John Edgar Wideman

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John Edgar Wideman Long Fiction Analysis

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The recurring thematic emphasis in John Edgar Wideman’s novels is on the way history, both collective and personal, and the stories that arise from that history shape notions of reality. From gay college professors to ghetto junkies, Wideman’s characters are often uncomfortable with their places in history and unsure that they even understand those few traditions that they do observe. Therefore, they shuttle between the imaginary and the real in order to rediscover the past, revive it, or at least preserve whatever parts they do recall. Despite Wideman’s literary beginnings in the racially turbulent 1960’s, when blacks in America articulated their estrangement from Africa, his white as well as black characters crave the rootedness that distinguishes those who have come to terms with their backgrounds. Shifting from the anonymous northern cities of his first three novels to the clearly delineated Homewood of Hiding Place and Sent for You Yesterday, Wideman nevertheless consistently indicates that ignorance of heritage results in isolation and psychological turmoil. The same observation is later applied to Philadelphia, specifically Osage Avenue.

Wideman forgoes strictly chronological plot development, adopting instead an intricate experimental style consisting of stream-of-consciousness narrative, long interior monologues, dream sequences, surrealistic descriptions, and abrupt shifts in time, diction, and points of view. Beginning each novel almost exclusively in medias res, he employs a technique influenced by the works of T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Jean Toomer, yet indisputably original. In The Lynchers, for example, he illustrates the traditionally victimized status of black Americans with a preface that cites more than one hundred documented lynchings. Reeling between their own ravaged communities and impenetrable white ones, the black protagonists of his first two novels, A Glance Away and Hurry Home, occupy a jumbled landscape where blues clubs coexist with biblical icons. Similarly, in Hiding Place and Sent for You Yesterday, Wideman retells the stories of his ancestors until a shack or a cape acquires the same expressive quality as a cross. As the author himself explains, “You can call it experimentation, or you can call it ringing the changes.value spontaneity, flexibility, a unique response to a given situation.Getting too close to the edge but then recovering like the heroes of the Saturday matinee serials. That’s excitement.”

A Glance Away

Dedicated to “Homes,” Wideman’s first novel, A Glance Away, creates thematic excitement with its treatment of two drifting men coming to terms with their pasts. After a year spent at a rehabilitation center for drug addicts, Eddie Lawson, a disillusioned young black man, returns to his listless, decaying urban neighborhood. Rather than celebrating, however, he spends his gloomy homecoming confronting the goblins that drove him to the brink in the first place: his mother Martha Lawson’s idealization of his dead older brother, his girlfriend Alice Smalls’s rejection of him for sleeping with a white woman, and his own self-disgust over abandoning a secure postal job for menial, marginal employment. Dejected and defeated by nightfall, he drags himself to grimy Harry’s Place in order to cloak his memories in a narcotic haze. There, he is reconciled by his albino friend Brother Smalls with another outcast named Robert Thurley, a white college professor struggling with his own record of divorce, alcoholism, and homosexuality. Though discrepancies between wealth and power divide the two homeless men, each manages to urge the other to maintain his faith in people despite his guilt-ridden history.

A Glance Away generated much favorable critical response in particular for Wideman’s depiction of the alienated Thurley. In trying to disavow his personal past, this connoisseur of food and art embraces a surfeit of...

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creeds and cultures. “In religion an aesthetic Catholic, in politics a passive Communist, in sex a resigned anarchist,” he surrounds himself with treasures from both East and West and indulges in a smorgasbord of the globe’s delicacies. Yet as a real measure of the displacement that these extravagances so futilely conceal, he quotes lines from T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917), in which a similarly solitary speaker searches for intimacy in a world bereft of its cultural moorings.

Emphasizing his protagonists’ self-absorption and the estrangement of their family members and friends, Wideman abandons strictly chronological plot development in favor of lengthy interior monologues. Conversations tend to be short; more likely than not they are interrupted by unspoken flashbacks and asides. Using speech to measure isolation, the author portrays both Eddie and Thurley as incapable of communicating adequately. Eddie, for example, becomes tongue-tied around a group of southern travelers, shuddering in his bus seat instead of warning them as he wishes for the reality of the northern mecca that they seek. Similarly, despite the empowering qualities of a gulp of Southern Comfort, Thurley delivers a lecture on Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus (c. 429 b.c.e.) fraught with “futility and detachment,introspection and blindness.” In one brilliant play on this speechlessness, both men suddenly converse as if they were actors on a stage. This abrupt emphasis on what is spoken—to the exclusion of private thoughts—stresses each person’s imprisonment within him- or herself. Flowing from a weaker artist’s pen, A Glance Away would have become a mere exercise in allusive technique and stream-of-consciousness style. On the contrary, it reads with the effortless ease of a masterfully crafted lyrical poem. Key to its success is Wideman’s careful alliance of form and content, not to mention his insightful treatment of a rootlessness that transcends the barriers of race.

Hurry Home

The same compact length as the novel that precedes it, Hurry Home similarly focuses on the theme of rootlessness. Its ambitious protagonist, the honors graduate Cecil Otis Braithwaite, is in many ways an upscale Eddie Lawson with a wife and an advanced degree. After slaving through law school, supporting himself with a meager scholarship and his earnings as a janitor, Cecil has lost his aspirations and his love for his girlfriend, Esther Brown. In search of something more, he escapes from his wedding bed to Europe, where he roams indiscriminately for three years among its brothels as well as its art galleries. In the tradition of Robert Thurley of A Glance Away, two white men as displaced as Cecil attempt to guide him: Charles Webb, belatedly in search of an illegitimate son, and Albert, a mercenary in Webb’s employ who has also abandoned a wife. Too lost to save themselves, however, this pair can offer no enduring words of solace to Cecil.

Hurry Home is more sophisticated than A Glance Away in its treatment of the isolation theme. It suggests, for example, that the upwardly mobile Cecil is not merely disturbed by his personal past; he is estranged as well from his African and European cultures of origin. On the other hand, nowhere does Hurry Home convey the hope that pervades its predecessor. Cecil travels more extensively than does Eddie to reclaim his past, yet he gains no key to it to speak of. Confronting his European heritage merely confirms his status as “a stranger in alltongues.” He flees to the African continent by boat, “satisfied to be forever possessed,” only to be forever rebuffed from a past that “melts like a wax casing as I am nearerthe flame.” When he returns at last to his Washington, D.C., tenement, the fruitlessness of his journey is underscored. There, he finds all the same as when he first entered following his miserable nuptials. Symbolically limning his rootlessness, he switches vocations, abandoning the tradition-steeped protocol of the bar for the faddish repertoire of a hairdresser. Thus, “hurry home,” the catchphrase for his odyssey, is an ironic one. Cecil really can claim no place where a heritage nurtures and sustains him, no history that he can truly call his own.

Hurry Home displays a masterful style commensurate with that of the later Homewood novels. In addition to a more controlled stream-of-consciousness technique, recurring Christian symbols, icons of Renaissance art, and fragments from Moorish legend powerfully indicate Cecil’s fractured lineage. This second novel being a more refined paradigm than the first, Wideman seemed next inclined to break new ground, to address intently the racial polarization that had unsettled American society by the early 1970’s, producing that period’s most influential published works.

The Lynchers

Distinguished from the previous two novels by its bawdy humor and portrayal of a professional black woman, The Lynchers is set in the generic northeastern slum, pockmarked by the self-inflicted wounds of the 1960’s, that has become a Wideman trademark. Central to the action are four frustrated black men: Willie “Littleman” Hall, an unemployed dwarf; Leonard Saunders, a ruthless hustler turned repressed postal clerk; Thomas Wilkerson, a plodding fifth-grade schoolteacher; and Graham Rice, an introspective janitor with a persecution complex. Disenchanted with the superficial changes that the Civil Rights movement has wrought—the “job here or a public office there,one or two black faces floating to the top”—these four conclude that violence is the only means to effect a lasting alteration of the white power structure. With Littleman as the ringleader and mastermind, they plan to flex the latent power of the black community and turn the tables on their oppressors by kidnapping and lynching a white policeman.

The plot falls apart, however, once Littleman is badly beaten by the authorities for delivering a militant speech at Woodrow Wilson Junior High School. Suspicion, distrust, and doubt override the remaining conspirators so that they foil themselves instead of their “white butcher pig” enemy. Thus, in a perverse way the weapons of the executioner do revert to black hands. Lynching becomes a symbol of frustration turned inward, of despairing hearts made so taut in their efforts to beat more freely that they burst.

Unlike A Glance Away and Hurry Home, The Lynchers is a total immersion into blackness. Perhaps the critics wanted another black/white character dichotomy, for their assessments of this novel were at best mixed. Nevertheless, Wideman again displays strong gifts of characterization without diminishing the theme’s universal appeal. A continuation of his preoccupation with rootlessness, The Lynchers showcases men who feel acutely that they belong nowhere. Wilkerson, for example, is the Cecil type, the black professional who is alienated from his working-class roots, condescended to by whites possessing similar educational backgrounds, and unwelcome in the clubs and restaurants that they patronize. Saunders, like Eddie, is a marginally good citizen, at once attracted to and repelled by “the life” of conning and thieving. In an intricate new twist to this scenario, Wideman depicts the older generation as a group as anchorless as the young. For example, Wilkerson’s father, a drunk and a philanderer, stabs a longtime friend to death.

In its familiar inner-city setting and cast of alienated men (a passing reference is even made to Cecil Braithwaite as Littleman’s lawyer), The Lynchers recalls Wideman’s preceding works. In its use of a symbol generated exclusively from the black experience, it acts as a transition between these two novels and Wideman’s fourth and fifth endeavors. No longer primarily gleaning symbols from Christianity and the European classics, here Wideman unifies his montage of dialogues with “the hawk,” a symbol indigenous to the men’s own harsh environment. This frigid, anthropomorphic wind that lashes the streets indicates the blacks’ powerlessness and the hollow bravado of their ill-fated intrigue. They cannot even abduct the police officer without using one of their own people, his black girlfriend, Sissie, as a pawn.

Hiding Place

After an eight-year interval during which he researched black American literature and culture, Wideman applied folk sources more fully than ever before in Hiding Place, one of the three works of fiction that make up the Homewood Trilogy. Challenged to enlarge his black readership without limiting the universal relevance of his themes, he chose to emphasize one black family based largely on his own Homewood clan. In this novel’s swift, uncomplicated plot, Tommy Lawson, a tough, wisecracking youth from the black neighborhood of Homewood, is running from the police for his involvement in a robbery and killing. He seeks refuge among the weedy plots and garbage piles of desolate Bruston Hill, a once-fertile area to which his ancestor Sybela Owens fled from the South and slavery with Charlie Bell, her white owner’s recalcitrant son. In the lone residence at the crest of the Hill, a rotting wooden shack sardonically known as “that doghouse,” the reclusive “Mother” Bess Owens reluctantly offers her sister’s great-grandson a temporary haven. After Tommy regains the courage to elude the authorities eager to convict him for a murder that he did not commit, Bess reaffirms her ties to her kin and ends her self-imposed isolation. Not knowing whether Tommy is dead, has escaped, or has been captured, she burns her shack and prepares to reenter Homewood to retell Tommy’s tragic story so that another like it might never happen again.

Though Bess does not leave her longtime home until the novel’s final chapter, Hiding Place is as much the story of her isolation from family as it is one of Tommy’s. Just as Tommy has shirked his responsibilities as a husband, father, and son, Bess has turned her back on the younger generations of kin whose ways are alien to her. Widowed and childless, she has retreated into an archaic lifestyle, shunning the twentieth century amenities of electricity and phones, in order to avoid intimacy with others. Physically rooting herself among Bruston Hill’s ruins, she has been running from the present in her mind by focusing her thoughts on the past, especially the deaths of loved ones that have occurred. Only when she becomes involved in Tommy’s affairs does she rekindle her active commitment to the family.

In Hiding Place, Wideman’s style dramatically differs from those of the canonized white writers who were his early models. With a method many reviewers have compared to jazz, his characters unfold the histories of five generations of Lawsons and Frenches. Bess herself repeats certain key events in the family history several times; one of her favorites is the one in which Mary Hollinger revives her cousin Freeda French’s stillborn baby by plunging it into the snow. Yet like a jazz improvisation, where instruments alternately play solo and play together, she retells the tale each time in a different way, varying her approach to it with different bits of superstition, mysticism, and folklore. Even Wideman’s Clement, an inarticulate orphan similar to Benjy Compson in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929), bears the unique stamp of the black American experience. As the author himself avows, Clement’s assimilation into Homewood reflects the nature of the black community as a tolerant extended family.

Its legacy of songs, tales, and superstitions notwithstanding, the Homewood that finally draws Bess back is a model of urban blight, a “bombed out” no-man’s-land of “pieces of buildings standing here and there and fire scars and places ripped and kicked down and cars stripped and dead at the curb.” This dying landscape, and in a similar way Bess’s ramshackle Bruston Hill homestead, proclaims the present descendants’ dissociation from their ancestors and one another. In Sent for You Yesterday, the final installment of the Homewood Trilogy and the 1984 PEN/Faulkner Award winner for outstanding fiction, this undercurrent becomes the novel’s predominant theme. Carl French and his lover Lucy Tate relate the stories of a Homewood gone by to the latest generation of listeners, as if the recovery of the past is integral for the entire community’s survival and solidarity.

Sent for You Yesterday

Sent for You Yesterday cannot be divided easily into main story and subplots. All the episodes in it are major in scope and significance. The most memorable ones include the saga of the piano player Albert Wilkes, who slept with a white woman and murdered a white policeman; the tragedy of Samantha, whose college education could not shield her from grief and madness; and the bittersweet adventures of the resilient Brother Tate, an albino and best friend of Carl who communicates only with gestures and scat sounds. Retold by Carl’s nephew Doot, a former Homewood resident modeled largely after Wideman himself, each tale conveys a lesson to a younger generation. More than mere exempla, however, the stories emphasize the cyclic nature of the human condition: Each generation rises to further, alter, and often reenact the accomplishments of its predecessors. Thus, Uncle Carl’s street in Homewood becomes to Doot “a narrow, cobbled alley teeming with life. Like a wooden-walled ship in the middle of the city, like the ark on which Noah packed two of everything and prayed for land.” This determination to survive that the ark imagery calls to mind impels Carl and Lucy to share Homewood’s history. By remembering past lives, by preserving traditions, they ensure their own enduring places in the memories of their heirs.

Reuben

Traditions preserved and memories presented from black America’s African past form the backbeat of Reuben, Wideman’s next novel of community and interracial struggle. From a rusting trailer that his clients describe as part office, part altar to the gods, the dwarf Reuben serves the poor of Homewood in need of a lawyer, a psychologist, a warrior, or a priest. Like West African griots or oral scribes, who commit to unerring memory genealogies, triumphs, faults, and names, Reuben relies on a mix of law and bureaucratic legerdemain that he has heard from his own employers and remembered. Like an obliging ancestral spirit shuttling prayers from this world to the next, Reuben negotiates pacts between the ghetto’s bombed-out streets and the oak, plush, and marble interiors of City Hall. As he prescribes legal strategies and bestows grandfatherly advice, he also steers his clients to confront and abandon the views that have overturned their lives. When words and contracts alone will not do, Reuben rustles deep within collective memory and knots a charm: “A rag, a bone, a hank of hair. Ancient grains of rice.” Reuben transforms garbage into power, excrement into nourishment, gristle into life. He preaches reincarnation and the nature of things dead to rise again, and he catalyzes his clients to seek similar transformations in themselves.

Infused with magic and spiritualism, Reuben also is illustrated by the ravaged images of the inner city. Wideman likens ghetto buildings to the rat-infested holds of slave ships and the people in those buildings to roles of both predator and prey. Much of the Homewood population resembles a coffle of freshly branded slaves, slaves who are bound by laws instead of chains, by the welfare system or underworld crime instead of a plantation economy. Others are human versions of rats—snitching, beating, starving, stealing, and otherwise pestering their neighbors with an eat-or-be-eaten mentality. “There were historical precedents, parallels,” Reuben understands. “Indian scouts leading long-hairs to the hiding places of their red brethren. FBI informers, double agents, infiltrators of the sixties. An unsubtle variation of divide and conquer.” In this bleak landscape, the game of divide and conquer has changed little since enslavement.

Philadelphia Fire

Philadelphia Fire, The Cattle Killing, and Two Cities are framed within a geographic shift from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. In keeping with Wideman’s fluid notion of history and myth as mutually interlocking categories of representation, Philadelphia Fire recasts the 1985 police bombing of the building occupied by the radical MOVE organization. John Africa, MOVE’s leader, is represented as Reverend King, who is described as “a nouveau Rousseau.” King leads a rebellion against the infringement on African American individual and communal rights couched in the guises of “urbanization” and “integration” by espousing an ideology that embraces a return to nature and a rejection of modern material values. Elsewhere, Wideman asserts that “the craziness of MOVE is their sanity; they were saying no to the systemit makes perfect sense. So the myth of integration is analogous to the prophecy of the cattle killing.”

The Cattle Killing

This prophecy serves as the guiding metaphor for the novel The Cattle Killing, and it refers to the lies told to the African Xhosa people in order to make them believe that to combat European oppression they must kill their cattle. The cattle are their life force, and their destruction leads to the near annihilation of Xhosa culture. The people die as their cattle die, struck down because they believed the lie of the prophecy: “The cattle are the people. The people are the cattle.” Wideman subtly extends this metaphor to consider the problem of intraracial crime ravaging American inner cities and connects contemporary circumstances with the diseased and disintegrating conditions surrounding the yellow fever outbreak of eighteenth century Philadelphia.

In all three instances—in Africa, in Philadelphia, in black urbania—there is a potential for annihilation because of an epidemic fueled by hysteria, exacerbated by racist ideology and carried out by those who believe the “lie” and perpetrate their self-destruction. The narrator of Cattle Killing, Isaiah, called “Eye,” is an obvious recasting of the biblical figure who prophesies the downfall of the nation of Israel. He is a prophet who warns of false prophecies—in this case, the lie of integration, which is intricately entwined with modernization and its attenuating conspicuous consumption, the theme foregrounded in Philadelphia Fire. This text’s distinction from Philadelphia Fire, however, lies in the vision of hope with which readers are left; The Cattle Killing is also a love story.

Two Cities

The Cattle Killing and the following novel, Two Cities, mark a thematic shift for Wideman. Though harkening back to the theme of love (a kind of communal love) inherent in the Homewood Trilogy, the novels transcend that representation, exploring the healing potential of intimate, spiritual love. Two Cities, which links Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Cassina Way and Osage Avenue, explores the difficulty of loving in troubled times. It overwhelmingly endorses the embracing of love, not merely physical love but also self-love, love of community, and love of life, as the only viable means of refusing and subverting the lies that have threatened to destroy the African American community.

From the beginning of his extensive literary career, critics have often compared Wideman’s prose to the experimental fictions of the eighteenth century English writer Laurence Sterne. The sociable Sterne had befriended Ignatius Sancho, a gregarious former slave, a prodigious correspondent, and host of one of London’s most popular salons. Sancho admired Sterne’s mock humility and imitated his wit and playful style. In turn, Sterne admired the double entendre, self-scrutiny, and flair for detail in the letters of his African friend.

In Wideman’s novels, the voices of the African Sancho and the Englishman Sterne converge. These works present black America from the perspectives of the enslaved and the descendants of the enslaved as well as from the vantage point of those whites who served as either tormentors and oppressors or benefactors and friends. These works warn of the potholes where our elders slipped before, and they expose the reader to the vistas that people often fail to notice and enjoy. They achieve Wideman’s goal of “expanding our notions of reality, creating hard, crisp edges you can’t swallow without a gulp.”

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