won faith in the restorative power of recovered stories. It juggles heterogeneous autobiographical materials in an attempt to have the pieces glance off of and illuminate each other in unpredictable ways made possible through the creative process itself, now seen by Wideman as a locus of healing as well as linkage: “I’m setting down part of a story, a small piece of what needs to be remembered so when we make up the next part, imagine our lives, our history, this piece will be there, among the fragments lost, found, and remembered.” Here the shaping sensibility of the memoirist seems humbler than in Brothers and Keepers, a measure in part of Wideman’s having passed the half-century mark by the time of its composition—a milestone to which he repeatedly alludes.

A text grounded in his journey with his own father to investigate the Wideman family’s ancestral home, all too conveniently located in Promised Land, South Carolina, it is first and foremost a book about time and history and the ways in which the latter can buffer the ravages of the former, so long as the stories of the past are sustained in living relationship to the present. It is in trying to fathom the loss of generational continuity between black fathers and sons—the absence of fathers in the contemporary cultural imagination of African Americans—that Wideman confronts the enigmatic “race paradigm” with which all black intellectuals have had to wrestle, and by which they know their own psyches are profoundly distorted. As he laments, “How can we talk about ourselves without falling into the trap of race, without perpetuating the terms of the debate we can’t win. . . . ” Thus, although John’s father’s life story, his parents’ separation, his older son Dan’s wedding, his younger son Jake’s imprisonment, his wife’s loss of her father, and his own aesthetic musings fill Fatheralong, it also offers a compelling example of the paradoxes that fill African American autobiographical writing: The story of the self—in fact, the story of necessarily multiform selves—recapitulates the story of the race, even today and even in texts that embrace postmodern indeterminacy. Yet a determination to achieve interracial as well as intraracial discovery also informs the text. During his book tour for this work, Wideman frequently noted that “the failure to get inside each other’s skins” remains the most profound problem in American cultural life. By turning his entire familial history into a text-in-progress, Wideman mades a significant personal contribution to redressing American cultural dissociation.

The Cattle Killing

First published: 1996

Type of work: Novel

This self-reflexive fiction examines the soul-crushing and recurrent consequences of racism across American history as well as the potential of religion and art as alternative means of sustaining the faith necessary for personal survival.

Told in a complex intertexual layering that juxtaposes the Philadelphia of the late eighteenth century with that of the 1990’s, The Cattle Killing provides Wideman with an opportunity to reconfigure a common theme in his writing: the mythically resonant patterning of experience across history that can provide clues by which the past may explain—and potentially redeem—the present. The title derives from a legend detailing how the Xhosa people of South Africa allowed false prophecy to dupe them into killing their cattle herds to effect the departure of the white imperialists destroying their world. Tragically, their action furthered the white agenda by depriving the Xhosa of the staples upon which their way of life depended. For Wideman, the analogy to contemporary urban youth violence could not be clearer: Once again, a people desperate for rescue are sacrificing the lifeblood of their society in a pernicious receptivity to the wrong messages.

Wideman offers another example of such cultural miscalculation by dramatizing the racist consequences attending the l793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. Having earlier published a short story entitled “Fever” (1989) on the same subject, this time Wideman adds to the picture of white scapegoating of black people with a study of how the contagion at the city’s core spins into outlying areas beyond the metropolis: No amount of segregation or withdrawal from the collectivity can counter the essentially organic nature of the social order, and disease infecting one group will inevitably damage others.

In working out these themes, Wideman tells a story within a story. The frame narrative belongs to Isaiah, a contemporary African American writer much like Wideman himself who has completed a new book that he sets out to share with his father and son. The book actually closes with the son’s analytic response via a letter, contributing a bit of information that Wideman then spins into one final collaborative twist. At the center of the manuscript is the storytelling activity of an unnamed eighteenth century former slave and itinerant preacher—storytelling to which he now resorts as an alternative to the religious faith that once sustained him but can no longer convincingly counter the brutal realities and waves of human misery that he has witnessed as a result of the plague. The love that he bears for a bedridden woman whom he intends to keep alive with his stories about his past provides a touchstone for him in the present. The woman herself is shrouded in mystery, with the narrative never explicitly naming her but associating her variously with the preacher’s earlier encounters with a ladies’ maid named Kathryn, as well as a slave who had delivered herself and a dead child into a lake, either drowning or “disappearing” in the process.

Long a practitioner of postmodern textual acrobatics—polyphonic narratives, unmediated disjunctions of time and place, elusive and elliptical voicings akin to jazz solos—Wideman also makes clear once again his doubts about the potential of art to relieve the artist’s egotism or conjure up the audience with which he wishes to communicate. Yet he avoids repudiating the claims of artistic “meaning” altogether by appealing to the countervailing influences upon him of African American culture, with its faith in storytelling as a conduit for hope. In her defense of the novel’s difficulty, reviewer Joyce Carol Oates called it “a work of operatic polyphony that strains to break free of linguistic constraints into theatrical spectacle.”

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John Edgar Wideman Short Fiction Analysis