John Edgar Wideman

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John Edgar Wideman Short Fiction Analysis

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John Edgar Wideman’s avowed artistic end is the creation of characters whose rich inner lives testify to a “sense of themselves as spiritual beings” that challenges the deterministic simplicities often dominant in literary depictions of the African American sensibility. Like Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin before him, Wideman insistently links naturalistic detail to an existential quest for meaning and integrity that is complicated by the peculiar difficulties of sustaining one’s humanity under the degradations of racism. While the material consequences of racist injustice are ever-present in his stories, Wideman makes clear that his most pressing concern is the threat posed to the souls of its victims. In turn, he suggests that the renewal of contemporary African American society, increasingly ravaged by hopelessness and self-destructiveness, lies in a self-conscious recovery of, and healing through, the cultural identity he so rigorously documents in his evocation of Homewood. Thus in Wideman’s fiction the struggle of individual souls in an absurd and dehumanizing world does not unfold in a completely existential void; his characters move within a community whose past vitality derived from history, traditions, language, and relationships linking generations back beyond the darkness of slavery. The imaginative architecture that unifies the Homewood Trilogy employs interpenetrating plot lines, family trees, and community legends to make clear that Wideman’s real subject is the communal survival once made possible by its citizens’ heroic decency against great odds.

Damballah

Damballah, the collection of twelve short stories that begins the trilogy, announces Wideman’s intentions aesthetically as well as thematically. The fuguelike polyphony of voices achieved by bringing together separate narratives drawn from a wide spectrum of Homewood personalities and historical moments captures not only the community’s diversity but also the power of oral culture in all of its forms—speech, music, storytelling—to nourish and sustain it in the midst of unrelenting racial hostility. In “The Chinaman,” a narrative “I” identified elsewhere as John (and quite evidently an autobiographical presence) explains that the funeral of his maternal grandmother, Freeda, had reconnected him with old family legends that he had years earlier set aside as unworthy of serious literary treatment. Listening months later to his own mother describe Freeda’s death and thereby complete a story he had been unable to finish alone, he concludes, “The shape of the story is the shape of my mother’s voice.” Wideman’s narrator repeatedly explains that this text is a collaborative project in which narratives culled from the collective memory of his family are woven together through the mediating agency of his own consciousness to reveal a design that affirms the faith in human possibility now leaching away in the ruins that were once Homewood.

Wideman’s preoccupation with the crisis of black men in modern America—a crisis vividly depicted in his own estrangement from his origins and his brother Rob’s criminality and imprisonment—explains the placement of his maternal grandfather, John French, at the center of these stories. French’s defiant courage, loyalty, quick wit, tough-minded devotion to his family, and acute survival instincts make him a model of masculine virtue for a new generation desperately in need of his example. He stands in seemingly obvious contrast to his equally talented but blighted grandson Tommy Lawson, the narrator’s drug-addicted brother, whose crimes destroy his future and who is the counterbalancing focus of the last third of the collection. Yet, French lives on in Tommy’s rebellious energy and probing mind, making the youth’s current circumstances all the more tragic.

Wideman also records the voices of the strong women who have sustained the community throughout the crises surrounding their men and whose emotional anguish reflects the complex...

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emotional dynamic between black men and women in Wideman’s fiction. Freeda Hollinger French, the text’s matriarch, proves herself capable of swift, violent intervention to safeguard her child or her husband in “Lizabeth: The Caterpillar Story.” Lizabeth French Lawson actually gives birth to the narrator in “Daddy Garbage,” within a story line juxtaposed to the grim discovery of another infant’s frozen corpse and the moral imperative of the two old men who find it and insist upon a decent burial. As the future is denied to one child and extended to another, one perceives a subtle echo of the divergent paths Lizabeth’s own sons will pursue in later years.

Wideman’s sensitivity to the orality of African American culture leads him to seek linguistic approximations for the music and talk-story patterns at the heart of African American imaginative expression. His prose resonates with the jazz rhythms of African American vernacular and often quotes directly from the musical yoking of human misery and triumph in what is called the blues. In “The Songs of Reba Love Jackson,” a successful Gospel singer admits that her artistry expresses emotional nuances beyond the power of language alone: “Couldn’t speak about some things. She could only sing them. Put her stories in the songs she had heard all her life so the songs became her stories.” In the closing piece of the volume, “The Beginning of Homewood,” the narrator creates a wall of sound from the voices he has unloosed in the preceding stories; writing to his brother Tommy in prison, he acknowledges that his real task as a writer has been to hear and synthesize those women’s testimonials to the community’s history of defeat and transcendence:The chorus wailing and then Reba Love Jackson soloing. I heard May singing and heard Mother Bess telling what she remembers and what she had heard about Sybela Owens. I was thinking the way Aunt May talks. her stories exist because of their parts and each part is a story worth telling the voice seeks to recover everything, that the voice proclaims nothing is lost, that the listener is not passive but lives like everything else within the story.

Wideman’s most immediate purpose here is to tell the story of the slave woman Sybela Owens who, together with her white master/lover, fled the South, settled on Bruston Hill, the symbolic navel of Homewood, and began the family line that has produced his own family. By embedding Sybela’s story of physical and spiritual redemption within a mediation on his brother’s grim circumstances, the narrator conveys the continued urgency of such issues for African Americans; he also engages in the metafictional self-reflexiveness that characterizes his generation of American writers as he muses over the act of writing and its problematic relationship to lived events. Wideman has even bigger aims with Sybela, however, for his imaginative energy also transforms her into a mythic female progenitor who becomes a thematic counterpart to the African slave Orion (“Ryan”) introduced in the first (and title) story, “Damballah.” Like Sybela, Orion resists the degradation of his circumstances, so much so that his unyielding integrity leads to his execution by enraged whites who accuse him of sexual crimes. Before his death, however, he inspires an American-born slave boy with the mysterious power of his native religious beliefs, having taught him to chant to Damballah, the “good serpent of the sky” and a paternal deity whose wisdom and benign oversight make of the cosmos one transcendent family. Despite Wideman’s sophisticated postmodernist affinity for refracting illusions of “reality” through multiple conflicting subjectivities, he seeks, finally, an integrative vision in which the mythical and the historical coalesce to offer the hope of spiritual renewal.

Fever

While Damballah draws its cumulative power from its unifying narrative sensibility and its consistent focus upon the citizens past and present of Homewood, Fever: Twelve Stories demonstrates a much looser internal logic grounded in thematic rather than storytelling interlacings. Once again, Wideman uses the short story to escape the constraints of novelistic continuity and reconfigure—this time through unrelated voices—motifs that literally assume international proportions. His most striking theme correlates the historical catastrophes of American slavery, the Holocaust, and modern international terrorism, thereby suggesting a common pattern of scapegoating and racist antagonism that transcends the experience of any single group of victims.

“The Statue of Liberty” and “Valaida,” for example, both demonstrate how episodes of interracial miscommunication and self-indulgent fantasizing about the imaginary “Other” continually compromise the possibility of real human engagement. Moreover, in the latter story, a Jewish Holocaust survivor relates to his black maid a story of the jazz performer, whose actions in a wartime concentration camp saved his life; her droll response resists the intended empathy he has attempted to build between them: “Always thought it was just you people over there doing those terrible things to each other.” In “Hostages,” an Israeli expatriate and daughter of Auschwitz survivors reflects on her first marriage to an Israeli Arab and her current marriage to a wealthy businessman who offers a prime target for Muslim terrorists; finally she sees herself as a hostage to the comfortable but isolated life she leads and meditates on the Talmudic lesson of the Lamed-Vov, or “God’s hostages,” predestined “sponges drawing mankind’s suffering into themselves.”

“Fever,” the volume’s title story—and one of its most accomplished—depicts the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, a crisis attributed to African slaves brought up north from the Caribbean but in fact resulting from the internally bred corruption of the swamp-ridden city. A metaphor for the pervasive racial contagions of this ironically dubbed “City of Brotherly Love,” the fever levels all distinctions of race, gender, and class even as it triggers responses affirming them. The story’s protagonist, Richard Allen, is a minister exhausting himself in Christian service to dying whites and blacks alike. Eventually confronted by the angry monologue of an infected Jewish merchant unimpressed by his humanity, he too is told of the Lamed-Vov, the implication being that Allen has been arbitrarily selected “to suffer the reality humankind cannot bear,” enduring an unimaginable and unrelieved burden of “earth, grief and misery.” A nihilistic voice in the text, Abraham deconstructs Allen’s faith and further magnifies the din of conflicting perspectives—past and present, conciliatory and confrontational—that make the story the touchstone of the volume’s exploration of compassion as a limited but essential response to incomprehensible suffering, be its origins cosmic or human—or both.

Elsewhere, Wideman contrasts vision versus blindness (“Doc’s Story” and “When It’s Time to Go”) to illustrate very different positionings by African Americans within the racially charged dominant culture through which they try to move. Wideman’s attunement to the musical textures of African American culture again asserts itself, as does his interest in the drama of the individual alienated from his root culture by his ambitions. “Surfiction” offers an exercise in postmodern pastiche that is both a self-conscious parody of the imaginative stasis to which contemporary critical and aesthetic practice can lead and a serious study of the ways in which human determination to communicate across the void poignantly subverts even the most sophisticated intellectual distancing devices. Finally, then, the reader of this volume is left musing on the cultural incompatibilities institutionalized by ideologies of difference—racial, gender, ethnic, nationalistic—and the heroic folly of the Richard Allens of the world, who resist them against all odds.

All Stories Are True

Like Wideman’s earlier stories, these stories experiment with an associative narrative technique and are also sometimes based on Wideman’s family in Homewood. Whether set in Homewood or elsewhere, however, all of these stories put the individual in the context of larger social conditions in America. The title story, which returns us to Homewood and a visit by a middle-aged man to his mother, soon shifts scenes to the dehumanizing conditions of the modern American prison, where his brother fights endlessly to gain parole. For both his mother and his imprisoned brother, faith—whether Muslim or Christian—becomes a way to endure the harsh realities of their lives. Yet another story of a mother and a wayward son is “Everybody Knew Bubba Riff,” a free-form examination of the life and death of an aggressive young man named Bubba, whose indulgent mother and punitive stepfather cannot understand the reasons for his bad outcome. By story’s end, the reader sees that the problem may have been less with his parents, however, than with the prevailing American myth of the empowered individual, which led Bubba to see himself as a footloose, free agent with no obligation or connection to his past or its traditions, whose only measure of manhood was in violence. Another story, “Backseat,” returns to Homewood and to Wideman’s dying grandmother. In reviewing Martha Wideman’s life, John Edgar Wideman discovers his grandmother’s origins as an illegitimate child of a white man and sees that for her, sexuality was always part of larger issues such as race, marriage, parenthood, male domination, and female subservience. This discovery of his grandmother’s complicated sexual life contrasts with Wideman’s own memories of shallow adolescent sexual adventures in the backseat of his car. Other aspects of black life are explored in such stories as “Newborn Thrown in Trash and Dies,” inspired by an article in The New York Times. This story adopts the perspective of an infant who has been thrown by its mother down a trash chute. As the baby hurtles past the floors, the narrative flashes forward to the various indignities and deprivations of contemporary inner city life to which it would have been exposed. Far from urban decay, the issue of racism nevertheless surfaces even in better circumstances. In such stories as “Signs,” a young black woman in graduate school, on her way to a successful life, finds menacing notes addressed to her which make her realize that racial prejudice has not been eradicated in her privileged environment. Eventually the reader learns that the young woman has composed these signs of racial antagonism herself, suggesting that memories of racism are so ingrained that the individual may not be able to overcome them.

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