John Edgar Wideman 1941–
American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Wideman's career through 1997. See also, John Edgar Wideman Criticism.
Wideman, whom critic Don Strachen called "the black Faulkner, the softcover Shakespeare," is best known for novels and short stories that trace the lives of several generations of families in and around Homewood, a black ghetto district of Pittsburgh where he lived until he was twelve years old. His major theme involves the individual's quest for self-understanding amidst personal memories and African-American experiences. Kermit Frazier commented: "The characters in Wideman's fiction can escape neither collective nor personal history and memory, so they are forced to deal with them in some way—be it successfully or ineffectually." Although Wideman deemphasized specifically black issues early in his career, his later works evidence his interest in "bringing to the fore black cultural material, history, archetypes, myths, the language itself,… and trying to connect that with the so-called mainstream." Many critics concur that Wideman's blend of Western and black literary traditions constitutes a distinctive voice in American literature.
Wideman attended the University of Pennsylvania before being selected as the first black Rhodes scholar since Alain Locke in 1905. In England, Wideman studied eighteenth-century literature and the early development of the novel. His first two novels, A Glance Away (1967) and Hurry Home (1969), reflect this formal training as well as his own experiments with narrative technique. Wideman later accepted a fellowship at the prestigious University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Yet he began his college career not as a writer, but as a basketball star. Wideman once remarked: "I always wanted to play pro basketball—ever since I saw a ball and learned you could make money at it." He was recruited as a player by the University of Pennsylvania and began studying psychology, hoping to gain what he called "mystical insight." Ultimately the study of psychology failed to provide him with the type of wisdom he sought, and Wideman changed his major to English. His main con-cern continued to be basketball, and although he played well enough to be named to the Philadelphia Big Five Basketball Hall of Fame, his basketball career ended in college. Wideman began to focus on writing instead of basketball, and within one year after graduating from Oxford in 1966, Wideman's first novel was published. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Wideman was an assistant basketball coach, professor of English, and founder and director of the Afro-American studies program at the University of Pennsylvania; he has also served as a professor of English at the universities of Wyoming and Massachusetts. In addition to these duties, he has been a curriculum consultant to secondary schools nationwide since 1968.
A Glance Away and Hurry Home involve a search for self by protagonists who are confused and dominated by their pasts. In A Glance Away, a rehabilitated drug addict returns to his home, where he renews family and social ties while trying to avoid a relapse; in Hurry Home, a black law school graduate seeks cultural communion with white society by traveling to Europe, then reaffirms his black heritage in Africa. In The Lynchers (1973), Wideman focuses upon racial conflict in the United States during the 1960s. In The Homewood Trilogy, which comprises the short story collection Damballah (1981) and the novels Hiding Place (1981) and Sent for You Yesterday (1983), Wideman uses deviating time frames, black dialect, and rhythmic language to transform Homewood into what Alan Cheuse described as "a magical location infused with poetry and pathos." The interrelated stories of Damballah feature several characters who reappear in the novels and relate tales of the descendants of Wideman's ancestor, Sybela Owens. Hiding Place concerns a boy's strong ties to his family and his involvement in a petty robbery that results in an accidental killing. In his nonfiction work, Brothers and Keepers (1984), Wideman comments upon his brother's involvement in a murder similar to that described in his novel Hiding Place. Sent for You Yesterday won the 1984 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. Through the characters of Doot, the primary narrator, and Albert Wilkes, an outspoken blues pianist, Wideman asserts that creativity and imagination are important means to transcend despair and strengthen the common bonds of race, culture, and class. The eponymous narrator of Reuben (1987) is an ambiguous and enigmatic figure who provides inexpensive legal aid to residents of Homewood. Among his clients are Kwansa, a young black woman whose brutal ex-husband, a recovering drug addict, seeks custody of their illegitimate child as revenge against her, and Wally, an assistant basketball coach at a local university who comes to Reuben because he fears he will be blamed for the illegal recruiting practices of his department. Wally, who may have actually murdered a white man, is possessed by an ingrained hatred that leads him to fantasize of violence against middle-aged white males. Race-related strife, violence, and suffering are also prominent themes in Fever: Twelve Stories (1989). In the collection's title story, Wideman juxtaposes present-day racism in Philadelphia, a city once offering freedom for slaves through the Underground Railroad, with a narrative set during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. In the novel Philadelphia Fire (1990), Wideman combines fact and fiction to elaborate on an actual incident involving MOVE, a militant, heavily armed black commune that refused police orders to vacate a Philadelphia slum house in 1985. With the approval of W. Wilson Goode, the city's black mayor, police bombed the house from a helicopter, killing eleven commune members—including five children—but creating a fire that destroyed approximately fifty-three houses. The book's narrator, Cudjoe, a writer and former Rhodes scholar living in self-imposed exile on a Greek island, returns to his native city upon hearing about the incident to search for a young boy who was seen fleeing the house following the bombing. This fictionalized narrative is juxtaposed with Wideman's address to his own son, who was sentenced to life in prison at eighteen years of age for killing another young man while on a camping trip. In Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society (1994), Wideman again juxtaposes his own personal life with universal concerns. In this volume, he examines his strained relationship with his father and his difficulties with his own son, and then places them within a context of all father-son relationships and America's history of racism. Wideman combines elements of history, religion, and race to form the story in his novel The Cattle Killing (1996); the narrator's memories of his childhood in Philadelphia are woven together with the plight of blacks in the city in the late eighteenth century and the story of the South African Xhosa tribe.
Wideman's unique combination of fact, fiction, myth, and history has allied him with the modernist tradition and solidified his reputation as a leading American author. Novelist Charles Johnson called him "easily the most acclaimed black male writer of the last decade," and renowned critic Robert Bone, author of The Negro Novel in America, called Wideman "perhaps the most gifted black novelist of his generation." Commentary on Wideman's strengths as an author often focuses on the lyrical quality he manages to maintain in his prose while at the same time forging intricate layers of theme and plot and blending fact with fiction. It is Wideman's ability—in both his fiction and nonfiction works—to provide insight into broad, societal issues and personal concerns while retaining a literary mastery over his material that has earned him widespread acclaim and admiration. In assessing his short stories, numerous critics have compared Wideman to William Faulkner; Michael Gorra asserted that such a comparison is legitimate "because both are concerned with the life of a community over time. It is appropriate because they both have a feel for the anecdotal folklore through which a community defines itself, because they both often choose to present their characters in the act of telling stories, and because in drawing on oral tradition they both write as their characters speak, in a language whose pith and vigor has not yet been worn into cliché." Gorra concluded that "the more you read John Edgar Wideman, the more impressive he seems."