John Edgar Wideman 1941–-
American short story writer, novelist, memoirist, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism of Wideman's short fiction works from 1989 through 2000. See also, John Edgar Wideman Criticism.
Wideman is best known for his short stories and novels that trace the lives of several generations of families in and around Homewood, a black ghetto district of Pittsburgh. In these fictional works, his dominant thematic concern involves the individual's quest for self-understanding amidst personal memories and African American experiences. Most critics assert that Wideman's blend of Western and African American literary traditions constitutes a distinctive voice in American literature.
Wideman was born on June 14, 1941, in Washington D.C., and spent his early years in Homewood, a section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This area has been a recurring setting for his later fiction. His family later moved to Shadyside, a more prosperous section of Pittsburgh, and he attended the integrated Peabody High School. After graduation, Wideman attended the University of Pennsylvania, receiving his B.A. in 1963. He was 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. He later accepted a fellowship at the prestigious University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. 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; in fact, he became that university's first African American tenured professor. 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. Wideman has received many awards for his work, including the PEN/Faulkner Award and American Book Award for his novel Philadelphia Fire (1990) in 1991 and a MacArthur fellowship in 1993.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Wideman's The Homewood Trilogy (1985), which comprises the short story collection Damballah (1981) and the novels Hiding Place (1981) and Sent for You Yesterday (1983), utilizes deviating time frames, African American dialect, and rhythmic language to explore life in the Homewood area of Pittsburgh. 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. Race-related strife, violence, and identity are 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. The pieces in All Stories Are True (1992) are autobiographical in nature and concern such themes as storytelling, family history, and memory. In “Backseat,” the male protagonist's memories of a former girlfriend lead to recollections of his family's history—particularly of his recently-deceased grandmother. “Everybody Knew Bubba Riff” presents the perspectives of friends and family on the life and death of Bubba, a tough, troubled man. A ten-page story composed of a mixture of interior monologues, critics have found parallels between “Everybody Knew Bubba Riff” and the fiction of James Joyce and William Faulkner.
Critics contend that 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. 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. His short stories are noted for their ability 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 and have lauded the ways in which his short stories and novels address the role of the African American artist in society as well as Wideman's own personal evolution as a writer and an individual.