John Edgar Wideman

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Susan Fromberg Schaeffer (review date 10 December 1989)

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SOURCE: Schaeffer, Susan Fromberg. “We Are Neighbors, We Are Strangers.” New York Times Book Review (10 December 1989): 1, 30-1.

[In the following review, Schaeffer surveys the dominant themes of the stories in Fever: Twelve Stories.]

Images of blindness, of masks, of facades, of mirrors, of reflections, dominate Fever [Fever: Twelve Stories], this strange and powerful book of 12 short stories by John Edgar Wideman. Mr. Wideman's characters seek glimpses of their own faces in other people's eyes, in cups of coffee, in the surfaces of newly polished shoes. It is as if all of them were confused by the face, the mask, which is either white or black, the difference in color seeming to signify difference where no difference exists.

Mr. Wideman is best known for his Homewood Trilogy—a collection of short fiction and two novels based on the black Pittsburgh neighborhood of his childhood. He is also the author of Brothers and Keepers, a meditation on the divergent paths taken by Mr. Wideman, a Rhodes scholar, and his brother, Robert, who is serving a life term in prison for murder. In most of his previous works, the author has focused on the pull of home and the often ambivalent connection between the past and the present.

These new stories—about the nature of the attachment between an old white man and his cleaning woman (“Valaida”), or the sexual fantasies of a white woman watching a young black jogger (“The Statue of Liberty”), or the plague of yellow fever that struck Philadelphia at the end of the 18th century (“Fever”), or a family gathering in which a pet dog takes center stage (“Little Brother”)—all, in the end, ring changes upon one idea: black or white, beneath the skin we are all the same and we ought to love one another.

This idea is hardly new; almost everyone claims to believe it, yet it seems, if we can go by the evidence of newspapers and what we see around us, one of the most difficult ideas to grasp. The tragedy of this—our failing to comprehend the obvious fact of our sameness—is what obsesses Mr. Wideman in these stories. His achievement is to take this idea from the world of concepts and, through the alchemy of his prose, convert it to flesh-and-blood truth. God, Mr. Wideman tells us in the title story, is a bookseller: “He publishes one book—the text of suffering—over and over again. He disguises it between new boards, in different shapes and sizes, prints on varying papers, in many fonts, adds prefaces and postscripts to deceive the buyer, but it's always the same book.”

Fever is Mr. Wideman's book of suffering. What makes it so odd is its perspective, which is, somehow, not quite human but godlike, not limited by the conventions of ordinary storytelling. His narrators often seem to be looking down upon the planet with genuine omniscience; at any given moment, they know what multitudes of people are thinking. These narrators can take apart the characters they observe as a watchmaker takes apart a clock, yet it is as if they tell their stories from a great distance. They are oddly impartial; they seem to speak with the neutrality of gods, and because they see so much, the sorrow they feel is also godlike, at times overwhelming. Mr. Wideman's narratives frequently jump from one speaker to another, as the mosquito that brings yellow fever in the title story moves from one body to another. When a story does not entirely succeed, this device confuses, exasperates and causes unnecessary difficulties. But when it is...

(This entire section contains 1608 words.)

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successful, as it is in “Fever,” an almost unbearably anguished meditation on human nature in plague time, the power and sadness of the story are enormous, its vision triumphant.

The title story is almost majestic in its evocation of the goodness and evil of the human heart. An account of the plague that struck Philadelphia, it is narrated by, among others, a slave in the hold of a ship; a physician tending plague victims; Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; a dying Jewish merchant; and a black man who, against all reason, abandons his own family to tend the plague-stricken whites, as did many blacks at that time. The dominant voice, however, is anonymous, oracular and prophetic:

No one has asked my opinion. No one will. Yet I have seen this fever before, and though I can prescribe no cure, I could tell stories of other visitations, how it came and stayed and left us, the progress of disaster. … We have bred the affliction within our breasts. … We are our ancestors and our children, neighbors and strangers to ourselves. … Nothing is an accident. Fever grows in the secret places of our hearts, planted there when one of us decided to sell one of us to another.

The fever, then, Mr. Wideman seems to be saying, is caused by slavery, which is, in turn, caused by our failure to see that beneath the skin we are all the same. “Fever” twice quotes from autopsy reports of plague victims, as if to tell us, if the color of the skin obscures the truth, then look beneath it: “When you open the dead, black or white, you find: the dura mater covering the brain is white and fibrous in appearance. … Sections are unremarkable.” Look, if you have to, literally beneath.

In “Valaida,” an old Jewish man, a concentration camp survivor, wants to establish some connection with the black cleaning woman who has grown old caring for him. He finds more of a connection than he bargained for. Although the two have never talked, the description of the care the old woman has taken of his shirts makes clear what love she feels for him:

She has laundered the shirt how many times. It's held together by cleanliness and starch. A shirt that ought to be thrown away but she scrubs and sprays and irons it; he knows the routine, the noises. She saves it how many times, patching, mending, snipping errant threads, the frayed edges of cuff and collar hardened again so he is decent, safe within them, the blazing white breast he puffs out like a penguin when it's spring and he descends from the twelfth floor and conquers the park again, shoes shined … welcoming life back and yes he's out there in it again, his splay-foot penguin walk and gentleman's attire, shirt like a pledge, a promise. … Numbers stamped inside the collar. Mark of the dry cleaners from a decade ago, before Clara Jackson began coming to clean.

These two, who have lived together wordlessly, apparently separate and indifferent, know each other well—are, in fact, as the old man is to realize, suddenly, startlingly, the same: “He thinks of Clara Jackson in the midst of her family. … He tries to picture them, eating and drinking, huge people crammed in a tiny, shabby room. Unimaginable, really. The faces of her relatives become his. Everyone's hair is thick and straight and black.” Immediately after the denial of sameness comes the hallucinatory perception of it. Under the masks, the facades, is identity of emotion and purpose.

In “Little Brother,” a very funny and deceptively simple story, the attempt to get beyond the face, the mask, has been made but has not succeeded. Various members of a black family sit around the kitchen table discussing Pup-pup, their pet dog that recently died, and Little Brother, their peculiar, more recently acquired dog, who refuses to come into the house and instead lives in an “apartment” built for him under the porch.

The dogs weren't capable of getting along; family members speculate that Pup-pup's jealousy of Little Brother eventually led to his death. The two dogs seem as unable to live together as the neighborhood's blacks and whites; and in the course of a drifting, associative conversation about the pets and their failure to develop a friendship, one sister, Penny, asks the other, Geral, about her friend Vicki, the only white woman in the neighborhood. Even though she knows her white friend will eventually hurt her, Geral has tried to protect Vicki, advising her how to behave, and has grown fond of Vicki's daughter, Carolyn: “Saw [Vicki] dressed up real nice in Sears in East Liberty last week and she ducked me. I know why, but it still hurt me. Like it hurts me to think my little sugar Carolyn will be calling people niggers someday. If she don't already.”

This failure is small, and is quickly passed over, but the failures of sympathy, taken together, create an agony in the narrators of Mr. Wideman's stories that is enormous. Mr. Wideman compares this agony to the pain felt by the Lamed-Vov of Talmudic legend, “the Thirty Just Men set apart to suffer the reality humankind cannot bear.” These men wander the earth unable to die, and later 10 centuries at God's side will be barely sufficient to heal their pain. “I thought,” says one of the narrators of the title story, “I might be one of them. In my vanity. My self-pity. My foolishness. But no. One lifetime of sorrows enough for me. I'm just another customer”—one more purchaser of the book of suffering. That John Edgar Wideman, looking at what white and black people do to one another, should not only evoke the image of the Lamed-Vov, but feel driven to compare himself to one of them, tells us everything we need to know about what it is like to look at the world and see it spinning in space, burning, not with the fever of light, but of pain.


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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

James W. Coleman (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: Coleman, James W. “Damballah: The Intellectual and the Folk Voice.” In Blackness and Modernism: The Literary Career of John Edgar Wideman, pp. 79-96. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.

[In the following essay, Coleman provides a stylistic and thematic overview of Damballah, asserting that the major themes of the short story collection “center on the folk characters' use of black cultural tradition and around the black intellectual's integration into the black community.”]

In Damballah (1981), the second book of the Homewood Trilogy,Wideman presents a wide range of black folk characters who draw on various aspects of the black cultural tradition—including stories, folk beliefs and rituals, religious songs, and religious rituals—to triumph over racism, poverty, hardship, and pain. Wideman now brings a black voice to themes that received a mainstream modernist treatment in the early books. Wideman speaks in a black voice even louder and deeper than his black voice in Hiding Place because the range of characters and folk forms, rituals, and beliefs is broader. Here, in contrast to Hiding Place, the emphasis from the first part of the book is on ways in which folk voices effectively deal with problems.

The most important thing Wideman does in Damballah, however, is to describe the black intellectual-writer's arduous movement back toward the black community and black culture. Wideman understands from his reading of other black writers and from his interaction in the community that the intellectual-writer is not necessarily an outsider, as he is often depicted in the mainstream modernist tradition. He also now fully understands that black culture is rich and substantive and that the black intellectual can both benefit from it and play a role in developing it. But the black intellectual has a problem because he has alienated himself, and he must master the culture and work himself back into it. Wideman goes further in Damballah than he did in Hiding Place: he speaks in a black voice that is even louder and stronger, and he shows a black intellectual, often identified as John and obviously a surrogate for Wideman, as he seeks to move out of isolation and to play a role in the black community.

The dedication and epigraph of Damballah begin the treatment of the themes of black intellectual isolation, on the one hand, and the pervasiveness of family and community traditions among black people, on the other. The dedication, “To Robby” (the real-life model for the character Tommy in Hiding Place and Damballah), calls Damballah an attempt to send “letters” to Robby (Wideman's brother), who was always more comfortable with blackness than Wideman. The purpose of the dedication is not to make it explicit, of course, but here Wideman is starting to deal with his physical and psychological separation from his brother (which he also later dealt with in Brothers and Keepers). Wideman is in Laramie, Wyoming, teaching at the University of Wyoming, and Robby is in Pennsylvania in jail for life. But just as important as the physical separation is the psychological. Wideman was always afraid of “becoming instant nigger” by enjoying eating watermelon; in effect, he was afraid of being black openly and aggressively, as his brother was. His psychological separation from blackness made it easy for him to go off to the intellectual world of academia, thereby largely calling a halt to meaningful contact with his brother, family, and community. Wideman wants the “letters” in Damballah to “tear down the [prison] walls …, [to] snatch you away from where you are.” As it becomes clear by the end of Damballah, Wideman wonders whether Robby-Tommy is the hero because he stays in the community and rebels against oppression and whether he himself is the criminal for escaping physically and psychologically.

The epigraph connects the god Damballah, “good serpent of the sky,” with racial and family tradition and leads into the book's stories. It is noteworthy that Damballah, although made up of individual pieces, has a unity often found in modern short-story collections that is associated with such mainstream modernist writers as James Joyce in Dubliners and William Faulkner in Go Down, Moses and also with such black writers as Ernest Gaines in Bloodline and Richard Wright in Uncle Tom's Children.Damballah has this unity because it largely uses a clear, well-defined setting, Homewood; because it presents central themes from different viewpoints; and because it depicts the development of an authorial attitude toward the setting and subject matter (Werner 1982:35). This unity makes the book closer to a novel than to a collection of unrelated short pieces. In fact Damballah is formally very similar to Wideman's novels. Furthermore, in it, like other twentieth-century black writers, Wideman has used a mainstream modernist technique to present black themes.

The major themes in Damballah center on the folk characters' use of black cultural tradition and around the black intellectual's integration into the black community. Six of the twelve pieces in Damballah have a dominant focus on each theme. The pieces with a dominant focus on the folk use of black cultural tradition include “Damballah,” which opens the book.

“Damballah” sees black history and tradition not as oppressive, as they are in The Lynchers, but as mythic resource and archetype, much as they are in Ernest Gaines's works; it shows how black American tradition is tied to African tradition and how this tradition is a river flowing back and forth in black history. Significantly, “Damballah” starts with Orion, a slave who still maintains his African culture and who is a “heathen” among the slaves acculturated in America, stepping into the river.

He picked his way over slippery stones till he stood calf deep. Dropping to one knee he splashed his groin, then scooped river to his chest, both hands scrubbing with quick, kneading spirals. When he stood again, he stared at the distant gray clouds. A hint of rain in the chill morning air. … The promise of rain coming to him as all things seemed to come these past few months, not through eyes or ears or nose but entering his black skin as if each pore had learned to feel and speak.


Orion symbolically splashes his upper body with “river” because the black tradition in which he is immersing himself is visceral and instinctive as well as being intellectual. Orion's knowledge of the tradition is not limited to perception through normal senses. He becomes an all-absorbing repository of the tradition.

Orion knows that he is going to die and that the “voices and faces of his fathers” will “carry him home again” (18), but he wants to agitate the flow of the tradition forward as well as let it take him back to his fathers. Orion sends the tradition forward through the young American male slave who is hiding in the trees, watching him. Later, Orion's eyes thrust the word “Damballah” (the god of family and community tradition) into the boy's chest, and after Orion's murder by the whites, the boy communicates with Damballah, as Orion tells the stories again before “the wings of [his] ghost measure out the rhythm of one last word” (25). The transmission of the tradition through ghosts is appropriate because the tradition is supernatural, not limited to the scientific and rational, in the same way that Orion as absorber of the tradition is not limited to normal sense perceptions. In Hiding Place, the supernatural perceptions of dreams help to guide Bess toward traditional values, and her language rituals work magic. Later in Sent for You Yesterday, ghosts bearing tradition are prevalent. At the end, the boy symbolically throws Orion's head in the river, where it will forever be a part of the flow of black tradition. Apart from the boy, the Americanized blacks regard Orion as crazy and want nothing to do with him. But he is connected to them by that which he has passed on through the boy and by the common tradition that they share.

“Lizabeth: The Caterpillar Story” shifts the setting from the South in the nineteenth century to Homewood in the present and shows how stories in the French family, also the family of John, the intellectual, link and strengthen the family generations. In “Caterpillar Story,” interrelated stories about John French are part of the family tradition; as in “Daddy Garbage,” the memory of French and stories about him tie the generations together. The tradition and the stories that transmit it are deep, rich, and convoluted, but French's daughter Lizabeth remembers that her love for French “had to begin with the caterpillar story.” Lizabeth's mother Freeda repeated the stories to her, and Lizabeth now tells the stories, but the right voice and right words are needed to make the stories “real” (59-60). The tradition binds the generations in love if the stories are told right. A story is a ritual, and a ritual is magic whose results depend on the right performance.

“Hazel” is a story about the same extended family that is a good example of the way in which Wideman integrates themes of pain and tragedy with black tradition to create a black voicing of those themes. The character Hazel in the story has been forced from the main flow of the family and community tradition and into a diurnal and nocturnal nightmare by the accident that has left her paralyzed. In some instances, though, Hazel's mother, Gaybrella, tells Hazel about her grandmother Maggie Owens (69) and Hazel makes the family connections herself (71-72). Just as important, John French, his daughter Lizabeth, and Hazel's aunt Bess externally impose family unity on Hazel and Gaybrella by constantly associating with them and showing their concern. French and Lizabeth are always trying to pull them out of their isolation back into the Homewood community.

Really important here, however, is the story Lizabeth tells years after Hazel's and Gaybrella's deaths. She visited Hazel's brother Faun (who crippled her by accidentally pushing her down the steps) after he returned to Homewood and the old folk's home; she also rode to the hospital in the ambulance with him when he was dying. Lizabeth tells the story of human compassion and contrition that was implicit in Faun's words at the time of his death. Lizabeth remembers and tells the “whole story” (79), which extends beyond the accident, Gaybrella's total rejection of Faun after the accident, and Hazel's tragedy-ridden, death-focused life. The “whole story” that Lizabeth tells (and she tells it again in “The Chinaman”) wrings positive lessons and examples from the pain and suffering. The stories that convey the family and Homewood lore involve tragedy and on a larger scale emphasize greater, useful positive values.

“The Songs of Reba Love Jackson” offers a microcosm of the black folk community and places the Homewood folk characters' use of and interaction with their tradition in a broad perspective. Reba, a Homewood community hero with a national reputation as a gospel singer, tells stories through her songs. Her songs speak of the black tradition, including the pain, suffering, poverty, and tragedy that are subsumed in its supportive values and beliefs; they also speak of the Homewood tradition and of the lives of all the individuals depicted in “Reba Love.” Five of the nine sketches in “Reba Love” are narrated in the first person by the folk characters, who reveal the strength, faith, and belief that have allowed them to survive and live meaningful spiritual lives. The third-person sketches, which focus on the religious zeal of Reba's mother, the inner life of Reba, and the inner suffering of Blind Willie, all project the characters from their own viewpoints.

“Rashad” takes us back to the French family and Lizabeth, who centers her life around prayer and love, central staples in the black tradition. Not only can she love Rashad, the basically good-hearted son-in-law who is a dope pusher, addict, and an abuser of her daughter; she can also develop a deep empathy for an old Vietnamese man who apparently created the image of her granddaughter on the banner Rashad sent back from Vietnam.

He's probably dead now. Probably long gone like so many of them over there they bombed and shot and burned with that gasoline they shot from airplanes. A sad, little old man. Maybe they killed his granddaughter. Maybe he took Rashad's money and put his own little girl's face on the silk [of the banner]. Maybe it's the dead girl he was seeing even with Keesha's [her granddaughter's] picture right there beside him while he's sewing. Maybe that's the sadness she saw when she opened the package and saw again and again till she learned never to look in that corner above the mush springed chair.


Lizabeth will pray for them all, her family members as well as the sad little old man far way.

“Solitary,” the final story with a dominant focus on the workings of the black tradition, appropriately brings to a close the treatment of the theme in Damballah because it shows Lizabeth's faith in God, a main source of blacks' ability to survive within the black tradition, being tested by the trials and tribulations of her son, Tommy. On her trips to visit her son, imprisoned for life for murder, Lizabeth begins to lose her trust in God. She begins to feel that, if God's “grace does not touch her son then she too is dwelling in the shadow of unlove,” and if God can go to “the Valley of the Shadow, surely He could penetrate the stone walls [of the prison] and make His presence known” (179). Lizabeth reached the nadir of despair one day when Tommy hugged her warmly and walked back toward the “steel gate” of confinement. Then “she was more alone than she had ever been while he raged” at her, blaming her for his imprisonment (183).

Lizabeth returns to Homewood and tries to relocate herself in her tradition. She tries to walk backward and forward on Homewood Avenue in the footsteps of her father, her husband, her sons, all “her men.” She approaches the steps of the Homewood A.M.E. Zion Church and almost goes in to ask God to “take her to His bosom” (184). But on this day, even though she realizes God “had to have a plan …, she could only see gaps and holes, the way things didn't connect or make sense” (184). Lizabeth senses that she will need a more powerful symbol of tradition than the “ghosts and memories” of Homewood Avenue. She attempts to cross the footbridge into Westinghouse Park, where she had been spending time since she was a baby, but stops halfway, unable to take another step (187).

Lizabeth returns to the bar to find her brother Carl and once again takes up her search for the paths of tradition and security. She tries to see her father in Carl, to listen to Carl and “learn her father's voice again” (187). Carl comforts Lizabeth and assures her that they are going to cross into the park together. As “Solitary” ends, Lizabeth stands in the middle of the footbridge over the tracks, resisting her long-standing fear of the approaching train thundering under her feet, awaiting the chastening of a God who “could strike you dead in the twinkling of an eye. [Who] killed with thunder and lightning” (189). Lizabeth is ready to recenter herself by walking back into the traditional paths of Westinghouse Park, by finding again the values and beliefs that have sustained her all her life.

God and the sustaining traditions have been shaken substantially out of their place in Lizabeth's life, but they are not beyond the reach of her search. She can reclaim and reaffirm them. Lizabeth is hurt and confused but not lost. Wideman says of “Solitary” that, when he was writing it, he thought that Lizabeth had lost her faith, but when he looked back at the story, he saw that she had been saved (Samuels 1983:56-57).

“Daddy Garbage” asserts that traditional values and rites of human feeling persist for blacks in the most difficult situations and the most unlikely circumstances. It is also the first story to touch upon the place of the black intellectual with regard to the black community and the black tradition. In the main part of the story, which takes place in the past, Lemuel Strayhorn and John French bury a dead baby and say crude rites during a brutal winter when they certainly have no money for funeral expenses. In fact they strongly feel that, given the conditions in which Strayhorn found the baby, they cannot call on legal and community institutions of help. There are suggestions that powerful unseen and unconscious traditions guide French and Strayhorn, as French asks that the child's soul “rest in peace” and Strayhorn grunts “amen” and “sways like a figure seen underwater” (43). The baby enters into the community as French and Strayhorn lower him as gently as possible into the prescribed six-foot grave.

French's dedication to his family also manifests strong community values. Through his rough, crude manner, French demonstrates the strongest kind of devotion to his family. He goes drunkenly, raucously, and embarrassingly but lovingly to the hospital when his daughter Lizabeth has a son, and in his conduct he perpetuates family love and a sense of connection to the generations that follow him.

“Daddy Garbage” inaugurates a progressive series of portraits in Damballah of the black intellectual who is not clearly in touch, or is far out of touch, with family and community tradition. At the beginning, the story focuses on a scene in the present where John, his two sons, and the children of his sister Shirley, descendants of the deceased French, are standing on the corner, talking to Strayhorn. John's aunt Geraldine is also there, and the scene clearly suggests community and family ties that span the generations. French and the spirit of his love are clearly present in the conversation. French acts to bring family and community together in the present. The only individual who seems somewhat out of touch is John, who thinks he remembers the dog Daddy Garbage, Strayhorn's constant companion in the days when they buried the baby. Strayhorn corrects John, telling him that he could not possibly remember Daddy Garbage because John was too young at the time. John was probably the son being born when French went to the hospital drunk, but he has part of the story wrong; he has misplaced a small link in the connection.

“The Chinaman” reemphasizes the power of traditional family stories when they are told right, but more important, it presents the first large role in Damballah for John, the educated, intellectual family member who lives in Wyoming. Freeda French at the beginning of “The Chinaman” must let her voice go “backward with her. … Talking to herself. Telling stories. Telling herself” (83). Later the narrative switches from Freeda's internal telling of stories, to May's voice telling the story of the birth of Freeda's daughter Lizabeth, to the tale of Freeda's grandchild (probably John) listening to the story in a family setting. The grandchild realizes that May must tell the story “right” each time she tells it or none of them will be real—none of their lives will be real (85). Stories center, focus, and make real, and stories range among generations and people in a nonlinear fashion, as memory (like Freeda's) moves backward and forward in tradition. “The Chinaman” approximates this movement in its form.

John went to Grandmother Freeda's funeral and heard the stories being told, that of the Chinaman among them. He felt that one had to be there to understand how the stories were right, how the story rituals worked their magic and made things real. But when John tells the story of the Chinaman to his wife Judy in the hotel room, on the way from Wyoming back to Pittsburgh, it is “stiff, incomplete” (93). The version of the story told by his mother, Lizabeth abounds with traditional beliefs and sources of support, which it ritualizes and makes real. For John, the story, which incorporates Freeda's symbolic representation of her death in the Chinaman and her certainty of it because he is in the hospital, means nothing in truth but “the silence of death and the past and lives other than mine” (95). Significantly, however, John adds that “the silence is an amen.” Although John cannot tell the story well, and although it does not make the same traditional values and beliefs real for him as it does for his mother, he still tries to be positive and affirmative; he still says “amen.”

“Watermelon Story” is a perplexing piece portraying Aunt May's ritual of telling a traditional story of black faith that makes the faith “real” for her audience, but it also seems to be about the young intellectual-to-be discovering his place in black tradition. The first several pages of “Watermelon Story” show a young boy confused as to where he heard about a wino who fell through a thick glass window and had his arm chopped off while he dozed on an unsteady stack of watermelons in front of the Homewood A & P store. First, the boy believes that he witnessed the incident, but then he thinks that he dreamed it (100-01). Finally, “As he listened he heard May saying the words and remembered it was her then. May who told the story of the accident and then told him later” (103).

Shortly afterward, May takes over the story, in her voice, and tells another watermelon story that the first story brought to mind. May heard the story from her Grandpa. It is a story set simultaneously in Africa, slavery, and “Georgy” (104), with no place as a very clear locale. It is a story with both supernatural and religious folkloric qualities. An old woman and man keep the faith that they will have a child, and they find a child in a watermelon. But after all their rejoicing, the spirit takes back their baby boy. When she has related this turn of events, May has questions for her audience. “Where was all that praying? Where was all that hallelujah and praise the Lord in that little bitty cabin deep in the woods? I'll tell you where. It was used up. That's where it was. Used up so when trouble came, when night fell wasn't even a match in the house. Nary a pot nor a window. Just two crinkly old people on a shuck mattress shivering under they quilt” (107). The boy is horrified by the story of the old people and, to change the subject, asks Mary if the wino could grow another arm. She concludes “Watermelon Story” by answering that “God already give him more'n he could use. Arms in his ears, on his toes, arms all over. He just got to figure out how to use what's left.”

The story of the old people is about faith tested and rewarded and then tested all over again. The point of Mary's comment at the end regarding the one-armed wino who has all he needs is that God always gives enough if one just waits on him, is patient, and is conscious of using one's resources. This point also applies to the old people in their desolate condition at the end, although their situation seems doubly hopeless.

What matters in both of the stories told by May is not the physical details but the ritual and rhythm. In the second watermelon story, May's colorful, rhythmic voice has force and effect, and it carries great conviction on the part of Grandpa and May. This second story, like other stories in Damballah, is a ritual that makes faith real for most of May's audience. For the boy, it seems horrifying. But both stories exert a tremendous impact on him, the first by creating the illusion that he was there and can tell his own version of the wino's accident.

The boy stands outside the traditional pattern that secures May in her faith. May is sure of the second watermelon story and is confident that she got it from Grandpa. She disseminates it with Grandpa's same strong faith. The boy is not initially sure where he got the first watermelon story and certainly cannot tell it as effectively as May can tell hers. Furthermore, the second story scares the boy and does not affirm him in traditional faith.

“Watermelon Story” does not reveal the boy's identity. Whereas in “The Chinaman” the first-person narrator takes over in the middle of the story, in “Watermelon Story” the identity of the boy remains hidden behind the third-person narrator. But since May is a prominent member of John's family, the boy may be John. One could read this story as another comment on the young intellectual-to-be trying to find his voice and place among the black community's traditions. Just as John's story was “stiff” and “incomplete” in “The Chinaman,” the youngster here is confused and remains frightened and unfulfilled after he has heard May's stories. Wideman moves toward at least a tentative resolution of the black intellectual's predicament in “Across the Wide Missouri,” “Tommy,” and “The Beginning of Homewood,” the final piece.

In “Across the Wide Missouri,” Wideman deals more directly and heavily with the plight of the isolated black intellectual than he has in either “The Chinaman” or “Watermelon Story.” Unlike these two stories or any other story in Damballah, “Wide Missouri” focuses solely on the intellectual-writer's attempt to deal with the effects of his psychological alienation and physical isolation far from Homewood in Laramie, Wyoming.

“Wide Missouri” begins with the words, “The images are confused now. By time, by necessity” (133). The first-person narrator is not sure whether the bright, brash, self-assured movie images of Clark Gable come from Gone with the Wind or from other movies “flashing on and off” in his mind. The second paragraph switches the scene to the story's setting in Laramie, Wyoming, where the time is “spring which never really arrives. … Just threatens. Just squats for a day or a few hours then disappears and makes you suicidal … spring … should have its own name. Like Shit. Or Disaster” (133-34). The narrator states, however, that nothing about the weather or geography has anything to do with the succession of images in his mind, “the river, the coins, the song, the sadness, the recollection.” The conclusion of the linear collage of images reveals itself in the “recollection.” The recollection reveals that the world-conquering cinematic image of Clark Gable at the mirror is really that of his father and forces him to “know why I am so sad, why the song makes me cry, why the coins sit where they do, where the river leads.”

By the third paragraph, the narrator has revealed that the story acts to exorcise sadness and forgetfulness and reunites him with his father back in Homewood. In the third paragraph, the narrator speaks of the experience that underlies the succession of images and his sadness: “I am meeting my father. I have written the story before.” He is saddened by thoughts of meeting his father and the story he has written about the encounter. From his written account of the meeting that preceded this one, the narrator hears his mother “like a person in a book or story instructing me. I wrote it that way but it didn't happen that way” (134). He has written the inaccurate, flawed story about meeting his father in which he tried unsuccessfully to describe and remember his father, and now he is rewriting the story. The intellectual-writer is trying to write himself out of alienation, trying to cover the gap between Laramie and Homewood. He says to himself that the weather and geography have nothing to do with the succession of confusing images and his overall plight, but he never confronts the inextricable link between his location in Laramie, Wyoming, and his sadness, his forgetfulness, and his writing of the flawed story.

The narrator tells another flawed, confused story that does not demonstrate a clear remembrance and knowledge of his father. The handsome father whom he loved intensely emerges from the image of the handsome Gable on the screen. But there are few signs that he knew his father intimately, that he was really close to him, could communicate well with him. The narrator's meeting with his father is blurry and very hard to bring into focus, because he finds it necessary to forget how much he loved his father, how little he knew him then and knows him now, and how far away he is now.

The narrator's stories move in slow motion or are a “blur of images” (136); the story he wrote before included “stage directions” (137), further indications of his instability and insecurity. Later he tries to assure himself that he is only “blurring … reality … in order to focus” (140). Afterward he says first that he understands “better” and then, in the next paragraph, that he understands “a little more now. Not much.” His assurance to the contrary notwithstanding, he is not developing focus and moving toward stability.

“Wide Missouri” contains evidence that the narrator is perpetuating the same separation between him and his sons that exists between the narrator and his father, and through the infrequency of their visits to his father, he is making one of his sons a stranger to his grandfather. The narrator had a choice between going to hear one of his son's sing on his class's “Song Night” and going out for drinks with a “visiting poet who had won a Pulitzer Prize” (139-40); he chose drinks with the poet. He says he will ask his son to sing again, but the story leaves the impression that the opportunity has been lost.

It seems tragic for a grandson to have forgotten his grandfather because he never sees him and for him to be learning to forget things in general.

I have sons of my own and my father has grandsons and is still a handsome man. But I don't see him often. And sometimes the grandson who has his name as a middle name … doesn't even remember who his grandfather is. Oh yeah, he'll say Edgar in Pittsburgh, he'll say. Your father. Yeah. I remember him now.

But he forgets lots of things. He's the kind of kid who forgets lots of things but who remembers everything. He has the gift of feeling. Things don't touch him, they imprint. You can see it sometimes. And it hurts. He already knows he will suffer for whatever he knows. Maybe that's why he forgets so much.


The narrator's alienation indirectly affects the next generation. Being disconnected from his grandfather, and to a significant extent from his father, the son seems to find himself isolated in a world where his deep, sensitive feelings have no outlet, so that he suffers.

The narrator's problems in this story begin with his failure to confront the significance of place. He certainly knows that the atmosphere of Laramie, Wyoming, with its blighted spring seasons, casts a pall over the story, but the narrator will not say directly that his living in Laramie, well over a thousand miles from Homewood, imposes a physical separation that is devastating him and his sons psychologically. The black intellectual suffers here from his achievements and from the distance he has put between himself and his past.

It is also important to reiterate the point that the narrator cannot face his problem on another level. He cannot fully face the reason why it is necessary for him to blur the images of his father and their interaction in his mind when he tries to write about them. He tries to tell himself that he is doing so for some artistic purpose, so that he can focus better in the end, or that he is somehow advancing to a better understanding. He cannot tell himself about the “necessity” to confuse images, which he mentions in the second sentence, that he is protecting himself from a painful truth that is almost too hard to bear. And the self-delusion in which he is engaging will be hard to break; it is a pattern that he will eschew only after the deepest soul dredging.

“Wide Missouri” may be the most provocative piece in Damballah; not only the ending but the whole story is moving. Separation and alienation inspire stimulating fiction, and Wideman demonstrates that he has mastered adversity enough to give it striking creative form. The inaccurate, flawed story that the intellectual writer is creating here is well wrought. And the same beautiful paradox recurs in other stories in Damballah. In “The Chinaman,” for example, Wideman portrays the writer John trying to find an effective voice with which to capture the folk traditions, as many of the other characters already have, and seeking to establish a comfortable relationship with the traditions. Wideman is readily distinguished from John because he is projecting his imagination into folk life and is splendidly rendering folk voices using folk culture to deal effectively with the problems of black life.

In “Tommy” Wideman takes a different perspective to explore John's plight as the intellectual-writer isolated in Laramie. John's brother Tommy, on the run from the law in Pittsburgh, seeks refuge and succor from John in Laramie. The story is adapted from one of the “Tommy” sections of Hiding Place and is adapted to Damballah's context. The main addition is several pages at the end in which Tommy is at John's house, talking to him.

“You don't think you can prove your story [about the murder]?

“I don't know, man. What Indovina [one of the people involved] is saying don't make no sense, but I heard the cops ain't found Chubby's [the man murdered] gun. If they could just find that gun. But Indovina, he a slick old honky. That gun's at the bottom of the Allegheny River if he found it. They found mine. With my prints all over it. Naw. Can't take the chance. It's Murder One even though I didn't shoot nobody. That's long, hard time if they believe Indovina. I can't take the chance. …”

“Be careful, Tommy. You're a fugitive. Cops out here think they're Wyatt Earp and Marshall Dillon. They shoot first and maybe ask questions later. They still play wild, wild West out here.”

“I hear you. But I'd rather take my chance that way. Rather they carry me back in a box than go back to prison. It's hard out there, Brother. Real hard. I'm happy you got out [of Homewood]. One of us got out anyway.”

“Think about it. Take your time. You can stay here as long as you need to. There's plenty of room.”

“We gotta go. See Ruchell's cousin in Denver. Get us a little stake then make our run.”

“I'll give you what I can if that's what you have to do. But sleep on it. Let's talk again in the morning.”

“It's good to see you, man. And the kids and your old lady. At least we had this one evening. Being on the run can drive you crazy.

“… get some sleep now … we'll talk in the morning.”

“Listen man. I'm sorry, man. I'm really sorry I had to come here like this. You sure Judy ain't mad?”

“I'm telling you it's OK. She's as glad to see you as I am. … And you can stay … both of us want you to stay.”


The dialogue makes plain that John is out of touch with Tommy and his reality and is incapable of helping him. One indication is the discordance of John's more formal language and Tommy's colloquial speech. The formal, grammatical pace of John's words reinforces his failure to understand fully the urgency that impels Tommy, an urgency reflected in the start-and-stop, quick, practical rhythm of Tommy's speech. Also, the advice that John gives Tommy is well intentioned, bringing John to the verge of tears, without being helpful. Thinking about it, taking time, and resting may prevent the western cops from playing Wyatt Earp and Marshall Dillon for a while, but such “reasonable” actions will not help Tommy deal with a legal system that will not treat a black man reasonably and fairly. Another talk in the morning will produce no results that are better. And certainly it is no solution to stay with John and his family. The truth is that nothing John can tell Tommy, no matter how level-headed and well conceived, will help him.

Tommy is an accused, soon-to-be convicted murderer who faces prison. John is also in a precarious position. John has lost touch with his home environment and with the realities of black people in that environment. His advice to Tommy almost implies that Tommy will be treated by the law in the same way as a white man. Such confusion of reality is almost as bad as anything that has happened to Tommy. Perhaps a comparison of the brothers' predicaments is suggested by the fact that Tommy sees “too many faces in his brother's face. Starting with their mother and going back and going sideways and all of Homewood there if he looked long enough. Not just faces but streets and stories and rooms and songs” (174). Tommy can see and feel John's reality and place in family and Homewood tradition better than John can.

“The Beginning of Homewood,” the last piece in Damballah, depicts John merging the intellectual and folk voices by drawing upon black storytelling tradition to approach his brother Tommy and black cultural tradition. John is writing a “letter” (193) to Tommy after he is in jail; the letter and the story that contains it are unfinished, flawed, like the story in “Wide Missouri.” The narrator says: “Rereading makes it very clear that something is wrong with the story.” And since the story and letter “never got sent …, there is something wrong about the story nothing can fix” (193).

May's voice started him on the story as he sat wondering “why I was on a Greek island and why you were six thousand miles away in prison and what all that meant and what I could say to you about it” (194). Separated by a greater distance from Homewood and his brother than from Laramie, he heard Aunt May's voice, and it prompted him to think about his connections to Tommy. Through the “cries of [Greek island] sea birds,” he heard May's voice “singing Lord reach down and touch me” with the Homewood African Methodist Episcopal Church Gospel Chorus. He had been “trying to tell [the story] for years” (195), and he wanted to connect the rebellion of Sybella Owens, his family's first black progenitor in Homewood, to the rebellion of Tommy, who had struck out against the dead-end life that had developed for his generation in Homewood. But he had problems with his feelings of “guilt [and] responsibility”; he “couldn't tell either story [of Sybella or Tommy] without implicating [himself].” He feels implicated and responsible because he has run away from Homewood and the heart of the black experience, while these two relatives in family tradition, one distanced in time and one close, have rebelled against injustice. The sounds of May's voice and the gospel chorus, however, both resonating with the strength of black tradition, are helping him to tell the story, agonizingly.

The narrator begins an intellectual meditation on Sybella's escape from slavery and first free morning, but the gospel chorus and the voice of Reba Love Jackson cut in on him again and will not let him “dwell” (198) on his intellectual version. The voices of May singing and of Bess telling the folk, family version of Sybella's story also interrupt his meditation on the story. And he hears himself “thinking the way May talks.” The ritual of the folk story is definitely influencing the narrator.

The reason that May's story is such an effective ritual and has such a powerful impact on the narrator is that her voice and storytelling technique represent the working of the black tradition in microcosm.

I heard her laughter, her amens, and can I get a witness, her digressions within digressions, the webs she spins and brushes away with her hands. Her stories exist because of their parts and each part is a story worth telling, worth examining to find the stories it contains. What seems to ramble begins to cohere when the listener understands the process, understands that 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. Somebody shouts Tell the truth. You shout too. May is preaching and dances out between the shiny, butt-rubbed, wooden pews doing what she's been doing since the first morning somebody said Freedom. Freedom.


May's voice and story go around and around, backward and forward and sideways, like the black tradition. They are not linear; they lack the finality of movement from beginning to end. As the white world moves more linearly, emphasizing successive triumphs, May's voice pulls black life into the movement of black tradition, where it can benefit from the multiple depths and swirling currents of that tradition, all of which appear unified to anyone acute enough to see the unity. May's voice and black tradition can indeed recover everything for black people—all the valuable knowledge and experience garnered over the centuries. “Nothing is lost.”

The narrator reaches an understanding and appreciation of Tommy, and it is important for him to present it in the story. Tommy has stayed in the community, a community with diminished opportunities for Tommy's generation, and has tried to make a life there. In some ways, little has changed between the times of Sybella and Tommy, but they had the nerve to run away, to rebel against slavery and the roles prescribed for them. The narrator ran away also, but his running was no rebellion and set no example for others. Before living life in the community where he really interacted with and influenced others, the narrator slipped away through a kind of intellectual and literary passing that benefited only him. Tommy and Sybella are less a part of the community's centering, conservative traditions than are some others, but they go further and draw from a radical stratum embedded a little more deeply in the tradition: they rebel. The narrator is neither centered more conservatively nor connected to tradition by his more rebellious actions.

The narrator receives great help from May and incorporates her voice and technique as an integral part of the story, but he finally tells the story of family and community tradition and connection himself. In the last several pages of “Homewood,” May tells part of the story, incorporating positive values of the black tradition, and the narrator tells part from his viewpoint. On the next to last page (204), he says that the story could end there, but May's voice pulls him along further. The narrator finally successfully completes the story and sends the “letter” to Tommy inside the final version. He finished the story in his own voice, with his own interpretation, his own special message to Tommy.

The book thus has a hopeful ending. The narrator does not tell a “stiff, incomplete” story as in “The Chinaman,” or remain confused and helplessly sad as in “Wide Missouri.” The narrator, John, moves closer to Wideman; he submerges himself in the tradition to the point where he can tell the story of Tommy and Sybella in his own folk-influenced voice and can face and creatively shape his own life decisions.

In Damballah, Wideman achieves a more uniform black voicing of contemporary and historical black problems than he did in Hiding Place and begins to shift back toward a focus on the black intellectual and his place in the black community. The characters are frequently speaking in their own folk voices, as in Hiding Place, but the difference is that the folk voices successfully project solutions to problems from the beginning and do not become bogged down in a mainstream modernist psychological alienation, as do Bess and Tommy in Hiding Place. In Damballah, Wideman is further from the stream-of-consciousness technique, with its internal focus, and is thus more removed from mainstream modernist form than he has ever been in his literary career.

The most thought-provoking aspect of Damballah, though, is Wideman's treatment of the intellectual quest. The intellectual-writer John is struggling for rapprochement with the black community and tries to project a voice deeply imbued with black cultural tradition. “The Beginning of Homewood” indicates that John has made great progress in his quest. Wideman himself has, of course, focused his literary imagination on the black cultural tradition in both Hiding Place and Damballah. John's closeness to Wideman gives Damballah a greater impact than it would have otherwise. Wideman extends this intellectual quest in Sent for You Yesterday (1983).

Principal Works

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Damballah 1981

*The Homewood Trilogy (novels and short fiction) 1985; also published as The Homewood Books, 1992

Fever: Twelve Stories 1989

All Stories Are True 1992

The Stories of John Edgar Wideman 1992

A Glance Away (novel) 1967

Hurry Home (novel) 1970

The Lynchers (novel) 1973

Hiding Place (novel) 1981

Sent for You Yesterday (novel) 1983

Brothers and Keepers (memoir) 1984

Reuben (novel) 1987

Philadelphia Fire (novel) 1990

Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society (nonfiction) 1994

The Cattle Killing (novel) 1996

Two Cities (novel) 1998

Hoop Roots (memoir) 2001

The Island: Martinique (travel memoir) 2003

*Includes Damballah, Hiding Place, and Sent for You Yesterday.

Randall Kenan (review date 1 January 1990)

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SOURCE: Kenan, Randall. “A Most Righteous Prayer.” The Nation 250, no. 1 (1 January 1990): 25-7.

[In the following review, Kenan discusses the defining characteristics of the stories comprising Fever: Twelve Stories.]

“Do not look for straightforward, linear steps from book to book,” wrote John Edgar Wideman in the 1985 preface to his Homewood Trilogy. “Think rather of circles within circles within circles, a stone dropped into a still pool, ripples and wavemotions.” In Fever [Fever: Twelve Stories], Wideman has troubled the water again, refining his already elliptical and dense prose; in the process he has reinvented black English and (re)made it, elegant, suave, as elastic as ever: “Ball be swishing with that good backspin, that good arch bringing it back, blip, blip, blip, three bounces and it's coming right back to Doc's hands like he got a string on the pill,” he writes in “Doc's Story,” a story about stories, a nigh-fantastical tale of a blind man and the man who inexplicably watches him and ponders over lost love.

Wideman began evolving the style evidenced in these stories in his Homewood Trilogy, most markedly in the 1983 PEN/Faulkner award-winning Sent for You Yesterday and further still in 1987's Reuben. It is his own patented stream of consciousness, sliding easily through tense and point of view; and, when it works, its power has the force of the most righteous prayer. It is as if he wrote his stories and then compressed them to a third of their original size. Eschewing quotation marks, Wideman has his speakers shift and shift and at times meld—as if into one mind, one voice.

The word haunting best describes the result. In each story some dim memory, some deep urge, some knowledge, some inescapable prophecy reaches through time or space. Voices whisper across voids; calls float over oceans.

These voices he often finds—like a child picking up pebbles on the beach—in fragments of history, news items, his own novels, even Bobby Short! Valaida Snow, the legendary trumpeter of the Jazz Era to whom the Queen of Denmark gave a golden trumpet, supplies perhaps the most chilling voice in “Valaida.” “Tell him,” she speaks from the grave, “they loved me at home too, a down-home girl from Chattanooga, Tennessee, who turned out the Apollo, not a mumbling word from wino heaven till they were on their feet hollering and clapping for more with the rest of the audience. … Yesteryears, yesterhours.” But the story turns into a What If: What if Valaida Snow, who was interned in a Nazi concentration camp for over a year, what if she had saved the life of a 13-year-old boy who would become a survivor? Cut then within the same story to an old man disgusted and indifferent toward life trying to tell the remarkable tale of how he had one day been saved by a “colored woman” to his equally disgusted and indifferent black cleaning woman who “has put on flesh for protection. To soften blows. To ease around corners.” The ironies do not merely abound, they cluster, almost fester—he, a Jew, tells her, a black woman, the story on Christmas Eve.

For irony is the tool Wideman is forever honing, sharpening, working with surgical precision. “Hostages,” the story of a woman whose husband is a captive of Arab terrorists, becomes an unraveling, a debunking of the concept of “prisoner.” Suddenly everything is to be viewed in a new light—marriage, sickness, materialism—and to be seen as imprisoning. An immigrant in a new land; to be black in America; to be a child in the care of parents: Mostly trouble haunts these characters, trouble as in tension between black and white, Arab and Jew, men and women. Wideman manages to transmute that trouble into some of his most challenging and powerful prose yet, in which everything is subject to ridicule or doubt.

Even his own fiction is fair game, as in “Surfiction,” where he takes on his own opaque, relentless, spiderwebby prose. It is a parody that is oddly more than a parody, a question within a question, a sly illumination—or is it yet more nasty tricks on the ever-gullible, at times contemptible, reader? He ponders: “Without authors whose last names begin with B, surfiction might not exist. B for Beckett, Barth, Burroughs, Barthes, Borges, Brautigan, Barthelme.” But even in his high-minded meta-play, amid the (de)analysis of fragments of Charles Chestnutt and his own journal, we get a nugget of the old tensions and ironies, for ultimately in this quagmire of twisted logic he slips in a story as old-fashioned as Gilgamesh, about a couple fighting over a diary.

And though it may seem like wordplay, “Surfiction” offers insights into some of Wideman's less opaque motives:

All goes swimmingly until a voice from the watermelon patch intrudes. … Recall your own reflection in the fun house mirror and the moment of doubt when you turn away and it turns away and you lose sight of it and it naturally enough loses sight of you and you wonder where it's going and where you're going in the wrinkling reflecting plate still laughing behind your back at someone.

Time and Space. Like present-day cosmologists, Wideman seems to have in mind not merely a blurring of the two concepts but their elimination. He metajokes about our Western cultural bias toward “clock time, calendar time,” to time “acting on us rather than through us” and “that tames space by manmade structures and with the I as center defines other people and other things by nature of their relationship to I rather than by the independent integrity of the order they may represent.” Wideman's true mission appears to be to replace the I at the center of all his stories, to make it subject to an internal order of things rather than to external structures and limitations. Unlike Ishmael Reed, his humor does not slice to the bone to the truth; Wideman's humor is sparse if not (at times) nonexistent. And unlike Amiri Baraka, his rage is far from militant; it is sublimated, almost repressed.

Nowhere in this collection is this more evident than in the title story. More a meditation than an eyewitness account, “Fever” centers around Philadelphia's yellow fever epidemic of the late eighteenth century. Snatching up bits and pieces of history here and there, he brilliantly creates an organism, like a New Age psychic channeler, that transports the sufferers from the 1700s to the present, and takes us back in time as well. Its scenes bring to mind images from Herzog's Nosferatu of a plague-ridden town debilitated, full of coffins, corpses, rats and decay: “A large woman, bloated into an even more cumbersome package by gases and liquids seething inside her body, had slipped from his grasp. … Catching against a rail, her body had slammed down and burst, spraying Wilcox like a fountain.” Yet without warning the story shifts to the present, to the aftermath of the 1985 MOVE massacre, to the voice of a black hospital orderly. It is as if Wideman is again playing games with us, forcing us to see the past and the present as one; how we are affected by what has gone before, not only in our thinking but in our acting and in our soul-deep believing. Science (knowledge) becomes a metaphor for understanding hate; disease, a euphemism for the plague visited upon the wrongs of the unholy.

And the voices. Wideman leads us to believe the main character of “Fever” to be none other than Richard Allen, who founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church. His voice, initially eighteenth-century and pious, merges with a chorus of victims, singing of guilt, of racism, of ignorance. Ultimately the voices question Allen—a freedman—for staying in Philadelphia, abandoning his wife and children, risking his life by working with the virus-infected, practically enslaving himself to strange, clueless physicians. And Allen can articulate no reason for staying to combat the “unpleasantness from Egypt.”

Not all of these stories sing as clearly. “The Statue of Liberty” seems particularly peculiar, a gratuitous walk on the prurient side, whose only purpose seems to be to shock for shock's sake. “Presents,” though powerful in spots, slips too close to cliché for comfort. Based on a song by rhythm and blues holy man Solomon Burke, it is a grandmother's prophecy of a child's rise to fame and fortune through music and his eventual, inevitable decline; an all-too-familiar story with no new insights. “The Tambourine Lady,” a light/dark-hearted play on the children's ditty “Step on a crack / break your mama's back,” amuses but does not linger. “Rock River,” on the other hand, returns once again to the conceit of the voice of the dead reaching back, this time after a husband's suicide while his best friend attempts to console the stolid widow. In the end pleasant, life-affirming memories overtake us, but leave us with more questions than resolutions.

More successful is “Little Brother,” a biography of a dog in the form of a conversation between two old characters from Homewood, Geraldine and Penny, a discourse that encompasses the here and the gone, man and animal alike. In “Concert” a jazzman's meditations on his mother's death become an elegant musical riff. And “When It's Time to Go” calls up once again the all-too-easy symbol of blindness, but this time Wideman lets loose the language like a snake in a cage of rats: “Light was just singing to me, Mama, telling me I didn't need no eyes. Wasn't no such thing as eyes less you call your knees and hands and shoulders eyes cause everything you got can hear the light, or touch it and everything you got is something to see with.” This tale of a blind boy whose witch mother cannot save him is also a thrice-told tale, but the language, the concentration, the shifting viewpoints, lift it above the mere or the hackneyed, transforming it into a story full of the incantatory power of a Zora Neale Hurston or a Virginia Woolf; a haunting yarn of magic and ways of being in the world.

Perhaps that is what these voices are speaking of: Ways of being in the world. Wideman wants us to see with our ears, to hear with our eyes, to smell with our hearts, to learn with our guts. Stop relying on “time” and “place,” he says. Recognize that we are all “I.” Wideman's characters all want something, desperately, something they cannot have, something inarticulable and inconceivable. This is the vision, that of a cruel world peopled by victims who go on and on unrequited, unavenged, unloved, that fuels Fever. A theme recurs in these stories: the mythic, Talmudic Lamed-Vov: “The Thirty Just Men set apart to suffer the reality humankind cannot bear? Saviors”; “God's hostages”; “Lamed-Vov are sponges drawing mankind's suffering into themselves”; “A thousand years is not long enough to thaw the agony each Lamed-Vov endures.” Wideman sees us all as Lamed-Vov—which accounts for these ever-present, insistent, wailing voices, rippling out through time.

Further Reading

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Baker, Lisa. “Storytelling and Democracy (in the Radical Sense): A Conversation with John Edgar Wideman.” African American Review 34, no. 2 (summer 2000): 263-72.

Wideman discusses the role of the African American artist in society.

TuSmith, Bonnie, ed. Conversations with John Edgar Wideman. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998, 224 p.

Collection of interviews with Wideman.


Byerman, Keith E. John Edgar Wideman: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998, 120 p.

Full-length critical study of Wideman's short fiction.

Hood, Cara. Review of Fever, by John Edgar Wideman. Voice Literary Supplement 18 (December 1989): 7-8.

Review that considers Fever: Twelve Stories as a collection of stories about storytelling.

Julien, Claude. “The Silent Man's Voice in ‘The Statue of Liberty’.” Callaloo 22, no. 3 (summer 1999): 740-49.

Explores the thematic concerns of Wideman's “The Statue of Liberty.”

Mbalia, Dorothea Drummond. John Edgar Wideman: Reclaiming the African Personality. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1995, 132 p.

Traces Wideman's literary development.

Poole, Francis. Review of Fever, by John Edgar Wideman. Library Journal 114, no. 18 (1 November 1989): 113.

Favorable review of Fever: Twelve Stories.

Additional coverage of Wideman's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African American Writers, Eds. 1, 2; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 10; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 4; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 3; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85–88; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 14, 42, 67, 109; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 5, 34, 36, 67, 122; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 33, 143; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural Authors; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; and Short Stories for Students, Vols. 6, 12.

Darryl Pinckney (review date 23 August 1991)

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SOURCE: Pinckney, Darryl. “'Cos I'm a So-o-oul Man.” Times Literary Supplement (23 August 1991): 19-20.

[In the following mixed assessment, Pinckney maintains that “the range of characters in his recent collection of stories, Fever: Twelve Stories, is agreeably broad, the situations are carefully realized; the short story is perhaps Wideman's true form.”]

Black writing in the United States is in full reaction against the psychological realism and apocalyptic fantasies of the 1960s that were a form of bringing news from the other, hidden, hip side of town. It is most commonly expressed as a matter of audience, alternative discourse, reclaiming black history, control of the word, or a return to black communal values now that humanism's mask of universality has been seen through. Hence the slyly innocent fabulations of Toni Morrison, or the outrageous historical revisionism of Ishmael Reed. The wish to be rid of the burden of being both artist and apostle of integration has defined black American writing since James Baldwin's pot-boilers. The impulse to look to what is considered authentic black life is hardly new, but it has come in phases since the Harlem Renaissance. Protest alternates with going back to the roots. In his day, Richard Wright expressed it as a class division, a choice between middle-class faiths and the “formless folk utterance”, the “sensualization” of suffering among the black masses.

Born in 1941, John Edgar Wideman, now a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, was educated at the University of Pennsylvania, became a Rhodes Scholar, and then put in his time at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. His early books—the first appeared in 1967—were very much in the mood of urban despair, but since then Wideman has accommodated the aesthetic of affirmation. Heavy with a sense of purpose, solemn in its evocation of the black family, mystical toward the black community (specifically Homewood, in his native Pittsburgh), Wideman's fiction has little humour and he is not greatly interested in what pleasure a reader may derive before he declares the circle of blood ties and racial bonds “unbroken”. He turns black speech into a difficult literary style.

Wideman suffers from a wish to prove that he can be both poetic and funky. “Claim the turf, wear it like a badge, yet keep my distance, be of the street but not in it.” Not one to overlook a single odour in the “stink of spring”, Wideman frequently enjoys unsavoury images, such as “he often felt like one of those huge, ugly pimples that sprouted regularly on his face. Sore to the touch, begging to be busted. … Anybody looked at him knew he was full of white, nasty pus.” But he is earnest about the pedigree of the narrative strategies he employs, a self-conscious combination of European modernism, the black oral tradition, and, most recently, the atmosphere of deconstruction and canon-bashing closing in on black academic judgments. The method that brought on the uncreated life of Dublin or Mississippi has, in Wideman's work, fitful licence, but the bill always comes due, the question of how well symbolism and stream of consciousness have been put to use. Wideman accepts the risks of his models, including the tendency to sink into art prose and pseudo-philosophical blather. The interest of his work lies not in its anxious design or ponderous surface meaning, but in the shifting sociology of attitudes. Every book is an elaborate vessel in which social truths about black urban life are buried.

Philadelphia Fire, Wideman's most recent novel, is based on the police action in 1985 against a small collective, Move, that advocated, among many things, destruction of “the system”. A police helicopter dropped a bomb on the roof of the fortified house occupied by Move, igniting drums of gasoline stored inside. Eleven members of the collective, five of them children, were killed, scores of homes were destroyed in the fire that burned out of control, and the damage in the neighbourhood was widespread. The mayor at that time was black, but, as Kathleen Cleaver has noted, Move's conflict with the police began with another bloody siege in 1978, and the manner in which the city responded to the later crisis had a great deal to do with the harsh way in which the police generally treated the black poor.

Wideman's novel is concerned with the aftermath of the conflagration. Cudjoe, a writer, ends his ten years of expatriate life on Mykonos to search for the boy who, in his version at least, was seen escaping the burning house. Characters float in and out: a woman who was an early member of the collective, a former classmate who cynically enjoys being part of the black administration. There are other voices: the child in the fire itself; a derelict who witnesses a suicidal leap from an office window and is later set on fire by marauding kids; and a member of a youth gang, Kaliban's Kiddie Korps, that has access to Uzis—“Money Power Things” is its slogan. But Cudjoe does very little investigation into the Move incident, so distracted is he by reflections on his easy life in Greece, his earlier life with his white wife, a string of sad visits to a former writing professor on Long Island, and the loss of 1960s idealism, and by regrets for his trusting pupils, a group of black children he helped to prepare for their park production of The Tempest that was rained out, whom he told:

De rail de tale. Disembarrass, disabuse, disburden—demonstrate conclusively that Mr Caliban's behind is clean and unencumbered, good as anybody else's. That the tail was a tale. Nothing more or less than an ill-intentioned big fat lie. And that when all is said and done, sound and fury separated with Euclidean niceness, with Derridian diddley-bop from the mess that signifies nothing, what you discover is the one with the tail was old mean landlord Mr prosperous Prospero who wielded without thought of God or man the merry ole cat-o'-nine-tails unmercifully whupping on your behind and still would be performing his convincing imitation of Simon Legree, of the beast this very moment, in this very classroom, cutting up, cutting down, laying on the stripes, if it weren't for me.

Critical commonplaces such as this abound in the novel as Cudjoe, accompanied by refrains from the poetry of Robert Hayden, a hit song by Aretha Franklin, and many other high and low cultural references, roams through the city, a journalist killing time, rediscovering the scenes of his youth and stumbling across those who stayed behind. The emphasis is not on the lives of black people in the city, but rather on their opposition to what city life in the US has become. “If the city is a man, a giant sprawled for miles on his back … then Cudjoe is deep within the giant's stomach, in a subway-surface car shuddering through stinking loops of gut, tunnels carved out of decaying flesh, a prisoner of rumbling innards that scream when trolleys pass over rails embedded in flesh.” Finally, at a memorial service for the Move bombing, Cudjoe is confronted by the ghosts of blacks who were beaten at an Independence Day rally in 1805.

In Philadelphia Fire, the random and institutional violence in the city, the low regard for life among the young, the cynicism and helplessness, transform the positive black perspective of holding on, “the story he must never stop singing”, into the saddest of consolations. Disorganized, fractured, inchoate, Wideman's parable about lost children and how adults have ruined the world for the young attempts too much. “Poison works its way through their veins into their brains.” The source of the misery is clarified in an essay inserted in the middle of the book that deals with another real life-tragedy: Wideman's younger son currently serving a life sentence for the murder of his room-mate on a camping field trip when he was sixteen. “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 than a shadow.”

In his recent flattering study of Wideman's work, Blackness and Modernism, James Coleman sees the “Homewood trilogy”—Hiding Place (1981), Damballah (1981), and Sent for You Yesterday (1983)—as showing that Wideman matured beyond the “pessimistic modernist worldview” and developed “a more positive black perspective”, but it is not clear what this amounts to, apart from the right to combine semantic opportunism about black history with a sense of he-found-in-stones-the-sermons-he-had-already-hidden-there.

Perhaps it is a relief for Wideman to explore the world of “touching, laughing, suffering black people”, given the distance from his family that his education and ambition entailed, a distance he tried to depict in his earlier work and later referred to in terms of having learned to identify with stories from the black neighbourhood. In his Homewood fictions a prodigal son usually makes an appearance, either a son whose formality distinguishes him from his methadone-maintained uncle in the bar, or a son who wants to let go and dance. “What seems to ramble”, Wideman reassures us, “begins to cohere when the listener understands the process, understands that 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.”

The Homewood that Wideman chronicles and cherishes is the setting for a family saga, complete with “A Begat Chart”. One's relations, as subject-matter, arrive ready-made with their facial characteristics and deep secrets. Everyone who writes about his background is bound to give a terrific spin to what is remembered or invented. But, instead of assuming archetypal proportions, Wideman's family members come across as caricatures. Either way there is a debilitating certainty that the wounded old lady hermit on the hill in Hiding Place will talk exactly like one, that the hustler who seeks refuge with her from the cops will speak as a hustler, that in Sent for You Yesterday the husband scuffling for his family will talk like a real man, with the forgivable masculine faults of drinking and gambling, and that his rogue piano-playing friend will answer with the traditional reckless virtue of the black musician about to be sacrificed in a hail of bullets. The inner monologues have a theatrical tone because they must live up to the reputation of black expression. The stories that Wideman transcribes or re-creates never shed their sense of being treasures brought down from the attic, shared on special occasions. Their value is that they exist, that their primary means of transmission borders on performance.

What would be moving on its own is obscured by Wideman's schematic interpretations, by a layering intended to reveal profundity. And his favourite metaphor for intense emotion is the rather perfunctory one of the scream, the scream behind a man's eyes, the scream chewing up a woman's lips. The literary ornamentation is unfortunate because Wideman has a genuine feeling for ghetto life, as demonstrated by the romanticism with which he writes about basketball, that totemic sport of the ghetto. There is nothing he doesn't know about the game, the delicacy of the moves, the rules of the school lot contests, the etiquette of hanging out on the side-lines, the music in the parks. At university, basketball was his identity and his refuge. Similarly, in Wideman there is more about the legacy of Vietnam, the damaged returning veteran, than one generally finds in contemporary black fiction.

Mostly, however, Wideman embellishes the lives of the working poor, the bitterness of sitting on a stoop every morning and waiting to be chosen for a job as a paper-hanger and resentment at being the wrong side of the tracks. Why black men from the ghetto get a certain look in their eyes and give up is a social truth that has been nearly lost in a turning inward upon the riches of belonging—a change accelerated by the impact of feminism on black writing. In Gayl Jones's novels of the 1970s, Corregidora and Eva's Man, there was no white side of town. This seemed, then, as original as her gift for vernacular speech and the boldness with which she treated matters between black men and black women. But the subsequent feminist extremes, culminating in Alice Walker's discovery of the goddess within her, combating the excesses of black manhood, distracted from the enduring problem of blacks in the general society.

Claude Brown, in Manchild in the Promised Land, was frank about the contempt his generation of hoodlums had for what they saw as the back-country, downtrodden ways of their parents. The break between generations was taken for granted when Brown was writing in the early 1960s. Brothers and Keepers (1985) helps to explain why Wideman attempts, almost as a pastoral mission, to compensate for this break in the urgent desire to bear witness, to prove the spiritual kinship of the present with the past and restore a kind of pride of ownership. It is as though he wanted to give something back to his immediate family because the attrition of years has taken away so much. So many of the stories and figures in Brothers and Keepers have been met before that it reads like a concordance to the Homewood trilogy. Though the book depends on Wideman's eclectic style, it is a non-fiction account of his relationship with his younger brother, who, involved in a robbery in 1975 during which a man was killed, was sentenced to life in prison.

Wideman discusses the brutality of the penal system and the effects of hard time, “a death by inches”, but what drives the book is how their lives diverged, what drew his brother to the life of the addict, thief and absentee father while he entered the “square world” of professional status, marriage to a white woman, and children in the back of the station wagon. Wideman takes himself to task for staking too much of what he was on what he would become, for looking forward to the day when he could look down on Homewood, and for merely teaching books about black consciousness in the quiet of the classroom while his brother was living it in the “real world”. In trying to come to terms with the waste, he reaches to define his brother as a rebel, one of the young black men of the 1960s who had “dynamite growing out of their skulls”.

Wideman confesses that he was embarrassed when his brother loudly sang along to a soul radio station in front of his white wife. In a previous book, Wideman had admitted to his brother in the preface that as a child he was reluctant to be seen enjoying watermelon from fear that to do so would mark him as an “instant nigger”, “black and drippy lipped”. It is as though Wideman must pay for the shame he once felt at his working-class roots by fervently embracing a concept of blackness “that would come to rest in the eyes; blackness a way of seeing and being seen”, much like one of his characters who thinks that having a string of babies by a number of men is a liberation from the notion that “crossing t's and dotting i's had something to do with becoming a human being and blackness was the chaos you had to whip into shape in order to be a person who counted”.

Motivated by family tragedy, Wideman corrected his assumptions. But, as it turned out, this embrace could be reduced to an abstraction by real-life events in your own safe back yard. His brother's case, then that of his son—the irony is not that the curse of the ghetto followed Wideman into his middle-class exile. The meaning, if there is one, is that trouble is arbitrary, indiscriminate; or that the two Americas are not as far apart as we like to think, or that disorder does not depend on class.

To find a Wideman black character not only jogging through a white neighbourhood or cleaning a former concentration camp victim's apartment, but also seen externally, from a white point of view, is, oddly enough, refreshing. The range of characters in his recent collection of stories, Fever [Fever: Twelve Stories], is agreeably broad, the situations are carefully realized; the short story is perhaps Wideman's true form. One story about basketball says more about black life than all his previous novels combined. But when not building around a specific encounter or inhabiting a particular voice, he indulges in academic exercises, texts rubbing against texts as if they were petals that could be bruised until they yielded the perfume of opaquely African values.

The question of how he once equated the black world with inferiority and entrance into the white world with salvation is not addressed, except by implication: that he was listening to the wrong cultural channels, that black life then didn't strike him as particularly nourishing. The change of heart was more than prepared for by the cultural climate. The dialect that carried a certain stigma in the days of Charles Chesnutt and Paul Laurence Dunbar, the Blues ethos that Langston Hughes defended, and the attention to black folklore of which Zora Neale Hurston was a pioneer, are part of the ascendant aesthetic. What had been portrayed as marginal, exotic, or local colour has been, for some time now, the proud orthodoxy foreordained by history. The difference between then and now is the trendiness and careerism of it all.

Michael Gorra (review date 14 June 1992)

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SOURCE: Gorra, Michael. “The Choral Voice of Homewood.” The New York Times Book Review (14 June 1992): 13.

[In the following favorable review of The Stories of John Edgar Wideman, Gorra compares Wideman's short fiction to that of William Faulkner.]

Any American fiction writer who sets the bulk of his work in the same place, or who draws repeatedly on the same characters, inevitably faces comparison with William Faulkner. With John Edgar Wideman's inner-city Pittsburgh neighborhood of Homewood that comparison is particularly apt, though not for those simple reasons alone.

It is appropriate because the stretched-to-the-breaking-point syntax with which Mr. Wideman captures his characters' inner lives seems at times an echo of Faulknerese. It is appropriate 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 that oral tradition they both write as their characters speak, in a language whose pith and vigor has not yet been worn into cliché. A basketball in Mr. Wideman's “Doc's Story” drops through a hoop “clean as new money”; a child in his “Everybody Knew Bubba Riff” gets asked if he has “got teeth in them feet boy chewing out the toes of your shoes.”

The comparison seems appropriate, too, because Mr. Wideman, like Faulkner, is better at creating a whole imagined world than at creating individual pieces of fiction. The Stories of John Edgar Wideman contains two earlier collections, Fever [Fever: Twelve Stories] (1989) and Damballah (1981), along with 10 new pieces grouped under the title All Stories Are True. “Damballah” was the first of Mr. Wideman's Homewood books, a group that includes his novel Sent for You Yesterday (1983), his memoir Brothers and Keepers (1984) and most of his short fiction. It contains a set of linked stories about the family of John French (the name of Mr. Wideman's maternal grandfather), and it is stronger as a whole than in any of its individual pieces. But those stories do stand as separate works—I can imagine reading them one by one in magazines and coming away satisfied.

That is not true of Mr. Wideman's newer and more explicitly autobiographical work. The richest pieces in All Stories Are True seem like jagged fragments ripped from a whole—deliberately rough-edged, in terms of both their material and their finish. “Backseat” starts with Mr. Wideman's memories of a former girlfriend whom he sees when he returns to Homewood for his grandmother's funeral. But it then slices back into his family's past: his grandmother cooking in the white folks' kitchen; her four husbands, two of them preachers; an uncle lost in World War II; a brother “in the joint” who has become a Muslim. But what binds that history to Mr. Wideman's memories of teen-age love in the back seat of the rusty car parked in his grandmother's backyard? The only thing holding the pieces of the story together is the associational power of memory. Page by page the story provides a superb rendering of moment-by-moment experience. As you read, that seems enough; finish it and you want something more.

Or do you? Put “Backseat” next to another visit to Homewood, recorded in the title piece of All Stories Are True, next to Mr. Wideman's mother talking on the front porch, remembering an old preacher at Homewood A.M.E. Zion, “black as coal and that's the color of everything he preached. Like his voice tar-brushed the Bible.” And as you read you begin to collate the two stories with each other, and both of them with other stories in this volume. They reinforce one another, slowly building up an image of a place, of a world—street corners, playground basketball, churches, bars and stores and street vendors and ever-branching family trees.


The more you read John Edgar Wideman, the more impressive he seems. And I suspect that as he has accumulated this body of work—and especially since Brothers and Keepers revealed how heavily he has drawn on his own family's past—he has come increasingly to loosen the structure of individual pieces, allowing himself a kind of open-ended irresolution, as if to suggest that nothing is ever really finished. That is risky, and it makes me suspect that new readers will at first find Mr. Wideman's work confusing, in much the same way as one's first taste of Faulkner can seem bewildering. But to my mind the rewards of his work more than repay the initial effort.

As a kind of odd corollary, the least impressive of Mr. Wideman's recent stories are those meant to stand on their own, bravura set pieces like “Newborn Thrown in Trash and Dies,” or “Signs,” about a young teacher's experience with anonymous racist hate mail. They are vivid enough, but they seem thin, tight, written to make a point. An exception is “Everybody Knows Bubba Riff,” a story done in a single unpunctuated sentence, a melody tossed from instrument to instrument, voice to voice, as mourners file past the casket of a young street hustler: “Bubba go down just like anybody else you bust a cap in his chest no man the word on the set is nobody knows who did it. …” It is the choral voice of Homewood.

Mr. Wideman has arranged his work in reverse chronological order, and so in reading one seems to go back in time, back into a more innocent past. Part of that is historical. The earlier stories tend to deal with Mr. Wideman's parents and grandparents; the distance from their time to the present can be suggested by comparing the disbelief with which the characters in “Damballah” react to finding a baby in a trash can with the world beyond the end of outrage in “Newborn Thrown in Trash and Dies.”

But the increasing anguish of Mr. Wideman's landscape seems to grow from a steadily darkening personal vision as well. The Stories of John Edgar Wideman is a rich collection. And as I write that, I am aware of the irony in my saying so, for much of what makes this collection so rich is its account of the pain and despair of the dead-end streets of America's cities. But it is also rich in language and the imaginative resourcefulness that can give one the strength to bear that pain.

Merle Rubin (excerpt date 10 July 1992)

SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. Review of The Stories of John Wideman, by John Edgar Wideman. Christian Science Monitor 84, no. 159 (10 July 1992): 10.

[In the following excerpt, Rubin offers a laudatory review of The Stories of John Edgar Wideman.]

For those who feel too pressured to read much fiction throughout the rest of the year, summer brings the time and leisure to settle down on the beach or in the backyard and lose yourself in the world of a writer's imagination.

The new collection of The Stories of John Edgar Wideman includes all the stories he has thus far written: those from his two previous collections (Damballah and Fever) [Fever: Twelve Stories], plus 11 new ones under the heading All Stories Are True.

Although most of Wideman's work is rooted in Homewood, the black section of his native Pittsburgh of which he writes so vividly and passionately, his range of style, form, and subject matter goes beyond that. “What He Saw” takes readers to a black township in South Africa, where a group of visiting journalists confront not only the violence and suffering they see, but questions about their own responsibility in choosing what to report.

“Hostages” ponders contemporary political issues and the value of human life. And “Surfiction” is a slyly entertaining parody of postmodern criticism in which Wideman mocks the antics of its high priests and his own previous susceptibility to them: “Which list,” as he remarks at one point, “further discloses a startling coincidence or perhaps the making of a scandal—one man working both sides of the Atlantic as a writer and critic explaining and praising his fiction as he creates it: Barth Barthes Barthelme.

Still, the heart of this collection is Homewood, and the characters based on Wideman's family, friends, and neighbors. It's a tough, raunchy world of appealing little boys who too often grow up to be swaggering bad guys, whose misguided need to play out a role lands them in prison; a world of devoted, loving mothers and quietly dignified grandmothers who have lived through experiences too powerful to put into words. But Wideman puts it all into words: slangy, elegant, harsh, tender, funny, angry, and eloquent.

Sven Birkerts (review date 13 July 1992)

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SOURCE: Birkerts, Sven. “The Art of Memory.” The New Republic 207 (13 July 1992): 42-9.

[In the following review, Birkerts asserts that Wideman is America's leading African American male writer and provides a thematic overview of his short stories.]

Success comes in different ways to different writers. Some may crash their way through with a big first book, and then spend years, even decades, trying to fulfill the promise. Others appear, disappear, and later come stumbling back. Then there are those who stoke a slow and steady fire, waiting for readers and critics to catch up with them. This has been John Edgar Wideman's way—though of course these things don't happen by design. To a large degree they just happen. The writer writes, publishes, and hopes that readers will buy what he has to sell.

Wideman, the author now of seven novels, three collections of stories, and Brothers and Keepers (1984), a personal documentary that is probably his best-known work, has been rewarded mostly with honors and reputation-building accolades. Alongside the fireworks of writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, his public reception has been downright humble. There are reasons for this. Wideman's prose is more demanding and his subject matter is less sexy. And black women writers have a much larger constituency of readers than their male counterparts.

But Wideman's train has been running on its own schedule, and it is pulling into the station. This is not so much because his newest work marks any special departure or culmination, but because the happy circumstance of two major gatherings, in The Homewood Books and The Stories of John Edgar Wideman, suddenly discloses the heft and value of what he has been doing all these years. The career has attained critical mass. Wideman is finally ready to fill the gaping hole marked “leading African-American male writer.”

I understand that when I invoke Morrison and Walker as yardstick figures for gauging Wideman's public reception, I consciously perpetuate what might be called the “segregationist” principle, according to which African-American writers are discussed alongside and in terms of one another. This, I realize, promotes the two culture split. But in truth there are two cultures, even though the greater part of, say, Morrison's or Walker's readership is probably white. The racial distinction is important. The explosion of African-American writing over the past few decades is forging a public literary culture where almost none existed before. At long last a comprehensive picture is emerging of what it is like and has been like to be black in this country. Each act of witness and exposure makes it easier for the next writer to step forward.

Interestingly, few of these works deal overtly with the encounter of black and white. They are, far more, testaments about black life within a fundamentally divided society. It is as if the excavation of the home turf must precede the interracial depictions (and indictments) that are sure to follow. And so long as this is the case, and so long as white writers concern themselves overwhelmingly with white characters in their fiction, the two-tier situation is likely to persist. At present it seems a necessary, if not a good, thing.

The core of Wideman's output has now been laid out conveniently before us. The Homewood Books comprise Damballah (1981), Hiding Place (1981), and Sent For You Yesterday (1984). The last two are novels, while Damballah, not so very different in texture or presentation, is billed as a story collection. All three, at Wideman's own instigation, were published as paperback originals—this marks their hardcover baptism. The Stories of John Edgar Wideman, meanwhile, offers new work in All Stories Are True, and also includes the author's two other books of stories, Fever [Fever: Twelve Stories] (1989) and Damballah.

Damballah is the linking element here. It is also, as it happens, the best place to begin reading the Wideman archive. For in these loosely linked narratives we not only meet the presiding figures of the author's imagination, but we also encounter in their first formulation the anecdotes and legends that will surface—fleshed out or told from other vantages—in the other books. Wideman is not an inventor. He has little of the fabulist in him and could never spin the kinds of webs that Morrison spins. He is, rather, a writer of very specific witness. He writes what he knows, and what he knows—the world bounded in his nutshell—is the family and kinship network of Pittsburgh's Homewood section. Homewood is a small place, a few dozen raggedy streets, but when seen with the historian's, or genealogist's, optic and inhabited by a spirit of high empathic susceptibility, it is place enough. Through his laminations of detail and his cunning manipulation of echoes, Wideman accomplishes for his Pittsburgh what William Kennedy has for his Albany: he fixes his place to the page as a permanent, and in many ways a universal, habitation.

“Damballah” is an ancient African divinity, and as part of the epigraph citation (from Maya Deren's Divine Horsemen: The Voodoo Gods of Haiti) has it: “One song invoking Damballah requests that he ‘Gather up the Family.’” Which is, in a sense, just what Wideman does, not only in this work but in his entire oeuvre. The complex family tree that he places before the text leaves no doubt that these are his own people, and that the stories, while allowing a few liberties, are true. What makes this work fiction is the author's way of burrowing into the identities of his various characters.

For Wideman, gathering the family does not mean setting out its extended tale in any chronological fashion. Quite the reverse: Wideman pursues the logic of intimate narration. That is, he stitches together the anecdotes from the family hoard, but does so as an insider would, dispensing with explanatory transitions and cutting back and forth through time in a way that almost assumes familiarity with the big picture. If there is a density about Wideman's page, it has less to do with stylistic complexity—though he does write a packed and muscular prose—than with the reader's need to keep scrambling for a new space-time foothold.

Damballah is the source book, even though many of the characters and incidents will only take on their full significance later, as passages in other books reinscribe their centrality. Here we first read about John French and Freeda Hollinger, Wideman's grandparents, who married and in the early 1900s had four children, one of whom, Lizabeth, is the author's mother. “Lizabeth, The Caterpillar Story” recounts a key episode. Freeda sits rocking a young Lizabeth on her lap, telling her a story about a caterpillar, when she suddenly sees her husband coming along the alley. She also sees that the man behind him has pulled a gun. Freeda promptly crashes her fist through the windowpane, alerting John French to danger, and thereby earning the scar that becomes a kind of bead on the family rosary. While nothing overtly tragic has happened, the moment captures something essential about the family's life: the nimbus of danger that John French wears, the resourcefulness and domestic protectiveness that Freeda embodies. The afternoon takes its place as one of the essential tales in the family repertoire.

Lizabeth, as a girl, loves to sit in Freeda's lap, and loves to listen to her reminisce about early days in Homewood, the times when “Cassina Way nothing but dirt. Crab apple trees and pear trees grew where you see all them shacks.” And Wideman in his turn loves to dizzy the reader with unexpected time switches, as in this parenthetical aside:

Lizabeth needs her mother's voice to make things real. (Years later when she will have grandchildren of her own and her mother and father both long dead Lizabeth will still be trying to understand why sometimes it takes someone's voice to make things real. She will be sitting in a room and the room full of her children and grandchildren and everybody eating and talking and laughing but she will be staring down a dark tunnel and that dark, empty tunnel is her life …)

The cadences map the circlings and repetitions of intimate discourse; they gradually connect us with the indescribable potency that lies at the core of all family life.

If the focus of the early stories falls on John French and Freeda and Lizabeth, the later pieces bring a more distressing present into view. It is a tragedy in the life of the real Wideman family that Robby, the author's younger brother, was arrested in 1976 for his part in a robbery, a crime that left one man dead at the scene. Wideman gave the event full-length treatment in his Brothers and Keepers, but it has obviously haunted his fiction-writing imagination as well. Indeed, as Wideman wrote in that book:

At about the time I was beginning to teach Afro-American literature at the University of Pennsylvania, back home on the streets of Pittsburgh Robby was living through the changes in black culture and consciousness I was reading about and discussing with my students in the quiet of the classroom. … I was trying to discover words to explain what was happening to black people. That my brother might have something to say about these matters never occurred to me.

By the time he wrote Damballah, however, he had discovered the words. In the story “Tommy,” Wideman plants himself for the first time in his brother's shoes, summoning up the rage and confusion that spawned the crime and accompanied the terrified escape attempt. He pushes in past the Black Power slogans of the day to expose the look and feel of a changed world. What was once a rough but cohesive community is now, at least in Tommy's eyes, a ravaged place from which hope has been barred. Drugs and violence, familiar specters of our own day, tyrannize the streets. It is the most dizzying time switch of all, the bisection of the molten flow of memory by the jagged tremors of a new urban reality. Tommy has not been able to escape as his brother did. Homewood comes to us filtered through his sense of entrapment:

It was a bitch in the world. Stone bitch. Feeling like Mister Tooth Decay crawling all sweaty out of the gray sheets. Mom could wash them every day, they still be gray. Like his underclothes. Like every mother fucking thing they had and would ever have. Doo Wah Diddy. The rake jerked three or four times through his bush. Left there as a decoration and weapon. You could fuck up a cat with those steel teeth. You could get the points sharp as needles. And draw it swift as Billy the Kid.

“Tommy” lays the ground for Hiding Place, the novel that was published the same year as Damballah.Hiding Place unfolds in a fairly simple contrapuntal narration. One line belongs to Bess, an old woman identified on the family tree as having been born in the 1880s (she is old enough to remember Sybela Owens, who escaped from slavery and made her way to Pittsburgh, where she and a man named Charlie Bell had twenty children and founded the Homewood dynasty). Bess lives alone in a derelict shack high up on Bruston Hill, the original family site, where she potters about and continues to mourn Eugene, her one son who died in the last days of the Pacific war.

The other line belongs to Tommy, who has taken refuge from the law in Bess's woodshed. The two are as unlike as can be—the wizened old survivor and the gangly young man with his towering Afro and the “fat nobby-toed shoes with heels as high as a woman's.” But behind the harshness of their interchanges we can locate the slightest filament of family tenderness. As Bess mutters to herself in one telling passage (Tommy has fallen asleep in her kitchen): “Crazy as a bed-bug but that don't make no nevermind cause I know all about you. Seen them rabbits in your eyes and grave-dust on them long feet. Where else you gon be but out there in my shed?” Wideman merely suggests the connection between Tommy and Bess's long-dead son; we feel it as the lightest prickling on the skin.

Sent For You Yesterday takes yet another vantage on the place and time of Homewood. Here Wideman, speaking as “Doot” (one of his many family nicknames), introduces his uncle Carl (Lizabeth's older brother), recreating scenes from Carl's boyhood friendship with Brother Tate, a piano-playing albino black, and Lucy, the hard-luck woman who has become his companion. Carl is a one-time drug user now reformed into a drinker, but the book is not about his habits or vices. Rather, we follow the slow, sad trolling of his memory and the jumbled processional of the many eras of his life. Doot is there to observe and record:

At certain moments Carl pauses. His eyes turn inward and he's listening rather than telling his story. The words stop. Nothing moves but his vacant eyes searching somewhere for something that will help him continue his tale, complete the frozen gesture. He's telling his own story, he knows his story better than anybody else, but in the long pauses as he sits motionless on a barstool in the Velvet Slipper, he's waiting for a witness. A voice to say amen. Waiting for one of the long gone old folks to catch his eye nod to him and say Yes. Yes. You got that right, boy.

And on it goes, the drift of time, the sudden flaring forth of the bygone. Out of the back-and-forth shuttling, out of the constant traffic with the sensuous particulars of the then and the now, Homewood rises as if seen through a stereopticon. The sheer abundance of its moods and vistas prohibits any simple tallying of themes. The books are, hackneyed as this may sound, about life: about making do in adversity, about the myriad ways in which people love, fight, celebrate, sin, repent. … Men and women are seen into with equal acuity and presented with compassion. Wideman's whole enterprise of recollecting and reanimating the past arises from a deep, one might even say scourging, love.

Since the completion of the Homewood cycle, Wideman has been working with new modes and approaches. With Brothers and Keepers he shifted his narrative vantage a few degrees to write the nonfiction account of his brother's crime, sifting the documentary portions together with his own anguished musings about the divergence of fates within one family. In 1989 he published Fever, another collection of stories. And the very next year came Philadelphia Fire, a bewilderingly fragmented but lyrically intense novel about one man's search, in the wake of the Move bombings, for clues about his own and his city's compromised past. Wideman was reaching for new material, trying to break the spell of his history with more urgent bulletins from the present. It was as if he had decided that however inexhaustible his store of material, he could not keep filling in his Homewood portrait for the rest of his writing life.

The Stories of John Edgar Wideman, unlike The Homewood Books, is arranged in reverse chronological order. The newest work, the previously unpublished All Stories Are True, is positioned first, followed by Fever;Damballah anchors the gathering. As it happens, the most powerful stories are the ones that carry the Homewood echo: Wideman is at his best when he culls directly from his experience. The tour de force of All Stories Are True is “Backseat,” an extended work that braids together vignettes about the life of his dying grandmother with memories of his own sexual initiation. His return to the grandmother's house sparks up memories of his first lover, a girl named Wanda who was the daughter of his grandmother's tenant. The prose is dazzling. Wideman telescopes the whole world of Homewood into his sweeping sentences; he runs the keyboard past to present and back with true stylistic dash, culminating in a burst of sexual surprise regained:

What I wasn't ready for was the way things speeded up and tangled up, her body with mine, mine with hers, legs, hair, fingers, touching and moaning, little increments of mixed-up back-and-forth sallies, then a landslide, stuff I'd only imagined or read in stolen paperbacks, or tried on myself locked in the bathroom or day-dreamed under the covers when I thought my younger brother Otis had finally stopped flopping and farting for the night and was snoring himself to oblivion on his side of the bed. Her smells and wetness, squeezing, opening. Starting slowly inch by inch, amazed at what I was seeing, at how simple it was once you got started, and trying to prolong, imprint, and hurry at the same time everything new and incredible and scaring the shit out of me while I enjoyed it to death.

The past-obsession of “Backseat” is an exception. By and large the stories that draw on the author's life have a present-day edge. The title piece is a heartbreaking account of visits by Wideman and his mother to the prison where Wideman's brother is serving his term. And “Signs” narrates the chilling stages in the persecution of a young graduate student by a phantom figure who leaves notes and signs for her to find, with messages like Nig bitch go home. Another story, “What He Saw,” restages a terrifying interlude during a visit to South Africa. We find Wideman vigorously contesting the gravity that kept pulling him back into the realm of family legend.

While the stories feel a bit thinner than the earlier material—they lack the sepia lyricism that the past confers—they are redeemed by the relevance of their racial insights. Squarely, and without histrionics, Wideman communicates the gradations of fear and hopelessness felt by his characters. Racism exists and will not soon disappear. As Kendra, the student in “Signs,” realizes after finding a Whites Only notice affixed to the bathroom in the grad dorm:

You couldn't just breeze by it. No more than you could breeze by an old lover in the cafeteria in the morning having coffee with another woman. You were entangled. Like her toes in the faucet. Whatever you did, you were affecting the temperature of the water. Toes twisting or toes frozen, you implicated.

Blacks and whites alike are caught in this tense and baffled entanglement. The segregationist ethos no longer works. For Kendra the dissonance becomes overwhelming—denial erupts and she ends by convincing herself that the incidents never happened. In another story, “A Voice Foretold,” the black narrator accompanies a white photographer into a tenement and tries to overcome his hatred of him, later conceding: “I share his hurt, his compassion, curiosity, the weight of memory he wears around his neck on a strap.” There are no easy stances, and few simplifying bromides. A keen sense of sorrow and a will to understand the alien perspective mitigate what might in other hands emerge as a chronicle of hopelessness.

Alas, it must be said that some of the other stories, in this grouping as well as in Fever, have at times a strained, literary feel. We find ourselves in the hands of a virtuoso stylist with an idea, one who is prone (Wideman was an all-Ivy League basketball star) to dribble behind the back when no one is covering him. “Everybody Knew Bubba Riff,” for instance, spins a ten-page story out of a single hemorrhaging sentence: “Voices are a river you step in once and again never the same Bubba here you are dead boy dead dead dead nigger with spooky Boris Karloff powder caked on your face boy …” And “Surfiction,” in Fever, fashions a collage from a professor's extratextual meanderings and a post-structuralist dissection of a work by Charles Chestnutt. There are some intriguing fillips, but the piece hardly stands up alongside the author's more straightforward offerings.

As Damballah reminds us, Wideman may not be a master of the classic short story, but he is a sublime storyteller. When he works in extended sequences, free from the demands of formal plot architecture, he is unexcelled. And this collection, my cavils aside, shows the writer working at full muscle, tunneling through the past to connect with the ore rifts of generational experience, but also exposing rifts of the other kind—the societal rifts that have defined so much about black culture in this country and elsewhere. Reading Wideman's collections presents us with a graph of atmospheric changes in black cultural life. Our job is to chalk on the overlay graph, the one that shows the political and economic depredations by the powers that be. As Homewood has gone, so has the nation.

As I suggested at the outset, there has been for some years a vacancy at the table of African-American letters. In one sense, of course, it is nonsensical to speak in terms of “leading” this and “foremost” that. But we do it anyway. And while any number of black women writers have staked a claim to the distaff title, the males have not generated a similar excitement. We have had no Ellisons, Wrights, or Baldwins in recent memory. Writers like Ishmael Reed, John A. Williams, Charles Johnson, David Bradley, and Al Young have all done vital work in fiction, but none has manifested that cumulative solidity—not yet—to make them inheritors of the mantle.

On the basis of the gathered evidence, I would say that John Edgar Wideman has. Though he has not sought the public spokesman's role, he has certainly been having his say. His depictions have evolved into an ever more comprehensive picture of black American life in our time, and they have done so sanely and empathically. The work is balanced—humanly balanced—with extreme scenarios taking their place alongside the evocations of more prosaic domesticity. Through it all there is a feeling of life pushing on with unstemmed momentum.

Wideman may not be a writer bent upon positions and polemics. He feels too strongly the novelist's traditional piety before the workings of fate in individual lives. This does not mean, however, that he cannot get angered and righteous about the miasma of our racial relations. (Philadelphia Fire crackles with its narrator's rage at the hypocrisy and corruption of the white power structure.) But Wideman's vision charges him to make constant provision for love and goodness too. The urge is toward inclusiveness, not accommodation. He is building a picture of the world the hard way—person by person, life by life. He is now our leading black male writer and (casting the nonsense of these divisions aside) one of our very finest writers, period.

Judith Rosen (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Rosen, Judith. “John Edgar Wideman.” In Writing for Your Life, edited by Sybil Steinberg, pp. 530-35. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.

[In the following essay, Rosen describes an interview with Wideman in which the author discusses the major thematic concerns of his stories and his insistence on publishing his fiction in paperback form.]

John Edgar Wideman is a man who disdains labels, who refuses to allow either his life or art to be boxed in or dismissed by descriptive terms like “black writer.” The problem, he says, “is that it can be a kind of back-handed compliment. Are you being ghettoized at the same time as you are being praised?”

His writing, too, refuses to be pigeonholed. He has written one work of nonfiction, Brothers and Keepers, which was nominated for the National Book Award; three novels, including the PEN/Faulkner Award-winning Sent for You Yesterday; and two collections of stories. In addition, he is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he has taught for the past three years.

But Wideman the writer/professor is inextricable from Wideman the man dogged by tragic past, which is ever present in his work. In Brothers and Keepers, Hiding Place and Damballah especially, he has tried to better understand the twists of fate that have made him what he is, while his brother, Robby, is serving a lifetime prison sentence.

On this beautiful fall afternoon, we have come to Wideman's newly built house on the outskirts of Amherst not to dwell on the “time capsules of his past” but to speak of his life as a writer and the publication of his book Fever [Fever: Twelve Stories] (Holt), a breathtaking collection of 12 stories written primarily over the past few years.

A tall, handsome man in his late 40s, Wideman retains the physique of the basketball star he once was. (During his undergraduate days at the University of Pennsylvania, he not only played all-Ivy basketball but also ran track.) The basketball hoop is still very much with him; materially, at the edge of the driveway of his home in western Massachusetts; metaphysically, in his stories, which frequently feature a hoop and the male camaraderie associated with team sports.

We sit in Wideman's book-lined study overlooking the woods as he talks about Fever, which he regards as “his first collection per se.” For him, the earlier Damballah—reissued by Vintage last fall along with the other two volumes in the Homewood trilogy, Sent for You Yesterday and Hiding Place—is closer to a novel with its discernible beginning, middle and end.

“These stories are more miscellaneous,” he explains. “The key story, the pivotal story, is ‘Fever.’ I see the others as refractions of the material gathered there. All the stories are about a kind of illness or trouble in the air. People aren't talking to one another or are having a difficult time talking to one another. There's misunderstanding, not only on an individual level but on a cultural level. These stories are also about ways of combating that malaise through love, through talk, through rituals that families create.”

The malaise of which Wideman speaks cuts backwards and forwards into the past, into the present, because of the very ambiguity of time, of history, of fact. (“I never know if I'm writing fiction or nonfiction,” he remarks several times throughout the interview when speaking of his stories and books.) And that very ambiguity accounts for much of the bite in “Fever,” which serves as a bridge to his forthcoming novel, Philadelphia Fire, due out from Holt in the fall of 1990.

On one hand the plague described in “Fever” is a historical fact of colonial Philadelphia; on the other hand it provides a powerful fictional prelude to the MOVE bombing that destroyed an entire city block in 1985.

That the story should float so freely from one period to another is, for Wideman, what makes it work: “It shouldn't be tied to any historical period, because it starts in this very room. I was looking out there, out this window, when I saw the snow, and that's where the story starts.”

It is no coincidence, then, that this and other stories in the collection achieve a certain timelessness. “Stories are a way of keeping people alive,” says the author, “not only the ones who tell the story, but the ones who lived before. You talk about authors being immortal, but there's not only the story, there are the people inside the story who are kept alive.”

Wideman thrives on the potential for experimentation in storytelling. “How does one person tell a story that is quite meaningful to that person but is really someone else's story? What does it mean for people to carry around stories in their heads, little time capsules from the past? Yet if I'm telling it to you, it's present.”

Elsewhere, in Brothers and Keepers, he writes about the pointlessness of telling stories in strict chronological sequence, as “one thing happening first and opening the way for another and another. … You never know exactly when something begins. The more you delve and backtrack and think, the clearer it becomes that nothing has a discrete, independent history; people and events take shape not in orderly, chronological sequence but in relation to other forces and events, tangled skeins of necessity and interdependence and chance that after all could have produced only one result: what is.”

As the interview goes on it becomes obvious that time, like race, is one of the many barriers that Wideman seeks to overcome with his art. “Stories break down our ordinary ways of conceptualizing reality. Because when we talk about what's alive and what's dead, what's past and what's future, male/female, all these dichotomies that we need in order to talk, they're not really very accurate or descriptive.

“On one level of language we do that kind of crude conceptualizing, labeling, and it's necessary. But language can break down these categories, free us. So that we suddenly realize that past and future are not different. That living and dead are kind of arbitrary categories.” Switching gears, he adds with a smile, “Why can't a blind man play basketball?” referring to the central image of “Doc's Story,” the first offering in Fever.

With this deceptively simple query, he opens a Pandora's box of questions about some of our most basic assumptions about what people can and cannot be, do or say. Wideman himself has consciously attempted to break stereotypes. “If somebody told me I couldn't do something, that was often a good reason to go ahead and try to do it. And I got satisfaction out of that. On the other hand, as I get older I think I do things less because I'm oriented toward the outside, toward what somebody's thinking, than because I have some inner drive. But it often works out to the same kind of iconoclasm. Because if my goals are unusual and I accomplish them, then they'll be noticeable and will have the same effect as consciously trying to break a mold.”

It's only natural that Wideman challenges the boundaries of writing. In “Fever” the narration passes back and forth from white to black, male to female, young to old. The rhythms beneath the prose also evoke a sense of flexibility, infused with lyrical sounds ranging from gospel singing to Rachmaninoff.

His home is filled with music as well as books. For him, “music breaks down the racial criteria by which we judge so much that goes on in our culture.”

Wideman's prose seems to sing with cadences, too, especially those more typically found in oral storytelling traditions, a fact that he explains by describing his writing process. First come the many hours of thinking. (“I give myself space to imagine. I work really hard to get childlike, to get innocent.”) Next he writes everything out longhand with his trusty Bic pen, then reads it aloud to Judy, his wife of 24 years, who not only types his work (the computer is kept in her study upstairs) but acts as his editor. “There's almost an umbilical relationship between Judy and me. She's always typed what I write and put it in an objective form. I'm very dependent on her willingness to go through that process with me. It's a real luxury to have that kind of closeness.”

But a literary confidante is not his only luxury. Some would say that his career has been charmed. Unlike most would-be authors, he earned the attention of a distinguished editor, Hiram Haydn, before he even penned the first word of his first book. This happened in 1963, when he and another college graduate on the West Coast became the first blacks in 50 years to be awarded Rhodes scholarships. In newspaper interviews, Wideman was asked what he wanted to do with his life and responded: to be a writer.

Haydn's son spotted one of those news stories and said to his father, who was then editor of the American Scholar and an editor at Random House, “‘You always say that you want to help young writers. Why don't you help him?’ So he sent me a letter,” Wideman recalls, “The first time I had 30 pages, I sent something off to him.” From those pages came Wideman's first book, A Glance Away, which was published in 1967, when he was just 26 years old. Hurry Home and The Lynchers followed soon afterward.

Wideman believes that such fortune is unlikely to strike today. “Now it's real tough to get published and to publish well. We're in a superstar syndrome just like in the movies. A book is either a big book or no book at all.”

In Wideman's case it took an eight-year hiatus and the release of Brothers and Keepers (his first book with Holt) for him to achieve the type of media attention that sells books in a big way. Although that book was featured on 60 Minutes, the three novels that he wrote in the early 1980s following Robby's arrest, and which later became the Homewood trilogy, were published to little fanfare. To some extent, the disappointing reception might be attributed, he believes, to the tendency of nonfiction to outsell fiction. More importantly, however, Wideman attempted to put some publishing stereotypes to rest by insisting that Avon issue the three novels as paperback originals.

“I realize that they were set in Homewood [a black ghetto of Pittsburgh, which remains his spiritual home] and that they are about black families—books nobody I knew could afford to buy. So I thought, why not go paperback? Paperback because it's cheaper, and because I had experienced the pointlessness of doing hardback novels without huge advances and just a few small printings in the beginning. Those just disappear.”

Looking back, Wideman acknowledges his naïveté, yet he is also proud that those books were among the first, possibly the first, paperback fiction originals to be reviewed extensively in the New York Times. The author has nothing but praise for his agent, Andrew Wylie, who numbers Beckett and Rushdie among his clients, and who has helped steer Wideman's career over the past 10 years. Wideman considers him an editor in the Maxwell Perkins tradition, and applauds his determination to get “decent money for good writing … not just a polite smile.”

Nonetheless, as a writer, Wideman is not content with what he perceives as business as usual. “Each book is treated as a commodity. This is particularly a problem for minority writers.” He would like to see a new approach to book marketing that would look at who in the black community buys books, rather than ignoring that audience because conventional wisdom dictates that black people don't buy books.

But despite the statistics and the odds against minority writers—or perhaps because of them—Wideman, a man who likes to compete, has managed to make his writing stand out by turning the tragic and joyful sides of life into enduring works of art.

James Wood (review date 7 May 1993)

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SOURCE: Wood, James. “The Voices of Homewood.” Times Literary Supplement (7 May 1993): 21.

[In the following mixed review, Wood provides a stylistic analysis of the stories in All Stories Are True.]

To make writing flow like speech—to make a pool seem like a stream—may be the hardest thing in fiction. For it is the old difficulty of careful dishevelment: to get the drift of speech without too much float, the slop of detail and imprecision without surrendering selection and form, to sound unliterary only by the most literary means.

This is what John Edgar Wideman's stories of African-American speech attempt, and at their worst they can seem too dishevelled and too careful. In Wideman's hands, the traditional narrated short story, that rather prim parishioner, becomes a junction of street-voices (the streets in this case being the black section of Pittsburgh known as Homewood). There are no quotation marks in these stories, and in a sense there is no narrator—just a crowd of voices, with the narrative handed round, like a pipe, from speaker to speaker. Sometimes a new voice appears after each paragraph, sometimes after a page or two. There are lapses, repetitions, refrains. The effect is a kind of sleeplessness, and one reads these stories in a swoon, and sometimes a frenzy, of continuousness.

It feels like a new kind of short-story writing; alas, it must run all the old risks. [In All Stories Are True] Wideman is a bewildering mixture of the brilliant and the ordinary. Homewood—his Dublin, his patch—is a fierce and intricate presence in these stories, a place of hardship and perseverance. But Wideman is not as good at loose oral poetry as, to judge from its dominance in his writing, he must imagine himself to be. Here, for instance, in the title-story, a man recalls his brother, who is in prison.

My brother's arms are prison arms. The kind you see in the street that clue you where a young brother's been spending his time. Bulging biceps, the rippled look of ropy sinews and cords of muscle snaking around the bones. Skinned. Excess flesh boiled away in this cauldron. Must be noisy as a construction site where the weightlifters hang out in the prison yard. Metal clanking. Grunts and groans. Iron pumped till shoulders and chests swell to the bursting point. Men fashioning arms thick enough to wrestle fate, hold off the pressure of walls and bars always bearing down. Large. Big. Nothing else to do all day. Size one measure of time served. Serious time. Bodies honed to stop-time perfection, beyond vulnerability and pain. I see them in their sun-scoured playground sprawled like dazed children.

This is characteristic. It wants to have the pulse of the oral, but is in fact as literary as a sestina, and it is unable to hide its literariness. Those verbs “snaking” and “fashioning”; that word “cauldron”; that very deliberate repetitiveness, so unlike the darting repetitions of speech; the sentimental grandiosity of men “fashioning arms thick enough to wrestle fate”. This is not a man talking, but writing. But then, at the last moment, as Wideman moves from speech to something like conventional narrative, he produces a sudden brilliance: “I see them in their sun-scoured playground sprawled like dazed children”, and one is moved, after the talk of wasted muscularity, by the notion of childishness.

The suspicion grows, as one reads further, that Wideman is at his most literary when attempting to be most “oral”, and that he is most natural when calmly accepting the traditional burdens and formalities of third-person narration. In “Backseat”, he writes autobiographically about the Wideman family in Pittsburgh, and about the death of his grandmother. The story opens with a fine, conventional evocation of lovemaking in the back of a 1946 Lincoln Continental (“We made love in the belly of the whale”). The story makes good, plain progress, until Wideman again attempts his oral stutter, his imitation of a mind at thought, imagining his grandmother in hospital: “Skin and bones. She's down to skin and bone. Wasting away. We thought she'd live forever. She'd be sick, real sick but she always came back. Flesh has deserted her now.” But that last droopy sentence belongs not to thought but to bad adolescent poetry.

Compare Wideman's attempts to the mastery of Toni Morrison's spoken narration. In Beloved, Sethe remembers her life as a slave, her “marriage” to Halle, and her extraordinary makeshift wedding-gown, a patchwork of cloth stolen from her mistress:

The top was from two pillow cases in her mending basket. The front of the skirt was a dresser scarf a candle fell on and burnt a hole in, and one of her old sashes we used to test the flatiron on. Now the back was a problem for the longest time. Seem like I couldn't find a thing that wouldn't be missed right away. … Finally I took the mosquito netting from a nail out the barn. We used it to strain jelly through. … And there I was, in the worst-looking gown you could imagine. Only my wool shawl kept me from looking like a haint pedding. I wasn't but fourteen years old, so I reckon that's why I was so proud of myself.

In place of Wideman's repetitions, Morrison offers something which feels like speech but is also a narrative, driven, detailed and exact.

Yet, for all this, Wideman is worth staying with. He has moments of aeration, sudden openings of natural power. Sometimes these are visual, as when in “Concert”, a man watching a band dressed in black tie sees “how the starched white shirtfronts sever their dark heads. Canonballs dropped in the snow.” Elsewhere, lovely strange words appear: jook, brammed, sassing, splib. More often, the moments of feeling are achieved, as in Dreiser's fiction, in spite of a sluggish language. At the end of the title-story, after much meandering, everything suddenly tightens. We are standing in a prison, and the narrator notices that a leaf is being blown high up over the prison walls. Others notice it, and soon people are cheering: “that leaf had a whole lot of fans when it sailed over the wall. Would have thought people cheering for the Steelers or somebody's lottery number hit. … After watching it a while you know that leaf was flying out of here on its mind. Every little whip and twist and bounce starts to matter. … Whole visiting yard whooping and hollering when it finally blew over the wall.” In a second, Wideman's weaknesses have become virtues: we are pulled along the slow rope of oral narration, but this time without frustration, for a moment of delicacy is building, and we need to feel it grow; above all, Wideman's sentimentality—and this is a sentimental passage—seems courageous, not an excuse.

This book contains stories from three collections (1981, 1989 and 1992). His earlier stories, in particular, those from his first collection, seem to mix formal control and oral raggedness more properly. Many of them are shaped towards such moments, episodes when an entire story is suddenly illuminated; but it seems a shame that the reader must, as it were, stay up all night for these daylight gleams.

Doreatha Drummond Mbalia (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Mbalia, Doreatha Drummond. “‘How Would They Know?’: Conclusion.” In John Edgar Wideman: Reclaiming the African Personality, pp. 113-21. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Mbalia compares Wideman's earlier stories to his later ones.]

Just as I had completed what I hoped to be the next to the last draft of this work, Wideman published his third collection of short stories, The Stories of John Edgar Wideman. I read the New York Times review of the collection before I bought it. In fact, it was the review which determined for me the necessity to include the collection in this work. For the review emphasized the beauty of the older, Homewood stories, implied in fact that the works included in the Homewood Trilogy were more lyrical and thus more powerful works of art than the more recent ones included in the new collection:

Many non-Homewood stories in this volume tackle the thorny subject of relations between the races … these stories are fairly conventional tales that could have been written by any competent graduate of a fiction-writing class. They lack the assurance of the Homewood stories and their ease of language and liberty of form.1

I was doubtful. How can the works produced by Wideman in his early, European-centered period be more powerful than those written after he had reclaimed his African Personality? It would be like saying a blind person could see better when he was blind than when he regained his sight. Of course, the critic's view is not one that is African-centered. Otherwise it would be more likely that the criticism would have been just the opposite: “Though lyrical Wideman's early Homewood stories lack the potency and relevancy of the new stories included in his recent collection.” Interestingly, the critic reveals that for him or her the appeal of the Homewood stories rests in part on their “Faulkneresque” quality.

Before attempting to classify these new stories as better or worse than Wideman's earlier ones, perhaps it would be useful to discuss comments such as “fairly conventional tales that could have been written by any competent graduate of a fiction writing class” and “lack the assurance of the Homewood stories and their ease of language and liberty of form”. Is the choice of subjects or the language of the graduate student being measured? According to Frantz Fanon, “To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture. The Antilles Negro who wants to be white will be the whiter as he gains mastery of the cultural tool that language is.”2 That Wideman's language (style, in this case) in these stories is not Faulkneresque is a credit to him since it signifies his rejection of the western literary standards he had earlier embraced. The language (the use of the English language, in this case) of the graduate student must reflect good grammar and writing skills or else s/he would not be labeled “competent.” To call stories which have as their subject matter apartheid, teenage pregnancy, and infanticide “fairly conventional tales” seems inaccurate as well.

Though I admit that I do not know what is meant by “ease of language” since “ease” means freedom from pain and only animals experience pain, “liberty of form” suggests creative narrative form. Structurally, the stories in this collection are Wideman's most creative, beginning with the use of lower case letters for its title and for the author's name. In this work, more than in the earlier ones, Wideman enlists structure in service of theme. “I'm no higher, no bigger, than the people whom I represent,” he announces.

Clearly, Wideman demonstrates an increased consciousness of himself as an African in this collection. In fact, these recent stories almost pick up where Philadelphia Fire leaves off. Philadelphia Fire demonstrated Wideman's growing concern for African people in general, not just those of his family. In that work, he began to ask himself the “cause” question concerning the race: What is the cause of the African's exploitation and oppression? His answer revolved around the Prosperos, those early European capitalists, or agents of capitalists, who went around “discovering,” exploiting, and oppressing other people for profit. In these new stories Wideman continues to probe the cause question by first looking at what happened to himself; then by looking at those like Robby, those not so conditioned by “the system”, who grew up in Homewood; and finally by looking at what's happening to African people worldwide.

In “Backseat” Wideman gives us a glimpse of his early lessons in how not to be an African. He is taken by his paternal grandmother to the home of the Europeans she maids for because they have heard about how smart he is. While eating breakfast with them, his grandmother maiding all the while, he is so scared, so afraid of doing a “Nigger” thing that he eats what he hates: soft scrambled eggs (35).3 His adult perspective on his conditioning is all different now from what it was in early works, including those in the Homewood series. Unlike the man/boy in “Across the Wide Missouri,” Wideman's view of his father and his father image, Clark Gable, is at odds. Now this “white man tall in the saddle calling all the shots” is likened to those capitalists who have exploited and oppressed Africans and other people of color. He is the “Great White Father,” this “white man tall in the saddle” who thinks of the world as “his world” (29). Wideman also learns that his “opportunity” to leave Homewood does not mean that everyone has that same opportunity, no matter how qualified they are, or that Homewood will benefit from that opportunity. Being “the only one” of your kind not only robs you of your identity, but also does nothing for the rest of the African world: “I thought when I returned home one time it would be different. I didn't know exactly how but maybe better somehow” (“Everybody knew bubba riff,” 72). One of his old running buddies “schools him” that his leaving didn't change things for them or Homewood: “cause everybody knows the way it goes moving west mister moving on out bro up and out to star time don't fuck with the product” (73). The language, in slang and elliptical, reinforces the notion of just how broken up things are in Homewood. Far from making conditions better, opportunities for a few Africans have often served to rob the African communities of their most valuable resources. Those with the most potential to give and to share have been extracted from the communities just as the slave trade robbed Africa's best, those who were between the ages of five and thirty-five, and left the infirm and the elderly to survive as best they could.

The reader gets a better glimpse of Wideman's increased understanding of the cycle of oppression experienced by African people when he discusses the future of African males:

all the brothers got a chain round they necks and a number on the chain and somebody pulling numbers daily bang bang down you go it's just a matter of time bloods be extinct you know like them endangered species and shit don't laugh it's true we ought to fire up a campaign shit they got one for elephants and whales and ring-tailed sap-sucking woody woodpeckers why not posters and TV ads and buttons and T-shirts S.O.N. Save Our Niggers


The passage lacks punctuation; sentences are all run together suggesting the chaos and decay of African communities and the loss of African values and lives. Structurally, then, the passage reinforces the idea of oppression in the African communities that Wideman is attempting to convey.

Rodney King is an example of one of those “black boys” who fights in U.S. wars, manages to stay alive, and then comes back to potential or actual extinction. Who else is Wideman referring to below as the “black man beat to his knees by a whole posse of cracker cops”?

Then what will those black boys think who risked their lives and lost their lives to keep a grin on the face of the man who rode Willie Horton bareback to the White House. Twelve, fourteen cops on TV beating that boy with sticks long as their legs. Our young men not even home good from the war yet. What you think they're thinking when they see a black man beat to his knees by a whole posse of cracker cops. Somebody ought to tell them boys, ought to have told me, it happens every time. After every war. Oh yeah. They tell us march off and fight in some jungle or desert. Be heroes and save our behinds. We'll be here rooting for you. But when you come back across the pond, if you make it back, don't forget where you are. You ain't no hero here. You know what you are here. And in case you don't remember, here's a little reminder. A forget-me-knot upside your nappy head. Bop bop a loo bop. Bop bam boom. Rolling around on the pavement beat half to death just in time to welcome our boys home.

(“Backseat,” 28-29)

Wideman is not just concerned about the African male, but also African children, the most vulnerable sector of the world. His most creative work to date, “Newborn thrown in trash and dies” is a fine example of just how much Wideman has reclaimed his African Personality. The voice, we discover well into the story, is that of the newborn of the title, an infant girl thrown forty-five feet out of a window into a trash bin. Her material conditions in life, her environment, are so horrendous that in just the time it takes her to be born and her nineteen-year old mother to throw her away, she encrues the intelligence of an elder. Out of the mouth of babes, or so they say. It is this “they” who are to blame for the conditions in which she is born and dies: “They say you see your whole life pass in review the instant before you die. How would they know” (120). It is a questioning/probing voice (the baby girl's and Wideman's), the voice of a thinking person free of the chains that have conditioned the African's mind for so long. (The infant has not been living long enough to be brainwashed and Wideman's “brain” has just been freed.) This freedom allows the narrator to look at U.S. society without blinders on.4

Born in one of the housing projects that breeds disaster, the infant uses the dwelling to size up the nature of capitalism in the U.S. Each floor symbolizes a particular class in the society. Using her quick downward flight to analyze the nature of each of these classes, she understands quite clearly that “each floor exists and the life on it is real, whether we pause to notice or not” (125). Appropriately, the bottom floor, the foundation of the building, is the most corrupt floor and happens to be that which represents the president of the U.S.:

El Presidente often performs on TV. We can watch him jog, fish, travel, lie, preen, mutilate the language. But these activities are not his job; his job is keeping things in the building as they are, squatting on the floor of power like a broken generator or broken furnace or broken heart, occupying the space where one that works should be.


Perhaps what is most unique about these new stories is that for the first time we get stories about the condition of African people worldwide. Wideman does not restrict his pen to the boundaries of the U.S. Perhaps his increased awareness of the Prospero mentality, discussed in Philadelphia Fire, has enabled him to see that the nature of capitalism has not changed significantly. Instead of individual representatives of capitalist countries going out to conquer new worlds and peoples, the countries themselves are performing these tasks. One thing for sure, Wideman notices that African people worldwide are suffering from the same conditions. While in South Africa, the narrator of “what he saw” makes the connection between living conditions there and in Pittsburgh: “Acres of shanties, shacks, lean-tos, tents, shelters so mean and bizarre they take me back to the vacant lots of Pittsburgh, the clubhouses my gang of ten-year-olds jerry-rigged from whatever materials we could scavenge and steal” (96-97). And what happens to the people, the uprooting process in South Africa and urban renewal in the U.S., is the same: “In Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina uprooted even after we're dead. Blades dig up our ancestor's bones, crush them, scatter our cemeteries to clear the way for shopping malls, parking lots” (98).

Not only are connections made between African people within the story, but also among stories. For just after the South Africa story—one about police brutality—appears a story about police brutality in an African community within the U.S., “a voice foretold.” The story concerns the aftermath of an incident in which New York policemen force their way in on an innocent couple and murder the man—all in a case of mistaken identity, no questions asked, no apologies given: “What makes it so bad they [the couple] ain't never done nothing to nobody. Happy living together up in that apartment. Make you feel good when you see them on the street. One day in the prime of life. Next day those dogs come and both them children gone” (117). Unlike the South African story, however, this one sends a message that something has to be done, something will be done: “Think of up and down and paths crossing and crossing roads and crossroads and traffic and what goes up must come down and heaven's gate and what goes 'round come 'round” (119).

The extent to which Wideman utilizes African women as main or significant characters as well as the quality of the remarks he makes about them in this collection are refreshingly progressive.5 In “Backseat” he remembers an occasion when he had a sexual encounter in the back seat of his Uncle Mac's 1946 red Lincoln Continental. He “opened her fat thighs, jiggly as they wanted to be, but like a compass too, hinged, calibrated so you can keep track of how far they spreading” (23). Here the African woman is not ridiculed for her “bushy hair” as in Hurry Home; the depiction is more positive because it is the thighs of the African woman that serve as guide. And the narrator has no doubts about the pleasure of the experience. Wasn't it good? “Yes. Yes.” Within the same story, the narrator expresses his preference for a “full-bodied” woman, certainly a change from early works in which Wideman's ideal woman was always slim (and most always European): “I want her robust, those wide hips and broad shoulders bumpered with flesh” (25). Seemingly, Wideman is turning his earlier notions of African women—ones based on a Eurocentric perspective—upside down, topsy-turvy. In fact, in “welcome,” his image of them is switched in midstream, right in the middle of a sentence: “There was this fat girl in the Woodside. No, not fat. A big girl, solid, pretty, light on her feet, a large pretty big-eyed brown girl thirteen or fourteen with black crinkly hair and smooth kind of round chubby cheek babydoll face” (141-42). An earlier notion of the African woman, an earlier way of seeing, a “throwback” is revised in mid context to reflect the new consciousness Wideman has of himself and his people.

The intellectual who is Wideman in these stories is even more self-critical than the intellectuals in Damballah and Philadelphia Fire. He is also more conscious of the role he plays as a university professor and writer. In “Backseat,” Wideman examines the significance of his using three names on his novels: “When I published my first novel, I wanted my father's name to be part of the record so I was John Edgar Wideman on the cover. Now the three names of my entities sound pretentious to me, stiff and old-fashioned. I'd prefer to be just plain John Wideman” (42). The words “just plain” are significant for they reflect Wideman's desire to be part of the masses, not distinct from them as in Hurry Home. In that novel as well as in the first, there is the suggestion that the three names were used not only because he wanted his father's name to be part of the record, but also because using them was a way of distinguishing himself as important, unique, a somebody distinct from and superior to other Africans. Now as an African-centered person, he sees no significant difference between himself and his people. Just how far Wideman has come from that early petty bourgeois intellectual position is demonstrated by his almost exclusive use of lower case letters for titles, and at times within the text itself, of the new stories in this collection. Moreover, the title of the book itself, The Stories of John Edgar Wideman, is in lower case letters to reflect the humbling process, the Africological process, Wideman has experienced.

“Signs” is a powerful story in its revelation of just how far Wideman has come in reclaiming his African Personality. It is a story about an African woman who is a professor at a predominantly European university. Two incidents are revealed in the story or rather there is a story within a story. Both involve racism or its consequences. The incident that occurs first in time is one when the professor, Kendra Crawley, is harassed at graduate school, the only African in a girl's dorm: “When she's seen the first sign, a piece of cardboard thumbtacked to a door, she'd thought it was a joke, poor, poor taste, but a joke nonetheless, the Whites Only sign stuck to the communal bathroom door” (80). But she soon discovers it was no joke. The harassment continues and increases. Those who could come to her aid—African male graduate students—are “too tame, too bourgie, too white … No. They roomed in town where they could cop to their heart's content, tame, bourgie, white pussy in private” (82). Perhaps this indictment against young African men includes Wideman himself when he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania.

The second incident, the one that occurs when Kendra is a professor at a similar university, revolves around a discussion she has with one of her students, a European male who does not understand the relevance of studying Milton's Paradise Lost. Her reaction: she feels she's going to explode, dealing with “little blond, blue-eyed devil” European students (79). Why ask her the reason for making Milton a requirement. She too is following orders. If she had her “druthers,” she would require that they read about the

Rebel angels … Martin, Malcolm, Mandela. Saint Douglass. Saint Harriet. No, not Ozzie's wife, cracker. Ms. Tubman to you. If the syllabus of Western Civ ever tilted my way. Which it don't, boy. So ask your mama to apologize. Not me. She married the boss. Raised you. I was just someone to fetch his slippers. Iron his pants. A little action on the side.


This Wideman is clearly not the same one who escaped to Laramie, Wyoming. Rather, the passage reveals a Wideman who would run from Laramie, skip over it entirely, if he could. Purge it from his memory.

Wideman's increased consciousness of the writing process—the use of form to enhance content, but perhaps most importantly, the use of form to reveal the consciousness of the author—is demonstrated throughout this collection. There are three significant examples: First, as mentioned, Wideman uses lower case letters for titles, an effort to minimize distinctions based on superiority or inferiority, between words as well as people. His name and most of the titles, including the title of the book, are in lower case letters. Secondly, Wideman arranges his stories so that the very arrangement conveys a message to the reader. By placing “a voice foretold” directly after “what he saw,” Wideman implies that there is little difference between the nature of the African's oppression in South Africa and that in the U.S. For one thing, there is police brutality of the African community occurring in both countries. Third, he indicates that the mere writing process, although limited and long-range in its impact, contributes to the liberation of African people: “Try as they might, they could not usurp her story. In her own good time, in words or deeds or fiery silence, the truth of her witness would be heard” (“Backseat,” 30). Not only is truth liberating in itself, but also it will eventually come out, “be heard.”

All in all, Wideman's process of reclaiming his African Personality continues in The Stories of John Edgar Wideman. And if so, how can the works in this collection be less powerful, less liberated in form than those in Damballah as the New York Times critic contends? In 1992 Wideman knows more, has experienced more about the African's reality. Not only does he have a Homewood perspective, a “down home,” “back home,” perspective, but also an international one in regard to African people, a perspective which gives him the assurance to burst the traditional forms of fiction, to write an uninhibited, e.g., unpunctuated, text. So he is at ease in writing about the death of an African male struggling to survive in the streets of Homewood in “Everybody knew bubba riff” or of writing in the voice of a newborn girl in “Newborn thrown in trash and dies.” How can these kinds of stories be considered conventional tales? So while there may be an absence of a “Faulknersque” quality to these stories, there is the presence of an “Africanesque” one.


  1. Review of The Stories of John Edgar Wideman in the New York Times, 21 July 1992, B2.

  2. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967), 38.

  3. Wideman, The Stories of John Edgar Wideman (New York: Pantheon, 1992). All page references are in the text.

  4. It is interesting that Wideman chooses an infant girl rather than boy as his protagonist, for not only are African youth most oppressed in our society, but also, within this sector of the population, the African female youth are most vulnerable. This choice reflects Wideman's increased consciousness of the plight of the African female. Clearly, Wideman is thinking of the problems confronting African people and possible solutions for them at this stage in his writing career.

  5. Significantly, there are no European female characters in these new stories. Contrasted with his earlier works, from A Glance Away to Sent for You Yesterday, this omission is quite a useful gauge of Wideman's “new thinking.”

Keith E. Byerman (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Byerman, Keith E. “Voices from Beyond: All Stories Are True.” In John Edgar Wideman: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 56-77. Twayne Publishers, 1998.

[In the following essay, Byerman delineates the unifying themes and stylistic aspects of the stories comprising All Stories Are True.]

Some of the stories in All Stories Are True (1992) continue the concern with family and personal history, whereas others develop the experimental potential of other voices. In the five pieces selected for discussion—“All Stories Are True,” “Everybody Knew Bubba Riff,” “Backseat,” “Newborn Thrown in Trash and Dies,” and “Signs”—much of the narrative consists of interior monologues and personal memories. At the same time, each story expands outward to consider some aspect of the public realm, including prison life, child abuse, racism, politics, and sexuality. Comments on media, education, and urban decay are also incorporated. With these stories, Wideman further loosens the short-story form; his style is, depending on one's perspective, a postmodernist one of pastiche or the digressive and associational one of traditional (folk) storytelling. Perhaps the best way to describe his method is to think of it as the intersection of the two modes for the purpose of bringing together a variety of concerns. He has available a range of narrative strategies not limited by commitment to just one method. In his hands, versions of folk narration accommodate postmodern issues, and postmodern techniques, as in “Newborn,” are made to resemble traditional storytelling.


The title story of the collection returns to Homewood in 1991. The narrator is a middle-aged man visiting his mother in the family home. He immediately sets up a connection between the local geography and the shape of memory. The names of the streets are a “litany” that brings back memories of the people and events associated with them. Homewood becomes a sacred, ritual space for him and also, he understands, for his mother: “[She] is listening to time, time voiced in no manmade measurements of days or minutes or years, time playing as it always must, background or foreground or taking up all the space we have, a tape of the street names chanted that releases every Homewood footstep she's ever heard or dreamed” (4). A tree symbolizes the endurance and character of the neighborhood:

A massive tree centuries old holds out against the odds here across from my mother's house, one of the biggest trees in Pittsburgh, anchored in a green tangle of weeds and bushes, trunk thick as a Buick, black as night after rain soaks its striated hide. Huge spread of its branches canopies the foot of the hill where the streets come together. … As big as it is, its roots must run under her cellar. The sound of it drinking, lapping nourishment deep underground is part of the quiet when her house is empty. How the tree survived a city growing around it is a mystery.


The tree can easily be read as the emblem of the black community in its survival, strength, and undeniable presence.

But this is not a nostalgic story. The poetic language and sacred space are intended to contrast with the harsh realities of the present. The mother proceeds to tell the story of a petty thief who, “just before Easter,” went through the neighborhood and stole pots of flowers off porches and then the next day sold the plants without pots on a street corner. Both the pettiness and the arrogance of the theft suggest the fragility and decay of the neighborhood in contrast to the powerful tree.

The mother's account of the crime is followed by her narrative of her neighbor Wade, who in a single year saw both his wife and his dog die and who accidentally killed a neighborhood child. But the pathos of Wade's story leads to a reassertion of the mother's religious faith. The events in Wade's life could have led him to despair and a sense of meaninglessness, but instead his endurance reminds her of Job and thus renews her belief. Moreover, the connection affirms racial pride: “I did think of Job more than once when I prayed for Wade. And I guess Job surely did have Wade's face, and Wade's face, God bless him, surely isn't white” (9). This point is blended in an associational manner, consistent with oral tradition, into a conversation about the imprisoned brother and his new Muslim beliefs. Related to this are the tribulations he must face, including continued rejection of his appeal to the parole board. Thus the narratives of crime and trouble, of family and community that made up the first half of the story serve to set up the second half, in which the narrator visits his brother in prison.

The second half uses a language that is much harsher and more obscene, consistent with its representation of prison life. The intensity of the sunlight and heat is implicitly contrasted with the effects of the giant tree in Homewood. The brother has prematurely aged and has developed a deeply cynical view of the system that imprisons him. He acknowledges his own deeply flawed character but primarily tells stories of official cruelty and manipulation. The crucial anecdote involves the denial of his commutation request:

[They] know I'm on pins and needles every minute of every day since I filed my commutation papers, but don't nobody say one god-blessed single solitary word good or bad for three months. I'm going crazy with the waiting. And too scared to ask anybody what's happening cause you know how that works. Ask a question and they say no just to spite you, just to get you out their face.


Then, while waiting for a visit from his wife and baby, he receives a call that coldly informs him of the negative decision.

It is the sadistic character of the process that he draws attention to. The system seems specifically designed to produce dehumanization; there is no evidence of efforts toward rehabilitation or moral development:

My own fault I'm here. I know I done some bad things. I'm in here, man, doing my time. Uh huh. Hard time. Lots of time for doing wrong. But they treat us like dog shit in here and that's wrong too. Guys get killed in here. Go crazy. But nobody cares. Long as they keep us locked up so they can do us anyway they want. Figure we in here, so they don't owe us nothing. But wrong is wrong, ain't it. Just cause we down, is it right to keep on kicking us. Guys get meaner and crazier in here. Every day you see the ones can't take it slipping further and further off. Distance in their eyes, bro. Ain't nobody home in them eyes. They shuffle around here like ghosts. Stop speaking to people. Stop keeping themselves clean. Gone, man. If you been around here any length of time you seen it happen to a lot of guys. You understand how easy it is to tune out and drop off the edge into your own little world. Another planet. You see why guys go off. Why they so cold and mean if they ever hit the street again.


The argument against corrections policies and practices is carried here by the psychological mini-narrative of the statement. Rather than criminological data, he offers the cumulative mental and sensory effects of prison life. He presents images of ghosts, aliens, and sociopaths created by that life. His own response to the rejection of his appeal—“My life was over”—is simply one episode in the larger story of dehumanization.

A crucial part of the narrative is his resistance to that dehumanization. The story is one of enlightenment. He entered prison determined to be a “stone outlaw,” to keep the guards and officials in fear of the violence of the inmates. Then a friend of his became ill. Though he became sicker and sicker, officials ignored his condition. Finally, his mother demanded that he be moved to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. Heavily drugged, he wasted away; nonetheless, a guard was kept in the room at all times. At the moment of dying, he reached out to touch his mother. The guard, always afraid of black men, leaped up to refasten the chains as he died.

What the brother realizes from the incident is the utter absurdity of the system that incarcerates him. No logic or moral purpose operates in the world he inhabits. Fear and raw power are the primary motivations of officials' behavior. His earlier responses of anger and open resistance merely reinforced the processes of oppression. The final brief narrative in the story initially seems to sentimentalize this insight. During one visit from his wife, they watch a leaf blowing around the prison yard. As the leaf rises, it moves closer to the wall. Others begin urging the leaf to make its escape. The brother connects this moment to learning that his wife is pregnant with a child, who, if a boy, will be named Chance Mandela. So when the leaf flies over the wall, it is read as hope for the end of imprisonment. Everyone cheers, and the speaker talks of it as a magical moment. The lesson is said to be one of faith: “Only way to save myself is to do it for me. I got to be the reason. I got to be worth saving. Can't live a life for nobody else. Nobody can live one for me” (17).

But the story does not end with this inspirational moment. To do so would undermine the naturalistic tone of the tale. The brother's completion of this last episode is more sobering: “I'm gonna tell you something I don't tell nobody when I tell about the leaf. The dumb thing blew back in here again” (17). This statement, as the ending of the story, brings back into focus the essential pessimism of “All Stories Are True.” One can either grant the leaf anecdote allegorical significance, in which case it seems to suggest hopelessness (those imprisoned can never truly be free), or it can be seen as largely meaningless, in that the leaf is simply a physical object subject to natural forces. As such, what happens says nothing about human beings. In this latter case, it is an illusion that we can find meaning in anything outside ourselves.

The theme of the story is the need to live without that illusion, both to recognize harsh, threatening realities and to locate within oneself and others the resources to survive. The stories of Wade, the mother, the tree, and the brother are all Job-like tales of endurance without false hope. Not even the mother's religion offers the comfort of grand design or easy relief; rather, it enables her to deal with her troubles and to help her neighbor in his. Neither survival nor success are guaranteed or even probable.

Finally, there is the narrator of “All Stories Are True”—the one who, through listening and observing, brings together all the stories and reveals their truth. The stories would be lost and the voices silenced if he were not there to collect them. In the midst of contemporary decay and despair, he functions in the age-old way of the African griot by keeping alive the tales of the family and the community. By making even stories of meaninglessness part of the larger narrative, he grants them a meaning for new generations. By asserting that “all stories are true,” he compels us to identify value and purpose within the postmodern landscape of contemporary African-American life.


Doreatha Mbalia has argued that All Stories Are True represents Wideman's most complete development of the “African personality” in his fiction and, consequently, his most thoroughgoing repudiation of Western identity and values.1 “Everybody Knew Bubba Riff” clearly challenges that assessment. As a 10-page unpunctuated, often free-association thought string, it is a stream-of-consciousness narrative in the Joycean and Faulknerian tradition. It opens with echoes of Joyce's Finnegans Wake and with a paraphrase of Heraclitus on the nature of time. Wideman questions this Eurocentric tradition in the sense that he shifts the Heraclitan reference from time to voice and the Joycean technique from the individual to the group. In the process, he creates a communal portrait of the title character that offers several aspects of his personality.

The method of the story allows some melding of voices, but primarily it involves extended commentaries by individual voices who knew Bubba in distinct circumstances. These voices both complement and contradict each other in the process of revealing his life and death. In addition, Wideman is clearly suggesting a jazz narrative through his use of the word riff. The story could be read as a series of improvisations on its subjects. In standard usage, however, riff refers not to improvisation but to the repeated phrase played by the ensemble behind the soloist. The word choice indicates not difference but sameness in the pattern of voices. Thus, although the speakers have different relationships to Bubba and different life circumstances, they all either have the same view of him or believe themselves to have a truth about him that all others share. In this sense, the story reflects the title of the collection, though it does so problematically. If the voices share the same understanding, then the narrative is communal and consistent with Mbalia's reading of Wideman's work.

But in several ways, the author seems to be signifying on an Afrocentric notion as well as on a Eurocentric one. It is important to acknowledge that the various speakers share certain views about Bubba. One is that he was intensely aggressive. His mother, recalling his infancy, comments that he would bite hard on her nipple while nursing. She does not mitigate the pain, even in memory, though she does not blame him; her response, as will be seen, is part of the problem. His stepfather remembers a disrespectful young man who threatened him for attempting discipline. And a friend from their gang days talks about his bullying ways in the neighborhood. Each voice presents an antihero and shares not so much common values as a mutual understanding of Bubba as incipient criminal. The story has a number of connections with “Tommy” of Damballah. Here, instead of the viewpoint of the criminal, we get the perspectives of those in his life. But the wasteland imagery, including the pointlessness of the lives of young black men, is much the same. The difference is that, because multiple viewpoints are represented, there is a broader sense of why the central character became what he did and why he was destroyed.

Wideman suggests, through the thoughts of the mother and the stepfather, that a key factor in Bubba's development was the indulgence of his mother. Her passages deal only with his early childhood, which she insists on making sound happy: “my sweet Bubba how I loved that boy seem like he came out smiling like he arrived here knowing something that he him the grinningest baby you ever seen he was easy easy girl my first and the only easy one I ever had” (65). Even the biting mentioned earlier is excused: “let him nibble if he needs to nibble” (66). The mother here is in sharp contrast to Lizabeth in “Solitary,” who is deeply troubled by what has happened to her son and what responsibility she might bear. Bubba's mother is sentimental and narcissistic, as are several of the characters in this story.

The stepfather is the reverse of the mother in that he sees Bubba as nothing but a problem from early childhood. He reads him as aggressive, spoiled, and in adolescence, even dangerous. Bubba grows so fast and so big that he is a financial burden in terms of shoes, clothes, and food. But the stepfather also reveals himself as abusive by recalling a confrontation: “I'ma break you in half old man don't care how much my mama need the shit you bring around here no more whipping on me you touch me or put a hand on her ever again it's rumble time mano a mano” (65). This father figure fits the classic image of the stepparent in his cruelty and in the hostility he inspires. Like the mother, he refuses to take responsibility for what the child becomes.

Part of the point of using interior monologues (including memories of dialogue) seems to be to demonstrate the lack of insight of the central characters. This is in contrast to the use of this technique in earlier stories. The characters themselves are stereotypical, and they provide little understanding of the focal figure. Primarily they offer evasions of their responsibility for Bubba's life and death. In this way, Wideman renders problematic Afrocentric notions of the centrality of family and ancestry, as well as the concept of the African personality. Not only Bubba (through others' recollections) but the others offer portraits of a self-deluding, self-serving consciousness. Although it can be argued that such portraits reveal the destructiveness of a Eurocentric individualism, they do not provide any alternative.

Another irony of the story is that the voice (or possibly voices) of outside knowledge is more perceptive about Bubba's character than are the more intimate ones. This speaker takes up most of the text. It is a voice conscious of its own desires and thus able to provide some difference from Bubba. For this speaker, the church is a place of both duty and sensuality. He remembers his adolescent desire for one of the adult women of the church, a desire that is revealed in his return for the funeral. The duty aspect was always presented to him as a difference from Bubba, who did not attend services or participate in church projects, despite his mother's requests.

This voice also provides a sense of history that otherwise is absent from the narrative. He recalls telling Bubba several times the story of Charley Rackett, a former slave. Rackett was known as the African because he spoke a “bubba dubba language” and generally refused to speak English. This refusal cost him physical punishment, which seems to have had little effect. In these qualities he appears to be a version of Orion from “Damballah.” After emancipation, when Charley was very old, he still insisted on going to the fields each day, despite his inability to work. It is his toughness that the speaker and Bubba admire. Also important is the narrator's direct connection to the old man. It is a story of “my people”; in contrast, Bubba claims to have no heritage: “you said you never had no people your Mama found you out in the trash” (69). The speaker's relationship to the tale is so strong that he reports some of it as an eyewitness. The contrast is important in understanding Bubba's character. Unlike his friend, he has no sense of history or change; he believes only in the present. For him, Charley Rackett's story is an “old timey” tale, not an ongoing relationship.

Nevertheless, this speaker suggests that Bubba may be a displaced, emptied-out version of the ancestral figure. In describing Bubba's offenses in the community, which led to his murder, he refers to him as a “throwback.” He carried a ball bat and used it, along with his physical size, to intimidate and rob others. He preferred direct confrontation and combat; it was, in effect, the measure of his manhood. But the culture of the streets changed, much as “Tommy” indicated earlier. Where once Bubba, the narrator, and their gang ruled, now there is no interest in glory or physical prowess:

[D]ude making it on the street today got to have computers and beepers no time for cowboys and indins and gorillaing people's dope that two-bit King Kong gangster jive ain't what's happening out here today it's business business build yourself an organization man power to the people good product good distribution good vibes spread a little change around keep the boy off your back everybody gets what they want plenty to go around.


In such a world, Bubba is not merely an anomaly; he is a disruption to the economic, criminal order. And because this new order has no respect for what came before, he can be destroyed in a cold-blooded fashion, and very few people will care. Even the speaker says that he has to “chill out” because he will go crazy if he thinks too much about the numbers of black men being killed.

Finally, then, the title of the story is deeply ironic. Not even the most thoughtful of the voices can give us much insight into Bubba. Everybody knows him in the way they know all the killed and killing black men. He is known for his violence and his “rep” on the street; he is known by the excuses offered by those who claim to have loved him. He is, in the narrative, nothing other than performance and appearance; he is the Other of those who tell of him. He is not granted interiority or subjectivity. Even the reflective friend offers little of Bubba (though much of himself) other than his actions.

In effect, Wideman uses a modernist technique to present a postmodernist character. Stream of consciousness functions here to subvert interiority. Bubba is the world's construction of the contemporary black man—a violent, posturing shell whose existence has no positive meaning. He is familiar to everyone because there is nothing to know. But at the same time, the anonymous narrator suggests an alternative. History (personal, familial, cultural), connectedness, and authentic desire can generate a self. The reader knows more of the unnamed narrator than of Bubba because the narrator speaks of himself, not narcissistically but as part of an individual life, a set of valued relationships (including one with Bubba), and an intimate link to the past. He has felt desire, made mistakes, adjusted to change, and undertaken to comprehend the world in which he must live. Unlike Bubba, this “invisible man” is the one we really know.


“Backseat” returns to the concern with family and with the quest for meaning. The narrator (named John Edgar Wideman) tells stories of his relationship with his paternal grandmother and the people, places, and experiences associated with her. These include his own early sexual activities, which took place at her home. The story takes place just before and after her death. Thus the narrative makes the classic connection between love and death; however, the connection is indirect and metaphoric. John's sexual adventures are clearly separated from the stories of the grandmother and from the death theme. His adventures in effect serve as frame for the central narrative of family. Within that narrative are episodes of Martha Wideman's own intimate life as well as experiences that she and the narrator have together or separately of death, racism, and family. Continuing the theme of “All Stories Are True,” the narrator gives voice to the significance of her life, even to matters about which she chose to keep silent.

The story opens with the recollection that overtly gives it its title. On a trip back home to Pittsburgh, John meets with friends, including the girl with whom he had sex many years before in the backseat of a rusting Lincoln Continental that sat in his grandmother's backyard. The memory is comic, with emphasis on the awkwardness of young bodies and the fear of discovery. The telling elides the descriptions of the car and the girl:

Trying to hide and pretend she ain't with you. A fine ride in its day. King of the highway. It was the first year Lincoln put out the Continental, I think. Uncle Mac said when you're old enough to get a license, you can have it. Fix it up. Drive it away. I'm through with it. Just lean on back, girl. Cock your leg up out the way.


A few lines later the girl is compared to a geometry compass in terms of her leg movement. The diction invites double entendre: girl as machine, car as woman. The bravado, arrogance, and power of the passage sets up a strong contrast with the central narrative that follows. And in its presentation as memory (John recalls the experience while talking to a male friend), it suggests male innocence of the realities of life for black women.

The physicality of the sexual memory is set against the wasting away of the grandmother as she dies. A large, strong woman, she has been reduced to “skin and bones,” a condition that, the narrator worries, “makes my grandmother too little, too frail for the journey ahead of her” (24). Her smallness and the notion of journey leads to a memory of her taking him on the funicular when he was a small child. He recalls primarily his fascination with the lights and shapes of the city. She has aided the memory by describing the song he made up on this magical night. The episode does not relate directly to what comes either before or after. It serves to make clear the structure of “Backseat” as a collection of memories, some of which, like this one, seem complete in themselves. The links to other parts of the story are associational rather than tightly plotted. Wideman as author seeks to register the operations of human memory rather than to create a unified short story. The unity is in the subject—the grandmother—rather than in a sequence of interrelated episodes leading to a clear resolution. Moreover, the concern is not for the grandmother's life in itself but for its significance for the family and specifically for the grandson-narrator. Just as they share and mutually recall the funicular ride, so the story as a whole is a collaboration of their memories and experiences.

Thoughts about the grandmother's dying bring back memories of the first family death of John's conscious life, that of his maternal grandfather, John French. This episode, with the old man dying in the too-small bathroom of his house, has been told earlier in Wideman's fiction (“The Chinaman”), but here the emphasis is on the narrator's impressions: “It was that rush into the winter streets, a deep stillness in my mother I knew I should not violate, the questions I couldn't ask, the foolishness and fear hitting me I knew better than to act out in the ride to Finance Street …” (27). But more than the recollections of desire, wonder, and death that the narrator more or less links to the grandmother, there is the need to make sense of her life itself. It is a life with experiences that he cannot know. The physical distances and journeys that are a motif also include mysteries and silences that he can fill only with his speculations. This is a woman, for example, who had four husbands. The change from the first, the narrator's grandfather, to the second, the owner of the Lincoln, is handled in one sentence: “Mr. Mackinley Overton who became Uncle Mac when Grandma left Harry Wideman and moved into Overton's place above the Ricks' garage” (33). How or why this happened remains unnarrated. The conflicts and feelings involved, the consequences of the action, and the implications for the grandmother's sensual life are all left unexplored.

The last of these issues exists as a carefully evaded topic throughout the story. John parenthetically inserts into another episode a memory of surprising his grandmother one day while she was taking a bath. The bracketing is a way of simultaneously acknowledging and dismissing the significance of the moment. The episode in which it appears is one in which a neighborhood boy, ignorant of the grandmother's relationship to John, makes lewd comments about her. John makes some effort to fight over the insult, but the scene and his action are ambivalent:

But it wasn't exactly clear if putting somebody's grandmother in the dirty dozens was as bad as putting somebody's mama there. Could be worse. Maybe. But it wasn't clear. We fought anyway, more scuffle than fight. … It wasn't even about who was badder, who could whip whose behind, it was about attitude. An ass whipping no matter who won, wouldn't adjust Patchhead's attitude. I should have tried anyway. He gave me an opening and I should have finished it there and then.


What is significant here is the loss of the insult as the key issue. By the end, the grandmother's honor and name have been lost in the drive for male domination, and in the rules of male ritual that question whether and when a female relative's sexuality is an authorized topic for comment. The renderings of the husbands, the nakedness, and the insult all indicate the narrator's discomfort in examining the womanhood of the central character. He hints at her being an object of desire, even for himself, but then resists his thought.

He is much more comfortable discussing race and death as they apply to her. He recalls an incident from his childhood when she takes him to visit the white family for whom she works. Whereas she sees the visit as a moment of pride, he recalls primarily his discomfort and even anguish in a white environment. His five-year-old mind conjures up an angry lion, ready to destroy him, that dominates the breakfast room. This image remains with him, even years after he has forgotten other facts:

But the experience was dreadful. I summon it up and not many details remain. No specific Rick faces. No Rick names. Just a collective, overwhelming white presence, the smells and noises of the white people responsible. Fear of scrambled eggs overcome, a thousand other fears rushing to fill the vacuum. A funny, deadly lion that somehow accompanied me home, miniaturized but not one iota less threatening or dangerous, bounding up onto a shadowy ledge in the cave of my heart where it feigns sleep but never closes one yellow cat's-eye.


The present tense of the final sentence implies the continuing dread of whiteness in the narrator's present life. And though he assigns responsibility for the dread to the Ricks, he also deletes any reference to sympathetic understanding on the part of his grandmother. At no point does she seem aware of the trauma the black child is experiencing or of its lasting effects. Again, a story in which she is directly involved becomes his story, and she is relegated to an ambiguous role.

Two other episodes, both of which he insists are central to understanding her character, involve sexuality and death respectively. The first has to do with the grandmother's origins. In a conversation with the narrator a few years before her death, she reveals that she was the illegitimate child of a white man. This was never acknowledged in the small Pennsylvania town where she was born; the father never recognized her as his own:

Though she was called Martha Lawson, Rutledge her real name she said. Her father a white man named Rutledge. She didn't use the word “illegitimate,” but when I asked her if she meant that Rutledge was her natural father but never married her mother, she nodded and replied, Uh huh, a loud definite uh huh her eyes fixed directly into mine.


This narrative of bastardy is not developed. Instead, the narrator chooses to expand on that “uh huh” as her commentary on history and race. It becomes a meditation on the status of white men and black women in late-nineteenth-century America. Her simple answer serves as self-affirmation in defiance of the social condition of invisibility that has been her life. It is her dismissal of her natural father and of all white men like him whose hypocrisy and immorality are responsible for much of the world's suffering.

Or at least this is the contention of the narrator, for he admits that she gives him very little information or expression of feeling: “I'm beginning to fabricate what might have been said. Devise a history I don't know. We can guess it, can't we. Crucial features, at least” (31). Since she does not offer the history directly, he reads an alternative text, her face, as memories flash through her mind:

Yet I could read things happening in her eyes, in the corners of her mouth where age lines, incised like tribal markings, twitched. Off a screen inside her brow a third unseen eye was reading the story of her life. Pages, chapters consumed faster than a blink. Years, decades displayed on the screen, handfuls of years chewed and swallowed and savored or spit out between breaths. Her long history was being enacted again, her face betrayed the action in minute adjustments. Her chipmunk cheeks, the only place she ever got fat, trembling, flexing, bitten from inside, expressive as the skin of a lake.


Her body again becomes a source of knowledge in the silence of her voice. The narrator must imagine the stories and the feelings; he considers himself a competent reader of her body language. But the effect is one of distance and mystery; there remains a fundamental uncertainty about the meaning of her “uh huh” and her facial expression. The narrative suggests the limits of knowledge about the past, even in its personal form. Although the story demonstrates a need to record history and memory and to seek its significance, it also expresses skepticism about our ability to do so. The best we can do is to reconstruct faithfully or invent a past that has value to us.

The final subject crucial to understanding the grandmother is the death of her son Eugene. He died in Guam a few days after World War II ended. Discussion of his death occurs at various points in the story. At one such point, the narrator does what he did with his grandmother's silence; he constructs his own meaning:

My father's dead brother Eugene, lost in one war, says this about the latest [the Gulf War]: They're crowing about winning. You watch. In a while it'll turn to Jim Crowing. Then what will those black boys think who risked their lives and lost their lives to keep a grin on the face of the man who rode Willie Horton bareback to the White House. Twelve, fourteen cops on TV beating that boy [Rodney King] with sticks long as their legs. Our young men not even home good from the war yet. What you think they be thinking when they see a black man beat to his knees by a whole posse of cracker cops. Somebody ought to tell them boys, ought to have told me, it happens every time. After every war.


Part of Wideman's strategy in this story is to connect the past to the present. And he does so not merely by making personal connections but by breaking into the narrative with historical and political analysis, as he does here, and with the story of his grandmother's white father. Again, it is the narrator's interests and concerns that are primary, not those of family members. He absorbs their beings and experiences into his subjective reality; their voices and lives are not independent of his.

These relatives also serve to reflect his worldview. He seeks to explain the “iron” and “reserve” of Martha's personality by imagining her anxiety over Eugene's safety in combat. The narrator pictures her as a “crazy woman,” waiting each day for the mailman to bring his letters: “Perhaps she'd exhausted every ounce of emotional energy and disciplined herself to live on what was left. Shadows and substance” (42). The end of all her worry and suffering is absurd: “weeks, months” after the war ends, she receives a telegram announcing his death, which occurred after the war was over. He imagines (she never talked about it) that the pointlessness of it all gave her a kind of “ice” that refused open emotional expression.

The end of the story is the closing frame of the narrator's first sexual experience and comes right after he describes his failure to visit his grandmother before her death. Given the discussion of her “ice,” the episode of her death, with the focus on him, suggests a generational connection. He talks about feelings but does little to express them. Turning back to his own childhood as the conclusion reinforces the distance between generations. It also genders sexuality, for him as male innocence, and for her, with its associations with race, troubled marriage, parenthood, and death, as female suffering. Though he has known her all his life, she remains somehow “other” and mysterious, with experiences he can only guess at and impose meanings on. Although the story can be seen as a eulogy for a strong black woman, it is, at another level, the tale of the anxiety of a man who remains in the “backseat” of human understanding.


“Newborn Thrown in Trash and Dies” leaves aside concern for the Homewood family and turns to the more general issue of the condition of contemporary society. The device used is the voice of a newborn girl who has been thrown down a trash chute by her mother. The title comes from a newspaper headline; Wideman chooses to give voice to one who never has the opportunity to develop a voice. The enabling assumption of the story is that instead of the clichéd flashback of our lives just before death, we in fact experience a flash-forward just after birth, which we then forget as we live our lives. Thus the baby knows the life it would have had and has something to narrate; moreover, the language she speaks can be sophisticated and even world weary. The narrative is structured according to the floors of the building, though they quickly become philosophical and even allegorical rather than literal narrative stages.

In “Floor Ten” the narrator suggests that her story is an oft-repeated one and associates this claim with the assertion that, because “they” are endlessly talking, sooner or later they are going to hit upon her particular narrative. “They” has no specific referent, but its meaning is developed through the story as the discourse of mass culture that endlessly produces trivia for a consumerist society. So much noise robs individual lives and stories of their human significance and value.

“Floor Nine” is a meditation on luck, which the narrator sees as rigged. In an inner-city project such as this one, very little money comes in from the outside world, so what is there must be recycled through gambling and acts of violence. This section serves as a commentary on the economic injustice that produces the despair of the narrator's mother. Those without opportunities for meaningful employment and economic security put their faith in chance, in con games, and in the luck that always turns out bad. Such belief is the only alternative to despair.

The “Floor of Facts” establishes some of the hard information about the narrator and her brief life. It also demonstrates Wideman's tendency to base his fiction on real events, thus blurring the line between fiction and history. All of the “facts” of the narrative are drawn from the New York Times article cited in this section, including the title, the names of the reporter who wrote the story and the caretaker who found the body, and details about the building. What Wideman does, then, is provide perspective on the story rather than create it. The perspective, that of the dying infant, serves to “defamiliarize,” or make strange, the experience. The child notes in this section that the news story offers what is relatively “fit to print” (123). In fact, the Times did not follow up on the story, though the mother was charged with second-degree murder. The short story presented here builds on its reality base by inviting readers to see the victim as a person, even if one whose life was so short: “I believe facts sometimes speak for themselves but never speak for us. They are never anyone's voice and voices are what we must learn to listen to if we wish ever to be heard” (124).

The “Floor of Questions” is brief: “Why” is the only question, but it is of course the central one. If it is applied to the mother's motives, then it cannot be answered, since she has no voice in the narrative. If it concerns the brief life and death of the child, then it opens up a whole series of social issues, some of which are addressed in the remaining pages. One response the narrator offers is that her death “will serve no purpose”:

The streetlamps will pop on. Someone will be run over by an expensive car in a narrow street and the driver will hear a bump but consider it of no consequence. Junkies will leak out the side doors of this gigantic mound, nodding, buzzing, greeting their kind with hippy-dip vocalizations full of despair and irony and stylized to embrace the very best that's being sung, played and said around them.


In other words, life goes on, and the infant's life will have made no difference. Moreover, the human lives that continue have little more value than her own. The world is a wasteland in the place where she dies.

The “Floor of Wishes” is a sentimental moment in the story, as the child realizes that she will never experience Christmas, which “seems to be the best time to be on earth, to be a child and awaken with your eyes full of dreams and expectations and believe for a while at least that all good things are possible—peace, goodwill, merriment, the raven-maned rocking horse you want to ride forever” (125-26). Christmas signifies all that childhood ought to be: wonder, belief, trust, love—precisely those things that the narrator will never have. But this desire is contextualized by the reality that what the narrator receives on her birthday is her own death, “pitched without a kiss through a maroon door” (126). Wideman suggests here the distance between even a simplified version of childhood desire, one lacking in commercialized aspects, and the utter deprivation of the lives of the unwanted.

The measure of indifference to her life has in part to do with “The Floor of Power.” In rather straightforward allegory, Wideman describes “El Presidente” and his control over the building:

Some say he owns the whole building. He believes he owns it, collects rents, treats the building and its occupants with contempt. He is a bold-faced man. Cheeks slotted nose to chin like a puppet's. Chicken lips. This floor is entirely white. A floury, cracked white some say used to gleam. El Presidente is white also. Except for the pink dome of his forehead. Once, long ago, his flesh was pink head to toe. Then he painted himself white to match the white floor of power.


El Presidente's job is to maintain the status quo, to keep the building from ever improving. El Presidente represents not a single individual but the structure that reinforces the hopelessness of those like the narrator's mother. “Whiteness” indicates an institutionalized racism, which, though absurd, continues to signify power and perpetuate the suffering of those who must live in the “building.”

But despair also resides in more intimate space, on “The Floor of Love.” Here the narrator fantasizes an idealized family life, with good food and caring, attentive parents. The narrative shifts abruptly and without preparation into a more brutal scenario. Here the father sexually abuses the daughter, and she cooperates because she has learned that her mother will beat her if she tells. Cooperation is a way of getting it over with sooner. Just as in the political realm, so here there is no alternative to suffering; in fact, it may be worse in that the pain is generalized under El Presidente but personal with the parents. The daughter needs a fantasy of love to live in her home, but in fact the same stark contrast exists between desire and reality. Even if the narrator had lived, we are thus led to understand, she would have suffered on every “floor” of her experience.

The concluding section, “The Floor That Stands for All the Other Floors Missed or Still to Come,” tells the story of the narrator's brother Tommy, killed accidentally in a drive-by shooting. While everyone mourns, his brother and fellow gang members plot revenge, thus perpetuating the cycle of violence. What the narrator notes is that Tommy is beginning to remember her and join her in the death journey. Another child becomes part of the garbage society gets rid of. In a link to earlier tales, Tommy is the name Wideman gives to the imprisoned brother in the Damballah stories; he clearly expands outward the notion of lost and wasted children.

The last lines of the story indicate its larger purpose: “Tommy is beginning to remember me. To join me where I am falling unseen through your veins and arteries down down to where the heart stops, the square opening through which the trash passes to the compactor” (128). The shift to imagery of the body and to second-person reference forces on the reader an engagement with the narrative voice and thus some responsibility for the events of the story. All of us destroy children if we allow our hearts to “stop,” as long as we consider them “trash” to be disposed of. In this context, Wideman is commenting on the decision of the Times not to follow the story; such families as the one in “Newborn,” both parents and children, are disposable.


“Signs,” the final story to be discussed here, is also in some ways the most complex. The others consistently validate the voices of the texts and affirm the title of the collection. No matter how difficult it is to locate truth, the stories in some way embody it. The focal character of “Signs” is different in that she ultimately undercuts the truth value of her tale through her confession of unreliability; in this very act, however, she raises doubts about her revised “truth.”

The story seems a relatively straightforward moral narrative about racism. A young black woman in graduate school begins to experience literal signs of race antagonism: epithets and veiled threats in notes at her office and dormitory are clearly directed at her. Because she is the first college-educated member of her family and is insecure about her achievement, even before the signs, she experiences considerable stress in her life. This sometimes leads to bizarre thought processes, even while in the midst of a discussion of Milton with a student:

Gooey stuff from her exploded head sticks to the ceiling. Viscous, elongated drops plop down onto the desk. Drip-drop. Drippity drop. Out the windows bells and children playing the waddle of web-footed birds walking across water. I know it's not easy Bobby Baby [the student]. See these wounds in my palms. If I unbuttoned this desk from my waist and let it float down around my slim ankles and lifted my naked foot for you to inspect you'd find a ten-penny nail hole bored through my instep.


This thought sequence occurs while she is explaining very formally some key themes in Paradise Lost. The contrast of discourses, as well as the shift from limited third-person to first-person voice, strengthens the disorienting effects of the story.

Blended into this pattern are memories of home, of her dead mother and the two great-aunts who raised her. In fact, she repeatedly suggests a tension between the worlds of home and education that is fundamental to her identity. Additionally, she fantasizes a lover, who is never made specific but who is associated with home, even though her aunts trained her to “[leave] that nasty snake alone” (76). Thus we are presented with a central character who is conflicted in her allegiance, insecure about her abilities, and under stress to perform.

The signs intrude into this environment. The first—a “Whites Only” sign posted on the door of the dormitory restroom—she takes as a joke in poor taste. The posting takes place, after all, “on an integrated campus in the post-emancipation, post-riots, post-civil rights, post-equal opportunity, post-modern last decade of the twentieth century” (80). At the same time, she feels a combination of shame and anger as she tears the cardboard into tiny pieces and throws it into the trash. She speculates that it may have been done by one of the black men in the same graduate program, though the motives are obscure. Following this experience a note is slipped under her door, “Nig bitch go home” (83), and then a large “KKK” is chalked on the door. As she washes off the chalk, she wonders why the other women on the floor have not commented: “Why hadn't one of them come forward” (83).

After three weeks of additional signs, she makes an appointment with the dean, the man who recruited her to the university. What she receives from him, however, is not sympathy but hypocrisy. Although he speaks the appropriate words, he is, from her perspective, primarily concerned with his own reputation and that of the institution. A similar pattern occurs when she takes her complaints to a group of black students. Here she finds a great deal of posturing and political argument but very little attention to her situation or emotions. They dispute tactics and strategies and insult each other, but nothing comes of the effort.

In the narrator's experiences with the dean and the black students, Wideman seems to be suggesting priority of ideology and self-aggrandizement over the realities of human suffering. The similarities are apparent in masculine assertiveness, in reliance on jargon, and in the effective discounting of the female voice. Though the discourses are different, the underlying motivations and values are the same. The dean and the students are oriented toward power, not toward actual need. In this, they seem little different from the perpetrator of the signs.

Her response to a speaker from South Africa gets at the central issue for her. When he is asked about the practice of “necklacing” (that is, hanging burning tires around the necks of suspected informers), he answers by explaining the importance of trust in an oppressive environment. The narrator turns the thought inward:

Does she inform on herself. Does a traitor lurk in her heart passing on her secrets to the authorities. The fear of one shuts down trust. If she cannot trust herself, is she fatally divided. Which voice the traitor—the one keeping her here at school or the one calling her home. What's being betrayed—her wish to be a person the signs can't turn around, or is the person holding on, fighting for a place in this wilderness betraying the one who knows good and well being here is wrong.


The story's conclusion is an apparent confession that she in fact produced the signs herself. She acknowledges to the reader that she had access to all the necessary materials. The admission comes just after she learns of the deaths of her two aunts in an automobile accident. Her motive is unclear even to herself, though she tells the dean that it was stress and expresses the belief that it will not happen again. The motive seems clearer in the passage cited above, in which she puzzles over self-betrayal and the two versions of her identity. Is the one who moves out into the larger world, and thus engages in defiance of racism and discrimination, the hero of her self-narrative? Or is it the one connected to home, who knows that the world does not change and that engaging it is in some sense becoming “white”? In terms of this conflict, the “home” self seeks to guarantee the failure of the “worldly” self by generating signs that are unmistakable.

This reading implies the self-dividing and self-defeating effects of racism on the black psyche. American racial realities produce a predisposition to assuming that the world remains a dangerous place for African Americans, a place to be avoided to the extent possible. The ambiguity of the ending—“But how could she have spoken to herself on the phone” (94)—indicates that the “facts” of the case are less important than the narrator's mental state. Given a world in which race is a fact of everyday life and racism continues to be part of the social structure, it does not really matter whether the signs are bad jokes, racial threats, or self-destructive gestures. Whatever the motive or source, they are the product of an ongoing social order that seeks the narrator's failure. Even if the signs are self-generated, they are the product of generations of real fear and social insecurity that one individual may not be able to overcome. So although this may be a tale of paranoia or divided personality, Wideman suggests that the real disorder—racism—remains virulent, a “fever” even, in society. In this sense, then, even a story in which the truth cannot be easily discerned remains a truthful tale.

As “Signs” and the other stories from this collection suggest, Wideman is not hopeful about contemporary American society. These narratives challenge the social and political claims that we have reached a point at which race and other social “problems” are not factors in individual achievement. He speaks for and as those whose voices have been denied or suppressed, and in the process he challenges what might be called the master narrative of American freedom and individualism. By placing in the foreground the ideological character of the nation's stories, he places himself among the postmodernists. He operates within the paradox that if “all stories are true,” then the very meaning of truth is problematic. But his postmodernism grows out of a deep commitment to the past and to traditional cultural values. Ancestors in this as well as the earlier books are crucial to a sense of self. It is those without such connections, as in “Newborn,” or those who are losing connection, as in “Signs,” who are the lost and victimized. In a world of prisoners, unwanted children, and exploited women, the harshness of reality cannot be ignored. To pretend either that they do not exist or that there are easy solutions to the situations they represent is both foolish and cruelly irresponsible. One way to make them visible in a world that does not want to see is to tell their stories, even if only by imagining them. Ironically, telling tales of alienation, violence, and death makes possible an affirmation of their lives by giving them a humanity too often denied them in life. In this sense, Wideman might be called a postmodern moralist in that he demands attention to the moral implications of life in a world lacking a moral sensibility.


  1. Doreatha Drummond Mbalia, John Edgar Wideman: Reclaiming the African Personality (Selinsgrove, Penn.: Susquehanna University Press, 1995), 113.

Claudine Raynaud (essay date summer 1999)

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SOURCE: Raynaud, Claudine. “‘Mask to Mask. The ‘Real’ Joke’: Surfiction/Autofiction, or the Tale of the Purloined Watermelon.” Callaloo 22, no. 3 (summer 1999): 695-712.

[In the following essay, Raynaud explores the relationship between writing, creative imagination, and reality in Wideman's “Surfiction” as well as the story's link to Charles Chesnutt's short story “A Deep Sleeper.”]

I think it was Geral I first heard call a watermelon a letter from home. After all these years I understand a little better what she meant. She was saying the melon is a letter addressed to us. A story for us from down home. Down home being everywhere we have never been, the rural South, the old days, slavery, Africa. That juicy striped message with red meat and seeds, which always looked like roaches to me was blackness as cross and celebration, a history we could taste and chew. And it was meant for us. Addressed to us. We were meant to slit it open and take care of business.

—John Edgar Wideman, Damballah (my emphasis)

There is no absolute meaning; it is exactly the other way round: meaning is the meaning of an impossible.

—Serge Leclaire, Démasquer le réel (117)

“Surfiction” is one of the “stories” included in John Edgar Wideman's anthology of short stories Fever [Fever: Twelve Stories] published in 1989.1 The title of this story recalls Raymond Federman's essay entitled “Surfiction: Four Propositions in Form of an Introduction” (1975) in Surfiction: Fiction Now and Tomorrow (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1981).2 Federman defines surfiction as the fictionalization, the transfiguration, of lived experience through writing which both allows and facilitates access to a certain truth. He comments on his own autofictional work as follows:

The truth of imagination is more real than truth without imagination, and besides reality never seemed very interesting to me. And, strange as it may seem, this fictionalization of my life provided me access to the truth of my own existence.3

The problematics of writing and creative imagination in relation to reality are from the outset placed within the frame of truth and fiction, an interrelation familiar to John Edgar Wideman, who has entitled one of his collections All Stories Are True (1992).4 To say that fiction is truer and more real than fact is a “chestnut,”5 and Wideman, who knows it, goes back to Chesnutt's tale “A Deep Sleeper” in order to offer his own tongue-in-cheek twist to this hackneyed question.6

The “story” entitled “Surfiction” introduces an “I” narrator who strangely resembles “John Edgar Wideman,” Professor of English literature: “Among my notes on the first section of Charles Chesnutt's Deep Sleeper there are these remarks”; “Rereading, I realize my remarks are a pastiche of …” (“Surfiction” 59-60, my emphasis). Since the story tells readers that this professor is writing a story about a professor, the reader assumes that there is a relation of “identity” between the “I” in the text and the name on the cover page. But they have been told that these are all stories, a proposition the plot summary makes plain: “A professor of literature at a university in Wyoming (the only university in Wyoming) by coincidence is teaching two courses in which are enrolled two students (one in each of the professor's seminars) who are husband and wife” (“Surfiction” 66-67). Readers thus find themselves confronted with “autofiction.” Autofiction, or self-fiction, is a specific category of fictional writing related to autobiography. Its genesis as a critical category goes back to Philippe Lejeune's theoretical work. Trying to map the relationship between autobiography and the novel on the basis of an equation of identity between the author, the “I” character, and the narrator, Lejeune envisaged certain contradictory combinations or vacant structures.7 One of them consisted in a fictional story whose hero would bear the author's name and yet would be boldly labeled untrue. Serge Doubrovsky's Fils (1977), written as the critic was elaborating his theoretical categories, filled in the empty slot—“blackened the square”—in Lejeune's critical grid and Doubrovsky, himself a literary critic, gave his work the name of autofiction as the dust cover makes clear.8:

Is this an autobiography? No, this privilege is reserved to the important people of this world on the eve of their lives. Fictions of strictly real events and facts; autofiction, if you want, because one has entrusted the language of an adventure to the adventure of language, beyond wisdom and beyond the syntax of the traditional novel or the nouveau roman. Encounters, threaded and begotten words, alliterations, assonances, dissonances, writing before or after literature, concrete writing, as one speaks of concrete music, or may be, autofriction, patiently onanistic, hopeful to share its pleasure.9

Federman nonetheless insists on the tragic ambivalence of writing. Writing—writing to remember and against effacement (dis-remembering)—can displace the original event until its suppression, its ultimate erasure. Only fictional writing can attempt to tell the unspeakable, erase erasure, transcend “history.” As a child, Federman escaped the Holocaust by being hidden by his mother in a closet, an experience he relates in two languages in his ambidextrous autobiographical text: The Voice in the Closet-La Voix dans le cabinet de débarras (1979), the English penned with the right hand, the French with the left.10 His subsequent work revolves around the impossible writing of that event. While acknowledging that truth reached through creative imagination is “truer” than truth constructed mimetically in reference to facts (representation), Federman stresses that a truly fictional discourse can only be self-reflexive. Genuine fiction constructs itself through self-destruction, constant suspicion of its fictitiousness: “An endless questioning of what discourse does as it is doing it, an endless denunciation of its own fraud, of what it truly is: an illusion, a vision, just as life is an illusion, a fiction.”11 This movement towards truth via a dis-placement of fiction runs parallel to Wideman's own statement on the role of the storyteller in relation to survival:

The novelist and the writer is a storyteller, and the process for me that is going to knit up the culture, knit up the fabric of the family, the collective family—all of us—one crucial part of that process is that we tell our own stories. That we learn to tell them and we tell them in our own words and that they embrace our values and that we keep on saying them, in spite of the madness, the chaos around us, and in spite of the pressure not to tell it. And so that story telling is crucial to survival, individual survival, community survival.12

Two propositions emerge from both Federman and Wideman's writings: to tell stories means to tell the truth; and narration ensures survival. The truth of narration as fiction entertains a visceral link to individual and collective life, to the life instinct in its struggle with the death drive.


In “Surfiction,” John Edgar Wideman explores the relationship between fiction and autobiography as well as between critical commentary, interpretation, and fiction writing. The question which is central to his literary career, the voice of the black intellectual in relation to white literature and to the black community, also rests at the core of this text. This “story” is first composed of remarks taken from Wideman's notes on Charles Chesnutt's short story “A Deep Sleeper.”13

“A Deep Sleeper” is framed by the realistic depiction of the setting: a hot, sultry summer in the South.14 A white proprietor, his wife, and young sister-in-law are talking about inviting neighbors to eat a big watermelon or rather “the” big watermelon, the monarch of the patch. They ask Julius, their black servant, to tote it on a wheelbarrow since it is too big to be carried by hand. After pointing out that risks are always taken either way—if you pull the fruit too early, it might not be ripe enough and if you don't, other people might steal it (he is thinking of poor white trash)—Julius tells them that his rheumatism prevents him from performing the task and offers to call on Tom, the nigger boy, to take his place. But Tom cannot be found. He is a deep sleeper, says Julius, like his grandfather or, rather, unlike him since, unlike him, he can be easily woken up. The grandfather, for his part, is known to have slept for a month in a row. Intrigued, the young sister-in-law wants to hear the whole story for she liked “drawing out” the colored people in the neighborhood, making them talk, and she loved stories. Julius complies and tells the tale. Tom's grandfather Skundus, who was known as a big sleeper, fell in love with Cindy. The master promised them they would marry, yet she was hired out to another plantation. When she left, Tom started sleeping at work and eventually disappeared. The master thought that he had run away. Because of the unusually good crop at her owner's plantation, Cindy was called back to help, and when she came back, she said she had had a dream.15 Tom would be back the next day and—lo and behold!—the next day, Tom appeared with a hoe on his shoulder. He said he had slept in a barn and had woken up that very morning. The remedy to this incapacitating sleepiness was a speedy marriage to Cindy prescribed by the doctor who examined him. At this point Julius's story ends, and Tom appears to go and collect the watermelon. But, when they arrive at the patch, the watermelon has disappeared. What remains is “a shallow concavity where it had rested, but the melon itself was gone” (“A Deep Sleeper” 122).

The embedded text is a slave tale variation on the theme of “Sleeping Beauty”: the male slave escapes and tricks the master through a pretend deep sleep.16 Sleep means subtracting oneself from the reality of slavery, i.e. not working, but also symbolically being in a different world, the realm of desire. “A Deep Sleeper” is a modulation on the theme of the dreamer who transgresses the law in his dreams, taken literally. It also shows the reversibility of dream and the reality which is inscribed in the embedded story. Wideman later rewrites this equation as the relationship between “shadow” and “act,” terms which are more appropriate to the black literary tradition.17 Cindy's prediction plays on the psychoanalytic interpretation of dreams when dreams are read as complex texts which must be interpreted through the twin processes of condensation and displacement. Or, more plainly, she uses her knowledge of folklore and belief in omens: dreams foretell, anticipate the event. She says she dreamt that Skundus would be back, and her dream proves true. By sleeping deeply, the slave plays dead or, rather in the discourse of slavery, he has run away.18 For any contemporary critic, Wideman's text gestures toward Poe's mystery short story “The Purloined Letter,” translated by Baudelaire as “La Lettre volée,” and to the subsequent debate between Lacan and Derrida.19

Tom's grandfather's trick—pretending to have been sleeping—can be equated to Lacan's reading of “The Purloined Letter” in which he creates a portmanteau word “la politique de l'autruiche” (from the French autrui [other], autruche [ostrich], and Autriche [Austria]) to explain the ambivalence between exposure and hiding.20 In Poe's tale, the Minister plays this stupid game/ostrich policy, refusing to see that he is unmasked. And he is plucked by the clever Dupin. In the embedded story of Chesnutt's tale, the Master should have read the clue in the withdrawal into sleep of the slave. Instead he is the ostrich plucked by the canny slave. The same scene of dumbness is repeated in the frame.21 Julius also tells how Skundus' master vainly tries to catch his slave back by posting reward notices on trees.22 Reward is not where he thinks it might come from. As a matter of fact, the expected reward will escape him since the slave will be “rewarded” by marrying his beloved.23 By a master stroke—Chesnutt can be read “chess-nut”24—the slave delivers a blow to his master's mastery.

Julius's telling of the tale—enacted in real time—means that during the time of the story someone steals the object of desire, the prize watermelon.25 In his comments, “Wideman” insists on the complicity/compliance of the reader with what Barthes justly terms “the readerly”:

We know [that a pay off is forthcoming] because we are put into the passive posture of readers or listeners (consumers) by the narrative unraveling of a reality which, because it is unfolding in time, slowly begins to take up our time and is thus obliged to give us something in return; the story enacts in real time. Its moments will pass and our moments will pass simultaneously, hand in glove if you will. The literary storytelling convention exacts this kind of relaxation or compliance or collaboration (conspiracy).

(“Surfiction” 63)

Once the story had been told, what remains is the hollow, or rather its positive sign, the concavity, the presence of the absence of the object of desire.26

The telling of the tale is another version of Scheherazade's predicament: her storytelling enacted against her impending death ambiguously ends up with the fulfillment of the master's desire.27 In A Thousand and One Nights falling in love with storytelling, the master falls in love with the teller, cannot ultimately make out the teller from the tale, and realizes that the death of the teller will mark the end of storytelling. By telling stories and thereby pleasing her master, Scheherazade defers the moment of her death as she defers the ending of the stories.28 The deflowering of the young virgin, orgasm, la petite mort, anticipate Death, a death which they foretell. It acts as a substitute, a deferer. Chesnutt's tale redistributes the positions and creates an effect of burlesque were it not for the seriousness of the master-slave relationship which casts the story within a system where the master exercises a power of life and death. Scheherazade becomes a male slave and the listener is the sister-in-law of the white landowner. The slave defers and finally prohibits the master's eating of the watermelon; he dispossesses the master and exhibits a mastery of discourse which reverses the roles.

“A Deep Sleeper” exposes master-slave relationships in relation to the symbolic. The object of desire is rightly pointed out as being the “big” watermelon, but to a master's consciousness, this object can only fall within an economy of demand on the part of the slave or, rather, the slave is only seen as instrumental in the fulfillment of the master's desire. This economy of the white race is rightly pointed out in the slave's speech who himself tells the master that poor white trash might steal the watermelon if he or, rather, they get there too late. Unable to imagine the black man's desire, the white man will be intent on subtracting the melon from poor white men. What the master fails to see is that the watermelon is a metaphor in the slave's discourse, and does not refer to a “real” object. Wideman's sentence used in the epigraph underlines this knowledge: “a watermelon is a letter” (from home). The metaphoric process at work within the narration elevates the watermelon to the status of signifier and, if we read it against the seriousness of Poe's tale, effects a critique of the power structure at play in “The Purloined Letter.” American slavery versus European monarchy. The slave also knows that the landowner cannot deprive his sister-in-law of her pleasure, prisoner as he is of Southern social conventions.29

The other frame which makes for time and delays the collection is thus a desire on the part of the sister-in-law. She is curious; she wants to know about niggers. The story she is then told is one of cunning and desire within a plantation household. Were she to deconstruct the story in the same way as Lacan reads the positioning of the Queen, the Minister, and Dupin in “The Purloined Letter,” she would see what is as plain as the nose on her face—“ce qui crève les yeux”—that by telling of his desire and the fulfillment of his desire against the master's wish, the slave escapes the economy of slavery. Escaping the economy of slavery in his tale, he is also escaping it in the story that embeds the text. Time and room are made outside the framed story for the theft of the watermelon. For Chesnutt, the vanishing of the melon symbolically corresponds in the framed story to the flight of the slave in a curious equation which recalls the denigration of black people as “watermelon eaters” or “watermelons.” As in “The Purloined Letter,” theft and flight (included in French in the same word: “vol”) converge. In Chesnutt's tale, by deferring the moment of the collection, the servant provides time (makes time) for the theft of the watermelon; he procrastinates by ironically saying, for instance, “to make a long story short.” He thus gives the young sister-in-law another object of desire, the tale itself, which tells of the slave's desire.

“A Deep Sleeper” is framed by the realistic rendering of the white landowner's boredom. The watermelon was going to be brought to relieve “the deadly dullness of the afternoon” (“A Deep Sleeper” 115) and apparently ends on its frustration. Yet “the deadly dullness of the afternoon” (my emphasis) has been relieved by the tale, if not by the watermelon. The framer is framed. In a stereotypical structure of embedded frames, the tale tells the story of subtracting oneself to the master's wish, contradicting it, and finally coming to one's ends through an array of masks (sleep, ghosts, etc). The tale of embezzlement provides for another embezzlement and gives to its listeners clues for the interpretative gesture without ever enclosing the text as it is using up interpretative grids.

The crux of the text in Chesnutt's tale is both the consummation of marriage, i.e. coition, ironically prescribed as a remedy to a feigned disease and the shallow concavity where the melon had been. Rereading Lacan (and Derrida's critique), one notices that this “truth” of the text, the actual place of the letter between the jambs of the fireplace, i.e. the very place which stands in for the female sex, the sex of the Queen, is reproduced in Chesnutt's tale. The Minister had thought it an “obvious” and hence an impossible place to hide the letter.30 The femaleness of the curvacious melon and the empty “hollow” are too self-evident to be missed and the realization of the slave couple's union also directly points at castration. Something has been taken away. It also leads to the same possible interpretation Lacan effected of Poe's tale: femaleness as truth, Truth as Woman. Truth is the impossible since, being told, it veils, being unveiled, it hides. For instance, as noted above, Skundus' feigned sleepiness should also alert the listeners to Julius's incapacitating rheumatism inscribed in the text as a clue for the listener/reader.

As such, “A Deep Sleeper” functions like “The Purloined Letter” which bears in its narration its own deciphering and more.31 The doubling-up, the structures of repetition, produce the Uncanny (Das Unheimliche), and the cunning.32 The signifying chain continues generating meaning while there is no end to the circulation of desire. The tale begs the question: who stole the watermelon? Yet this question is answered by the text which makes it obvious that the disrobing of the master rather than the name of the thief is the intrigue of the story. This enigma echoes the rhetorical question at the center of the framed tale: did Skundus actually sleep for a month, or did he escape to the other plantation where Cindy had been sent to appear as a haint, haunting the swamp and incidentally getting rid of Cindy's suitors? The real fights the fictitious, shadow and act exchange places. As the saying goes, “truth is stranger than fiction.”33 There is no resolution, no solution, no truth.34 Yet these questions are decoys, for both stories affirm the reversibility of the power relationship and assert the fulfillment of the slave's desire.

The watermelon also bears an obvious difference with the purloined letter: the object of desire/demand/need can be eaten; it is food, survival and/or pleasure. Whereas in “The Purloined Letter” the actual content of the letter remains untold, what remains undefined in this case is the “identity” of the thief. Yet, as in Poe's tale, this untold identity can be surmised, and it is the process of stealing, stealth, theft, and flight which the text exhibits. The question of the time of the story as a delaying tactic is also one of the main differences with Poe's tale. The analogous gesture to this strategy of deferment in Poe's tale is the substitution of a false letter for the “true compromising letter,” a letter which the reader knows via the narrator will become the possession of detective Dupin. The slave substitutes the metaphor for the object and thus can make the object his own. He proves his mastery of language and his manipulation of the signifying process, whereas the master is fooled by his wishful thinking: that the slave does not master the metaphoric process. The topos of “The Stolen Letter” must be taken literally. The slave steals the letter via Chesnutt's work, literacy, but he also steals what stands in for the letter, the watermelon, the “truth” which shows itself as a shallow hollow, which exhibits itself as “missing.” The melon had “rested” there, Chesnutt writes, inscribing another pun on resting as remainder and resting as repose, not working, a pause for which the slave's sleep stands in.35

The other major difference between Poe's tale and Chesnutt's story is that the storyteller and the listener are in the paradigmatic slave-master relationship. Hence, whereas questions of power, propriety, and sexuality were paramount in Poe's “Purloined Letter,” Chesnutt's tale falls within the trope of the trickster-slave of the slave narratives. The master is the dupe, and a parallel is established with Poe's Minister; the question remains of the equation between the slave and the Queen. The situation of utter dependence—ownership—might feminize the slave, and the object of the tale might be to inscribe the slave as the subject of desire, whereas the fact that the Queen is the object of desire, but also the guarantee of male power, is established from the start in Poe's tale. The compromising letter does that.36 Yet Lacan dis-places her feminine status towards the Truth as female.37 This shift makes her vulnerable, unstable in the establishment of a subject position which ultimately seems absorbed into a subject effect (“effet de sujet”).38


A brief description of the text of Wideman's story might help emphasize how its very construction reads like notes and, as such, mimics the journal kept by a professor-writer who both prepares his classes and might think of the plot for a novel, or might have to write a paper on “Surfiction” for an academic conference. The first part consists of notes taken by “Wideman” on Chesnutt's tale and realism; these “notes” are reproduced verbatim (“Surfiction” 60-61). The “I” character rereads his notes and comments on his comment, thus breaking the boundaries between the journal entry and the text of the story, a confusion which contributes to what could be termed a pastiche effect (“effet de pastiche”). The reproduction contaminates the reader's belief in the seriousness of the quotation. The second part consists of notes taken in the margin of a xeroxed copy of the text with the professor's marginal comments presented as two separate columns (“Surfiction” 61). Remarks on the difference between footnotes follow, as well as remarks interrupted by a long digression between brackets on the critical deconstructionist chestnut of appearance/disappearance. The story then “escapes the brackets”—like the slave, it runs away from stricture—and proceeds with a substantial portion of the text which takes up Chesnutt's introduction again (“Surfiction” 62-63). The comments bear on the construction of a smooth reality until the voice from the watermelon patch seizes the word (“Surfiction” 64).

The following section consists of two columns broken up into two separate voices which read like a conversation overheard by the reader. The dialogue is between two people, one of whom has read the other's diary and broken the pact of secrecy which this writing practice entails. The last sentence reads itself endlessly like a cracked record. The subsequent paragraph referring to the possibility of replaying the tape sends the reader back to that sentence. It makes evident the necessity to find a before and after in order to break with repetition and mirror effects, in short, the necessity for a frame of reference. The last part consists of the plot of the professor's novel in embryo with digressions on his conference on surfiction and a disconcertingly burlesque definition of surfiction (“Surfiction” 67-68). The skeleton of the novel is then given twice in telegraphic style where characters and texts exchange places. The final paragraph explains that “the plot breaks down” and ends with a series of famous apocalyptic final quotations. “Surfiction”'s last words are: “And so it goes” (“Surfiction” 69). The gravity of the issues (slavery) and the constant impression of pastiche place the reader on the edge of the interpretative dilemma between divertissement or death-blow.

As early as the first page of “Surfiction,” the critic gets lost in the mirroring interpretation of Poe's tale and “A Deep Sleeper,” a ploy which is the very goal of Wideman's “Surfiction.”39 The story both directs the critic-reader to Chesnutt's tale and provides no stable frame of reference for its own reading, except the fact that interpretative gestures always leave something out, a remainder brought to the fore by their repetition. A double of the critic, the professor of literature, writes his notes on Chesnutt's tale. This critic-professor later can easily identify with a character in the narrator-professor's projected story about a professor who assigns to his students the reading of “A Deep Sleeper” in his literature class: “The other redhead, there are only two redheads in the two classes, is taking the professor's seminar in Afro-American literature, one of whose stars is Charlie W. Chesnutt” (“Surfiction” 67). A little further on in the text the “I” narrator summarizes the plot and precisely emphasizes what has been discussed in the first part of the paper, the multilayeredness of “A Deep Sleeper” which Wideman's own piece reverberates: “Boy keeps diary. Girl meets diary. Girl falls out of love with diary (his), retreats to hers. The suspense builds. Chesnutt is read. A conference with Prof in which she begins analyzing the multilayered short story “Deep Sleeper” but ends in tears reading from a diary (his?) (hers?)” (“Surfiction” 68).

Indeed “Surfiction” distracts the professor-critic into a re-reading of Chesnutt to bring him/her back to the skeleton of an academic autofiction in which he/she finds a mirror-image, a reflection or rather a shadow of himself/herself. The opposition between the text as “realized” and the text as “a shadow of its act” is clarified by the reference to the tale of “A Deep Sleeper.” But as becomes evident, such a reference is also part of the bait. The precariousness of any interpretative approach rests in the fact that at all moments the “seriousness” of the statements can be doubted, which in turn can turn the exercise that I as a critic am presenting here into a farce, the critic having been engulfed in the metafictional spiral and caught in his/her desire to understand, to clear up the opacity of the text, coming up against the joke, the opacity of the other text. He/she could find herself the butt of the joke, his/her position of critical “mastery” undermined. In other words, if nothing else, the joke is real.

At the beginning “Wideman” looks at his notes in terms of the choice between writing a story or an essay. They are taken from a journal which he keeps and which he tells the reader in a footnote is in “progress,” “unpaginated,” “many hands.”40 These remarks are a critical commentary on realistic writing and its conventions. If the notes from the journal are a story and not a critical essay, Borges and Barthelme immediately come to mind, and the title “Surfiction” suggests this alternative. What is developed is a reflection on how “surfiction” feeds on critical discourse, incorporates it, and finally blurs the frontiers between the remarks and the text commented upon, the notes and the text. The negation of the possibility of a metalanguage also comes to the fore.

In a second move “Wideman” takes down rather soberly the notes he has written in the margin of his xeroxed copy of “A Deep Sleeper” and reproduces the discussion between his marginalia and the corresponding text in Chesnutt. His remarks dismantle the rhetoric at play in the tale when the young sister-in-law of the “I” narrator, the white “boss,” asks the black servant to tell a story. The young woman marvels at the strangeness of the names of the slaves, “Skundus,” “Tushus,” “Cottus,” “Squinchus.” These names follow the order of birth/appearance of the slaves on the plantation, but the slaves, by mispronouncing the Latin words, re-appropriated what was opaque, even forbidden to them.41 “Wideman” comments on the fact that the end-result of this re-appropriation and transgression is that the names are now opaque to the dominant culture; they have become the idiom of the slaves. The supposed “ignorance” of the slaves-servants is mirrored by the ignorance of the master-boss. They both wear the mask, proceed by obfuscation. One opacity is turned into another opacity in a struggle for survival. This “mask to mask”—as opposed to “face to face”—in its relationship to the expression and fulfillment of desire is precisely what lies at the core of the construction of Wideman's complex, purposely multilayered, cunning, canny piece.

That the master would proceed uncovered in a relationship to truth, sincerity, and authenticity which his “mastery” could allow is countered by the fact that access to language means access to signifiers. The slave, by a deft appropriation of language, plays with the signifiers, redirects desire from strict orality (taste and the pleasures of the flesh: the watermelon) to aurality (listening and the delights of the imagination: the tale), and consequently he both tells the truth about the stealing, which is what has been understood from the story he tells, and has a Doppelgänger perform it. Similarly, “Wideman” has this critic take up his comments and vainly attempt to outdo him by giving to his reading a further interpretative twist.

For the main part and more markedly from page 62, “Surfiction” ironically describes the genesis of a surfictional story called “Mine” and could be subtitled “How I Wrote Mine,” or “The Story is Mine,” which in turn recalls the way in which the character May in “Watermelon Story” explains how she might end her story: “bread is bread wine is wine and the story is mine.” Closure is a gesture effected both by rhyme and by meaning since the storyteller seems to want to equate things “out there” and the possession of his/her story.42 The title could also mean “How I wrote my surfictional story, my autofiction …” with the inevitable “attendant” question: how can the voice from the watermelon patch be “incorporated” into the metafictional text of a black writer? It is a spoof, a satire, and more. The title surfiction (“surf”-ing on fiction?) bears traces of “surfeit,” an over-indulgence which might end up spinning on some hollow, were it not for the various framings of the story.43

The “surfictional” story is constructed around Charles Chesnutt's tale and the critical commentaries made on the tale. The embedded text—like the exchanged letter in Poe's tale, “The Purloined Letter”—is Chesnutt's tale. The double construction of the “story” as metadiscourse and primary text is evident as early as the digression in brackets which plays on the appearance/disappearance of the journal entry cited at the beginning. It points at repetition and temporality, the Freudian repetition automatism, and the “real” of time. Wideman effects the de-constructive gesture on absence and presence (“shadow play”) which leads to the articulation of the “text as realized” and the “text as the shadow of its act.” The story Wideman writes “escapes the brackets.” It is a reproduction of Chesnutt's “realistic” style as he opens the story with a traditional readerly setting. Wideman had referred to realistic conventions earlier, “l'effet de réel.44 The realistic convention applies to the white frame. The voice from the briar patch tells the story in dialect while the white narrator created by Chesnutt insists on the posture, the difficulties the old man has moving because of his rheumatism, and hence draws our attention to the possibility of his lying.45 Wideman's comments on Chesnutt's writing read: “An immanent experience is prepared for, is being framed. The experience will be real because the narrator reproduces his narration from the same set of conventions by which we commonly detect reality—dates, buildings, relatives, the noises of nature” (“Surfiction” 64). At the same time the ficticity of the scene comes from its facticity, what is “real” is the time of the story. The young woman is “drawing out niggers,” i.e. drawing out stories from them, but the term could be read literally and enter into the gambling/game metaphor of metafiction. She is drawing out niggers but might as well be drawing out numbers since their names are numbers. The story is also drawing on or being drawn upon, purloined. Hence the realistic convention, complete with buzzing bumblebees, frames the marvelous—the fairy tale—which is also a slave's tale. The “real” of the framing story is “fossilized” while the multilayeredness of the tale means motion, allusions, gaps, traps, the story as hook and bait.46

The text that follows is a supposedly overheard conversation. It could be said to be over-read, since two voices are laid out in discreet paragraphs split into two alternating columns. They discuss the invasion of privacy which results from looking at someone's diary without their knowing.47 One of the two voices compares this breaking of the secret, this “deflowering,” to a sequence in a Bergman film where a woman reads a man's diary unbeknownst to him. Once again the truth of the text (representation) is played up against the truth of experience within the minimal distance established by the most private of all autobiographical gestures. And the dialogue becomes a spoof which reproduces the opposition between the watermelon story and the embedded tale of the “Deep Sleeper,” the fight of the real with the fictitious. To read someone else's diary is to break the specific autobiographical pact which normally delimits the genre. Diaries are usually written in secrecy, become a double of the self, and should not be addressed to anybody else. The “I” narrator of the diarist often addresses the diary itself: “Dear Diary.” The last entry of this split dialogue is a sentence that endlessly reads itself in the circular fashion of Finnegans Wake or, more lightly, in the nonsensical refrain of children's sayings: “A melodrama a god damned Swedish subtitled melodrama you're going to turn it around aren't you make it into” (“Surfiction” 66). The circle points to the loss of origin, the lack of origin, the spinning of the tale, rather than the authorial voice as the source of the statement; the reader, like the speaker, is within language, within a series of signifiers, a chain which closes upon itself in an endless repetition. The compulsion for repetition (Wiederholungszwang) which Lacan analyzed at the center of the embedded structure of “The Purloined Letter” surfaces: one cannot refrain from repeating.

The last part of Wideman's “story” provides the blueprint of the plot for a novel, a series of projects which read as a satire of the complexities of metafiction with its array of self-reflexive gestures, its reflections, its spirals, its “coups sur le discours,” its disintegrating characters.48 The professor matter-of-factly defines surfiction as follows: “Thin books with no concern for ecology. Trees are felled for books which use a lot of blank spaces as he has just done previously in the dialogue between the two voices. The authors' names all start with a B, Barthes, Barth, Borges, Barthelme, Beckett, Burroughs, Brautigan.” Wideman points to the real as the book is reduced to the space it occupies on a shelf and to matter, paper paste, paper pulp, to its value as a product minus its value as a support for producing meaning. The reverberation in this part of the story of the frames of Chesnutt's “Deep Sleeper,” this reductio ad absurdum is obviously a reference to the opposition between the watermelon reduced to nourishment versus the fulfillment of desire through marriage in Skundus' tale. The authors are themselves reduced to the alphabet. This arbitrary choice plays upon the obsession with letters which is prevalent in metafiction and with arbitrariness as one of the key notions of Saussurean linguistics. Here, however, one reaches the absurd as the arbitrariness of the list coincides with proper names.

Proper names are the “deep subject of autobiography,” Lejeune claims, and Derrida's reflection on proper names and signatures also signals the specific status of the signifier.49 The reference to the sequence of the alphabet somehow plays back on the numbering of the slaves by the master to tell them apart which is echoed in Chesnutt's tale by the mistress' statement that a nigger is just like any other nigger, and she does not see why Cindy should marry Skundus. This blind spot is revealing of the denial of desire to the slaves. Being interchangeable and reduced to the status of objects, of goods, they cannot have specific objects of desire, or they cannot desire; they only mate. Wideman subverts the arbitrariness of the naming of the slaves by applying it to canonical authors of metafiction. The same phenomenon as the circulation of the letter, with no origin, hides in the symbolic economy where the slaves duplicate each other and cannot be told the one from the other. The letters exchanged by the Minister and Dupin are fac-similes, copies which conform to the original, yet this original cannot be pinned down. The numbering/naming of the slaves effects a similar dissemination which the slave uses to his advantage to con the master.

“Surfiction” ends in a hodge-podge of references to Conrad's The Heart of Darkness and to Beckett's Waiting for Godot, among others. They all refer to death, to a godless world, the absurd, the end, the horror. They also play on the explosion at the center of the polysemous “Mine”: characters explode, references are so dense and compact that critics would be at a loss to decipher them all. The textual terrain is a veritable minefield where they are bound to lose some, if not all, of their bearings. In the case of Conrad, the sentence reproduces the actual words uttered by the manager's boy to announce Kurtz's death.

‘I blew the candle out and left the cabin. The pilgrims were dining in the mess-room, and I took my place opposite the manager, who lifted his eyes to give me a questioning glance, which I successfully ignored. He leaned back, serene in that particular smile of his sealing the unimpressed depths of his meanness […] Suddenly the manager's boy put his head in the doorway, and said in a tone of scathing contempt—Mistah Kurtz—he dead.’

The “dialect”—the voice from the briar patch—tells the death of the white man. Or rather, the narrator says that the dialect—“a tone of scathing contempt”—tells the death of the white man. The black man is made to report to his master the death of the white man—what he most desired in the economy of master-slave relations.50 He survives him, frames his story. “Dat's all folks” signals the end of the storytelling. It is followed by sadness. “And so it goes”—a quotation from Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five?—like the earlier “forever” tells of the difficulty of escaping these frames. It indicates the compulsion of telling. It also refers to time as what goes on and to death as constitutive of time. “And so it goes” means that “it” vanishes, disappears. The moral of the tale is that the tale belongs to the last teller, to the one who survives to tell, and hence tells of (his/her) survival. Death is at the center of these narratives, embedded in them just like the time that it takes to tell them; the teller makes time as he/she passes time.51

The questions raised by Wideman's short story are: can Black literature play with metafiction? Has not the African-American literary canon already done so as Ishmael Reed's and Clarence Major's works, among others, attest? Does not Chesnutt's tale point to the fact that the black voice by re-appropriating language masters the tropes and the tricks of metafiction, from the origin? More jokingly, since the short story plays on pastiche, the deciphering game and the reality test are eventually reduced to the fact that by sleeping with the redhead student the professor discovers the “true” color of her pubic hair (fiery red) and verifies for himself whether the fiction is actually fictitious or real.52 Picaresque, farce, takes over and plays with the intrusion of the voice from the watermelon patch whose accent will distort and “signify” upon the deadly seriousness of the search for truth.53 In the process of writing this essay, the critic has been fascinated by her reflection and has tested the limits of a heuristic pursuit—the “mastery” of the signifier. She has almost fallen prey to becoming the writer of a metafictional story herself. But she eventually hears a voice which signifies (to her) that it is the end: “Dat's all, folks!”


  1. John Edgar Wideman's “Surfiction” first appeared in The Southern Review, volume 21.3 (Summer 1985). The edition that I am using is taken from Fever: Twelve Short Stories (London: Penguin, 1990), 59-71. Hereafter cited in the text as “Surfiction.”

  2. “Surfiction” is a term also used by Ronald Sukenick, author of The Death of the Novel and Other Stories (1969). Wideman's play with fiction and autobiography can be contrasted with Philip Roth's The Counterlife (1985) which alludes to Huxley's Point Counterpoint, itself inspired from Gide's The Counterfeiters. In The Counterlife, the autobiographical pact is broken with every new chapter.

  3. Raymond Federman, “Surfiction: Four Propositions in the Form of an Introduction,” in Surfiction: Fiction Now and Tomorrow (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1975), 21.

  4. New York: Vintage, 1992. This title is an Igbo saying.

  5. The OED entry reads: slang (American): A story that has been told before. A “venerable” joke.

  6. During the question time which followed this paper in Tours (Nov. 30, 1996), John Wideman pointed out the pun on chestnut/Chesnutt. The interest in the story “Surfiction” has in a way been used up. This fatigue echoes the lesson of “The Watermelon Story” in Damballah (London: Flamingo, 1984) where May says that the listeners have used up the faith that made miracles happen, such as the biblical story she told about the birth of Isaac to Rebecca. The final line of the story is: “He just got to figure out how to use what's left” (107, my emphasis).

  7. Philippe Lejeune, Le Pacte autobiographique (Paris: Seuil, 1975). For an English translation of Lejeune's work, see On Autobiography, John Paul Eakin, ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).

  8. See Lejeune, “Autofictions & Cie: Pièce en cinq actes,” in Autofictions & Cie, Doubrovsky, Lecarme, and Lejeune, eds., RITM, volume 6 (Université de Paris X: 1993), 5-10.

  9. Serge Doubrovsky, Fils (Paris: Galilée, 1977), quoted by Régine Robin, “Autofiction. Le sujet toujours en défaut,” in Doubrovsky et al. eds., Autofictions & Cie, 74. The pun cannot be translated since the word “fils” in French means both threads and sons. Unless otherwise indicated, the translations from the French are mine. Lejeune later acknowledged his blind spot, and Jacques Lecarme listed the writers whose work could have filled the empty slot for a contribution on autofiction to the Encyclopaedia Universalis (1984): Céline, Malraux, Modiano, Barthes, Gary, Sollers; Lejeune, Autofictions & Cie, 7.

  10. Federman, The Voice in the Closet—la Voix dans le cabinet de débarras (Madison, WI: Coda Press, 1979). For a summary of Federman's position on writing, autobiography, and history and a select bibliography of his work, see Catherine Viollet, “Raymond Federman: La voix plurielle,” in Autofictions & Cie, 193-204.

  11. Federman, Surfiction (21).

  12. Coleman, Blackness and Modernism (156).

  13. Charles W. Chesnutt, “A Deep Sleeper.” See S. L. Render, The Short Fiction of C. W. Chesnutt, (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1981), 115-22. All further references will be to that edition cited as “A Deep Sleeper.” During the comment session in Tours, John Wideman pointed out that one of the purposes of his short story was to make his readers go back to Chesnutt's work and read him. The question is then: Why read Poe's tales rather than Chesnutt's? Why not read both? The comparison begs the question as to whether the stakes of Chesnutt's story are as complex as or, more humbly, similar to and different from those excruciatingly examined by Lacan and Derrida. The whole debate of black literature and the canon lies in this choice of one text at the exclusion of another. The “story” of “Surfiction” could thus be seen as a playful and tricky “intrusion” of the black voice (the trickster's?) into a canonical debate which redirects the literary critic towards the black text.

  14. A Biblical variation of this story is inserted into Wideman's “The Watermelon Story,” in Damballah, 99-107: “Well old Isaac had a master grow watermelons on his farm. And old Isaac he have the best knuckles for miles around for thumping them melons and telling you when they just perfect for the table. He thump and Melon, Mr. Melon, he talk back. Tell his whole life story to that crusty knuckle, Uncle Isaac knock at the door. Yoo-hoo, How do you do? Melon say, You a day early, man. Ain't ready yet, Isaac. Got twenty-four hours to go. You traipse on down the patch and find somebody else today. Come back tomorrow I be just right, Brother Isaac” (104-5). The story goes on and Old Isaac finds a baby boy inside the watermelon and runs back to tell his wife Rebecca. That a male child in this version of the story emerges from the watermelon would corroborate a reading of the watermelon as ultimately standing in for the Phallus. “The Watermelon Story” is a concatenation of dreams and a mise en abyme of storytelling.

  15. The hiring out and the recalling of the female slave Cindy depends on the harvest, a symbol which works to point to the watermelon as proof of that link between appearance/disappearance and the fruitfulness or barrenness of Nature. It echoes Wideman's own remarks on reality as dates, figures versus the real of Nature: “In this culture—American, Western, 20th-century—an awareness that is eye centered, disjunctive as opposed to organic, that responds to clock time, calendar time more than to biological cycles and seasons, that assumes nature is external, acting on us rather than through us, that tames space by manmade structures and with the I as center defines other people and other things by the nature of their relationship to the I rather than by the independent integrity of the order they may represent” (“Surfiction” 63-64). It should be noted that the female slave's comings and goings can also be read within the economy of the system of slavery. She is displaced to where she can earn more money for the master.

  16. The act of poisoning the evil magician to make him sleep and thus steal from him the precious object, as in some versions of Alladin and the Magic Lantern is another variation on the structure of the tale. Seen in this light, “A Deep Sleeper” is actually metaphorically putting the master to sleep so that he or his alter ego can steal the watermelon.

  17. The allusion is obviously to Ralph Ellison's Shadow and Act (1964).

  18. Like the letter and the truth which must both be found, Skundus (a figure of the double, the Second) cannot be found and must be found. Alan Bass' translation of Derrida's “Le Facteur de la vérité” constantly stresses how “to be found” and “finds itself” are in French both contained within the reflexive verb “se trouver.” See Jacques Derrida, The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, Alan Bass, trans. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987), 413-96. Alan Bass refuses to translate the title since “facteur” means both factor and postman. The article bears on the delivery of truth in psychoanalysis.

  19. See Jacques Lacan, Ecrits, “Séminaire sur ‘La Lettre volée’” (Paris: Seuil, 1966), 11-71. Jacques Derrida, “Le Facteur de la vérité” (Poétique, volume 21 (1975)), La Carte postale de Socrate à Freud et au delà (Paris: Aubier Flammarion, 1980), 441-524. Translated as “The Purveyor of Truth” and published in Yale French Studies 52 (1975): 31-114. In Chesnutt's tale, it is first more a question of collection which hides that of the delivery (of the blow, if not of truth) to remain within the isotopy of the postal system.

  20. Lacan explains the dumbness of the belief in its own invisibility which the ostrich exhibits as follows: “Pour faire saisir dans son unité le complexe intersubjectif ainsi décrit, nous lui cherchions volontiers patronage dans la technique légendaire attribuée à l'autruche pour se mettre à l'abri des dangers; car celle-ci mériterait enfin d'être qualifiée de politique à se répartir entre les trois partenaires, dont le second se croirait revêtu d'invisibilité du fait que le premier a sa tête enfoncée dans le sable, cependant qu'il laisserait un troisième lui plumer tranquillement le derrière; il suffirait qu'enrichissant d'une lettre sa dénomination proverbiale, nous en fassions la politique de l'autruiche pour qu'en elle-même enfin elle trouve un sens nouveau pour toujours” (Ecrits, Paris: Seuil, 1966, 15).

  21. The domino effect (or the pecking order?) in Poe's tale, the Queen/the Minister/Dupin, is structured in a duplication which involves the frame: the slave Skundus/Skundus' Master/Julius the storyteller/Tom the sleeper/the sister-in-law and the white landowner. A Derridean reading would call our critical attention to the excluded fourth, the frame of narration.

  22. The irony of posting notices on trees must be stressed in relation to Derrida's reading of the postal system here transcribed within the economy of slavery where the slave—like the letter in the tale—is missing and could be found thanks to posters. This game of hide-and-seek played against the background of bondage and freedom recalls Harriet Jacobs' aka Linda Brent's narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) in which she writes false letters to make her master think that she has escaped when she literally hides under his nose.

  23. Here again a double interpretation in Marxist terms (the return of Cindy and her marriage to Skundus translated as plus-value, “pay off”) and psychoanalytic term (the jouissance of the slave) beckons the critic. The Hegelian dialectics of master and slave, to which Lacan often refers, also enter into this array of interpretative frames.

  24. Derrida's reading of the different positions of the King and the Queen does refer to pawns on a chessboard. The positionings and the calculations calls forth the metaphor of chess which is named in the narrator's preface of Poe's tale; see his note, (486). The narrator prefers the game of draughts to the “elaborate frivolity of chess.” “To calculate is not in itself to analyze. A chess player for instance does the one without effort at the other” (486, note 64).

  25. Actually the watermelon can be used in the three Lacanian regimes of desire, demand, and need, for at one level survival through nourishment is alluded to and the watermelon could be symbolic of the interlacing of desire and need since the slave must survive: eat in order to produce the labor force demanded by the economy of slavery, and, secondarily, for himself.

  26. Derrida's “Le Facteur” states the following to differentiate his analysis from Lacan's: “The difference which interests me here is that—a formula to be understood as one will—the lack does not have its place in dissemination. By determining the place of the lack, the topos of that which is lacking from its place, and in constituting it as a fixed center, Lacan is proposing at the same time as a truth-discourse, a discourse on the truth of the purloined letter as the truth of “The Purloined Letter.” In question is a hermeneutic deciphering, despite any appearances or denegation. The link of Femininity and Truth is the ultimate signified of this deciphering” (442). Later Derrida's comments would echo this concavity left by the watermelon: “Until now, our questions have led us to suspect that if there is something like a purloined letter, perhaps it has something like a supplementary trap: it may have no fixed location, no definable hole or assignable lack” (442).

  27. Wideman's text often alludes to Barth, one of whose favorite characters is Scheherazade. See Letters (1979).

  28. Edgar Allan Poe has written a witty tale entitled “Scheherazade's One Thousand and Second Night” in which the vizier's daughter tells another story based on “true” facts but which seem so unbelievable—footnotes prove the truthfulness of her statements—that the King eventually kills her. One story too many!

  29. The young sister-in-law represents the Law to which the Master is submitted by marriage. The desire to hear the story is voiced by a young woman who should have remained within the Law (i.e. she should have kept her place). Her position serves as counterpoint to the illegitimacy of the slaves' marriage.

  30. Lacan's Seminar on “The Purloined Letter” reads: “And that is why without needing any more than being able to listen at the door of Professor Freud, he will go straight to the spot in which lies and lives what that body is designed to hide, in a gorgeous center caught in a glimpse, nay to the very place seducers name the Castle Sant Angelo in their innocent illusion that the city is being held from there. Look! between the jambs of the fireplace, there is the object already within reach of the hand the ravisher has but to extend” (“Surfiction” 66). Quoted in Bass' translation of Derrida, “Le Facteur” and modified by him (444).

  31. Derrida's deconstructive gesture shows that the truth in Poe's tale is actually already inscribed in the narration, awaiting psychoanalytic interpretation since Dupin functions as a double of the analyst. What Lacan left out, however, is the outside frame of narration, the narrator of the story in which Dupin is merely a character. Derrida also indicates that if some letters reach their final destination, it is because others are kept in the dead letter department. This remainder allows the destiny/destination of the others. Barbara Johnson effects another graft on Derrida's graft: see “The Frame of Reference: Poe, Lacan, Derrida,” in Psychoanalysis and the Question of the Text, ed. Geoffrey Hartman (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1978), 149-71. She argues that Derrida's moves in his discussion of Lacan are already anticipated in the texts Derrida is reading and thus illustrate “the transfer of the repetition compulsion from the original scene to the scene of its reading” (154).

  32. Derrida's critique bears heavily on Lacan's eviction of the Uncanny (i.e. dual structures) to be left with triangular structures of intersubjectivity.

  33. The analysis of Chesnutt's story deserves a more full and pointed development. What is indicated here are merely guidelines toward a subversive reading of the tale with/against Poe's tale.

  34. See Serge Leclaire, “Un semestre à Vincennes,” in Démasquer le réel: Un essai sur l'objet en psychanalyse (Paris: Points Seuil, 1971): “Hence truth can only be uttered or, more precisely, utterance is the order of presence of truth. But this utterance must be made into an enigma. If one defines the enigma as the utterance which in its composition contains a clue which constitutes the enunciation's reference, E (eE), one can understand the interpretative act as the operation which consists in converting the enigma-utterance into another utterance on the basis of that clue” (114). The reference is to Lacan “Le désir et son interprétation,” delivered at a seminar on January 14, 1959, and compiled by J. B. Pontalis in Bulletin de Psychologie, volume 18.6, 329. Leclaire defines what is at stake in “Surfiction”: the function of interpretation and the truth effect (“l'effet de vérité”).

  35. It would be interesting to define the relation between work, dreamwork, and sleep in both a Marxist and a Freudian analysis of the slave's subversion of order on the plantation.

  36. Lacan writes: “Love letter or conspirational letter, letter of betrayal or letter of mission, letter of summons or letter of distress, we are assured of one thing the Queen must not bring it to the knowledge of her lord and master. Now these terms, far from bearing on the nuance of discredit they have in bourgeois comedy, take on a certain prominence through allusion to her sovereign, to whom she is bound by pledge of faith, and doubly so, since her role as a spouse does not relieve her of her duties as subject, but rather elevates her to the guardianship of what guardianship according to law incarnates of power: what is called legitimacy” (“Surfiction” 57, my emphasis). Reading Poe's “The Purloined Letter,” Lacan surmises that the letter contains something compromising for the Queen: “Ce document mettrait en question l'honneur d'une personne du plus haut rang. Dès lors ce n'est pas seulement le sens mais le texte du message qu'il serait périlleux de mettre en circulation et ce d'autant plus qu'il paraîtrait plus anodin, e uisque les risques en seraient accrus de l'indiscrétion qu'un des dépositaires pourrait commetter à son insu” (Ecrits 26).

  37. Derrida summarizes: “By determining the place of the lack, the topos of that which is lacking from its place, and in constituting it as a fixed center, Lacan is indeed proposing, at the same time as a truth-discourse, a discourse on truth of the purloined letter as the truth of “The Purloined Letter.” In question is a hermeneutic deciphering despite any appearances or denegation. The link between femininity and truth is the ultimate signified of this deciphering. […] Femininity is the Truth (of Castration), is the best figure of castration, because of the logic of the signifier it has always been castrated; and Femininity leaves something in circulation (here the letter) something detached from itself in order to have it brought back to itself, because she has ‘never had it: whence truth comes out of the well, but only half-way’” (The Post Card 441-42).

  38. The feminization of the slave is a difficult proposition to maintain in view of the fact that the tale contains a female slave character. The feminist argument runs as follows: the specificity of woman disappears if one speaks of “female positions” or “feminization.” The place of the female in both texts in relation to Derrida's critique of Lacan would require a longer development and falls outside the scope of this essay.

  39. That the “I” character is “Lost in the Fun House,” the title of one of Barth's novels, is evident, but so is the critic: “Recall your own reflection in the fun house mirror and the moment of doubt when you turn away and it turns away and you lose sight of it and it naturally enough loses sight of you and you wonder where it's going and where you're going and the wrinkly reflection plate still is laughing behind your back at someone” (“Surfiction” 64).

  40. If this information is true, this journal constitutes rich material for research in genetic criticism. During question time, Wideman owned that some parts of the story were autobiographical, but, as might be expected, did not identify which ones.

  41. The gesture of naming is a recurrent theme in African-American literature embedded in a history of namelessness. (Un)naming of the slaves was followed by a ritual naming. See Kimberly W. Benston, “I yam what I am: The Topos of (Un)naming in Afro-American Literature,” Henry Louis Gates, Jr. ed., Black Literature and Critical Theory (New York: Methuen, 1984), 151-72. See Wideman's remark: “I use actual names of people, but they are not based on people who hold those names. And I thought it's kind of fun for people to see their names in print. And also you know we've had a lot of problems with names in this country and being noticed as people, as individuals, and being on the record, and being part of history, being part of history, being part of what counts” (158).

  42. In a similar way, the watermelon and the story were both Julius's. The play is between text and object, the object as text and the text as object.

  43. This possible reading is acknowledged by German critic Franz-Joseph Ortheil (Die Zeit, 34.8-14 [1992]: 48). Ortheil qualifies Federman's surfiction as a “surfing” version of fiction which demands from the reader a constant effort to remain on the crest of the text. Another version of this difficulty is the metaphor of the reader on the razor's edge of the text.

  44. See Roland Barthes, “L'effet de réel” (first published in Communications, March, 1968) in Roland Barthes, Oeuvres complètes, Eric Marty, ed. (Paris: Seuil, 1994), volume 1.1, 479-84. In S/Z, Barthes refines his definition, see XXXV, “Le réel, l'opérable”: “En somme ce qu'on appelle “réel” (dans la théorie du texte réaliste) n'est jamais qu'un code de représentation (de signification): ce n'est jamais un code d'exécution, le réel romanesque n'est pas opérable.” Roland Barthes: Oeuvres complètes 1 (608). Wideman refers to Barthes, even turns his name into a verb used in the third person singular “Barth Barthes Barthelme.”

  45. The reader catches the hint and wonders why the master wouldn't. Such a reading was hinted at by Toni Morrison's analysis of Melville's Benito Cereno during her 1993 series of lectures at the Ecole Normale Supérieure after she published Playing in the Dark (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).

  46. Chesnutt's tale could also be said to stage the opposition between “realism” and anti-realism which runs through the black literary tradition. The school of Richard Wright can be contrasted to that of Ellison and in turn to the “antirealist” posture of Clarence Major's My Amputations (1986).

  47. This technique could be, among others, a pastiche of Derrida, Living on/Borderlines, where two texts are written concurrently, running together, and the reading process moves from one to the other, or can only read one and then the other.

  48. As already mentioned, the mixture of autobiography and fiction is a common strategy in Wideman's fictional writing. What is interesting then is the relationship established between the author and the “I” character in the avowedly autobiographical works Brothers and Keepers (1984) and Fatheralong [Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society] (1995). To cite from the preface of Brothers and Keepers: “To learn my brother's story I visited him in prison and listened to what he had to say. I'd take a few notes—names, dates, sequences of events—then, some time later, after I'd had an opportunity to absorb his words but while they were still fresh in my mind, I would reproduce on paper what I'd heard. Robby would read what I had written and respond either when I visited him next or by letter. His suggestions and corrections usually concerned factual matters: As a novelist I have had lots of practice creating written versions of speech, so I felt much more confident about borrowing narrative techniques learned from fiction than employing a tape recorder. … I take full responsibility for a mix of memory, imagination, feeling, and fact.”

  49. See Lejeune: “It is in the proper name that person and discourse are linked even before being joined in the first person, as the order of language acquisition by children shows. … All the identifications (easy, difficult, or determined) suggested above from oral situations inevitably result in transforming the first person into a proper name.” “The Autobiographical Pact.” On Autobiography, 11. See also Derrida, Otobiographies: L'Enseignement de Nietzsche et la politique du nom propre (Paris: Galilée, 1984). Such a definition of “autobiography” is obviously problematic when it comes to the slave narrative.

  50. Lacan's rereading of Hegel's dialectics between the master and the slave tries to analyze how the slave waits for his master's death and exchanges this making time and his labor for the certainty that he has of his master's mortality. See Ecrits (Paris: Seuil, 1966), 314.

  51. Making time as opposed to doing time refers to the complex interrelation between freedom and imprisonment which is at the core of the narrative construction of Brothers and Keepers (1984). Robby, Wideman's brother, is doing time, serving a life sentence. Time and life coincide. Another direction would be Derrida's recent work Donner le temps (Giving Time) (Paris: Galilée, 1996).

  52. Such a notation seems to hint at the section in Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot (another B!) on the color of Emma Bovary's eyes. “The Prof had met the girl in the boy's novel. Learns her pubic hair is as fiery red as what she wears short and stylish, flouncing just above her shoulders” (“Surfiction” 68).

  53. Derrida's critique of Lacan bears precisely on his belief that there is “truth”: “La description est partie prenante quand elle induit une pratique, une éthique et une institution, donc une politique assurant la tradition de sa vérité. Il ne s'agit plus alors de connaître, expliquer et de montrer mais d'y rester. Et de reproduire.” Derrida then quotes Lacan: “L'analyse ne peut avoir pour but que l'avènement d'une parole vraie et la réalisation par le sujet de son histoire dans sa relation à un futur.” See Ecrits (302), quoted in Derrida, “Le Facteur” (509).

Fritz Gysin (essay date summer 1999)

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SOURCE: Gysin, Fritz. “John Edgar Wideman's ‘Fever’.” Callaloo 22, no. 3 (summer 1999): 715-26.

[In the following essay, Gysin provides historical background to Wideman's “Fever” as well as a stylistic analysis of the story.]

“Telling the story right will make it read.”


“Certain things had to have happened for any of it to make sense.”

(Philadelphia Fire)

“Fever” is the title story of a book that heralds Wideman's imaginative return to Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly Love,” whose hypocritical failure to fulfill that promise in the 20th century he had already tried to expose in The Lynchers (1973) before he had found his unique voice in a series of novels located in his native Pittsburgh, especially The Homewood Trilogy (1985). It is under heavy personal pressure that Wideman wrote Reuben (1987), his novel about a black outsider who becomes a lawyer to the poor in Pittsburgh, and then published Fever [Fever: Twelve Stories], his second book about Philadelphia. Wideman has been widely praised for his powerful language, his imaginative use of myth and ritual when dealing with the past, and his sensitive approach to characterization and focalization. If our knowledge of his biography contributes anything to our understanding of his fiction, it is an awareness of the depths of experience, of its existential and emotional complexity that are the origins of his narrative vigor.

“Fever” is a fascinating collage of communal voices and visions, commemorating the black experience of suffering and triumph during the yellow fever epidemic that hit the city of Philadelphia in 1793, with occasional glances back to the American Revolution and forward to the 1980s. It is, as the author himself has noted, a “meditation on history” (Fever 162),1 albeit one that differs greatly from Sherley Anne Williams' story with a similar title.2 Its two epigraphs announce the author's intentions and some of his figurative strategies. The first one is an ironic dedication to Matthew Carey, the Irish immigrant publisher and official chronicler of the disease, whose potboiler contained derogatory remarks denying the unselfish and indispensable contribution of the black nurses, carters, and undertakers to the fight against the plague (Carey 76ff.); the second quotes an earlier comment by the wealthy merchant Richard Morris on the central position of Philadelphia which is “to the United States what the heart is to the human body in circulating the blood” (127). Relying on contemporary responses of those African Americans denigrated by Carey, as well as on more recent historical evaluations, the author once again intends to set the record straight by selecting and collecting snippets from old texts, some white, but most black, and by associating them with recreated fragments of scenes, reports, stories, comments, arguments, insights from the past and the present. By means of an imaginative yet tightly controlled blending of tropes, he sketches a vision of the personified temporary capital of the United States as the victim of an affliction whose origins and meaning are extended far beyond the fields of medicine, science, and politics.

One's understanding of this story is helped considerably by a certain familiarity with the history of the plague, some issues involved in the fight against it, and a familiarity with a few historical characters. The epidemic of 1793, according to the sources mentioned by the author, was the first and most devastating outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia and caused the worst crisis in the history of the city. Having started in late July, the disease assumed epidemic proportions in late August, and by the middle of September the city had almost surrendered. Whereas the rich and the middle class, together with many federal civil servants and high public officers, fled to the countryside where some of them survived, the poor, especially blacks and immigrants, suffered most. Living in congested and highly infested areas and unable to leave or pay for medical care, they soon succumbed in droves (Nash 121-22). Those citizens choosing to remain, for altruistic or business reasons, performed feats of heroism in helping to maintain a certain degree of order and sanity, in organizing relief from outside, in combating “the dismal monotony of the plague” (Powell 233) by investigating its possible origins and reasons, and in ministering to the needs of the sick and dying. The height of the calamity was reached in mid-October with 119 persons dying on a single day (Powell 234); after that the fever slowly abated and the November frosts finally brought an end to the epidemic.

During those fateful hundred days much speculation took place regarding the origins of the plague; lots of advice was published as to how to prevent contagion; and, above all, veritable battles were fought by doctors representing different medical traditions and propagating, as well as practicing, controversial forms of treatment. One of the hottest cities on the eastern seaboard, Philadelphia was surrounded by stagnant swamps, was bordered by putrid river banks, and it virtually sat on a noxious cesspool (Powell vi)—enough reason for the so-called “climatists” to argue that, during a long, hot summer such as the one of 1793, its citizens were easily infected by poisonous effluvia from the “sinks” and that therefore sanitary measures such as cleaning up the filth in streets and houses, airing rooms, making fires and burning gunpowder might help to contain the disease. Others insisted on transmission by touch or breath and claimed that the source of the plague came from outside, from the West Indies, especially from Santo Domingo where a few months earlier a slave uprising commandeered by French Jacobin commissioners had helped the free black soldiers take over the city of Cap Français and had caused the flight of some 4000 whites together with their 2000 slaves and a number of rich free mulattos on board a French fleet, many of whom had found shelter in Philadelphia (Nash 140-42). The so-called “contagionists” among the medical profession recommended the isolation of the sick and cautioned against touching victims dead or alive unless one was protected by rags or clothes drenched in vinegar and camphor (Powell 36-44). Yet nobody at that time was aware of the real transmitter of the plague, the female species of a mosquito known as Aëdes aegypti, which, once it had bitten a yellow fever victim, was able to infect another human being every three days until it would be killed by frost (Powell vii-viii). It was not until 1912 when Walter Reed made this crucial discovery that the yellow fever ceased to be a recurring affliction in American cities.

Ironically, Philadelphia, during the time of its first yellow fever epidemic, was the center of medical knowledge in America (Powell ix). Among the many doctors who looked after the sick, dissected the dead, and, incidentally, made quite a bit of money, Benjamin Rush was an exception. Headstrong and energetic, yet compassionate and sensitive, indefatigable in his investigation into the cause of the sickness as well as in his attendance upon rich and poor victims alike, Dr. Rush derived most of his professional prestige from the fight against this plague despite the fact that his cure through excessive bleeding and purging by means of mercury probably caused as many deaths as it saved lives. At the same time, the strange dichotomy between his high medical competence and cheerfulness and his almost obsessive exclusion of other cures except his own made him one of the most controversial colleagues in the profession (Powell 114-39). In the light of Rush's showmanship, milder and less spectacular forms of treatment by expert foreign doctors barely stood a chance. Dr. Jean Devèze, for example, the French medical officer from Cap Français whose studies in Bordeaux and Paris were at least equal to the American doctor's training in Edinburgh and whose experience in the West Indies had made him an authority on the yellow fever, was equally successful by merely prescribing stimulants and quinine, but if it had not been for the intercession of a compatriot, his services would have been spurned by the authorities.

Dr. Devèze's employment was connected with the establishment of the first and only emergency hospital outside the city at Bush Hill, the spacious mansion that the Guardians of the Poor had commandeered as a pesthouse after the hospital and the almshouse had been barred to the fever victims. When on September 10 the unflagging Mayor Mathew Clarkson was forced to run the town with a committee of volunteers, one of their first tasks was to clean up the filth and corruption at Bush Hill which had quickly degenerated into a site of scandalous neglect, intemperance, and unimaginable atrocities, frightening Philadelphians more than the disease itself (Jones and Allen 9). Stephen Girard, a prosperous French merchant, and Peter Helm, a pious German cooper, volunteered for the job; they quickly organized the cleaning and airing of the rooms, separated the sick from the dying, improved sanitary conditions, replaced inept and depraved attendants, and, above all, installed a team of two resident doctors, one of whom was Devèze. The establishment of a lazaretto at Bush Hill was one of the first signs of organized resistance against the terror of the plague; its success helped the besieged citizens believe that the affliction could eventually be overcome (Powell 140-72).

Yet all these efforts would probably have failed if it had not been for the contribution of Philadelphia's Free Black citizens. During the first month of the plague, it had seemed that African Americans were immune, and so there had been a great demand for (largely untrained) black nurses in white homes stricken with the disease. When the remaining whites were no longer capable of performing the most basic services to the starving poor and those sick and dying in the streets, Benjamin Rush, who was an ardent abolitionist and a great friend of “the race,” implored some of his friends in the Free African Society to take charge of the relief forces. The Society met on September 5. Dr. Rush's request was considered an opportunity to demonstrate black courage and cooperation; and the next day, with the official blessing of the mayor, Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and William Gray not only organized a small army of black carters, grave diggers, and nurses, but they themselves received special training by Rush and then worked along with him as auxiliary doctors, administering purges, bleeding patients, and making careful notes about each case. These tasks they continued even when the idea of black immunity turned out to be an illusion (Nash 122-24).

The cheerfulness and reliability with which these black volunteers carried out their self-imposed duties was a testimony not only to African-American dignity but also to the sense of importance and moral strength that this particular Free Black community had achieved in the preceding decades. It had found early expression during the Revolutionary War when, in contrast to the many slaves who joined the British side because they were promised their immediate freedom, the sixteen-year old “Free Negro” James Forten, a prisoner on an English ship, had expressed his patriotism by spurning the captain's offer of free passage to England and patronage of the captain's family and therefore had been committed to the Old Jersey, “a rotting death-trap prison ship anchored in New York harbor where thousands of Americans died” (Nash 52). But above all, it had lately found expression in the religious activities of Allen and Jones, in their attempts to found separate black churches. A year before the plague struck, these two men were denied their customary seats at a service celebrating the new expansion of St. George's Methodist Church and were ordered to sit in a segregated area, despite the fact that African Americans had contributed money and labor to the renovation. Absalom Jones was not even allowed to finish his prayer. This confrontation precipitated their own separatist efforts; in March 1793 Allen turned the first sod for the building that eventually was to become St. Thomas African Methodist Church (Nash 109-21); the famous roof-raising banquet during which blacks and whites in turn waited upon each other took place in mid-August; Nash calls it an “early display of the separate-but-equal doctrine” (Nash 121). When St. Thomas turned Episcopal and Richard Allen withdrew to found his own Bethel Methodist Church, Jones was appointed its minister. Thus when the African Society in September offered its services to the mayor, its members could count on a certain degree of respect among the better-educated whites, and it was probably also due to this respect that their refutation of Mathew Carey's denigrating remarks (Jones and Allen 3ff.) was at least partially successful.

It stands to reason that an urban crisis of such magnitude cannot be captured by means of one of the conventional short story patterns, especially not if in addition the author intends to reconstruct its racial dimension. Wideman wisely dispenses with a linear plot and a character portrait, instead choosing a different pattern, a combination of single textual units, which careful selection, deliberate fragmentation, and associative arrangement has made representative of a wealth of similar happenings and experiences. The synecdochic effect is enhanced by the frequent elimination of the names of characters, focalizers, or narrators, who thus either seem exchangeable or are made to stand for typical experiences, attitudes, or moods. Of the thirty-five sections, about one-third can be connected in one way or another to Richard Allen who thus appears as the writer of his and Jones' Narrative (128, 129) as an internal focalizer (133, 156), as a character described by one of his brothers (139), as a homodiegetic narrator (144, 146, 148), as a letter-writer (19), and even, depending on one's interpretation, as the author of the story (142). If one adds the six sections in which Allen functions as the addressee in the discourse of Master Abraham, an old Jewish merchant, the sections related to him comprise about half of the entire number. The remaining sections may be attributed to James Forten in 1782 (143), to Benjamin Rush (147), to a slave on the Middle Passage or in a boat escaping from Santo Domingo (130), to a wise old African slave (131), to an old African American at the close of the Civil War (155), to a young black male nurse in an old age asylum of the 1980s (159), and to a heterodiegetic narrator who cites definitions (129, 130, 156), gives objective reports from a modern vantage point (128, 147, 159), or begins and closes the story with cryptic remarks that are even more ambiguous than some of the other sections (127, 160, 161). Whereas the rapid shift of narrators and focalizers appears to place the story securely in the tradition of American modernism (Eliot, Dos Passos, Faulkner), the wide generic range of the different textual units and their extremely fragmentary quality are strongly reminiscent of Melville's Moby Dick and, together with the striking oscillations of narrative distance and the frequent absence of the focalizer's or even the narrator's identity, give it the quality of a postmodern montage.

“Fever” draws much of its energy from the tension between closed and open form. One of the most fascinating aspects of this collage is Wideman's ability to treat the textual fragments as singular voices and then to make these voices interact and echo each other so that a fascinating kind of communal song emerges which manages to overcome the single experiences of anxiety and apprehension, the ordeals of pain and suffering by means of a sober and dignified celebration of black bravery and selfless dedication. Maybe this is what an early reviewer means when she speaks of the “oddly impartial narrators” of Wideman's book who “seem to be looking down upon the planet with genuine omniscience” and who “speak with the neutrality of gods” (Schaeffer 30). In this particular story, however, the narrative situation is more complex; underneath the celebratory tone, one can always recognize the counterpoint of a dazed, apathetic, almost fatalistic strain which occasionally rises to heights of caustic comment or descends into depths of oracular rumblings. Paradoxically, it is on such a note that the story begins and ends. And thus, we are never allowed forget that, whereas the biological epidemic may be survived, suppressed, or eventually prevented, the spiritual plague, the inner sickness, will merely change signifiers. Yet, before looking for messages or meanings in this story, it will be helpful to single out some of the structural devices by means of which the tension between open and closed form is maintained.3

Although “Fever” has no linear plot, it is nevertheless possible to recognize tendencies towards coherence within particular textual clusters. If we ignore the introduction, sections reporting on the development of the epidemic loosely follow the chronological sequence of the fever as outlined above. Even those sections, or parts of sections, dealing with other events appear in more or less chronological order, analeptic passages generally preceding proleptic ones. Additional coherence is achieved by means of underlying formal devices such as bracketing and repetition. These are easily recognized in the cluster of sections devoted—or attributable—to Richard Allen, but they are typical of the entire text.

After two quotations from his and Absalom Jones' Narrative, giving a neutral description of the course of the disease in single patients, Allen appears for the first time in person as an internal focalizer in the ninth and longest section of the story (133-39), and this section has a sequel toward the end of the text (30:156-59). At the close of a long and strenuous day of exhausting visits, the preacher reaches the Black area beyond Water Street where the poorest and most desolate of his patients are found (beginning of section 9). Braving darkness, stench, and squeaking rats, he ventures into a dilapidated cellar hole and rescues the twin babies of a dead couple from Santo Domingo (end of section 30). If we read the two sections together, these episodes serve as a kind of parenthesis, enclosing a number of drastic experiences and Allen's reflections upon them. In the same way the two sections themselves may be said to function as a frame, embracing most of the other sections related to Allen, which then may be taken for the musings of a more omniscient narrator retracing the preacher's steps and perhaps identifying with him. Careful reading will reveal several parentheses of this kind containing Allen's flashbacks and reflections. The reminiscence tracing his religious development, for example, is circumscribed by his musings on the precarious situation of “his people” living in the border area between Water Street and the banks of the Delaware (9:136-39). Similarly, his second-hand account of the burning of Cap Français and the ensuing flight of masters and slaves begins and ends with the description of his arrival at Bush Hill (12:142-43). A related use of brackets can be observed in the way fragments with anachronous actions or focalizers are embraced by pairs of sections sharing the same topic.4

Repetition is indispensable with a collage of such disparate fragments. Characters, events, episodes, conspicuous items, and facts are referred to at least twice but usually more often. As angles of perception shift so radically among the fragments, such repetitions, apart from tying the fragments together, often add additional aspects or characteristics to the repeated items which thus function as variations on a theme or as echoes recalling earlier experiences and moods. The use of echoes especially creates striking effects and introduces an additional dimension to the text. Richard Allen's long flashback in section 9 culminates in the confrontation at St. George's Methodist Church; his rapt vision of a slave rebellion is rudely interrupted by a voice which he first takes to be that of God but then quickly recognizes as that of a white church elder:

Allen, Allen. Do you hear me? You and your people must not kneel at the front of the gallery. On your feet. Come. Come. Now. On your feet.


Many pages later, the (repeated) call is echoed by a different voice, that of Dr. Rush:

Allen, Allen, he called to me. Observe how even after death, the body rejects this bloody matter from nose and bowel and mouth.


And the echo returns twice, the second time diminished, on the next page:

Allen, Allen. He lasted only moments and then I wrapped him in a sheet from the chest at the foot of his canopied bed. We lifted him into a humbler litter, crudely nailed together, the lumber still green. Allen, look. Stench from the coffin cut through the oppressive odors permeating this doomed household. See. Like an infant the master of the house had soiled his swaddling clothes.


The echoes retain some of the abruptness of the initial call, which—we remember—tears Allen out of a trance-like state, and so they indirectly evoke a similar condition in the later section. The seamless shifts from speaker (Rush) to first person narrator (Allen) indicate the preacher's continual withdrawal into a meditative mood, out of which he is twice abruptly torn by Rush's clinically detached observations.

In a similar way the oracular statement summing up James Forten's status on the boundary between life and death on his prison ship in New York harbor (13:143) is echoed in section 24 where it divides old Master Abraham's death-bed “confessions” into two equal parts, or it may be said to be embraced by them:

The dead are legion, the living a froth on dark layered depths.


Here again the echo serves to maintain the mood of meditation in the midst of six forceful and rather sarcastic sections, in which the skeptical old Jew urges Allen to save his hide and abandon a useless struggle, useless because of the repetitiousness of God's creation:

You do know, don't you, Allen, that God is a bookseller? He publishes one book—the text of suffering—over and over again. He disguises it between new boards, in different shapes and sizes, prints on varying papers, in many fonts, adds prefaces and postscripts to deceive the buyer, but it's always the same book.


A third formal device of considerable impact is the telescoping of experiences, again a process necessary in a story that has to hold so many different fragments together. This device, however, works in opposite ways, on the one hand condensing material and thus contributing to a more coherent text, on the other hand pulling elements into the text that threaten to break its unity or that reach out in different directions. Allen's remembrance of his religious development is a case in point: the black migration to the North, his trance-like dream of a slave insurrection, his being ordered to the back of the church, and his subsequent founding of two African houses of worship in a row are all told of in one breath, as it were, connecting the story of the plague with the much longer and even more calamitous story of African-American suffering (9:137-38). The most striking example of such a telescoping of events is section 34 in which the seamless transformation of one voice into another, which we have noticed above (section 20), seems to pull the reader right out of the story and set him down in the middle of Wideman's next novel:

Almost an afterthought. The worst, he believed, had been overcome. Only a handful of deaths the last weeks of November. The city was recovering. Commerce thriving. Philadelphia must be revictualed, refueled, rebuilt, reconnected to the countryside, to markets foreign and domestic, to products, pleasures and appetites denied during the quarantine months of the fever. A new century would soon be dawning. We must forget the horrors. The Mayor proclaims a new day. Say let's put the past behind us. Of the eleven who died in the fire he said extreme measures were necessary as we cleansed ourselves of disruptive influences. The cost could have been much greater, he said I regret the loss of life, especially the half dozen kids, but I commend all city officials, all volunteers who helped return the city to the arc of glory that is its proper destiny.


“The Mayor” speaking is no longer Mathew Clarkson but W. Wilson Goode, the first black mayor of Philadelphia, who ordered the fire bombing of the home of an Afrocentric nature cult in 1985 (Bray 7). With this bold move, Wideman uses the device of telescoping to reach out to the present and remind the reader that as far as Black pain and anguish are concerned, things in the former stronghold of the Quakers have gone from bad to worse.

The search for the meaning of “Fever” is made difficult by the variety of fragments accumulated; insights and statements vary just as much as the views uttered about the origins of the fever and the methods of treatment. The most straightforward comment about the origins of the plague, which tempts us to take it as the message of the story, is expressed by the voice of a wise old African who still “receives his wisdom from pagan drums in pagan forests”:

We have bred the affliction within our breasts … 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 years to drive that evil away.


He illustrates this with imagery, inverting the theory of the contagionists and turning that of the climatists “outside in”: just as the city of Philadelphia is “held in the water's palm” (8:131), human beings, “ancestors and children, neighbors and strangers,” are connected by water. The fever, he claims, occurs when we let the water of empathic communication become polluted, “clogged up with filth … Then we are dry and cracked as a desert country, vital parts wither, all dust and dry bones inside. Fever is a drought consuming us from within” (8:132). To change the metaphor, the fever is a result of our refusal to accept the fact that, beneath their skins, blacks and whites look the same, as we can learn from the first report of the autopsy of a plague victim: “When you open the dead, black or white, you find: the dura mater covering the brain is white and fibrous in appearance …” (17:146. Cf. Schaeffer 30).6 Yet, fascinating as it is in its combination of lucid message and oracular prediction, the old African's voice is but one in a chorus; the wisdom culled from his stories about other plagues becomes one fragmentary tale interacting with other tales, and the meaning of the whole is hidden in the interactions of its parts.

As a matter of fact, if there is one “voice” that predominates, it is that of Richard Allen. Most of the stories told, or told about, in the text seem to converge in his consciousness or that of a narrator focusing through him, as pointed out earlier. In contrast to the doctors who analyze the dead, he claims that his knowledge about the fever comes from the dying: “When lancet and fleam bleed the victims, they offer up stories like prayers” (15:145-46). His way of digesting these stories is that of a writer: “I recite the story many, many times to myself, let many voices speak to me till one begins to sound like the sea or rain or my feet those mornings shuffling through thick dust” (11:142). The speaker here describes a creative process. But his is a special kind of writing or talking; in contrast to the old African he is not able to explain things because they are too complex, too confusing, for the logical mind; his talk, as a matter of fact, is as fragmentary as the text we read:

He'd begun with no preamble. Our conversation taken up again directly as if the months since our last meeting were no more than a cobweb his first words lightly brush away. I say conversation but a better word would be soliloquy because I was only a listener, a witness learning his story, a story buried so deeply he couldn't recall it, but dreamed pieces, a conversation with himself, a reverie with the power to sink us both into its unreality. So his first words did not begin the story where I remembered him ending it in our last session, but picked up midstream the ceaseless play of voices only he heard, always, summoning him, possessing him, enabling him to speak, to be.


What Allen's brother is trying to describe here is the hallucinatory quality of this speech: a soliloquy of fragments erupting from and receding into a continuous flow, a “buried story,” a subtext engraved in Allen's unconscious and thrown up in jumbles reminiscent of a feverish dream. Thus Allen—and through him, Wideman—tells the story of the fever in the language of the fever.

This language draws its strength from another source of the unconscious: complex and confusing images which themselves seem to be fragments of an unfathomable texture zoomed to various stages of awareness. One example must suffice: Allen remembers watching his face in a mirror and experiencing it as “a garden ruined overnight, pillaged, overgrown, trampled by marauding beasts”—a sign that he has lost control, a sign, also, of the power of the fever to transform “even the familiar” (9:134), “to alter suddenly what it touched” (9:135). And just as under the spell of the fever, his personality threatens to disintegrate, so does the city. The anthropomorphic imagery connects the city with the face, foregrounding problems of skin and thus hinting at an intricate preoccupation with boundaries:

Membranes that preserved the integrity of substances and shapes, kept each in its proper place, were worn thin. He could poke his finger through yellowed skin. A stone wall. The eggshell of his skull. What should be separated was running together. Threatened to burst. Nothing contained the way it was supposed to be. No clear lines of demarcation. A mongrel city. Traffic where there shouldn't be traffic. An awful void opening around him, preparing itself to hold explosions of bile, vomit, gushing bowels, ooze, sludge, seepage.


Paradoxically, the evocative metaphors indicating Allen's consternation at the disappearance of boundaries are juxtaposed with equally strong tropes condemning the borderlines that prevent black immigrants from becoming part of the city.7 This fluctuation between affirmation and rejection of boundaries, between fear of a “mongrel city” and dedication to the mongrel crowd at its margins, coming, as it does, in the wake of mirror imagery, suggesting an identity crisis, seems to me to be connected with the experience of the Philadelphia fever as a liminal phenomenon, a case of the boundary functioning as a threshold, as a (temporary) locus of transformation.8

The confusion of values accompanying the process and progress of the fever puts people such as Richard Allen to a severe test.9 Why he passes it, and what gives him the strength to “do the right thing,” is suggested by an equally mysterious image in the proleptic report on his autopsy in the last section of the text:

When they cut him open, the one who decided to stay, to be a beacon and a steadfast, they will find: liver (1720 grams), spleen (150 grams), … heart (380 grams) and right next to his heart, the miniature hand of a child, frozen in a grasping gesture, fingers like hard tongues of flame, still reaching for the marvel of the beating heart, fascinated still, though the heart is cold, beats not, the hand as curious about this infinite stillness as it was about thump and heat and quickness.


It is the blending of sensitivity and control, vision and compassion, that makes for the power of Wideman's verbal imagery. The Biblical cadences of these concluding lines are suggestive of a celebration of death that promises the ultimate triumph of life.


  1. Page numbers within parentheses refer to John Edgar Wideman, Fever (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1989). The Penguin edition of 1991 has the same pagination.

  2. “Meditations on History,” Midnight Birds: Stories of Contemporary Black Women Writers, ed. Mary Helen Washington (New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1980), 200-48. And as such it is also different from Freneau's and Whittier's poetry on this plague, as well as from Charles Brockden Brown's use of it as a background in three of his novels.

  3. For the sake of convenience, I have numbered the sections. Section numbers appear in parentheses in the text, usually before the colon that introduces page numbers.

  4. Cf. also the predominantly neutral account of the plague by two quotations from Allen's and Jones' Narrative (2-4:128-29; Jones and Allen 16), the definitions of yellow fever and aëdes aegypti embracing the episode of the slave in the hold of the ship being stung by a mosquito (5-7:129-31), Allen's letter to his wife surrounded by two sections related to his dealing with Benjamin Rush (18-20:147-51), etc.

  5. According to Richard Allen's autobiography, the person involved in this incident was not himself but his friend Absalom Jones (Nash 118). Wideman's decision to attribute it to Allen may have something to do with the repetitions of the (repeated) call.

  6. That the deterioration from fever to fire can be seen as a result of this same moral failure is made obvious in section 32: “Yeah, I nurse these old funky motherfuckers, all right. White people, specially old white people, lemme tell you, boy, them peckerwoods stink” (32:159).

  7. “Bones, skins, entrails, torn carcasses, unrecognizable tatters and remnants broomed into a neat ridge. … Beyond the tidal line of refuge, a pale margin lapped clean by receding waters. Then the iron river itself, flat, dark, speckled by sores of foam that puckered and swirled, worrying the stillness with a life of their own” (9:136); “He'd come here and preached to them. Thieves, beggars, loose women, debtors, fugitives, drunkards, gamblers, the weak, crippled and outcast with nowhere else to go. … Jesus had toiled among the wretched, the outcast, that flotsam and jetsam deposited like a ledge of filth on the banks of the city” (9:137); “The latest comers must always start here, on this dotted line, in this riot of alleys, lanes, tunnels. Wave after wave of immigrants unloaded here, winnowed here, dying in these shanties, grieving in strange languages. But white faces move on, bury their dead, bear their children, negotiate the invisible reef between this broken place and the foursquare town. Learn enough of their new tongue to say to the blacks they've left behind, thou shalt not pass” (9:139).

  8. I have in mind a state similar to, but not quite the same as, Victor Turner's concept of liminality as defined in Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: “Thus, for me, liminality represents the midpoint of transition in a status-sequence between two positions …”(Turner 237); “What I call liminality, the state of being in between successive participations in social milieux dominated by social structural considerations, whether formal or unformalized, is not precisely the same as communitas, for it is a sphere or domain of action or thought rather than a social modality” (Turner 52).

  9. In section 20, for example, Allen contemplates his strange refusal to take advantage of the prevailing inversion of power: “Why did I not fly? Why was I not dancing in the streets, celebrating God's judgment on this wicked city? Fever made me freer than I'd ever been. Municipal government had collapsed. Anarchy ruled. As long as fever did not strike me I could come and go anywhere I pleased. … To be spared the fever was a chance for anyone, black or white, to be a king” (20:150-51).

Works Cited

Bray, Rosemary L. “‘The Whole City Seen the Flames.’” Review of Philadelphia Fire, by John E. Wideman. The New York Times Book Review (Sept. 1990): 7, 9.

Carey, Matthew. A Short Account of the Malignant Fever Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia … Philadelphia, 1793.

Jones, Absalom, and Richard Allen. A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia, in the Year 1793 … Philadelphia: William W. Woodward, 1794. Kraus Reprint, 1972.

Nash, Gary B. Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia's Black Community 1720-1840. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Powell, J. H. Bring Out Your Dead. The Great Plague of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia in 1793. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1949.

Samuels, Wilfried D. “John Edgar Wideman.” Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955. Vol. 33. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1978f. 271-78.

Schaeffer, Susan Fromberg. “We Are Neighbors, We Are Strangers.” Review of Fever, by John E. Wideman. The New York Times Book Review (10 December 1989): 1, 30-31.

Turner, Victor. Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors. Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1974.

Tatiana Weets (essay date summer 1999)

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SOURCE: Weets, Tatiana. “The Negotiation of Remembrance in ‘Across the Wide Missouri’.” Callaloo 22, no. 3 (summer 1999): 727-39.

[In the following essay, Weets asserts that the role of music and pictures in “Across the Wide Missouri” “underlines the help necessary to tell a story and signals the shortcomings of writing as a mode of preserving memories.”]

Damballah, published in 1981 by John Wideman, is a text with numerous screening thresholds that cannot be crossed without due preparation. In fact, for the uninitiated reader, the assemblage of letters constituting the book's title corresponds to no previously encountered meaning. The title's opaqueness thus performatively announces the central issue of the book: how can memory be transcribed into words and given readable form. The sign “Damballah” only serves to visually and phonetically trace a rich curve with vowels and consonants alternating in a ternary mode and in which there is an oscillation between the matte sonority of the occlusives and vocalic clarity. We may be sensitive to the melodious and even tactile properties of the word. But more than this, its pronunciation prepares us to enter a territory of the unknown, the meaning of which escapes us.

Once past the title, the reader discovers a letter addressed to Robby, the author's imprisoned brother. It defines every story as a letter, “stories are letters” (269),1 and the author adds, “long overdue letters from me to you” (270). The redoubling that occurs in the adjective “overdue” concretely underscores a central issue of these texts. More than simply letters, these texts bear the burden of lateness and delay, the debt of time. This temporal problematic recurs later when the title word is defined. Damballah the Serpent-God constitutes a unifying father figure belonging to the prelapsarian world: he embodies peace but also remembrance. To invoke him, as well as the other gods of the pantheon to which he belongs, is to conjure up the past in a unifying gesture: “To invoke them (these divinities) today is to stretch one's hand back to that time and to gather up all history into a solid, contemporary ground beneath one's feet” (272). Pronouncing the word “Damballah” amounts to laying the foundations of an overarching memorial project.2

The multiple screening thresholds—the last consisting in an incomplete genealogical tree, the tacit compact of a flexible autobiography—reveal the secret and dangerous nature of the writing to come. The aim of the collection, indicated by these way stations, is that of a temporal revolution, involving the reconciliation of yesterday and today by means of the conjoining hinge of memory. But these thresholds are also intended to fill the function of a user's manual and suggest that going through these stories requires a particular reading economy comprising pauses and connections, each step forward marking a new stage in the written restructuring of the debt to memory. This necessary internal rhythm to the reading of the stories may perhaps explain why the author considers Damballah a novel rather than a collection.

“Across the Wide Missouri” is found two-thirds into the collection and is embedded in a very specific context, placed between “The Songs of Reba Love Jackson” and “Rashad.” Each of these framing stories deals with an artistic medium other than writing. The first is concerned with the comfort brought by a friend's voice, its soothing, melodious modulations that extend beyond the limits of words. The second evokes a strange piece of embroidery. The object, ordered from a local craftsman by an American soldier stationed in Vietnam during the war, is supposed to represent the soldier's daughter. On his return home, the soldier's relatives come to understand that the embroidery quite probably represents the weaver's own child. The two girls are thus superposed and now indissociable. “Across the Wide Missouri” is located in between these stories—that is, between music and image—and, like them, also makes reference to another form of representation, the eponymous film. The recourse to music and pictures underlines the help necessary to tell a story and signals the shortcomings of writing as a mode of preserving memories. These deficiencies herald the central issue of this essay.

“Across the Wide Missouri” opens on a selective description of images from a movie—those that the narrator still recalls—thus underscoring an essential motif of Wideman's writing: memory and its handling. What can one remember? How should painful but precious memories be dealt with? By way of the compelling urgency and obsessive recurrence of these questions a reversal of the usual standard of the valuation of memory occurs and is replaced by a praise of oblivion. The very possibility of writing as a means of recovering lost memories is called into question, and a way is sought to assure the management of these painful but valuable perishables. From the moment that the declared aim of writing is to reconcile past and present, it becomes anchored in a memory economy, the currency unit of which is each instance of remembrance. Writing falls into debt, or a state of deficit, whenever it obstructs access to recollection or whenever it chooses not to awaken the past. It is therefore revealing that the story should focus on the petty theft committed by the narrator as a child. The stolen money materializes the question of costs and exchange. At the same time, failure to bring memories to mind, their retention outside of awareness as an unthought known,3 may be protective in at least two ways. It protects the subject, the initial owner of the story, but it also shields the object of memory. The mechanism of this story resembles the weaving of a kind of souvenir holder that encloses the currency of writing to protect it from wear. It will be the purpose of this paper to show how the tension arising from the conflict between payment of the debt to memory and its deferral or transformation is negotiated in this story.


The initial clause of “Across the Wide Missouri” is nothing other than the title of the movie evoked in the story. This title, an invitation to travel, takes on performative meaning as we progress in the text which encourages us to cross the river of time. This crossing is not limited to the mere passage from one bank to another. Involved, rather, is a voyage in the river of time, into the past, a past that raises questions about the relationship of the narrator to his father and the latter's apparent indifference to his yearning son. Travel along the river takes us to the junction of memory and disappointment in an undertaking to reconcile past and present. The title's declaration is thus misleading as, far from reaching the opposite shore, the reader is sucked into the river's turbulent currents with their heraclitian vortices and compelled to follow the winding, haphazard course of remembrance. We are striving for some farther shore, an ineffable beyond. The aquatic milieu alluded to in the title resurfaces constantly by dint of the fluidity of memory that is prone to evanescent evaporation only to suddenly recondense elsewhere.

The story is constructed by successive vignettes. Each tableau has one focus but multiple vanishing points so that no summary can do full justice to it. At best, its trajectory can be delineated and its ternary structure highlighted.

The text opens on a series of blurred, out-of-focus images, among others that of Clark Gable looking at himself in a mirror: “the images are confused now. By time, by necessity. One is Clark Gable brushing his teeth with Scotch, smiling in the mirror” (370). This smile is the catch of the story, drawing us in, a guiding thread that abruptly disappears a few sentences on as if to show that the polished surface of the looking-glass necessarily announces a text made of reflections. The writing of remembrance is (self-)reflective, but also refractive and refractory.

The seemingly casual image of Clark Gable brushing his teeth with Scotch in fact serves a very serious purpose. Indeed, the memory of a white actor is not gratuitous as the end of the sentence makes clear: “this image … may have been in Gone With the Wind, but then again just as likely not” (370). Whether it is taken from this film or another makes little difference; the same alienating stereotypes apply. The color of one's skin determines one's role always and ineluctably. In this context, the sudden affirmation that the white face in the mirror is that of the narrator's father effects an unexpected reversal. Once again, images mingle, taking us by surprise, throwing us into the tumult of re-memory4: “The white man at the mirror is my father” (371). The mirror, avatar and metaphor of remembrance, seems to have gone mad, becoming a malevolent object that decides to substitute an image of its own choosing for the one it is presented. This refusal to mirror, but also deformation in mirroring, is considered to be the cause of all pain: “then I know why I am so sad” (371). It is the denial of identity that is so undermining and wounding.5 It is as if the social object affirmed, “Either the face is white or I won't reflect it.” Over and above the ambiguities of this affirmation, the white face may be understood as a relaying of the scopic by the spectral. Memories are always a little blanched by time, and writing does not always succeed in reliably recoloring them.

In this initial moment of the story, the narrator occupies an emblematic space-time, that of a deceptive spring which should hold the promise of returning color, but is rather reminiscent of T. S. Eliot's cruel April.6 Spring is a season of transition which here refuses to yield its warmth and comfort, perhaps thus indicating the difficulty of transitions in general, a difficulty which may explain why the story contains none.

It's spring here in the mountains. The spring which never really arrives at this altitude. Just threatens. Just squats for a day or a few hours and then disappears and makes you suicidal. The teasing, ultimately withheld spring that is a special season here should have its own name. Like shit. Or disaster. Or something of that order.

The false promise of spring, which shows its face only to suddenly disappear, leads us into the field of deception and disappointment already foreshadowed by the alliance against nature linking “spring” and “squat.” How can a season bearing such a name be trusted, a season ready to spring at you, spring a trap on you and abruptly withdraw? This tantalizing season with its inherent threat is the primer of the story. Because spring betrays our expectations, it must be re-named. There follows a lexical highjacking of words which are summarily waylaid to fill in for what is missing. Recourse to all sorts of strategies is necessary in the attempt to recapture this fugitive season (a metaphor for memory), so as to re-inscribe it in a construct that will put an end to the flight of memories and embank the flow of loss. Thus spring's unkept promise triggers the story and the narrator gives us all its components at once, seemingly at random.

The weather however has nothing to do with the images … nor do geography or climate account for the inevitable succession—the river, the coins, the sadness, the recollection—of other images toppling him and toppling me because it happens no matter where I am, no matter what the season. In the recollection there is a sort of unmasking. The white man at the mirror is my father. Then I know why I am so sad, why the song makes me cry, why the coins sit where they do, where the river leads.

Following this listing, the story resumes its pace without any further clarifying elaboration. Disequilibrium is thus the rule: on the one hand, there is a state of too much,7 too much has been promised by the factual advance; on the other there is a lack, too little explanatory meaning has been provided. There is an imbalance in the narrative budget. The narrative overload functions as would any interest on a debt: the debt paid is never equal to the debt contracted. Recollection has its costs, and that is why the list, imprisoned between dashes (“—the river, the coins, the sadness, the recollection—”) reads like its tribute, each word clinking like so many coins paid into the slot of a time machine. In order to use it, memories have to be broken down into manageable units. Memories must be formatted.

The interplay of prefixes in the sentence “In the recollection there is a sort of unmasking” gives us a key to the inner workings of the story. Wideman's literary territory is located between the “re” and the “un,” between return and negation. Loss, like forgetting, is part of remembering. The alliance of more and less, positive and negative, is figured by these prefixed words which do not conceal their anatomy. In effect, the reversal of meaning is entirely contained in the added prefix re-collection. The temporal return of such collection calls for the dropping of masks, a cruel unveiling. Remembering is not only restitution. The vulnerability of the narrator, suddenly assaulted by literally overwhelming images, metaphorically brings him back to the fragility and precariousness of his former status as a child. In spite of his affirmation that he knows the reasons for his sadness, these reasons are never voiced; they remain mysterious, textually enigmatic, and the story follows its course, carrying in its flow implicit connections and murky memories. That there may be method to his sadness may serve as a reassurance—a certainty in the face of the uncertainty of memory—as to where it may arise and where it, like the river, may lead.

We thus reach the second moment of the story, the beginning of the central reminiscence. The narrator as a child is to meet his father so that just the two of them can spend the afternoon together. At this point temporal complexity intensifies. The father works in a restaurant where the child goes to join him. The past here is interwoven with the present, and the plot thickens. We thus learn that this story—the one we are reading—has already been written (“I have written the story before”), but these earlier versions are lost to the reader, effaced by the most recent one, much like the palimpsest of a fallible memory. The description of the restaurant in what follows overrides the depiction of the emotional landscape. Here again a visual and factual surplus (too much) is intended to conceal a lack of words.

In this way a shuttling movement is set-in-train, interweaving the events of the story of this particular afternoon—how the child steals the tip left on the table, how a movie is chosen that father and son will go and see, how comforting the father's physical presence is—with other events occurring either before or after this central story. The restaurant's description is not as off-handed and anodyne as might appear at first sight. The passing formulation of numerous hypotheses mark its depiction and the recounting of events transpiring there: “there must have been,” “perhaps,” “I must have said” (372). The resorting to hypothetical details serves to indicate that the scopic opens up a speculative domain—a reflexive, specular space where debts are readily contracted.

Finally, in the concluding movement of the text, the possible or impossible perenniality of painful memories is addressed. The father's description, based on a snapshot from a photo machine, is followed by the evocation of a song from the movie which the narrator only vaguely recalls. The song's lost melody, its missing sounds, functions as a kind of foreign language that must be translated, a foreign currency requiring conversion. In contrast to the narrator himself, his son knows the entire song but, as if to counterbalance this, he sometimes forgets his grandfather: “(he) doesn't even remember who his grandfather is” (378). It is through the vehicle of the third generation that the issue of the residues of memory, those that are not readily accessible, is considered.


Although the narrative of “Across the Wide Missouri” is punctuated by the presence of a certain number of identifiable material objects, the overall impression given by a reading of the text is one of dreamlike vagueness. The narrator only recalls some of the images from the film, some bits of its dialogue, and this yields a pervasive feeling of strangeness. It is as if we were witnessing the exile of the familiar. In a way, this story might be said to resemble a photo negative in that it effects an inversion of our expectations. And indeed, there is a photo at the heart of the story, even though it is initially blocked from view by the eponymous film.

He is six foot tall. His skin is brown with indian red in it. My mother has a strip of pictures taken in a five and dime, taken probably by the machine that was still in Murphy's 5&10 when Murphy's was still on Homewood avenue and I was little … Mom looks pale, washed out, all the color stolen from her face by the popping flashbulbs. His face in the black and white snapshot is darker than it really is. Black as Sambo if you want to get him mad you can say that. Black as Little Black Sambo. Four black-as-coal spots on the strip. But if you look closely you see how handsome he was then. Smiling his way through four successive poses. Each time a little closer to my mother's face, tilting her way and probably busy with his hands off camera because by picture three that solemn grandmother look is breaking up and in the final picture she too is grinning.


The father's description is based on a photo and carrying it out involves translating the image. The limits of this translation mirror those intervening in the recovery of memories. In effect, such a translation must necessarily be awkward, as evinced by the fact that the father's size cannot be adequately rendered by the format of these snapshots. The format of daily life does not coincide and interface with that of remembrance. Another difficulty stems from the father's true color which is lost in the monochromatic photo. One final constraint encountered by the reader concerns that of the off-camera, ushered in by the word “probably.” The adverb refers both to what putatively lies outside of the picture frame as well as to causality, two elements beyond the reach of the stationary camera's expressive power. The author may be asking, “How can a still photo be a moving picture?”

The question of the shortcomings of translation does not stop here; there is also an oblique reference to it figured in a suspicious repetition. The probable name of the store in which the picture was taken is first spelled out and then printed in numbers. The store's degree of definition increases as we go from the general (“a five and dime”) to the particular: “Murphy's 5&10.” The fall of this sentence furnishes the key to its understanding and accounts for the added precision: “when Murphy's was still on Homewood avenue and I was little.” The store's generic name in letters corresponds to the narrator's speech in the present whereas “Murphy's 5&10” reproduces the sign the child used to see. The sentence's progression marks a return to the past that coincides with a temporal regression in mentation as the visual shape of the digits supplants the letters that the child may not have been able to read at the time. The writing becomes iconic.

Finally, the fallibility and betrayal of translation is spelled out. The photo-machine, the double of a deforming mirror, seems to engulf the mother's image. The machine over-translates one face and under-translates the other as an unscrupulous translator would. The mother's washed-out paleness contrasts starkly with the father's excessive darkness, thus forming a visual chiasmus. The father's added coloring produces a series of meaningless forms on the film strip, when perceived at a certain degree of resolution. These spots represent the pitfalls of translation but also refer to the black holes into which memories may be irretrievably lost. A little further on in the story we are told that the pictures have dulled, and that the father has turned purple (376). Purple is the color of bruises, a discoloration of the skin due to injury. When memory suffers, it produces bruising recollections.8

The darkness of the father's face foreshadows that of the movie theater. Yet nothing is said of the movie, as if the dark spots on the strip of still-photos had spread to obscure the motion picture reel. The obscurity of the film house propagates to contaminate gradually the rest of the text. A nocturnal mode of writing supplants the diurnal mode. A shadowy vagueness infiltrates language and undermines its capacity to designate:

The song goes something like this: A White Man Loved an Indian Maiden and la de da-/-la de da. And: A way, you've gone away … Across the wide Missouri. Or at least these words are in it, I think. I think I don't know the words on purpose. For the same reason I don't have it on record. Maybe fifteen or twenty times in the thirty years since I saw the movie I've heard the song or pieces of the song again. Each time I want to cry. Or do cry silently to myself. A flood of tears the iron color of the wide Missouri I remember from the movie … The last time I heard it my son called it Shenandoah. Maybe that's what it should be called. Again I don't know. It's something a very strong instinct has told me to leave alone.


The text here is the theater of a difficult translation. The etymological meaning of “to translate” is “to cross.” Just as the river is not really crossed in the story, the passage from one language to another always remains incomplete. Nevertheless, the attempt at translation is at least twofold here, first temporal and then musical. Even though the language of the text and the song's lyrics are apparently identical, the reader feels a widening gap between them, a resistance to elaboration. This resistance stems partially from the loss contained in any translation, even within the same language (i.e. at different levels of mentation9), but also arises as a consequence of self-protective measures. For this reason, the narrator moves forward cautiously over the rough terrain of memory that may still be mined. The failure to recall the movie is doubled by the failure to recollect the song. The text clearly lapses into a state of deficit. By means of this attempt at translation, the tense transaction between the economy of memory and that of oblivion is played out.

The above excerpt functions according to the mode of suspension. It starts by restituting a conventional sentence segment, then breaks off. The first italicized clause already contains an element of disruption: while the two elements of the first group “Indian maiden” rhyme, its correlate “white man” produces no other echo than that of usurped superiority. The italics are later dropped, indicating that the present tense has taken over the past and that the quote from memory has ended. Then arises a mirror construction: “and la de da -/- la de da.” Each side is mirrored by the other through a central symmetry. If we accept this mechanism we obtain the following equivalence: “and” equals, in other words, the sequel equals the end. Once again, the mirror is deceitful and reverses what it should restitute.

Indeed, something is lost in this central mechanism: -/-. The silent sign absorbs a not-yet-elaborated part of the story. This silence which separates the mutually mirroring units embodies the absence necessary to regain one's breath, oblivion as the warrant of survival. Then, by means of the “And” which follows, the text resumes its course, presenting a situation entirely different from any previously encountered. The text now addresses an undefined person. The two characters of the anticipated romance have vanished. Moreover, the “you” has also disappeared: “you've gone away.” Doubly confiscated (by anonymity and departure) the “you” makes no sense, except by default. It would seem that between the two bits of song, something occurs that is subsequently lost. Similarly, the narrator loses something of himself in the depths of the unrecoverable memories of this particular afternoon that, of inner necessity, must remain beyond his awareness.

The function of the text that follows the aborted retrieval of the song is to defuse its explosive charge. The cautious tone, very unusual for Wideman, signals the overhanging danger of this memory, holding all the threat of a suspended sentence. By developing it as little as possible, he seeks to avoid its falling. A liquid medium here fills in for words, bridging past and present while silently smoothing over the fissure of their painful wellspring. “A flood of tears the iron color of the wide Missouri I remember from the movie.” The reiteration of the words “wide Missouri” clearly indicates that the memory—the river as defined by its wideness is fixed in the past—cannot be modified, just as the events of that afternoon are irreversible. This idea of immutability is already contained in the word “iron” which simultaneously signifies the color, the material, and the object—the branding iron. It would not seem to be fortuitous that the expression “iron memory” can be found in Wideman's later novel The Cattle Killing, thus explicating through a temporal resonance the issues at stake in the color of the river (and the tears) described some sixteen years earlier. Some memories are branded into us and are, in turn, branding. “Iron” is thus the perfect chromatic metonym for an elliptic memory that may be lost but that cannot be effaced.

Finally, the hypothetical name of the song surfaces. Exotic in appearance, it is easy to pronounce in English and yields smooth, peaceful sounds. Because it comes so readily to mind by way of his son, the narrator entertains a toying and uncertain relationship to it, then uses it to resist the backward movement to the past. Instinct takes over: “It's something a very strong instinct has told me to leave alone.” The point being to let sleeping dogs lie.

Just as we don't learn the song's name by the story's end, no other proper name is given. The identity of the protagonists is stolen. Here anonymity stems from mistrust of language. Indeed the theme of the ineffable is taken up later, once more in The Cattle Killing. In this novel, one of the narrators, usually eloquent, is reduced to seeking refuge in stammering, as he can no longer bring himself to use a language that, symbolically, has cost him too much to learn. Paying back the debt may be akin to a revenge of sorts, consisting in disfiguring one of the languages of slavery.


Through its insistence on the multiple aspects of loss, the story also deals with the issue of what remains, the residue that survives loss. The passage evoking the filching of the tip associates the residual with theft as if what remains is necessarily stolen from oblivion. When the child arrives at the restaurant a friend of his father seats him at a large table.

He had scraped a few crumbs from the edge of the table into his hand and grinned across the miles of white cloth at me and the cups and saucers. While he was gone I had nudged the saucer to see if it was as heavy as it looked. Under the edge closest to me were three dimes. Two shiny ones and one yellow as a bad tooth. I pushed some more and found other coins, two fat quarters neither new nor worn. So there I was at that huge table and all that money in front of me but too scared to touch it so I slid the ten-pound cup and saucer back over the coins and tried to figure out what to do.


By not mentioning the father, the excerpt performatively underscores his absence and introduces the question of substitution. The father is not there and is replaced by a colleague referred to only as “he,” as he is merely a generic substitute. Similarly, the meal which took place at the table is over; the bread has disappeared and only crumbs remain. The residual is present from the start through the image of the crumbs, their position on the table heralding that of the coins. But in contrast to the crumbs, the change remains on the table, the tip replacing the meal. This symbolic connection between heterogeneous elements is already prefigured by the zeugma that associates with grating humor the child and the cups. The child becomes a piece of crockery, but the reverse is also true as objects take on human form.

The personification of the change also substitutes an absence for a presence The father may be lost amidst the white tablecloths but the coins introduce color into this monochromatic setting. Two coins are shiny and might thus alluringly embody enticement and the desire to steal, while the tarnished coin might stand for the prohibition on and punishment for theft. It is highly meaningful that the child's first discovery is of the dimes and not the quarters. Built on the same root as the French word “dîme,” it is necessary to undertake a passage to a foreign as well as earlier version of the language (a process of translation) in order to reach what is at stake in the choice of this word. In French “dîme” (Middle English, dyme) means the tenth (tithe) of the harvest that had to be paid to the church. Here the dimes represent the fraction of memory invested in the story. The purpose of the plump quarters—they are found later—is to conceal the smallness of the investable sum. But the depiction of the quarters also reflects a mechanism of Wideman's storytelling at work here which consists in saying too much in order not to tell all of the story. Moreover, the counterfeit nature of the coins (from the standpoint of the child's yearnings) and of the recounting itself (it too entices us) is revealed by what follows. In effect, the recollection of the alluring tip is lost in the meanderings of text, and, to the extent that its meaning is not integrated, it remains sequestered and dispersed, no true recollection and no real tip to the reader. After the petty-theft, the incident is never mentioned again; it disappears from the surface of the text as from consciousness and sinks into oblivion, but it does remain on the books of memory. No other object fills in for the possibilities of the coins which are (secretly) spent in an effort to make good on an earlier loss, that of the father, one that has no price. Counterfeiting and counterfeit needs are only some of the numerous consequences of abandonment.

The disappearance of the coins is accompanied by the final clouding out of this encumbering memory. At the precise moment when we are expecting the reflective reassessment of the meaning of this memory, it dissipates, leaving us short-changed, much as the father's colleague was and ultimately the child (who by the reversal of passive into active does unto others as was done unto him). Symbolic (verbal) representation of meaning in the present is devalued in favor of the claims of the concrete inactive representation of needs from the past: “words were unimportant because what counted was his presence, talking or silent didn't matter. … His presence my feast” (374-75). Words may have been unimportant then in view of the concretely needed fatherly presence, but the disappointment, hurt, and loss can only be assimilated now by using them, by an integrated, integrating, recounting. The narrator's late-coming avowal constitutes the last turning point in the story, the last side-tracking of memory. It also helps to explain why the story retains such an ungraspable, fluid character, why something in it doesn't take, and why its liquid movement is as slippery as the mirroring surface that it creates. The remembrance of the father's presence accounts for the volatility of memory.

The presence of the father smoothes out the asperities and overrides the absence necessary for the fixing of memory. The experienced state of wholesome satiation leaves no room for anything but touch. The declaration of satisfaction reads like a celebration of the perfect symbiosis that precedes the arrival of words and of troubles. All lesions are instantly repaired as if a skin graft had effaced all wounds. Contentment is complete: “his presence my feast.” But satiation leads to sleep and not wakefulness. When the other becomes a moveable feast, the self is lost to this dual unity. Satiation leaves no space for memory. Memories are irretrievable when the moment is consumed and not preserved. It is as if there is a self-consumption of memory. Another mode of conservation must be sought, here the imprint.

He's the kind of kid who forgets lots of things but who remembers everything. He has the gift of feeling. Things don't touch him they imprint. You can see it sometimes. And it hurts. He already knows he will suffer for what he knows. Maybe that's why he forgets so much.


Here the question of remembering converges with that of imprinting. It is a last instance of an intermixing of a state of too much (excess) and too little (lack). If the forgotten could be redeemed by remembering, a stable system of compensation could exist. Yet the story's economy is based on disequilibrium, and this reflects the imbalance in the verbal economy of memory that prevails in it. The lack of words to recall or make sense of what has been forgotten is counterbalanced by our being shown too much; hence the imprint. We then understand that the imprint links the story's three generations together. The reader must backtrack (on a hunch) and return to the beginning of the story.

Daddy. Daddy. I am outside his door in the morning. His snores fill the tiny room. … Your father worked late last night. you all better be quiet this morning so he can get some sleep, but I am there, on the cold linoleum listening to him snore, smelling his sleep, the man smell I wonder I wonder now if I've inherited so it trails me, and stamps my things mine when my kids are messing around where they shouldn't be.


The very first words of this passage encapsulate the entire story: its topic, the father; its mode, the italics; and its yearning tension stemming from reference to a present past. The voice of the past is heard by means of resort to self-citation. The child's voice that pronounces “daddy” is covered over by the adult's writing which introduces an element of temporality through the adjunction of italics that also serve to isolate it and perhaps imprison it as an inner utterance that must remain unspoken. Once again we encounter the founding tension between loss, the inaccessible and lost father, and recovery, the ceaseless effort to recapture the past through writing, the inevitable shortcomings of which are glossed over by calligraphy. Beauty is only a palliative to conceal sadness.

Here, the choice of the present tense effects a backward movement in time and a return to the threshold of the bedroom. The second series of italics also sets in relief a quotation, this time of another's voice. It is the mother who is heard in this exclamatory interdiction, now probably an inner yet foreign voice that the narrator cannot claim as his own. The smell of the father's sleep is used to make up for his visual presence, screened by a curtain closing off the room, as well as his psychological unavailability (he is asleep). Smell supplants sight. The deficiencies of the father-son relationship, indicated by the difficulty to remember a shared past, is redeemed by automatic inheritance, that of genes. The memory is immediate, an olfactive madeleine. In spite of the emotional distance, the manhood transmitted by the father surfaces through the olfactory sphere. It is here that the necessity of making one's own primary imprint is driven home: “stamps my things mine.” In this elliptic sentence, imprinting is suggested by every word, insisted upon three times as if to remedy a protean identity that has been rendered insubstantial because of deprivation of the consolidating experience of shared, memorable events.

A retrospective reading thus shows that the theme of the imprint as the embodiment of memory appeared as early as the story's second page. Hungry for a plot, the reader has undoubtedly passed over this clue, thus further dispersing the fragments of memory. For the reader, too, has a role to play in this enterprise of remembrance.10 This is one of the meanings of the omnipresence of the specular. Through the intermediary of reflections, the story holds up a mirror to the reader, asking us to reclaim what we too have chosen to forget. “Across the Wide Missouri” calls for the undertaking of a particular kind of voyage, that which is required for the visioning of a phantom film. Our outer blindness refocuses vision on memory and leads to introspective exploration.

Introspection is also central to another text, Fatheralong, [Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society] that inquires into the relationship of fathers to sons, this time in a non-fictional mode. Here, Wideman proposes another definition of stories: “stories are like onions. You peel one skin and another grins at you. And peeling onions can make grown men cry” (61). This definition contains all the themes that are essential to the process of memorial writing. To the skin—the skin of bodies and minds and the skin of words11—is added the tears and the density of these multi-layered texts. But peeling an onion is essentially characterized by its consequences, tears, and a strong, disagreeable, and refractory smell. The scent remains on one's hands for a long time, a tell-tale sign of what has been carried out. The onion, by the compact network of its skins and the permeating acridness of its scent symbolizes the painful memories—the unthought known—that one keeps unwittingly.

“Across the Wide Missouri” modulates memory in a dual mode, the olfactive and the visual; in other words, that which can be effaced. Yet, memory is essentially remanent, persisting after the disappearance of its causes. This would help explain why the imprint is the correlate of effacement, its inverted double. The hold of the past cannot be escaped; it impregnates our skin and soul. Oblivion, like any luxury good, can only be bought at a high price.


  1. All references are to the Picador edition.

  2. James Coleman, in his monograph on Wideman, situates the collection in the following way: “The most important thing Wideman does in Damballah, however, is to describe the black intellectual writer's arduous movement back towards the black community and black culture” (79). It would seem, however, more meaningful to stop at “back” in order to do full justice to the more universal dimension of Wideman's undertaking.

  3. C. Bollas, The Shadow of the Object.

  4. To borrow Toni Morrison's term from Beloved.

  5. The work of Heinz Kohut (1971) has shown the vital role of mirroring for establishing and maintaining a core sense of self.

  6. T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland and Other Poems, “Gerontion.”

  7. L. Shengold, Soul Murder.

  8. The physical manifestation of memory is also present in another work in the collection, “The Caterpillar Story.” More generally, the issue of memory as a scar is a leitmotif in Wideman's work.

  9. See J. Lear, Love and Its Place in Nature.

  10. The author says so himself: “the kind of writing I do requires participation” (Carol).

  11. See D. Anzieu, The Skin Ego.

Sheri I. Hoem (essay date summer 2000)

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SOURCE: Hoem, Sheri I. “‘Shifting Spirits’: Ancestral Constructs in the Postmodern Writing of John Edgar Wideman.” African American Review 34, no. 2 (summer 2000): 249-62.

[In the following essay, Hoem investigates the role of “ancestral constructs” in Wideman's “Damballah” and The Cattle Killing.]

We are difference … our reason is the difference of discourses, our history the difference of times, our selves the difference of masks. That difference, far from being the forgotten and recoverable origin, is this dispersion that we are and make.

(Michel Foucault)

One of the hallmarks of discourses often differentiated by the term minority is that they evoke some form of ancestor as a means of negotiating the presence of the past. In fact, Toni Morrison has argued that a fundamental aspect of black literature is the “presence or absence of an ancestor.” According to Morrison, the ancestor functions as an elder who, rather than constituting a parental figure, is a kind of “timeless” entity that provides a certain “continuum in Black or African-American art.” The presence of the ancestor can be seen in the work of writers such as Ralph Ellison and Toni Cade Bambara, but Morrison also notes that the absence of the ancestor in works by writers like Richard Wright and James Baldwin results in an element of “destruction and disarray in the work itself” (“Rootedness” 343).

In another critical essay from the early 1980s, Morrison situates her idea of the ancestor in the African village, where the clan provided a collective experience of community and protection. The ancestor figure in black literature here functions as “the matrix of … yearning” for village life and thus serves in the capacity of a sage who is the “advising, benevolent, protective, wise Black ancestor.” The wise ancestor “values racial connection” and “racial memory over individual fulfillment,” yet at the same time the “true” ancestor, according to Morrison, is “frequently a social or secret outlaw” in the hostile environment of the enemy—and in the case of black literature in America, the enemy is the continued presence of the past, oppressive white culture. Like the grandfather in Ellison's “Battle Royal,” Morrison's ancestor strives to undermine the system, and offer “alternative wisdom” in an effort to sustain succeeding generations (“City Limits” 39-40).

Morrison's genealogical configurations demonstrate that literary ties between present and past ancestors are constructs rather than givens, but such constructs nevertheless perpetuate significant suppositions. Analyzing postmodernism and minority literature, W. Lawrence Hogue argues that contemporary minority writers like Morrison finally reproduce themes of racial wholeness, community, and historical continuity that appeal to essentialist assumptions. Postmodern minority writers such as John Edgar Wideman and Richard Perry, on the other hand, are often ignored by cultural critics because their works do not exhibit a similar “nostalgia to reconstitute and sanction ‘premodern values’ about identity that no longer exist” (Hogue 193). Of significance to Hogue is not only that postmodern narratives more accurately address the lived experiences of individuals negotiating a multitude of traditional, racial, sexual, political, economical, and psychological configurations, but that critical/cultural advocates discredit these postmodern experiences as “abnormal” (194). bell hooks similarly cautions that “criticisms of directions in postmodern thinking should not obscure insights it may offer that open up our understanding of African-American experience” (28).

The portrayal offered by Hogue seems to me a legitimate assessment of a number of current critical perspectives dominating published scholarship on minority literature, yet these arguments create and maintain a polarity between authors of minority discourse rather than examining the way in which the postmodern writing of John Edgar Wideman, for instance, inscribes a sense of racial wholeness and historical continuity at one and the same time that it subverts and exposes the limits of its own desire. My study analyses two of Wideman's works, an early short story entitled “Damballah” (1981) and his recent novel The Cattle Killing (1996), to show how the inscription of what I term “ancestral constructs” in Wideman's writing both summons and undermines a nostalgic recuperation of the elder and racial continuity. As New Historicists like Stephen Greenblatt and Hayden White remind us, we only know the past by means of texts, and any form of expression is considered a text constructed within the limitations of interpretative and language processes, whether it be a legal document, an anthropological study, or the recollections of a family member. Wideman's postmodernism1 can best be understood along the lines of what Linda Hutcheon defines as “historiographic metafiction” because of its self-conscious or self-reflexive awareness of its own complicity in the act of re-presentation of events and personages into “fictional” discourse (Poetics 5)—further subverting that tendency through irony. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr., argues in “The Blackness of Blackness: A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey,” what makes black texts different is exactly their transhistorical modes of “signifying” against the grain of dominance—whether it be that of a dominant white ethnocentrism or the lion of the jungle. “Signifying” functions primarily through irony,2 or, as Gates explains, through the “ambiguities of language” in its capacity, whether in the Western or African tradition, for repetition and reversal/revision (286).

My comparative approach to Wideman's texts demonstrates the extent to which they are situated in the heart of controversy, or at the oftentimes ironic intersection of intertextual/historiographic revision. On the one hand, there is a desire to establish relations and strengthen cultural identity, and, on the other hand, there is a compelling resistance to essentialize that identity into a monolithic agenda that denies differences within cultures and even within individual identity. In Wideman's “Damballah,” this intersection can be seen through intertextual relations with Maya Deren's Divine Horsemen: Voodoo Gods of Haiti, which is cited as a preface to the collection of short stories under the general title Damballah.The Cattle Killing acknowledges, among other historical texts named in the title-pages, Noel Mostert's Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa's Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People.

Although John Edgar Wideman, a prolific African American writer and former Rhodes Scholar, has published ten novels, two autobiographical works, several collections of short stories, and numerous essays in major journals, critical response to his work has been sparse when compared to that written on contemporary, especially black women's, fiction. And while two of his novels have been awarded the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Literary Award and two others have been nominated for National Book Critics Circle Awards, the new Norton Anthology of African American Literature relies on a relatively brief book review for its introductory material on Wideman.3 Critical reluctance may stem from the poststructuralist style that makes reading his work difficult, but that also, I would argue, makes it comparably rewarding. Two scholars who do offer important and careful readings of Wideman's postmodern technique are Klaus Schmidt, in his study of Reuben, and Robert A. Morace, in his comparison of Wideman's Philadelphia Fire and Cheever's Falconer. Although each of these scholars rightly situates Wideman at the intersection between black and white traditions, neither attempts a sustained analysis of intertextual constructs that provides significant insight into his recontextualizing strategies.

Several postmodern readings of Wideman's recent texts have lately appeared, most notably those on The Cattle Killing by Fritz Gysin and Kathie Birat in a special issue of Callaloo. It is noteworthy that this special issue is devoted to “The European Response” to Wideman's writing, and that these readings offer significant postmodern theoretical and structural insights on the texts. Nevertheless, it is precisely the African “spirits” that continue to intervene and often thwart such readings. My analysis further investigates these “spirits” by juxtaposing Wideman's texts to specific historical and ethnographic “pretexts” cited by Wideman himself in prefatory pages to his works.

In all of his texts, Wideman creates a lineage of ancestor figures in an effort to invigorate and recuperate characters in racial memory that have been excluded from mainstream literary/historical narratives. Clearly, as Wideman himself has said in interviews, his material is derived from family stories as well as literary and historical texts, although there is certainly a scandalous absence of sufficient historical documentation of African American experience. The absence, a deliberate consequence of white oppression, renders the project fundamental as well as arduous. Wideman's reconfigurations, or rememorations, of that which has been erased, ignored, or misrepresented in the traditional historical realm are manifest as a result of “spirits” constantly shifting4 through and in figures of the text. These complicated demands of Wideman's hybrid textuality and historiographic metafiction are, in turn, often ignored, misread, or explained away by otherwise well-meaning African American scholars. The rich tapestry of “Damballah,” for instance, is reduced by James W. Coleman to simply a story of “how the black American tradition is tied to African tradition” and is transmitted through “ghosts” because the “tradition is supernatural.” Coleman further neglects the story's complications by deciding that, although the “Americanized blacks” regard the messenger/ghost character Orion as “crazy and want nothing to do with him,” he remains “connected to them” since he has passed on his knowledge to a young boy, and by the mere fact that they share this “common tradition” (81-82). The differences, the irony, the multiple voices, and intertextual signification, or “sampling,” in Wideman's writing deserve more careful analysis. What follows is my attempt to demonstrate the extent to which Wideman's writing both inscribes and subverts the desire for a common black tradition by means of the ancestral constructs in “Damballah” and The Cattle Killing.

Wideman's literary conjuration of the ancient African divinity Damballah opens his collection of short stories under a title by the same name. As a preface to the stories, Wideman sites an excerpt from Maya Deren's Divine Horsemen: Voodoo Gods of Haiti which describes Damballah as the “good serpent of the sky” and “the venerable father … of a world before-the troubles began.”5 Damballah's presence, interestingly, is distinguished by the absence of any “precise communication”—in fact he is so wise, innocent, and strong that he seems unable even to “perceive the minor anxieties of his human progeny,” or to communicate by means of the “petty precision of human speech.” According to the citation from Deren, Damballah renders “a sense of historical extension” toward “the ancient origin of the race” (n. p.). Wideman's story of Damballah, the first in the collection, transcribes the ancestral deity of Deren's ethnographic description into the metafictional/historiographic milieu of African American slave predecessors. The story opens with the figure of Orion, abbreviated to the name Ryan by the slave community, immersing himself in a river on an American plantation in an effort to connect, through the medium of water, across the sea of memory to the distant past. He hears the voices of his fathers speaking a mysterious language capable of deceiving fish into the fisherman's net, but since this language of the father has been denied him by the enslavers, he retaliates by refusing “ever again” to speak the words of the other. Orion strives to convey his-story to a young slave boy who observes him from “behind the trees” (18). Without speaking directly, but purely by means of the power of his eyes, Orion bores a hole into the young boy's chest and thrusts one word into that space—“Damballah” (20). The spirit of the ancient ancestor in that manner enters the life of the next generation. For the writer, however, the task is to make (the other's) language somehow perform in the black or ancestral spirit. The text offers the following passage:

Orion wasn't speaking but sounds came from inside him the boy had never heard before, strange words, clicks, whistles and grunts. A singsong moan that rose and fell and floated like the old man's busy hand above the cross [drawn in the dust per the Haitian ritual, as described by Deren]. Damballah like a drum beat in the chant. Damballah a place the boy could enter, a familiar sound he began to anticipate, a sound outside of him which slowly forced its way inside, a sound measuring his heartbeat, then one with the pumping surge of his blood.


Although the spirit of Damballah speaks outside of speech as we know it, Wideman's ritualistic story depends, ironically, upon written language and cites an ethnographic text as a preface for interpreting the significance of racial memory and of the strength to be found in the names and spirits of the ancestors, whether they are ancient or more immediate.

If “Damballah” functions as a kind of spiritual allegory, however, it is an allegory dependent upon the signification system under assault. The passage cited above articulates that which cannot be articulated, namely Orion's inaccessible language as the spirit of Damballah. The writing's self-awareness of its own complicity arises out of the shifts between that which is being represented in the narrative as unrepresentable and the act of representation itself. We are not sure, first of all, who is speaking from where. I quote again: “Orion wasn't speaking but sounds came from inside him the boy had never heard before, strange words, clicks, whistles and grunts.” Even the words inside him have no clear referent, for the sounds may be coming from Orion or the boy himself as they are perceived. If an exchange is taking place, we are not sure how it happens, nor are we sure what to make of the fundamental sounds in the transmission: “strange words, clicks, whistles and grunts,” along with a “singsong moan” and “drum beat.” The text repeats that which neither the boy nor the reader can decipher, yet the word Damballah acts as a transcendental signifier of the yearned for Origin which will give meaning and continuity to a Diasporic condition.

At this point, it is interesting to look at several sentences in Deren's description of Damballah's serpentlike, primordial behavior that are omitted from Wideman's citation:

He comes as a snake, plunging at once into the basin of water that is built for him, and then writhes, dripping and inarticulate, upon the ground, or mounts a tree, where he lies in the high branches, the primordial source of all life wisdom. He makes his signs, his gestures of benediction; when he speaks, it is a barely intelligible hissing.

(Deren 115)

Wideman then takes up Deren's text again where it states that “there is almost no precise communication with him. …” Damballah comes to mean what he literally signs, so to speak: His inarticulate gestures refer to “the primordial source” in spite of themselves and in spite of the fact that there is “almost” no intercourse with him. Still, the one word that is apparently articulated to the young boy—the proper name Damballah—inevitably results in competing interpretations. When the boy repeats the name of this venerable father, his Aunt Lissy strikes him “harder than she had ever slapped him” and warns him not to invoke that “heathen” word again: “‘Don't you ever, you hear me, ever let me hear that heathen talk no more. You hear me, boy? You talk Merican, boy’” (20-21). Damballah, for Aunt Lissy, represents what is heathen, presumably in the sense that the word embodies Haitian Voodoo beliefs, which are juxtaposed in the story with the Christian sayings of Preacher Jim “talking bout Sweet Jesus the Son of God” (21). In another case involving utterance, Orion screams the word Damballah in a radical and deliberate act to disrupt Preacher Jim's sermon. Damballah here seems to signify pure resistance to all aspects of white Christian culture in the name of another father.

While Aunt Lissy and Preacher Jim respond reciprocally to Damballah's resistance with their own forms of opposition, the boy seems to interpret the word as a sign of his personal identity and as a feeling of hostility to what he perceives to be unmanly, house-related work:

Damballah. Be strong as he needed to be. Nothing touch him if he don't want. Before long they'd cut him from the herd of pickaninnies. No more chasing flies from the table, no more silver spoons to get shiny, no fat, old woman telling him what to do. He'd go to the fields each morning with the men.

(20; my emphasis)

The word is thus empty enough to shift its meaning among members of the same oppressed culture. For the boy, the word is far more gendered and promises to empower him to be a (black)man and do what (black)men do, including working in the fields along with the other men in slavery. For Orion, the spirit of Damballah functions in the parameter of active political intervention against Christian beliefs and mastery. For black Christians, in contrast, the same spirit threatens spirituality itself. The text thus deliberately inscribes Damballah at the same time that it challenges any mastery of the word, or mastery of the paradox of a “spirit” within the spirit.

The signifying difference in/of spirit is not the only challenge to the notion of continuity and tradition in Wideman's text. The narrative, in choosing among various distinguishing attributes of Damballah's “history” as it is recorded in Deren's ethnography, reconstructs yet another archetype of the father/serpent, an archtype notably the reverse of the serpent in Christian tradition. Wideman's narrative depicts Damballah as a water spirit, seemingly taking possession of, or “mounting,” as Deren phrases it, the human being (i.e., Orion), according to Haitian tradition. Orion draws the ritualistic “cross in the dust” (“Damballah” 21) signifying the “crossroads where the spirits passed between worlds” (18). Yet the presence of Damballah's spirit does not bring Orion “peace,” like the “absent-minded caress of a father's hand,” or the kind of detached, anxiety-free primal vigor and innocence of a god who is beyond the petty concerns of his “human progeny,” described in the quotation from Deren in Wideman's preface. Orion's spirit is, instead, driven to a radical and violent refusal of enslavement in the language and land of the other.

It is interesting to note at this point that Divine Horsemen offers more than one configuration of Damballah, arguably the result of a fusion of diverse African and indigenous native American [i.e., Aztecan, Mayan, and Incan] traditions in the West Indies. Deren charts the names of Haitian divinities according to their African and American/Indian counterparts. The name Damballah occurs in several but not all African tribal cultures, namely Dahomey, Ibo, and Kanga, as well as in the American/Indian Petro cultures (82-83). While Deren admits that origins can be obscure and classifications subject to debate among scholars, the chart does serve “to illuminate the manner in which the various [African] tribes, family lines and American/Indian divinities have been organized together into a single, compatible system” for ceremonial purposes (84). Deren speaks further of a difference between certain ancestral divinities associated with principles of education and initiation in comparison to those having powers of magic: “When divine power is to be put into action by human beings it becomes magic. Whereas the divine principle in itself is primarily natural and moral, and acts ‘in general,’ the magical principle which brings it to focus and directs it to a desired end is deliberate, amoral and specific” (66-67). What happens ultimately in the fusion of African and American/Indian cultures is that “divinities … [are] transfigured” (69) as needed in response to circumstances. For example, “Damballah, the serpent, is sometimes conceived as the Plumed Serpent of Indian myth.” In another example, the “gentle feminine Erzulie, became in the Petro [i.e., a ritual derived primarily from American/Indian tradition] context the corn goddess whose propitiatory service in the Indian culture had been extremely violent and bloody” (69).6

The transfiguration of divinities over time delineates not only a fusion of similar belief systems, but the fracturing of continuity in traditions—particularly as the need arises. Perhaps this is one possible explanation for the transfiguration that occurs in Wideman's portrayal of the spirit of Damballah/Orion. On the one hand, the spirit exhibits the inarticulate attributes of the ancestral entity as benevolent father from the African tradition. On the other hand, the spirit moves Orion toward, again according to the paradigm in Deren, American/Indian aggressive behavior and his own execution. The scene of Orion's execution, which only the boy has the courage to investigate, suggests that element of divine power turned into human action, namely the magical. We learn of apparent panic on the part of the executioners when they come face to face with some mysterious force while they are in the act of attempting to execute Orion: “One man's hat and another's shirt, a letter that must have come from someone's pocket lay about in a helter-skelter way as if the men had suddenly bolted before they had finished with Orion” (24-25). Despite the execution, Orion's spirit carries on for a time in the narrative—as narrative itself, story-spirit:

The boy wiped his wet hands on his knees and drew the cross and said the word and settled down and listened to Orion tell the stories again. Orion talked and he listened and couldn't stop listening till he saw Orion's eyes rise up through the back of the severed skull and lips rise up through the skull and the wings of the ghost measure out the rhythm of one last word.


The literal execution merely displaces the figure of Orion into another realm and another kind of execution in words.

Ironically, the black preacher's “last rites” for Orion appeal to the name of the Christian father to restore this lost soul and to restore the “Word”:

Forgive him, Father. I tried to the end of my patience to restore his lost soul. I made a mighty effort to bring him to the Ark of Salvation but he had walked in darkness too long. He mocked Your Grace. He denied Your Word. Have mercy on him and forgive his heathen ways as you forgive the soulless beasts of the fields and birds of the air.


The juxtaposition of divinities allows for an ironic reading of the passage, for it is precisely the restoration of the figurative lost African soul that has taken place in Orion's transformation. Further verbal irony is implied with the suggestion that Orion has been walking “in darkness too long.” And, of course, Orion certainly denied the “Word” of the one god in favor of the other. Yet we cannot forget that the irony comes at the expense of another African soul and ancestral tradition—that of the black preacher.

What is important to emphasize concerning ancestral constructs in Wideman's rich and constantly shifting text is that there is no single original African ancestor father figure that can be appropriated or invoked. Damballah's attributes shift according to time, place, and character—that is, according to contextual demands. The spirit that moves Orion does not translate identically to the spirit that moves the boy, or to the spirit in Deren's analysis. And, of course, the boy invokes the spirit of one ancestor at the expense of his more immediate relatives and their ancestors. The narrative leaves us yet another ironic conflation of discordant ancestral voices as the boy listens to Orion's disembodied talking head, which now, apparently, is capable of articulating clearly as the source of story upon story. Still, the words of Damballah, now “ghost stories,” are expressed in terms fused in free indirect discourse with the terms of a Christian spiritual: “Damballah said it be a long way a ghost be going and Jordan chilly and wide and a new ghost take his time getting his wings together” (25; my emphasis).

Damballah advises the boy to wait and listen to the stories of Orion until they are all gone. From what we know of Damballah/Orion up to this point, the boy's “reading” of the ancestral voice as an adaptation of the Christian tradition seems a tremendous misappropriation or radical revision of what has been described in Wideman's story as nearly the exact opposite in Orion's behavior and the spirit of Damballah. Historical and narrative continuity is once again subverted, and readings of the past are shown to be always provisionally governed by the present, perhaps naïvely and with good intentions, but in some sense illusory nonetheless.7

For Wideman's writing, that seems to be where the spirit ultimately lies—not in the ancestral divinity as such, but in the telling of stories. As Lynn Hunt aptly reminds us, “History is better defined as an ongoing tension between stories that have been told and stories that might be told” (103). Nevertheless, these stories matter as “a field of moral and political struggle in which we learn to define ourselves in the present. The struggle will continue because power is control over the storytelling function …” (104).

I would argue, further, that it is by means of Wideman's story of stories, or “historiographic metafiction,” that notions of continuity, originality, authenticity, and the impulse to master representation are challenged. In Wideman's texts, we see similarities to what Linda Hutcheon in The Politics of Postmodernism describes from Foucault as the “interplay of different, heterogeneous discourses that acknowledge the undecidable in both the past and our knowledge of the past” (66). Furthermore, no alternative to storytelling seems possible.

In Wideman's more recent work The Cattle Killing, ancestral threads are interlaced in yet another rewriting of history, specifically as a corrective measure and commemoration of those African Americans who are not only gone but forgotten in the dominant tradition of American history. Wideman's postmodernism in that manner is always political, as it revises the past in a gesture that simultaneously confirms and subverts the power of historical representations. As if this double bind were not enough, the structuring of the postmodern text once again complicates and undermines its own revisionary tendencies. There are some minority critics who see this kind of strategy as hedging, or as artistic eccentricity in the face of adverse lived situations and institutional agendas that decry taking a position. Hutcheon's The Politics of Postmodernism responds to such criticism by emphasizing that postmodernism's foregrounding of its own “complicitous critique,” one that desires yet is suspicious of “narrative mastery—and master narratives” (64), keeps the fundamental problem of representation and its power constantly before us.

The Cattle Killing is framed by autobiographical discourse that initially situates the text we are reading as one presently being read at a literary conference and also being read to the narrator's father, who resides in an inner-city senior citizens' home. The narrator announces that the text should serve as a warning not to be “seduced by false prophecy” (7), as happened to the Xhosa people of South Africa. The story of the Xhosa is imposed upon the present-day American landscape, where black people are living comparably devastated lives and young black men are shooting one another. The present American “story” is analogous to the African story of the past in that the Xhosa, as a result of the effects of European invasion, destroyed themselves by killing their singular source of survival—their own cattle. The narrator explains the parallels:

He wanted every word of his new book to be a warning, to be saturated with the image of a devastated landscape. … His book beginning and ending here. The Xhosa, seduced by false prophecy, false promises, turning away from themselves, trying to become something else, something they could never be. Killing their cattle, destroying themselves, dooming their ancient way of life. Deadly prophecy in the air again. The people desperate again, listening again.


The historical reference for Wideman's knowledge of the Xhosa ancestors, cited in the title-pages of the novel, is Noel Mostert's recent and extensive chronicle entitled Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa's Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People. Wideman's version of The Cattle Killing, as the narrator points out, wants to be “saturated with the image of a devastated landscape” in present-day America, but the narrative landscape shifts to the Pennsylvanian landscape of the late 1700s. The narrative voice becomes another—that of a young, black, itinerant, epileptic preacher reciting his-story to an unidentified, at times female, listener. We know from the title-pages of the book that Wideman is “sampling” material from various eighteenth-century letters, diaries, and sermons. And while there is devastation occurring in the novel's landscape due to an outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia, with the subsequent terrorism inflicted on the black community, who were blamed for the disease, that image of devastation is superseded by the itinerant preacher's travels in the natural environment outside of the city. There he encounters the spirit of an ancestral figure in the guise of a woman who is supplemented by various other women who seem to blend and fuse together into one and the same throughout the text.

The Xhosa story comes to the preacher by means of a dream whispered in the night by the mysterious woman, or blend of women. As the narrative shifts to the preacher's dream work, a girl reiterates her own account of the false prophecy she heard from ancestral fathers. Before describing her-story, it is interesting to note at this point that the actual incident in Mostert's historical account occurred in 1856, while the preacher's dream in the novel's account occurs at the time of the 1793 yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia. Thus the preacher's dreaming functions as a prophecy of the girl's false prophecy fifty years in the future, yet the dream speaks of the event in the past tense. In structure as well as content, the narrative subverts conventional representations of time and space, but nowhere quite so radically as in this instance. In his influential study Postmodernist Fiction, Brian McHale explains: “Apocryphal history, creative anachronism, historical fantasy—these are the typical strategies of the postmodernist revisionist historical novel” (90). By defying not only the official historical record, but historical conventions, or “realemes” (86) as well, “history and fiction exchange places” in order to question assumptions about what constitutes the ontological “real” (96). Although Wideman is not mentioned in McHale's discussion, Wideman's writing is situated to some degree within the parameters of McHale's definition of postmodernist revisionist historical novels, but more needs to be examined about the implications of the temporal revisions. The historical/fictional anachronistic reconstructions suggest the significance in/for the future of any “real” constructs in the “present.” These temporal concerns are significant to the spirit of The Cattle Killing.

Her name is Nongqawuse, both in the Wideman and Mostert accounts, and she recalls how war, famine, and disease devastated the land in South Africa as a result of the invasion of white people. Nongqawuse and her sister are bathing one day in ancestral waters when a voice from the past speaks. The voice identifies itself as her father's brother, announcing a return to the old ways and prophesying a new, or a recuperated, world if his instructions are followed:

Listen with all your ears, child. You must carry my message to our people. Tell them the plague [lung disease] destroying their herds is God's curse upon those who have forsaken His ways. Tell them we must return to the old ways. The sacred path the ancestors walked. But first the people must kill their cattle.


While most of the Xhosa initially ignore the prophecy, conditions deteriorate until there seems no other remedy.8 The cattle are killed, but no ancestral resurrection or renewal follows. In Wideman's narrative, the dream girl has the advantage of hindsight and thus speaks of the fallacy of her own prophecy. She now knows that the spirit “had deceived them” and was, in actuality, “a spirit of despair grown strong inside our breast … who whispered lies of the invaders in our ears … tricked us into toiling for our foe … taught us to kill our cattle, murder ourselves.” Echoing the book's preface, she warns, “Do not kill your cattle. Do not speak with your enemy's tongue. Do not fall asleep in your enemy's dream” (147).

Each of the references to the cattle killing prophecy in Wideman's narrative (e.g., in the preface and in the dream) seems a modulation of the other, the narrator in each instance conjuring up the past to remedy the present. Yet there are disquieting possibilities generated by the resonance between these two not quite congruent passages. Both warnings are based on a (e.g., the girl's) misreading which renders the foretelling of an outcome false. The misreading arises because the reader (e.g., the girl) fails to identify the thoughts of the “other” (e.g., the oppressor) disguised as the reader's (e.g., the girl's) own. There seems to be no procedure offered, however, to distinguish accurately the other's false words from one's own, except perhaps through revision or rereading. The Xhosa story presents the challenge of competing interpretations, but implicates the whole question of agency, as well. Although the dream spirit speaks with the authority of a wise ancestor, it is precisely the trickery of enemy words that has resulted in misappropriation.

There are a number of differing interpretive responses possible for reading the dream work section of the text. A Lacanian reading would argue that what has been described is the very relation of any subject to language as a signifying system that is always “other” and which the subject depends on for its self-definition. Therein lies its power, and only by means of the unconscious realm can representation be disrupted and undermined as arbitrary. We recall at this juncture that what Wideman writes is arguably a literary work—a work of the imagination—and its relation to the world is a fictional construct, yet one that specifically in this instance highlights the literariness of texts of all sorts. Even establishing the context is problematic—the preacher's (unconscious?) dream spirit comes to him at a point in the story where his own spiritual identity is in question, in part due to his intimate association with an interracial couple, Liam and his red-haired, white Irish wife, but also, in part, due to his role as a spiritual leader in a plague-ridden, racially divided land. He dreams himself back to Africa, into “the Africa of Liam's stories,” and then further dreams within the dream a conflation of Liam's wife with other women of his life: “Old woman, girl, black, white. Bald, fiery-haired” (144). The shifting of spirits disperses identities beyond distinction. We are no longer certain who or what is speaking; that is, how to situate agency.9

A poststructural reading would perhaps comment that, ironically, the fictionality of the text already presupposes disguising the thoughts of the “other” as one's own, whether from the position of author or reader. Further, the ironic nature of “signifying” structures has always been recognized in the black tradition. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr., argues, the black tradition differs essentially because of its tradition of signifying by means of trickery (e.g., the ancestry of the African Trickster figure and African American Signifying Monkey). The one who signifies thus “dwells at the margins of discourse, ever punning, ever troping, ever embodying the ambiguities of language” in order to wreck “havoc upon the Signified” (“Blackness” 236-38). Gates's analysis situates agency primarily in the hands of the individual black author and his relation to precursor texts—black and white. With regard to one's relation to the other's language, Gates refers to Wole Soyinka's conviction of the necessity for the black writer deliberately to coopt the “‘entire properties of that [alien] language as correspondences to properties in our matrix of thought and expression’” (“Canon-Formation” 24).10 Under this formulation, Wideman's text might be viewed more as a performance of co-opting language in an attempt to deflect or redirect its oppressive signification.

A New Historical/Cultural analysis might address the issue of agency by asking whether Wideman's text locates responsibility for events in the subject's unique, diverse entity or within the historical/cultural production of the subject. In Wideman's dream spirit segment we are seemingly given Nongqawuse's own revision or correction to her devastating misappropriation of the enemy's lies as the ancestor's prophecy. If we take the text at its word, it has itself appropriated the spirit of the African girl and bestowed upon her the unique and responsible agency to reread her-story after the fact, although it is certainly too late to undo the tragic cattle killing. By foregrounding the girl's exegesis to the neglect of the complicated historical context offered in Mostert's analysis, this reading privileges difference within the individual. By emphasizing the extent to which the girl locates the source of the problem in the words of the “invaders” and the “enemy's tongue,” agency is situated in the social/political realm. Jonathan Culler describes the warring potential at risk in these differing interpretations: “Some of the fiercest conflicts in contemporary theory arise when claims about individuals as agents and claims about the power of social and discursive structures are seen as competing causal explanations” (120). Anthony Appiah elucidates the dynamic more specifically in what he calls the “structural determinism” in critical “modes of historicism” found in the work of Walter Benn Michaels and Stephen Greenblatt, for example, which assume that, “once an agent's socio-cultural location is fixed, his or her capacities for and in agency are fixed also; and, more particularly, that we will understand the outcome of social process structure and not ‘merely’ as the result of individual acts” (66-67). If Nongqawuse is thought of in terms of a self as process within a system of discursive possibilities, along the lines of Judith Butler's argument concerning agency in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, then her acts are not fixed within the either/or opposition of subject vs. culture.

In the context of Wideman's text, however, although it problematizes the narrative context in terms of the complexity of the subject/preacher identity and his relation to the dream spirit, it nevertheless corroborates, by means of the spirit girl's socio-structural implications, a causal explanation of the cattle killing event in terms “sampled” from Mostert's rendering11 as, “at bottom, a consequence of territorial confinement, the national despair of a people who saw no way out of their losses and defeats and the cultural onslaught of the past half[-]century, and who, confronted additionally by the havoc of the lung-sickness, had turned, as Christians themselves did in dire extremity, to the shades” (1195). Even the prophecy itself, according to Mostert, is a reconstruction, or co-opting, of Christian language into Xhosa structure: “Throughout this crisis the white men were forced to witness the infusion of their Christian ‘word’ into Xhosa logic and cosmology and have it given back to them in ways they did not much appreciate” (1197).

I do not wish to suggest that the relation of Wideman's “fictional” text to Mostert's “historical” text, or any other, for that matter, is any more or less complex than the relations within each. It is important that each is, in its own way, attempting to rewrite history—narrating the past through the tinted lens of the present. Nevertheless, in effect, Wideman's text presents Mostert's causal explanation in the guise of Nongqawuse's words, but that explanation is already in the language of the other that her words wish to refute—the “other” here encompassing “Western” culture, language, and dominance, and perhaps patriarchy, as well. Ironically, then, the emancipatory politics of both texts are never free of the realm of language and the (il)logic of its function.

Still, there is more to say about putting words into Nongqawuse's mouth. Perhaps it is only common sense that her spirit would speak of revelation, or the wisdom that comes from having seen the consequences of its false prophecy. Wideman's text resurrects her-story, in one sense, yet is silent on other details offered by Mostert. In Mostert, there is no mention that Nongqawuse, the 15- or 16-year-old niece of a tribal seer, ever came to an understanding of the tragedy. In fact, he states that she was exiled and shunned by the Xhosa thereafter, and that it is “impossible to know” how to interpret the girl's prophetic behavior. Perhaps she was “simply the medium for what Mhalakaza [her seer uncle] transferred to her from his own visionary imagination”; perhaps “she, like St Joan and St Bernadette, saw her own visions and heard voices”; or perhaps she constructed the vision herself based on her observation of the lung-sickness situation and having heard other women prophets suggest the same prophecy the preceding year (1191). In Wideman's representation of her spirit, she, ironically, still speaks with authority in the words of the “other.”12 A comparison of how both writers construct their respective narrative histories according to differing constitutive interests gives rise to no happy resolution of/in black and white. Rather, the emphasis implicates the need for a commitment to rereading, together with an unmistakable omen—beware of putting your faith into words.13

The end of the novel presents the preacher acting on the dream spirit's recommendation (e.g., “Do not speak with your enemy's tongue. Do not fall asleep in your enemy's dream” [147]), in spite of the fact that her words have a history of disastrous results. Nonetheless, when a fire destroys the lives of young, black, plague-victim orphans who are housed at night in the cellar of a church-sponsored home, the preacher turns, as he says, “away from a god who authors an endless chain of horrors for African people” (204). The fire is started by one of the young male orphans, whose rage over the injustice he suffers cannot be contained. The preacher's response is not only loss of faith, but, simultaneously, literal loss of “facility” to speak the other's language. The preacher/text begins to “sta-sta-sta-sta-stutter” (205). The implication is significant, for it is not action speaking louder than words that matters, or some kind of plain speaking that can empower the black community. Rather, the signifying system itself is undermined to expose its limitations and disrupt the master narrative—its own included in the equation. While the narrative of the (preacher's) past has been both reinscribed and disrupted, the voice of the work's present resumes, beginning once again to come to terms with the language of the other.

In reading The Cattle Killing alongside “Damballah,” kindred spirits seem to inhabit the preacher and Orion as each renounces the language of the oppressor as his means of subverting Christian belief. The Cattle Killing, however, by extension and reversal, showcases a preacher figure which in “Damballah” is marginalized as Preacher Jim. It is worthwhile noting, as Houston A. Baker, Jr., explains, that the preacher in the African American tradition is the father of figuration: “The master of metaphor in the Afro-American community … has long since been acknowledged as the preacher …” (7). Yet in “Damballah,” it is not Preacher Jim who “signifies” in the master's tongue, but Orion's utterance of the foreign word into the master's discourse that disrupts and redirects it. The Cattle Killing, in turn, redirects its own gaze onto a preacher in the past and in crisis over the inescapable complicity and shifting spirit of “the (W)ord.” By comparing these ancestral textual constructs, it is obvious that Wideman's complex grafting of historical/fictional performance, unlike the master narrative, relentlessly rethinks its own occasion.


  1. My use of the term postmodern is based on what Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition admits is a simple-to-the-extreme definition—“incredulity toward metanarratives”; that is, writing that is skeptically inquisitive toward any grounds of authority, assumption, or convention. The metanarrative function, writes Lyotard, “is losing its functors. … It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements …” (xxiv). For Lyotard, “postmodern knowledge … refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable” (xxv). Certainly Wideman's “Black” postmodernism works to the same ends, although each time uniquely, of course.

  2. Wideman discusses the “playful and artistic dimensions” of the “signifying” tradition for black speech communities in “Charles Chesnutt and the WPA Narratives: The Oral and Literate Roots of Afro-American Literature.” As an example, Wideman states that “in the street a skillful signifier can talk behind a victim's back while looking him in the face” (66). However, Wideman does not address the difficulty of interpretation that always enters this kind of scenario in terms of who does or does not have the ability to read the differences in meaning and how that is or is not accomplished—not only during the street incident of signifying, but also in the act of reading a signifying text.

  3. The book review, although not mentioned as such by Norton editor Barbara Christian, is the work of fiction writer Randall Kenan, whose review appears in The Nation (Jan. 1990): 25-27 (see Christian 2327).

  4. My use of the term shifting follows Barbara Johnson's explanation in her response to Gates's “Canon-Formation and the Afro-American Tradition.” According to Johnson, Roman Jakobson uses shifter to describe “an expression that takes on different meanings (referents) in different contexts, an expression that refers to the instance of its own enunciation” (42). Wideman, himself, uses the term shifting spirit in an interview with James W. Coleman, with regard to his characters and the impossibility of assigning one-to-one correspondence with real individuals (see Coleman 158).

  5. It is of some interest to note that Maya Deren, as she fully discloses in her text, is an artist—a New York-based filmmaker—who has no training in the field of anthropology. Nevertheless, Divine Horseman is replete with the appropriate footnotes to published scholarship in the field relevant to her findings, and she has the endorsement of Joseph Campbell, who provides the forward to the work. For a discussion of the extent to which Deren's work can be said to lean toward the scientific description of a culture or toward an artistic interpretation—one that may well be a projection of her own personal fantasies more than an accurate interpretation—see Jacqueline R. Smutch's “Continuum or Break?: Divine Horsemen and the Films of Maya Deren,” New Orleans Review 17 (Winter 1990): 89-97.

  6. Damballah has a female counterpart, described in Deren's text as “Abide,” the rainbow: “Damballah and Abide, who together represent the sexual totality, encompass the cosmos as a serpent coiled about the world. The egg, the world egg, is the special symbol for them; and an egg is the particular offering to Damballah” (116). Wideman's text offers no comparable counterpart to this feminine principle. This aspect of Wideman's work deserves careful scrutiny but is beyond the scope of the present study. For an insightful treatment of ancestral figures in the works of African American women, see Holloway.

  7. The impulse to totalize the narrative is symptomatic of critics, as well. Doreatha Drummon Mbalia essentializes the text by summing up its “meaning”: “‘Damballah’ celebrates African history by reclaiming the African in African-American literature. The main character is Orion who, in finding his Africanness [just as Wideman does, according to this critic], accepts the responsibility of passing on the precious history of African people so that neither the people, nor the culture is ever destroyed” (52). The quotation Mbalia uses to demonstrate her reading is the one I cite above: “Damballah said it be a long way a ghost be going and Jordan chilly and wide …” (25).

  8. Mostert's chronicle states that not all of the Xhosa were “beguiled” by the vision, especially those whose cattle were not affected by the disease. Yet a “mass” of the people were finally caught up in the “excitement” (1193).

  9. Wideman speaks of shifting of identities in his interview with James W. Coleman: “My own sense of identity, or the sense of identity which I am evolving as I write books, has a lot to do with … what is fragmentary, what is discontinuous, more and more so. So that my whole way of looking at human beings and lives is changing all the time. I probably believe … more than most people that the notion of a stable, underpinning personality is itself a fiction. That people have different stages and go through different personas and they are really drastically, drastically different in the sense that you could talk about one person's life as many lives” (158-59).

  10. For an excellent discussion of minority literature as that which “deterritorializes” the mother tongue, see Deleuze and Guattari.

  11. Of course, one could interrogate Mostert's sources to demonstrate further the constructed nature of all historical narratives. An exhaustive study would also examine the “various eighteenth-century diaries and sermons” Wideman admits having “‘sampled’” in the title-pages of The Cattle Killing.

  12. It may also be of significance that the preacher is an epileptic, whose fits are described in the text as resulting in moments of seeing with a clarity impossible under normal circumstances.

  13. Wideman refuses to reduce the lines of his writing to demarcated borders of typical racial rhetoric and linear history because, as he says: “Any place you cut into American history, you get all kinds of situations—you had black people and white people living together, families making babies during slavery days; you had black businessmen who were very successful at the turn of the 19th century in Philadelphia; you also had awful things going on at all times. … The scary thing about race relations is that no, they haven't changed very much at all. … We still think we need the concept of race to understand ourselves, and it's with the concept of race that we try to make sense of ourselves and our world, and it's a bogus concept; it's a concept that doesn't get us a very deep understanding of who we are, or what our country is now, or what it has been” (Olander 1-8).

Works Cited

Appiah, Anthony. “Tolerable Falsehoods: Agency and the Interests of Theory.” Consequences of Theory. Arac and Johnson 63-90.

Arac, Jonathan, and Barbara Johnson, eds. Consequences of Theory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991.

Baker, Houston, Jr. “Belief, Theory, and Blues: Notes for a Post-Structuralist Criticism of Afro-American Literature.” Belief vs. Theory in Black American Literary Criticism. Ed. Joe Weixlmann and Chester J. Fontenot. Greenwood: Penkevill, 1986. 5-30.

Baker, Houston A., Jr., and Patricia Redmond, eds. Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.

Birat, Kathie. “‘All Stories are True’: Prophecy, History and Story in The Cattle Killing.” Callaloo 22.3 (1999): 629-43.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Christian, Barbara T. “John Edgar Wideman.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton, 1997. 2325-28.

Coleman, James W. Blackness and Modernism: The Literary Career of John Edgar Wideman. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1989.

Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Trans. Dana Polan. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1994.

Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: Voodoo Gods of Haiti. New York: Dell, 1970.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “The Blackness of Blackness: A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey.” Black Literature and Literary Theory. Ed. Gates. New York: Methuen, 1984. 285-321.

———. “Canon-Formation, Literary History, and the Afro-American Tradition: From the Seen to the Told.” Baker and Redmond 14-39.

Gysin, Fritz. “‘Do not fall asleep in your enemy's dream’: John Edgar Wideman and the Predicaments of Prophecy.” Callaloo 22.3 (1999): 623-28.

Hogue, W. Lawrence. Race, Modernity, Postmodernity: A Look at the History and the Literatures of People of Color Since the 1960s. Albany: SUNY P, 1996.

Holloway, Karla F. C. Moorings & Metaphors: Figures of Culture and Gender in Black Women's Literature. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1992.

hooks, bell. Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End P, 1990.

Hunt, Lynn. “History as Gesture; or, The Scandal of History.” Arac and Johnson 91-107.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.

———. The Politics of Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Johnson, Barbara. “Response.” Baker and Redmond 39-44.

Lyotard, Jean François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massimo. Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota P, 1984.

Mbalia, Doreatha Drummon. John Edgar Wideman: Reclaiming the African Personality. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna UP, 1995.

McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Morace, Robert A. “The Facts in Black and White: Cheever's Falconer, Wideman's Philadelphia Fire.Powerless Fictions?: Ethics, Cultural Critique, and American Fiction in the Age of Postmodernism. Ed. Ricardo Miguel Alfonso. Atlanta: Rodopi, 1996. 85-112.

Morrison, Toni. “City Limits, Village Values: Concepts of the Neighborhood in Black Fiction.” Literature and the Urban Experience: Essays on the City and Literature. Ed. Michael C. Jaye and Ann Chalmers Watts. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1981. 35-43.

———. “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation.” Black Women Writers (1950-1980). Ed. Mari Evans. Garden City: Anchor P, 1984. 339-45.

Mostert, Noel. Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa's Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Olander, Rene. “An Interview with John Edgar Wideman.” AWP Chronicle 29.3 (1996): 1-8.

Schmidt, Klaus H. “Reading Black Postmodernism: John Edgar Wideman's Reuben.Flip Sides: New Critical Essays on American Literature. Ed. Schmidt. New York: Peter Lang, 1995. 81-102.

Wideman, John Edgar. The Cattle Killing. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

———. “Charles Chesnutt and the WPA Narratives: The Oral and Literate Roots of Afro-American Literature.” The Slave's Narrative. Ed. Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Oxford UP, 1985. 59-78.

———. Damballah. New York: Vintage, 1988.

Michael Trussler (essay date summer 2000)

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SOURCE: Trussler, Michael. “Literary Artifacts: Ekphrasis in the Short Fiction of Donald Barthelme, Salman Rushdie, and John Edgar Wideman.” Contemporary Literature 41, no. 2 (summer 2000): 252-90.

[In the following essay, Trussler draws parallels between the ekphrastic elements of Donald Barthelme's “The Balloon,” Salman Rushdie's “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers,” and Wideman's “What He Saw.”]

Have you noticed, my boy, that the painting here is based on Homer, or have you failed to do so because you are lost in wonder as to how in the world the fire could live in the midst of the water? Well then, let us try to get at the meaning of it. Turn your eyes away from the painting itself so as to look only at the events on which it is based.

—Philostratus, Imagines

Visually oriented arts frequently express a longing for literature's differentiating capacities. Genre painting looks to its exploration of temporal consequence, and film often includes voice-overs to confer upon an image the intimate authority of narratorial speech. Conversely, from Homer's describing Achilles' shield in the Iliad to W. H. Auden's pondering Pieter Brueghel's paintings in “Musée des Beaux Arts,” literary texts have repeatedly sought after the spatial simultaneity accorded the plastic arts. Defining ekphrasis as “the verbal representation of visual representation” (152), W. J. T. Mitchell explains that this form is one “in which texts encounter their own semiotic ‘others,’ those rival, alien modes of representation called the visual … arts” (156). Wavering between representational systems becomes a strategic response to aesthetic, epistemological, or moral anxieties that threaten the work's formal or thematic integrity in some way. Several recent works suggest, however, that the ekphrastic project is undergoing changes. While all ekphrastic texts rely on an interdependent “trialectic”—the art object is described by a narrator for the benefit of an audience1—numerous contemporary short stories have complicated this dynamic by localizing it within a limited temporal and dramatic frame. The bowl in Ann Beattie's “Janus” is subject to the psychological predicament of the story's central character, for instance, granting a pressing existential immediacy to the ekphrastic enterprise that departs from Wallace Stevens's more detached treatment of a similarly mundane object in “Anecdote of the Jar.” Focusing on an image derived from television, Raymond Carver's “Cathedral” demonstrates how current ekphrastic reproduction must often negotiate with images that oscillate between the public and the private. The stories I wish to examine—Donald Barthelme's “The Balloon,” Salman Rushdie's “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers,” and John Edgar Wideman's “What He Saw”—expressly investigate the image's fluctuating position within the present sociopolitical sphere, overtly historicizing the ekphrastic project in the process. Different from Keats's urn, which, as Murray Krieger notes, obeys “the Hegelian injunction to move from the concrete to the concrete-universal” (278), the visual objects depicted in these stories are thoroughly grounded in contingency and impermanence, thus intimating significant cultural shifts in the apprehension of images. For Barthelme, Rushdie, and Wideman, the contemporary ekphrastic text doesn't encounter a pristine art object or visual image so much as it confronts an aesthetic phenomenon that has seemingly already undergone a translation into numerous discursive orders, among them art theory, capitalist marketing strategies, and the news media.

Captivated by the perceptual dilemmas posed by pop and minimalist art, “The Balloon” explores the uncertain temporality fostered by the autonomous art object, and the more recent “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” examines the development by which modernity's urbanization of experience has been replaced by an epistemology shaped by late capitalism's gradual palliation of the image. As with “The Balloon,” Rushdie's story showcases the pervasive contemporary aestheticization of both large-scale historical forces and local perception, but it tempers Barthelme's utopian aspirations through its anxiety regarding the politics of representation. Depicting a media crew touring South Africa, Wideman's “What He Saw” shares Rushdie's fascination with the spectacle. Honing in on the insurmountable problem of granting speech to the irrevocably lost, the story also explores the Leibnizian monadology that seems inherent to the Western conception of images. This is not to say that Rushdie's or Wideman's work exhibits an easily schematized postmodernism to be seen against the earlier story's more conspicuously modernist investigation of its own medium. Rather, accentuating that the historical moment is constituted not only through its readily identifiable ideologies but also amid those lived experiences that fall outside of regulatory patterns of meaning, each story intimates the importance of what Raymond Williams calls “structures of feeling” (130)—those aspects of consciousness which exist apart from taxonomies. Ekphrasis is especially fitting for each writer's particular designs because its formal preoccupation with flux and transcription serves to check our propensity for thinking in immutable categories.


To the impassioned bricoleur who narrates Barthelme's “See the Moon?” visual artists have a “metaphysical advantage” over writers because they can surmount linguistic codification: “They can pick up a Baby Ruth wrapper on the street, glue it to the canvas … and lo! People crowd about and cry, ‘A real Baby Ruth wrapper, by God, what could be realer than that!’” (98). This claim for painting's ontological verity vividly attests to the ekphrastic desire broadly present in Barthelme's oeuvre: more than any other short story writer in English, Barthelme formed his poetics by pondering the boundaries between the visual arts and the printed text. Commenting on his bent for writing stories that use “the principle of collage,” Barthelme stated that when “unlike things are stuck together,” the resulting juxtaposition forms a “new reality,” it becomes “an itself” (“Donald Barthelme” 51-52). While he wavered in his views on literary autonomy, arguing in the late essay “Not-Knowing” that his 1960s convictions were derived from the “rhetoric of the time” (49), Barthelme never relinquished the proposition that the text could be approached as a “new reality.”2 Linked to the seeming self-sufficiency of the visual arts, the literary object may well exist unto itself, resisting commentary and correspondences, “natural” or semiotic, but to speculate about this autonomy requires theoretical discourse and historical precedent. In order to summon what Barthelme calls the “rhetoric of the time,” let us turn to some theorists who give a sense of the intellectual milieu against which “The Balloon” is set.

Describing his own ersatz objects in a 1961 exhibition statement, Claes Oldenburg outlines his desire for an art that is both egalitarian and encyclopedic:

I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum. … I am for an art that tells you the time of day, or where such and such a street is.

I am for an art that helps old ladies across the street. … I am for the art of bread wet by rain. I am for the rat's dance between floors.


“The Balloon” is a close cousin to Oldenburg's manifesto; exuberant and wittily confrontational, both pieces also urgently champion certain aesthetic positions. Harold Rosenberg writes that a work such as Oldenburg's huge plaster hamburger “exists as a demonstration model in an unspoken lecture on the history of illusionism as it occurs in both painting and the streets of big cities” (63). This specifically urban art is resolutely theoretical, as it critically participates in “illusionism”—the realist representation of objects in both the visual arts and advertising. Larry Rivers's Dutch Masters, for example, presupposes a critical overview which relates the cigar company's logo (showing seventeenth-century Dutchmen) to Rembrandt's pioneering studies in psychological portraiture, but which also remains attentive to the work's ironic duplication of other representational systems. Part of this double-coding entails a vigorous, historically derived resistance to abstraction; for Dick Hebdige, pop is “the revenge of the clunky referent on modernism's aspiration to transcend the mere materiality of things” (107). Susan Sontag offers an eloquent account of this antitranscendental position. Speaking from the vantage point of literary and cultural criticism in “Against Interpretation,” she vehemently assails the hermeneutic urge in general. Her well-known gibe against scholarly erudition—interpretation “is the revenge of the intellect upon the world” (7)—calls for a response to art that attends to the work itself, rather than burying it beneath preconceived theoretical “encrustations.” That Barthelme combines pop's capricious historicism with Sontag's hedonistic blurring of phenomenology and formalism is evident in his career-length scrutiny of the literary object's autonomy. Of special importance to this sensibility, which is at home equally with the claims of advertising billboards and Edmund Husserl, is its Baudelairean fascination with the poetic transformation of that primordial site of modernist heterogeneity—the city. Barthelme engages flâneurie, but instead of Parisian boulevards, images “clipped” from urban and cultural history induce his imaginative reveries.

Echoing previous proclamations announcing immanent social change through the arrival of an unexpected catastrophe, such as Karl Marx's warning to the bourgeois of communism's looming specter or Orson Welles's reporting of War of the Worlds over the radio, the maverick narrator of “The Balloon” divulges that he has suddenly inflated an enormous balloon over Manhattan while its citizens were sleeping. To both the residents within the story's heterocosm and the critics who have commented on Barthelme's text, the balloon's most salient feature resides in its indeterminacy; resembling one of Christo's monuments to spatiotemporal impermanence, the balloon is “not limited, or defined” (“Balloon” 57). Amorphous, vaguely oneiric, its “vast surface” ultimately unknowable, the balloon offers a subdued sublimity to the New Yorkers; its perceived lack of purpose, although “vexing” for some, offers others an exhilarating respite from lives that have been reduced to what Gabriel Marcel calls “an agglomeration of functions” (12), an existential predicament in which the desire for authenticity becomes blunted by socioeconomic needs and obligations. Fabricating an oddball art project that invites communal participation, Barthelme's narrator dramatizes Oldenburg's aesthetic credo: children play on the balloon, adults use it as a means of locating themselves in the new cityscape. Owing to the balloon's presence, the boundary between the public and private gives way; while some enterprising individuals hang “green and blue paper lanterns from the warm gray underside,” others “seized the occasion to write messages on the surface, announcing their availability for the performance of unnatural acts” (54). The public's generally carefree response to the balloon seems at odds though with the narrator's wry detachment, worthy of a Stephen Dedalus. If the balloon itself occasions the carnivalesque, the story taken as a whole engages a scrupulous—though often quite funny—parodic allegory of aesthetic theory.

In his concern for itemizing the various reactions to the balloon, Barthelme places himself within the company of sculptors such as Robert Morris and Tony Smith, artists whose imperturbable cubes, cylinders, and other geometric “objects” predicate a delayed sensibility which becomes directly coeval with a viewer's eventual response. According to Michael Fried's influential (though hostile) thesis in “Art and Objecthood,” this relationship between object and audience is decidedly “theatrical”: “the experience of literalist art is of an object in a situation—one that, virtually by definition, includes the beholder” (125). In other words, literalist art (what we've now come to call minimalism) austerely negates its own status as a beguiling representation, withholds the pictorial delight offered by a Henri Matisse, because it is specifically, indeed perhaps solely, directed to the viewer's subjective experience of what it means to confront such an object. Ultimately, these nonreferential pieces, which encourage the viewer's increasing attentiveness to the gamut of personal mental associations elicited by the work, are addressed to what Fried calls “the duration of the experience” (145). By including a variety of responses to the short-lived phenomenon of the balloon, Barthelme's story confirms Fried's perception of the minimalist object's obsessions with time and reception, but these meticulously recorded public reactions complicate greatly the perimeters of objecthood. Arising from an accommodating audience which has accepted the hermeneutic ground rules for approaching such artworks—“we have learned not to insist on meanings” (“Balloon” 54)—this collection of responses becomes part of the art object's particular aura, indicating its intricate entanglement with what Barthelme might call the “messiness” of a specific historico-aesthetic moment.3 Barthelme's “itself” is self-consciously placed within the tradition of autonomous art objects, committing itself jointly to parody and preservation, instead of inducing a monadic phenomenology of temporality (as might one of Smith's sculptures).4 “The Balloon” parodies the gravity to which theory is prone while also engaging it earnestly and preserves something of a given historical moment's excess, those qualities and details that often evaporate when examined from the future. Enacting the aesthetic dynamic of what Douglas Crimp calls “site specificity” (Museum's Ruins 17), the balloon fuses the social and architectural environment of New York in the 1960s with a sense of communal lineage and urban historicity.

Following Rosenberg, we can see “The Balloon” as a “criticism object” (63) that initiates an “unspoken lecture” on urban monuments, yielding a cross section of the decade's zeitgeist. Disrupting civic life, the balloon evokes the anarchic temper of the Situationist International, a communally oriented movement whose “psychogeographic” projects once involved, as Edward Ball describes, acts of “cultural sabotage” designed to resist “the alienations of the city” (24). The balloon's pliant contours literalize Buckminster Fuller's utopian proposal in 1961 for constructing a geodesic dome that would cover an expanse of Manhattan, though the narrator's solicitous yet absolutist control over the city implicitly critiques such ostensibly benign interventions into public space. (Throughout Barthelme's work is an attack on what Simon, the architect in Paradise, refers to as the “messianic-maniacal” premises of modernist architectural thinking—the belief that “architecture will make people better, civilize them” [69].) Owing to its ability to dominate the skyline, the balloon recalls the Eiffel Tower, that structural edifice—apart from the skyscraper—most archetypal of modernity. In describing the Eiffel Tower as a “pure signifier” into which “men unceasingly put meaning (which they extract at will from their knowledge, their dreams, their history),” Roland Barthes could be speaking about Barthelme's balloon (“Eiffel Tower” 238). Both constructions aimlessly dominate a metropolitan skyline, turning polysemy into a recognizable sociohistorical principle, but Barthelme's story insists on the aesthetic object's dialectical dependence upon the response of a particularly historicized—and thereby temporally defined—audience. Similar to an avant-garde “happening,” the balloon exists for only twenty-two days before it is removed by the narrator. Perhaps, as Marcel Duchamp felt, the art object swiftly loses authenticity, dies, its ontological integrity irrevocably displaced by supplementary critical discourse.

The balloon, however, is not simply to be reduced to an allegory of art, since we discover that its precise telos is a display of the narrator's subjectivity. The narrator informs his unnamed lover, “The balloon … is a spontaneous autobiographical disclosure, having to do with the unease I felt at your absence, and with sexual deprivation, but now that your visit to Bergen has been terminated, it is no longer necessary or appropriate” (58). Critics have generally been perplexed by the story's ending, often seeing it as “arbitrary” (Stengel 65); but understood within ekphrastic conventions, this appeal to a lover underscores the text's engagement with dialectical negation. Recent theorists of ekphrasis have noted the mode's gendered associations;5 in the familiar instance of Keats's poem, the Grecian urn, an “unravished bride of quietness,” intimates a Medusan gaze that imperils the speaker's ability to voice the historical contingencies which constitute his subjectivity. Appealing to a fundamental ekphrastic tradition, Barthelme hinges his text on the figure of sexual yearning (as will Rushdie), accentuating the story's numerous antipodal positions, chief among them the collapse of hermeneutics.

Insisting that “a single balloon must stand for a lifetime of thinking about balloons” (55), the narrator places us in an interpretive bind. On the one hand, this singular balloon must stand in for “balloonness” generally, precluding contextualization within tradition; but because it belongs to an aeronautical aesthetic category, the balloon must necessarily be circumscribed by a world of dirigibles, zeppelins, and spheres—without which there would be insurmountable difficulties in conceptualizing the initial phenomenon.6 In resisting the general, Barthelme's story depends upon what the narrator calls the “concrete particular” (54); but this relationship is clearly a complicated one. Aesthetics has deliberated on the connection between part and whole, from Aristotle's consequential regard for organic structure to Georg Lukács's repudiation of the decadent, inessential detail. When Barthelme emphasizes the “concrete particular,” affirming Sontag's distrust of hermeneutics, he participates in modernity's theorization of the fragment, an overtly epistemological aesthetic that, as David Frisby describes, recognizes “the fragment as itself a distinctive whole riddled with its own tensions” (216). To understand more fully how the segment may radiate outward toward a potential totality while retaining its own autonomy, we need to return to classical ekphrasis.

In the traditional epic, ekphrasis is set apart from the main plot, acting as an oppositional element within the greater dimensions of the poem. Recounting the scenes of domestic life shown on Achilles' armor, Homer counterpoints the Trojan War, providing an archetypal strategy for the ekphrastic mode. Mitchell explains, “Achilles' shield shows us the whole world that is ‘other’ to the epic action of the Iliad, the world of everyday life outside history that Achilles will never know” (180). Ekphrasis creates a kind of ontological miniature that signals a world beyond the confines of the text. We should note, though, that the ekphrastic portion of the epic is only a momentary excursus traversed by the reader as he or she continues to read the poem as a whole. If the ekphrastic text typically addresses some aspect of the other, the Iliad maintains an easily perceptible diametric opposition: the poem's emphasis on heroic glory renders the ekphrastic passage's concentration on daily life much more prominent than if the text presented simply a description of Achilles' shield. Because an ekphrastic short story such as “The Balloon” lacks a surrounding explanatory narrative, the text's dialectical contrary is much more abstract. While “The Balloon” engages several antithetical suppositions—art, for instance, is shown to be both utilitarian and hermetic—the text's inherent alterity refers, I believe, to the difficulties of mnemonic representation. The narrator's oblique remark that the balloon's surface had “a rough, forgotten quality” (54) indicates that the art object depends in some way upon expressing the vicissitudes of memory, but it is by no means clear how this is to be accomplished.

Memory, as a means of knowledge, is extremely quixotic: it is the principal way by which we gather “ourselves” to comprehend phenomena, but because remembered details may serve to mask forgotten ones, remembrance continually erodes its own ability to bestow authority. How does the artwork, especially the autonomous art object, anticipate the vagaries of memory? If encountering the balloon's “forgotten yellows” alerts the New Yorkers to disregard perceptions, then the art object is emancipatory, catalytic, imparting a sense of recuperation to an individual or a culture. To Herbert Marcuse, though, there is a danger in this sort of aesthetic redemption. By embodying “the forgotten truths over which ‘realism’ triumphs in daily life” (114), art initiates a psychic defense against reification, effectively acting as a substitute for political praxis. While Marcuse's pessimism goes far to explain the New Yorkers' need to have confidence in the balloon, the story intimates that art's dialectic between preservation and forgetting is more multifaceted than he suggests. Also referring to a forgotten color, but showing aesthetic recollection leading to abrogation rather than redemption, Marcel Proust describes Bergotte, his philosopher of time in Remembrance of Things Past, going to a gallery on what turns out to be the day of his death. Bergotte wishes to see Jan Vermeer's View of Delft once again, a painting he has adored for decades, only to face the recognition that his life's work has completely miscarried owing to its failure to match the vigor of the painting's now-recalled “little patch of yellow wall” (185). Perhaps, then, in its ability to communicate a “forgotten quality,” art poses the risk that utopian reclamation can just as easily become melancholic loss.

Our position as readers, however, isn't equivalent to that of either Barthelme's New Yorkers or Proust's philosopher, since these are characters who exist within their respective heterocosms, whereas we respond to “The Balloon” as a text. While the balloon's “rough, forgotten quality” invokes a certain intertextual plenitude (the story urbanizes, as it were, Stevens's modernist pastoral “Anecdote of the Jar,” itself a laconic reply to Keats's ode) to offset the calamity of forgetfulness, “The Balloon,” as an ekphrastic story, projects abundance for the purpose of intimating deficiency. The narrator, desiring to translate a mute art object into a verbally intelligible experience, places before us a gargantuan balloon, one of whose features is the manifestation of a specific color. But “forgotten yellows” offers a textualized hue that cannot be concretized. In a move that recalls Ludwig Wittgenstein's rejection of philosophical solipsism owing to our shared language for describing color systems, Barthelme's deliberately vague phrase draws attention to the defects of literature's referential capacities: while we can speak meaningfully together about the color “yellow,” our notions of what it means to forget remain subtly peculiar to the individual, historicized self. This is not to say that literature is necessarily ineffectual at representing temporality, but that the ekphrastic project in “The Balloon” is to embody the problematic interdependency of personal and cultural memory, incommensurate as these manifestations of remembrance prove to be. Cast in Freudian terms, the art object's “forgotten quality” acts as a sort of intrinsic “screen memory,” displacing actual historical events with chronologically associated representation.7 Barthelme's short story seeks, through negation, to summon for its inchoate opposite the jumbled disarray of historical remembrance.

Rushdie's “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” takes up some of the incipient problems Barthelme investigates. Two critics of the latter's work make observations that will allow us to perceive Rushdie's widening of the ekphrastic enterprise as it attempts to clarify the nature of contemporary visual representation. Addressing the balloon as a phenomenon more than the story as an object, Eberhard Kreutzer incisively comments that the balloon's gesture into the avant-garde may inevitably be “inadequately integrated into the system. … Yesterday's provoking unconventional spectacle will be tomorrow's conventional exemplar” (47). Touching upon the rapidity with which experimental art becomes commonplace, “The Balloon” doesn't engage the hegemonic shaping powers of institutionalization as will Rushdie's story. Charles Molesworth's suggestive remark that Barthelme's “range of styles reminds one of a contemporary museum” (58) draws attention to the historiographic dimensions to the fiction, but more importantly here, it implies a theoretical affinity between the ekphrastic text and the art gallery. Because paintings and sculpture are usually associated in some way with a museum or gallery in the twentieth century, recent ekphrastic texts often examine the museum collection as a discursive institution of considerable epistemological importance. Before we move to Rushdie's “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers,” it will be helpful to consider this museological sensibility within the context of our culture's commodification of images.


The museum has figured prominently in modern thought ever since Sigmund Freud began using archaeological metaphors to explain the topography of the psyche: similarly to the juxtaposition of artifacts from independent periods and locales, archaic memories exist concurrently with contemporary stimuli and associations. Museological qualities can, in fact, also be extended to modernity's central dialectic, in which the furious desire to preserve an ephemeral and heterogeneous present becomes inextricable from an exegetics of tradition. Technological advancement has greatly modified the urge to interrogate the past through collecting its remnants. Mid-century, André Malraux observed that the widespread reproduction of masterpieces in art publications had fundamentally altered the aesthetic sphere. This new “museum without walls” (13) transformed a sculpture from Chartres cathedral whose original function was religious into a print that could be placed next to a reproduced Japanese pen and ink drawing. Noting that a nineteenth-century art theorist such as Charles Baudelaire was hampered by his limited exposure to artworks, Malraux applauds the technological innovation which, in providing a greater availability of aesthetic images, finally allows a comprehensive history of art to be discerned. Instead of establishing a troubling collection of decontextualized objects, Malraux's museum gathers together disparate artifacts which nonetheless confirm an underlying ethos—humankind's persistent repudiation of mortality and oblivion.8 Quite recently, Andreas Huyssen, reflecting upon the current vogue for traveling blockbuster art exhibits and the construction of numerous memorials to the Holocaust in the 1980s, maintains that the museum “has become a key paradigm of contemporary cultural activities” (14). The past, especially when it is seen as a storeroom of dormant styles and images, tantalizes us in the late twentieth century, and we are increasingly keen to capture and preserve (particularly on film) the minutiae of daily events, whether they are political, cultural, or personal in origin.

“At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers,” Rushdie's parable of a dystopian art sale, partakes in this museological approach to cultural representation; surveying the present, it is dense with allusions to cultural artifacts from the past, most of them derived from the visual arts. Rather than the massive institutions set up by either state or corporation, this literary museum corresponds more to the private Wunderkammern favored by German nobility in the eighteenth century—accumulations of erratic marvels whose curatorial organization was often based on chance, personal fascination, and whim. As the linguistic Wunderkammer of a strikingly sardonic narrator, “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” blends the familiar with the idiosyncratic, crowding together references to Francisco Goya's The Disasters of War, Hollywood iconography, and the contemporary music video. This postmodern fláneurie measures the culture industry with a severity that would have Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer nodding with approval, yet its verbal excess delights in the satiric possibilities engendered by the twentieth century's ongoing commodification of the art object.

Before I move to the text's ekphrastic components, let me give an overview of the story. “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” takes place in a futuristic society mirroring our own that has become splintered into wildly disparate socioeconomic castes. Societal boundaries are enforced through rigorous state control amid a background upheaval of anarchic violence. Attending what appears to be a postmillennial version of a Sotheby's auction, the narrator leaves the safety of his “bunker” because he desires to purchase Dorothy's magical ruby slippers in the hope that he might use them to reclaim the affections of his unfaithful lover, Gale. At the crammed auction, religious fundamentalists jostle film stars, political refugees, and the homeless. Festive movie fans masquerade as their favorite Wizard of Oz characters, Toto included. Auctioneering commands the heart of this culture, for Rushdie's Tomorrow-Land is a world of unconditional reification: everything is equal before “the justice of the gavels … the courtroom of demand” (99). This particular dystopia is beset by turbulent ontological uncertainty. Suffering a “permeation … by the fictional,” daily life has become congested by “the free, unrestricted migration of imaginary beings into an already damaged reality” (94). Those attending the auction live in an environment where figures from oil paintings voice grievances to the crowd and Steven Spielberg's E.T. makes bids for the ruby slippers through a television monitor. If Barthelme's “The Balloon” alludes to the Situationist rebellion as one fabric forming part of its contemporary moment, “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” speaks from within a society dominated utterly by the spectacle.

Guy Debord's observation that “[t]he spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images” (Society 4) pinpoints the epistemological difficulties upon which Rushdie's story is based. From the auratic ruby slippers themselves to the inclusion of the beautiful female refugees wearing toreador jackets decorated with Pablo Picasso's Guernica and scenes taken from Goya's The Disasters of War, “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” depicts a condition in which the reproduction of images has thoroughly shaped social experience: in Rushdie's story, Malraux's “museum without walls” has become ambulatory. Referring to masterpieces parading among copulating Totos attests to the art object's waning aura, but it is more significant that, among the numerous jackets so decorated, these pictorial denunciations of war are the only paintings the narrator explicitly enumerates. It is conceivable that Claude Monet's lilies are circulating around the hors d'oeuvres as well. Because their presence would also affirm Debord's generalized theory of simulation, though offering a more comforting tone, Rushdie's specific invocation of Goya and Picasso raises the question of how aesthetic detail functions within the spectacle's purported flattening gaze.

More than any other single painting this century, Guernica has focused discussion on the relationship between art and politics, aesthetic form versus ideological content. To Peter Weiss, “the painting scream[s] out in memory of every past period of oppression” (220), providing a narrative of revolution specifically linking the Parisian Communards to the Spanish civil war. Equally convinced of the painting's power, but wary that aesthetic grandeur might seduce us from the anguish experienced by those who suffered the event itself, Norbert Lynton warns that Picasso “is so successful that we have to discipline ourselves lest the bombing itself should be diminished by his picture into little more than a … prerequisite for it” (qtd. in Masheck 217). Although Guernica points to history for its authority, the relationship between aesthetic transformation and praxis is indeterminate. Jean-Paul Sartre's response to the painting in “What Is Writing?” is blunt: “[D]oes anyone think that it won over a single heart to the Spanish cause? And yet something is said that can never quite be heard and that would take an infinity of words to express” (28). Sartre's diffidence regarding Guernica accentuates his questions regarding representation in the essay as a whole—what communicates “meaning” better, image or text? This particularly thorny dilemma, which creates the dynamic of ekphrastic writing, becomes greatly compounded in “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” owing to Rushdie's use of a sort of ekphrastic shorthand.9

Rather than directing the reader as to how he or she should imagine the visual object (as Barthelme and Wideman do), Rushdie merely cites the painting's title, requiring the reader to concretize an image otherwise fashioned through description. Furthermore, by offering an abundance of images taken mostly from the twentieth century's popular imaginary instead of a sustained meditation on one work, the story withholds the specifically addressed problem that the ekphrastic text has traditionally tried to illuminate. This ekphrastic “minimalism” speaks of a culture that already practices ekphrasis, quickly turning a visual image into another discourse through capital, a process which, if not quite effacing the referent entirely, certainly involves the image's hybridization. To Erwin Panofsky, iconographic interpretation depends upon a hermeneutic synthesis of the various discourses and events that determine an image's “historical ‘locus’” (11). But how does one comprehend Picasso's Guernica after it has been taken up by the fashion industry? What is the image's new “content” (to borrow Panofsky's terminology) once a primary motif has been divorced from its intrinsic symbolic meaning? A reproduced Guernica decorating an article of clothing may or may not signify the 1937 saturation bombardment of the Basque village.10 Arising from the fashion industry's general appropriation of “high art,” this image, its exact referent vague, may simply bestow a sense of chic to its now-avant-garde owner. Unlike William Carlos Williams's Pictures from Brueghel, which relies upon the depicted artworks having a certain fixed referential identity, Rushdie's notational ekphrasis denotes kitsch's ability to keep an image's “content” in a state of flux, mutating its original context or erasing it entirely.

While “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” implies that it is only a matter of time until capitalism renders all images into commodities fit for consumption, the reference to toreador jackets emblazoned with unspecified reproductions from Goya's Disasters of War intensifies Rushdie's ekphrastic experiment. Because the artworks referred to in the story aren't identified, the reader must glean abstracted images from Goya's series as a whole, but this contravenes the ethos of the original pictures, in that they assert the inherent particularity of those enduring terrible pain. Depicting gruesome atrocities committed during the Franco-Spanish war, Goya's engravings are an early nineteenth-century version of Nazi concentration camp photographs, except that, unlike the latter, they've not become part of the image repertoire widely circulated in Western popular culture. What are we to make of political refugees who adorn themselves with such precise images of terrible misery? Gail Faurschou's observation that fashion entails “the process of recording a memory of alliance” (78) recommends itself as a possible explanation by directing us to fashion's capacity for fostering associative identity. But even if Rushdie's comely fugitives are expressing solidarity with Goya's agonized victims, their means of commemoration—toreador jackets “glittering” with sequins—suggests an almost burlesque ambiguity which departs from the stark, semiotic clarity of torture itself.11 If, unlike torture (an activity which seeks to eradicate autonomy by establishing the monolithic authority of the state), fashion potentially offers an individual the capacity to express a distinctive style, does this mean that devising a certain knowing sensibility through dress admits a completely whimsical use of signs?

Addressing camp's ironizing aestheticizing of experience, Sontag approvingly cites Oscar Wilde's maxim, “One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art” (“Notes” 277). It is unlikely, though, that either she or Wilde, a man who knew incarceration's cruelties and the pleasures of style equally, had Goya's prints in mind as fashion accessories. Setting his story in an unspecified future, Rushdie thus anticipates a trajectory in which camp's initially democratic impulses have been usurped by a culture industry capable of subjecting individuals and art objects to the vagaries of the auction room, thereby severely limiting the opportunity for creating semiotic “scandal” through fashion.12 A corollary of capitalism's ability to infiltrate personal style would seem, in the story's “Nietzschean, relativistic universe,” to be a propensity for historiographic negligence. In this description, “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” would seem to confirm Jean Baudrillard's familiar notion of the simulacrum: “For some time now, … the image has taken over and imposed its own immanent, ephemeral logic … a logic of the extermination of its own referent, a logic of the implosion of meaning in which the message disappears on the horizon of the medium” (22-23). The referent's identity becomes lost in the indeterminate limbo which is the cultural imaginary, turns simply into another image to be used or ignored, depending upon the product to be sold.

To Debord, this leveling of historical difference is strategic: the society of the spectacle installs “the outlawing of history” precisely to convince us that this condition has always been the case, thus masking “the very progress of its recent world conquest” (Comments 15-16). Auctioning the past is displayed as being a “natural” form of transmitting tradition. Unlike that earlier story of sexual disappointment and the marketplace, James Joyce's “Araby,” which allows for the possibility of subjective knowledge through retrospective narration, and different from Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, which, closing on an eternally imminent auction, leaves an opening for hermeneutic encounter with the world, Rushdie's story doesn't appear to accept a possible negotiation of meaning, however tentative or deferred. Instead, “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” suggests that there is no escaping commodification, no unmediated experience, no event that isn't hooked into the system of simulation. In this pessimism, does Rushdie risk engaging what Terry Eagleton describes as the defeatist “aesthetics of postmodernism”? To Eagleton, the postmodern artist surrenders the ability to critique simulation; thus postmodernism operates from the following credo: “if art no longer reflects it is not because it seeks to change the world rather than mimic it, but because there is in truth nothing there to be reflected, no reality which is not itself already image, spectacle, simulacrum, gratuitous fiction” (“Capitalism” 62).13 Before we see “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” as acquiescing to the spectacle's thoroughly codified landscape, however, or, more important, as being merely an aesthetic rendition of Situationist or late Marxist theories, we should recall the sentiment voiced by a character in The Satanic Verses that our lacking a coherent means of selecting historical detail has ontological dimensions.

“The world is incompatible,” complains Rushdie's art historian, and war camp survivor, Otto Cone: “Ghosts, Nazis, saints, all [are] alive at the same time” (295). This judgment, echoing George Steiner's belief that the Holocaust seemed to create “different species of time in the same world” (181), modifies Debord's critique by implying that it is not the spectacle per se which involves cursory and dehistoricized combinations, but that incongruity springs from the mind's inability to think about historical experience comprehensively. To think historically, according to Cone, requires confronting a range of phenomena whose temporal simultaneity repeatedly curbs whatever means are used to grasp them. The effort to harmonize historical knowledge breaks down because, as Adorno explains, “actual events have shattered the basis on which speculative metaphysical thought [can] be reconciled with experience” (Negative Dialectics 362). For Adorno, the Holocaust cancels out metaphysical reflection because it denaturalized death, made it an administrative phenomenon which, taking place en masse, eradicated the classical established relation between the individual and his or her own dying. By including The Disasters of War in his story, Rushdie implies that Adorno's insight (and Cone's in The Satanic Verses) can be expanded to encompass events taking place outside of a historically located modernity; that is, philosophical notions of immanence collapse in front of violent suffering and the loss of loved ones, irrespective of when such loss occurs. From this perspective, an abstract reference to Goya candidly recognizes that historical experience is always open to nihilism. In this sense, “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” glosses Auden's “Musée des Beaux Arts,” an ekphrastic poem occasioned historically by fascism's rise, but universalist in its description of discontinuity and its indictment of human indifference.

If we see an artwork's title as being the most rudimentary form of ekphrastic description, then the captions to The Disasters of War numbers 44 and 26 respectively—“I saw this” and “One cannot look at this”—shed light on Rushdie's ekphrastic minimalism. Although Goya turns away from the abyss to create the aesthetic object, vision, knowledge, and representation retain an irreconcilable antagonism to each other. To convert an execution scene into a toreador jacket does not so much repress this antagonism as it transforms the image through a perverse dialectic: an image of people who are about to die in the time it takes to look away from the picture now becomes a chic means of drawing attention to the living human being. For both Goya and Rushdie, the site where representation most conflicts with vision is the body. To Fred Licht, “[t]he human body [in Goya's sequence] is no longer a manifest ideal shape” but becomes instead “a mere abbreviation” (156). Once made into a “mere abbreviation,” the subject's identity can easily be adapted to fulfill any purpose, including the fashion statement. To understand the effect of this transformation, we need to shift our discussion from the problematic nature of vision and ask instead what it means to be seen.

In not actively engaging the viewer, The Disasters of War makes witnessing irrelevant because it is inconsequential to the events under way, a sentiment perhaps confirmed by Goya's refusal to publish the drawings in his lifetime. Unlike the Nazi documentation of concentration camp inmates, who, often staring into the camera, attest to the collusion between power and representation (thereby charging the contemporary viewer with a sense of uncanny complicity), Goya's series shows participants locked into the motility of events. Because seeing is terrifyingly paramount in the series—a husband is shown being forced to watch his wife's imminent rape, clusters of people stare into musket barrels or gape apprehensively at something beyond the picture's frame—Goya suggests that there is no “outside” perspective capable of registering the meaning of these events, whether this external perspective derives from a divine or secular origin. Citing Goya's treatment of this inaccessible event, Rushdie implicitly poses the absurd and brutal question, What difference could it make to these people if their images become decorative? Unanswerable, in itself corroborating Goya's assessment of the body's value, this question becomes important to Rushdie's own aesthetic since it introduces chaos into his work, not the chaos of historical actuality exactly, but the simple, anarchic recognition that historical experience disappears behind successive layers of forgetfulness.14 Postmodernism, then, can have nihilistic overtones, but in Rushdie's case, philosophical austerity is combined with utopian longing and its attendant rage. In contrast, capitalism's merging of incongruous elements is wholly self-assured; suppressing postmodernism's anxiety, it brusquely repeats the implacable amnesia that confines historical experience. Rushdie's story provides a useful addendum, then, to Fredric Jameson's famous lineage of shoes in the visual arts. Starting with Vincent van Gogh's modernist Peasant Shoes, and concluding with Andy Warhol's Diamond Dust Shoes, Jameson charts the devolution of referential value he sees as being inextricably part of postmodern culture. If Jameson perceives the postmodern to be habitually devoid of hermeneutical “depth” (12), Rushdie's postmodernist short story shows capitalism to be an aggressive force that accelerates, and profits from, historical decontextualization. As soon as The Disasters of War or Guernica can be used for a profitable haute couture, Rushdie suggests, designers will be ready and eager to have their workers sitting at their sewing machines.15

Art and the individual have been desanctified equally in “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers,” the shoes alone having auratic power, their importance vastly superseding the cult value granted them at MGM's 1970 memorabilia auction, the historical event upon which Rushdie based his story. As in The Wizard of Oz, Rushdie's footwear promises a means of circumventing ontological boundaries, but unlike Dorothy's slippers in the movie, which can be used to secure subjective autonomy, Rushdie's talismanic objects are shown to be violently regulated by socioeconomic power. By presenting the slippers as having been encased within a glass “defense system” capable of releasing a fatal charge of electricity, Rushdie also draws attention to the fragility of the ekphrastic project. If an ideological authority can insinuate itself between the auratic object and its viewer, then the ekphrastic speaker cannot easily broach an authentic relation with the object for the purposes of communicating this knowledge to the narratee. Rushdie responds to this problem by altering the traditional dynamic between narrator and visual object. To Mitchell, the figure of Medusa embodies this reciprocal dependency; she is the “perfect prototype for the image as a dangerous female other who threatens to silence the poet's voice and fixate his observing eye” (172). “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” participates in this gendered schema, the slippers having erotic associations for the narrator, his now faithless lover once in the habit of crying out “Home, baby, yes—you've come home” upon penetration (95). In Rushdie's text, however, Medusa's power is figured less as the beguiling female other than as the reassurances afforded by ideology. In opting out of the auction, the narrator turns away from the slippers as cultural and sexual fetish, symbolically abdicating ownership of the desired object as ideological reflection. There is a cost to this rejection, though. Conventional ekphrasis allows for the possibility of plentitude—the literary sign losing its arbitrary nature by potentially merging with the image—but Rushdie's narrator quells his own mastery over loss, effectively suspending the ekphrastic enterprise between desire and attainment.

The story's fascination with exiles magnifies the narrator's repudiation of completion into an overall examination of homelessness, a condition having both social and aesthetic implications. John Frow sees “ontological homelessness” as one of the early twentieth century's “key metaphors for the condition of modernity” (135). What happens to this seasoned metaphor when Rushdie portrays television clips of an astronaut marooned in Mars's orbit? Opposed to the modernist's ardent desire to forge an existential signature capable of bearing witness to what Joseph Conrad's narrator in Nostromo calls “the truth which every death takes out of the world” (210), Rushdie's astronaut faces death fully ensconced within the spectacle, singing various sentimental songs, among them “several numbers from The Wizard of Oz” (97), to television's global audience.16 Evincing a nostalgia for modernism's nostalgia, the vignette measures the spectacle's extensive intrusion upon subjective interiority, but Rushdie's depiction of “stenchy,” earth-bound tramps being ruthlessly ejected from the auction offsets the spectacle's apparent domination.17 In the society of the spectacle, Rushdie shows the indigent to be truly abject; representations of torment (from Goya to the astronaut) can be contained, but the actual presence of suffering cannot be abided. While pointing out the spectacle's inconsistencies is valuable as political critique, this does not mean that the story's wish to disengage the image from prescriptive discursive frameworks entirely succeeds. Deliberately lodging itself as a useless object within an economy of images based on exchange value, the story does nonetheless question the spectacle's homogenizing power. Opposed to the spectacle's reductionist treatment of images, Rushdie grounds visual (and thereby ekphrastic) perception within historical change.

Because of significant alterations in the “structures of feeling” surrounding images, largely due to technology, Rushdie's position toward the visual object is considerably less stable than that maintained by a model ekphrastic text such as “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Keats's speaker has direct access to the urn; images in “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” are filtered instead through film technology, placing both viewer and pictorial object in a state of flux. While visual representations arising from film culture may gain in intensity, they quickly lose integrity because they are immersed in a general system of images taken from movies. All images subsequently appear as attenuated stills originating from that half-remembered, half-forgotten film that is our lifelong experience of cinema. To Paul Virilio, movie viewers “do not manufacture mental images on the basis of what they are immediately given to see, but on the basis of their memories, by themselves filling in the blanks and their minds with images created retrospectively, as in childhood” (3). Calling “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” a contemporary Wunderkammer evokes this enigmatic hiatus in which personal memory and cultural representation coalesce. Through its continuous references to The Wizard of Oz, a film that has captivated successive generations of viewers, “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” aligns itself with film's magnetic allure, including its powers to activate subconscious memories. In Rushdie's hands, then, the contemporary ekphrastic text engages the nonverbal object not as a polar opposite but as a fluid mnemonic, a retroactively created encounter that springs from a culturally created, though subjectively mediated, repertoire. Recalling the exuberance he felt upon seeing the film as a child, Rushdie claims, “The Wizard of Oz made a writer of me” (Wizard 18), a disclosure that, candidly appraising literature's dependence upon dominating discursive frameworks, also points to the potentially liberating collusion between the spectacle and artistic creation.

Jon Erickson observes that our initial experience of language involves a repeated inquiry into denotation: “[T]he first questions we are asked as human beings are ‘What's that?’ and ‘Who's that?’ This is the specificity of the household” (4). Accentuating The Wizard of Oz, a text that is about renaming the world as much as anything else, “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” recapitulates the primal desire to identify objects while fully recognizing that the urge to collect risks duplicating capitalism's capacity for determining identity through profit. If we see the story as enacting the consequential situation outlined by Erickson, we can ascertain something of the dynamic that occurs between the spectacle's capacity for interpellation versus aesthetic response. When children are asked to identity people or objects, they must accede to a communal system, are forced to recognize societal confidence in claiming the correctness of one reply over another. Alongside their happiness in achieving social integration through language also exists a certain defiant frustration—the child covets his or her own language. To name fuses desire and loss. Perhaps art continues to respond to the question of identity long after the original lesson has been learned, so to speak, and then overturns the unequal dynamic of the original exchange; the aesthetic object recasts the primary situation, now requiring its audience to answer Erickson's troubling questions. Rather than simply recording the spectacle's images, then, “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” cross-examines us as to the appropriate designation for the images it summons. What is an adequate reply to a sequined depiction of suffering?

Showing ekphrasis to be the repetition of a primal entry into language, but also historicizing this interchange within the context of contemporary Western culture, Rushdie's use of the mode is both antagonistic and celebratory. Wideman, too, examines how the struggle between image and text invokes pervasive cultural institutions; however, his choice of the referentially specific photographic print greatly exacerbates Rushdie's apprehensions over historical transmission. Hesitant in its ekphrastic description, Wideman's story ultimately rebels against the visual object's capacity for effacing existential experience.


“[P]hotography,” writes Nadine Gordimer, “has become the most emotive language of the several dozen spoken by us South Africans” (126). This influential interlanguage, which communicates through family albums and police dossiers equally simply, obfuscates the ekphrastic text's desire to disclose knowledge. As we shall see, Wideman's depicting a press crew visiting Soweto during apartheid raises hard questions about the ekphrastic text's philosophical and ethical dimensions. Because an ekphrastic photograph engages the theoretical quandaries occasioned by actual photographs, let us first consider a photograph by the American photo-journalist Yunghi Kim before we move to Wideman's story. Her Soweto, South Africa depicts a rear view of a black girl's shoulders. The girl is wearing a wraparound top that sports a white Barbie doll. The photo thus creates a Janus figure: the girl looks away from the camera, whereas the doll looks at us with her distinctly blue eyes. Besides implying the obvious semiotic of a black child carrying a Western commodity on her back, which critiques racism, the print engages a plurality of discursive practices simultaneously. The doll, like her owner, is visible from only the shoulders up, accentuating the photograph's self-contained compositional element of mise en abyme. If placed within the genre of documentary photography, this particular image reconfigures an acclaimed press photo taken during the Spanish civil war.18 Finally, in seeming opposition to both formalist and intertextual interpretations, the photo also presents the child reaching backward, twisting and turning Barbie's hair, thus creating a Barthean punctum, a gesture toward the girl's singular contingency.19 What happens to Kim's picture after it enters the public domain? Taking on a life of its own (just as its subject does), the photograph becomes severed from the original referent, moving firmly into the aesthetic realm. Is it possible for a viewer to contravene this aestheticizing process? How much does an ekphrastic rendition of a photograph partake of these dilemmas?

Unlike Barthelme, who devotes most of his text to a prolonged response to the visual object, Wideman limits his ekphrastic commentary. He briefly describes the photograph on which “What He Saw” is based and then explores the image's many ancillary problems through narrative. Here is Wideman's photograph:

I have a photograph of a man whose name I don't know. A black South African man, gut-shot, supported on either side by women, large, turbaned black women whose dark faces bear the man's pain. … The light is flat and merciless. Distorted by the angle at which the camera was held to snap this image, the man's face dominates. A lean face, though the elongated forehead bulges, again an effect of camera position. The brow of a Benin bronze mask, one might say of it, swollen as a sail full of wind. A comparison like that might be appropriate if the man weren't dying, if his dazed expression and vacant eyes, the women's sorrow and fear, weren't real, a few feet away from the van in which we are sitting.


Almost immediately, the ekphrastic narrator relies upon a “local” aesthetic metaphor—“the Benin bronze mask”—but this comparison is quickly declared unsuitable. Interpretive language balks at the image's conjectural moral and existential austerity. Although speaking about photography in general, Andy Grundberg clarifies the narrator's reluctance to use one image to reiterate another when he argues that “photography's distinction has always been its connection to the world outside the imagination” (172; emphasis added). Figural discourse, it seems, transforms as much as it translates. Believing that a photographic print is indelibly linked to its external referent, Wideman's narrator is then left with the harsh impossibility of having to express another person's pain. But it is this difficulty which leads directly to the ekphrastic moment; as Mitchell notes: “the mute image [must] be endowed with a voice” (156).

The dying man's image demands a response, but the narrator cannot determine what it is that the photograph is actually saying, creating an impasse which engenders a narrative of deferral. To Allan Sekula, “a photograph communicates by means of its association with some hidden, or implicit text” (85). In other words, the photograph must first be “read” before Wideman's narrator can mediate an ekphrastic encounter with it. Blending literature and photography's preoccupation with temporality, he tries to begin reading this “implicit text” by historicizing the image. The settlement in which the photograph has been taken, we're told, has been constructed with wide streets “for the same reason … the boulevards of Paris are broad and straight” (96). This allusion to Georges-Eugène Haussmann's urban planning (designed to ensure that the barricades never rose again) indicates the constant threat of military intervention in South Africa at the time. Referring to a previous instance of political repression also signals the continual threat of historical amnesia; that is, a Parisian photograph contemporary with the one Wideman describes would likely show tourists strolling amid businesses and cafés. Revolutionary violence and its attendant victims have presumably been forgotten, having been replaced by daily life. By implying that the French boulevards' (absent) images of brutality have been exported to Soweto, Wideman links the photograph with revolutionary struggle in general, but because photographs make uneasy symbols (their referents insisting upon deictic specificity), the European parallel proves too sweeping. Narrowing his comparisons, the narrator next finds a closer, more private, affinity between Soweto's “highway-sized main drags” and the streets of his childhood in Pittsburgh. But this connection eventually falters too. Nothing, finally, can correspond to Soweto, and, by extension, the injured man's image curbs the creation of background as a means of exegesis.

Wideman subsequently shifts his attention from the photograph's violence by critically addressing the implications of journalism, thereby trying to situate the image within the discourse from which it arose. Recognizing that photographic subjects have the right to privacy, war photographer Don McCullin maintains that he consistently asks himself, “Do I photograph or do I let it go?” (18) before snapping a picture. “What He Saw” raises this ethical issue not, interestingly, in terms of the shooting victim, but by having the journalists discuss an odd occurrence they'd seen earlier that day. They'd spotted a black boy defecating on one of the slum's dumps, to them a tempting, though contentious, image. Some took the photo, others didn't—but in either case, “What He Saw” makes journalism's predatory ethos clearly evident.20 “He was mine if I wanted him,” one character remarks, “but I didn't pull the trigger” (102). Because Wideman refers to the child but doesn't describe his image, we as readers are not protected, as it were, by the narrator's mediating ekphrastic portrayal. Instead, we become identified with the more aggressive journalists. Whether or not we would have personally photographed the boy is irrelevant; our concretizing the image through the act of reading ensures our participation in an enigmatic voyeurism. Discussing the child's potential image, one journalist declares confidently: “To me the kid said it all. Soweto. Goddamn Soweto” (102). While this micro-macro perspective corresponds roughly with some African aesthetics—David B. Coplan maintains that the “African method is to pack it all together into one image” (326)—we can infer that the reporter is speaking from a Western vantage point. That a boy's defecating on a dump exemplifies Soweto seems matter-of-fact to the journalist, even self-explanatory—Soweto becomes anus mundi. In this commonplace mode of visual perception, synecdoche performs not a rhetorical but an ontological function. We need to examine this problematic negotiation of knowledge more closely. How could a child's photograph signify something as multifarious as Soweto?

Julian Stallabrass offers that advertising has trained people to accept the communication value of telescoping visual images: “Viewers come to expect that surfaces are directly expressive of essences and that complex social situations can be condensed within a single, telling image” (190). Accurate as this indictment of advertising's pedagogical achievements may be, the photographer's belief derives from a tangled aggregate of discursive practices. To see Soweto in the image of one boy also engages the ideological component of the news media. News photos “do not produce new knowledge about the world,” argues Stuart Hall; “[t]hey produce recognitions of the world as we have already learned to appropriate it” (186). From this stance, the photo of the impoverished child would merely confirm Western perceptions of “strife-torn” Africa; the photographer misrecognizes a preexistent statement as being original. Rather than engaging the child's concrete subjective and cultural horizon (however difficult that might be), the photographer's vision has been thoroughly shaped through previous discourse; furthermore, certain “imported” cultural practices have made the photographer decide that the picture was worth taking in the first place. Henri Cartier-Bresson's seminal aesthetic of the “decisive moment,” Lewis Hine's investigative photography (especially his 1909 Children at a Dump photo), the “third world” photo as a genre—each contributes to a socio-aesthetic ethos that would discern within the young boy's situation an image that virtually solicits a photographic response.21 Shifting registers, psychoanalysis would suggest that to photograph the boy having a bowel movement would also affirm the West's scopic power. Viewing this act places the reporter safely within the familiar because, as Julia Kristeva writes, “dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be” (3). An entire tradition of commercial and aesthetic representation coalesces within the journalist's belief that the boy's image synthesizes Soweto. Equally important, but less easy to anatomize, this premise also relies upon an unformulated metaphysics that Wideman's story eventually rejects when it returns to its ekphrastic account of the wounded man.

By metaphysics, I refer to Gottfried Leibniz's philosophical system in which individual units (monads) have enfolded within themselves intimations of the whole, so that “each Monad is a living mirror” (Monadology 409). For the photo to reflect “Goddamn Soweto,” part and whole must depend upon a dynamic reciprocity. If both Soweto and the photograph have monadic attributes, then the boy's image has an inherent, condensed quality which, when extrapolated, embodies the city; likewise, Soweto, in its unfathomable entirety, somehow inversely manifests the boy's image. To Leibniz, however, “Monads have no windows” (219); thus the proposition that Soweto can be perceived through the boy's image necessitates a recognition of the immanent, not a meeting with the Other. According to Leibniz, monads “perceive what passes without them by what passes within them, answering to the things without, … whereby every simple substance is by its nature … a concentration and a living mirror of the whole universe according to its point of view” (Philosophical Papers 711). Not only is there a reciprocity between the internal and external, but what animates the monad's perceptions of the external is the exterior phenomenon's precise correspondence to an inner state nascently present within the monad itself. Describing monadic perception, Bertrand Russell writes, “although it is related to the object and simultaneous with it (or approximately so), it is in no way due to the object, but only to the nature of the percipient” (132). The photographer in “What He Saw” adopts a secular, though not systematic, monadology in that he doesn't so much originate a deft connection between the city and the image as he ascertains a latent congruence between Soweto, the boy, and himself. Can the individual monad be identified with a larger, variegated whole, however, without depending upon Leibniz's integrating theism? Gilles Deleuze maintains that something “has changed in the situation of monads, between the former model, the closed chapel with imperceptible openings, and the new model invoked by Tony Smith, the sealed car speeding down the dark highway … it could be said that the monad, astraddle over several worlds, is kept half open as if by a pair of pliers” (136-37). Whether or not the monad has evolved into the Deleuzean “nomad” other than as a heuristic concept remains unclear; we can remark with some certainty though that the photographer's conflation of the boy with Soweto is an unexamined conviction, an adage that retains Leibnizian conclusions without addressing how this relation functions. A kind of debased monadology still informs the ways we formulate visual knowledge; more important, it is an inherited system that we've ceased to understand. The task, as Adorno remarks, is “to portray in monadological terms what is beyond the monad” (Aesthetic Theory 127). That Leibniz's metaphysical system corresponds to contemporary visual theories becomes evident when we consider Kaja Silverman's analysis of “the look.” “The look,” she explains, “consistently attributes to the self what is exterior and other, and projects onto the other what belongs to the self” (3). This perceptual solipsism offers a tentative resolution to the ekphrastic tension exhibited at the story's beginning—the image can now be rendered into words—but it is apparent that the narrator spurns the consonance which the photographer's world-view provides.

Opposed to the monadic system's operative principle of what Leibniz calls “pre-established harmony,” Wideman's story engages a form of aesthetic inquiry which Adorno and Walter Benjamin call the “constellation.” In The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Eagleton delineates this means of offsetting totalizing modes of thought: “The thing must not be grasped as a mere instantiation of some universal essence; instead, thought must deploy a whole cluster of stubbornly specific concepts which in Cubist style refract the object in myriad directions or penetrate it from a range of diffuse angles” (328). Wideman does seek to present something of the political and existential “reality” of Crossroads and Soweto, but the story's treatment of this phenomenon is an excursion into it, rather than its encapsulation. The story's excursion resembles the constellation because its depiction of “stubbornly specific” details and concepts depends less on harmony than contingency, dissonance. Recall that the narrator's memory of his trip has been occasioned (like a street photograph) by accident—he's received the photo unexpectedly in the mail. The still photograph's abstract temporality cannot be separated from the unmediated nature of its violence. Furthermore, if this photograph that generates the story becomes, according to the narrator, “time painted over by an image,” it is also time dissociated from human agency, even knowledge. The picture, we eventually learn, was taken at random; the photographer simply lifted his camera above the panicked crowd and “snapped what he didn't see.” Because the story admits of no one who'd witnessed the congruence of camera flash and subject, the only spectator was a mechanical object. The legibility of Sekula's “implicit text” is thereby jeopardized. The story's terror has been repressed; the man has been shot twice, but the traumatic event has never been observed, nor has it been placed within a recognizable discursive framework.

The photograph's aleatory origin also gestures toward a problematic subjectivity, further complicating the story's intricacy as a constellation. Following film studies, Victor Burgin constructs a theory of the subjectivity generated by the photograph. To him, “the concept of suture” can be applied usefully to photographs, but more important, all photographs necessitate its application. “The primary suturing instance of the discourse of still photography,” he writes, “takes the form of an identification of the subject with the camera position” (188-89). Wideman's text deliberately skews this indispensable mode of subject identification. Owing to the camera's haphazard frame in “What He Saw,” the narrator's subjectivity cannot be easily established in terms of the vision required for suture to occur. The narrator's numerous deferrals, the way he resists making ekphrastic commentary—indeed his urge to narrate in general—suggest that the connection suture provides is less automatic than Burgin believes. “What He Saw” contravenes visual theory by contending that the photograph is an image abruptly excerpted from a temporal continuum, unlike the film which, in reproducing ocular experience, allows the viewer to meld with the camera. Retaining enough of their referents' specifically localized sense of the present, photographs are fragments which counter the historicizing impulse to synthesize past events into a series. That Wideman's photograph has been taken by chance further institutes the story's investigation into historicity. Benjamin's concern for the fragility of the dialectical image is surprisingly close to Wideman's trepidations regarding the story's photograph. Benjamin claims, “The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again” (255). While the photograph in “What He Saw” would seem to secure a durable testimony to the man's suffering, Wideman's story repudiates such amelioration, conferring an allegorical significance to this image, intimating larger historical dilemmas in the process.

Elaborating on Benjamin's “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Eduardo Cadava writes, “the photographic event interrupts the present; it occurs between the present and itself, between the movement of time and itself” (100). If the shooting has taken place in an interstice with no spectators, then history as a human phenomenon, the story suggests, threatens to be similarly unwitnessed. Pointing to history's potential invisibility, Wideman's story ultimately recoils from ekphrastic language and returns to the image, exhibiting what Mitchell calls ekphrastic “counterdesire”—the speaker's “fear of paralysis and muteness in the face of the powerful image” (172). Wideman's narrator does face “paralysis” in front of the visual object, certainly, but in this instance, there is a much more devastating image than the photograph. The image that, in defying representation, so complicates Wideman's story belongs solely to the wounded man: what he saw at that moment in Soweto remains mute, untranslated, retinal. If we approach “What He Saw” as a constellation, it is a constellation that entails blank spaces, nondiscursive elements that risk obviating the textual response to images. Wideman's particular disavowal of ekphrasis would seem to leave its recipient, the reader, in an indeterminate position, but it is this indeterminacy that ensures the reader's contribution to the ekphrastic enterprise.


According to Silverman, aesthetic texts “are capable of implanting in the viewer or reader ‘synthetic’ memories,” memories which “put marginal elements of the cultural screen in contact with what is most meaningful to a viewer or reader” (185). Devising a theory of narrative from photography, John Berger sets up a gestalt that clarifies how such “synthetic” memories might be activated from the ekphrastic text. To Berger, every story involves a “tacit agreement about what is not said, about what connects [a story's implicit] discontinuities”:

The discontinuities of the story and the tacit agreement underlying them fuse teller, listener and protagonist into an amalgam … which I would call the story's reflecting subject. The story narrates on behalf of this subject, appeals to it and speaks in its voice.


If we see Berger's “protagonist” as corresponding to the visual image in an ekphrastic text, then the reader becomes integral in discovering the image's appearance, the dimensions to its literary iconicity. As part of the text's “reflecting subject,” the reader both maintains and abandons identity, participates in a collusion that denies any single player in the ekphrastic process definitive power over the other. Denying an overarching authority, Berger's matrix shows the three elements eliciting fulfillment by each other, though their separate positions depend upon the tensions that exist between them. Each position entails the other two, interpenetrates them; each position speaks across a silence that needs the Other's voice as much as it desires itself to be recognized. Wideman's image of the dying man occupies a dimension that cannot be reached directly through verbal discourse, yet, following Silverman, we are impossibly charged with recalling his memories as if they were our own. While ekphrasis doesn't mitigate the reader's failure to accomplish this task, we can see, by extending Berger's triad, that the mode merges the desire, sorrow, and need for completion manifested from all three components, creating a dynamic in which divisions and discontinuities coalesce within the reflecting subject without abrogating their fundamental differences. Rushdie's Wunderkammer elicits a remembered imaginary museum of our own, though it is already being spoken to, if not narrated by, the political and personal urgencies present in Rushdie's auction. We should note that Berger's choosing photography over other visual arts explicitly inserts temporality into the reflecting subject; the utopian impulses of Barthelme's “The Balloon” are occasioned by culture's unfinished obligation of conjoining the aesthetic with the everyday. In Barthelme's, Rushdie's, and Wideman's stories, the referent appeals to, but disclaims, representation. It is in this spirit that we return to the ekphrastic text again and again, drawn powerfully to what it tries to accomplish, wondering at what it is that we've seen.


  1. Commenting on the relationship between poet, art object, and audience, Mitchell writes: “Ekphrasis is stationed between two ‘othernesses,’ … (1) the conversion of the visual representation into a verbal representation, either by description or ventriloquism; (2) the reconversion of the verbal representation back into the visual object in the reception of the reader” (164).

  2. The notion of the autonomous work is an aggregate of concepts derived from various sources, traditions, and disciplines, not simply an expression of a single, unified credo. John Ashbery's description of Joseph Cornell's magic boxes (artifacts that Barthelme greatly admired) comes closest, I think, to Barthelme's own aesthetic epistemology: “Each of his works is an autonomous visual experience, with its own natural law and its climate: the thing in its thingness; revealed, not commented on; and with its ambience intact” (16).

  3. Part of this moment would seem to be Fried's essay. While Barthelme obviously rejected Fried's attack on minimalist sculpture, “Art and Objecthood” appears to have been incorporated critically in “The Balloon” and other stories. Fried's citing Tony Smith's responses to a questionnaire, closely followed by a discussion of Smith's The Black Box, prefigures Barthelme's later story “The Explanation,” for instance.

  4. Fried relates an epiphany Smith experienced as he drove on an unfinished section of the New Jersey Turnpike in the early 1950s. I will discuss the concept of the monad in greater detail in my third section, but because this incident is useful to Gilles Deleuze in his study on Leibniz, a citation is helpful: “It was a dark night and there were no lights or shoulder markers, lines, railings, or anything at all except the dark pavement moving through the landscape of the flats, … punctuated by stacks, towers, fumes, and colored lights. This drive was a revealing experience. The road and much of the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn't be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art had never done. … It seemed that there had been a reality there that had not any expression in art” (130-31). While Fried objects to Smith's “hostility to the arts” (135) and his intimating that one has to repeat this kind of experience in respect to the “situations” created in his sculpture, Deleuze finds the anecdote to be a “properly Leibnizian position” (160n4). With its many folds and contours, Deleuze would find “The Balloon” to be an instance of the baroque.

  5. Mitchell cites personal correspondence with Joshua Scodel, who remarks of Greek pastoral conventions, “ekphrastic objects are normally treated as compensatory substitutes for the unfulfilled desire for a female Other” (165).

  6. My use of archaic diction in the first part of this sentence is meant to invoke Barthelme's mesmerization with nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century images of modernity. His “cut-and-paste” picture stories are almost without exception illustrated with figures and technology derived from this period. The penchant for this type of “Victoriana,” also shared by The Beatles and Monty Python's Flying Circus, reflects the sixties predilection for surrealism, a movement fond of juxtaposing bric-a-brac with images of the “modern” machine.

  7. Freud argues that screen memories may be contemporary, retrogressive, or “displaced forward” (44). A contemporary screen memory involves an image whose displaced content is linked through chronological contiguity; retroactive images replace the memory of an earlier event, and in those screen memories which move forward, an image from the past disguises a more recent event.

  8. Douglas Crimp criticizes Malraux's desire to grant cohesion to his museum without walls, arguing, “the history of museology is the history of all the various attempts to deny the heterogeneity of the museum, to reduce it to a homogeneous system or series” (49). Crimp's belief that museums anchor artifacts to an underlying narrative, often ideological in purpose, is accurate, but this critique is dependent upon the notion that heterogeneity can actually be recognized. To perceive that objects, assembled from miscellaneous periods and locales, maintain heterogeneity, one must engage a hermeneutic awareness that relies to a large extent on universal history.

  9. Rushdie frequently uses ekphrasis. Shame contains the most apparent instance of classical ekphrasis, with the wife of a dictator embroidering shawls that depict her husband's crimes, a history that is rendered into language by the narrator. The Moor's Last Sigh continues the ekphrastic project, with Aurora da Gama-Zogoiby's succession of paintings of her son—spanning the realist, modernist, and postmodern movements—forming a sequential narrative of contemporary Indian history.

  10. Although the fascist attack on Guernica is now considered to be a historical fact, its occurrence was denied by Franco supporters for decades. Even as late as 1969, the British journalist Brian Crozier could write, “Picasso's masterpiece probably celebrated a nonevent” (qtd. in Southworth 261).

  11. Believing “punishment [to be] a very explicit system of communications” (91), Renato Martínez writes, “Torture uses the body as morphological pieces which the syntax of repression puts in its most horrible discursive reality” (86).

  12. Lawrence Grossberg maintains that late-twentieth-century youth culture critically acquiesces to the spectacle, owing to its ability to “appropriate any text”: “Being an object or a commodity becomes a way of resisting the demand to reaffirm constantly one's subjectivity (i.e., recent slogans like ‘Born to Buy’ and ‘When the going gets tough, the tough take a vacation’)” (140). As someone who was part of this youth culture, I believe that maintaining this attitude is naive; however, Grossberg astutely perceives the candid nihilism present in much of youth culture in the 1980s: “History—both past and future—is neither rejected nor challenged; it has simply become irrelevant, an unfortunate but inevitable entanglement with the ‘cultural debris’ of others' lives” (135).

  13. James Collins (and many others) would disagree with Eagleton, arguing that the “bombardment of signs” exhibited by either popular or high culture “has produced, by no preconceived design whatsoever, a subject that is engaged in the process of being interpellated while simultaneously arranging those messages, the curator of a private musée imaginaire” (25). Collins's welcome argument against Baudrillardean paranoia corresponds to that of Mimi Mamoulian, a character in Satanic Verses who does voices for commercials: “I have read Finnegans Wake and am conversant with postmodernist critiques of the West, e.g. that we have here a society capable only of pastiche: a ‘flattened’ world. When I become the voice of a bottle of bubble bath, I am entering Flatland knowingly, understanding what I'm doing and why. Viz, I am earning cash” (261). This optimism, however, depends upon the subject recognizing that a disparity exists between Guernica the fashion accessory and Guernica the commemoration of the 1937 massacre. Rushdie sets his story in an indistinct time because he is imagining a situation when Picasso's painting is severed completely from its historical referent. In this, Rushdie follows Malraux's lead, whose seminal metaphor points to the way technology has altered our experience of the visual arts. The greater availability of art owing to technology allows for a more concise familiarity with visual arts culture, but this wider recognition denudes works of their formal integrity and original context, creating what Malraux calls “‘fictitious’ arts” (24). Published in 1953, Malraux's study couldn't have foreseen the changes that would occur when companies embellished their products with images pilfered from “high” art. To encounter one of Piet Mondrian's ascetic compositions decorating a bottle of shampoo, for example, is to recognize that an enormous shift has taken place in our culture's attitude toward the art object—the circumstances of its background, the conditions of its reception, the expanded locale of its domain as image.

  14. Let me offer an instance of this layering process. According to Paul Nathanson, the original viewers of The Wizard of Oz in 1939 “must have recognized” that the Evil Witch's “squadron of winged monkeys resemble[d] the squadrons of dive-bombers sent by Hitler to Spain” (261-62). We can thus see Guernica's bombing becoming a sign (a kind of forgetting in itself) denoting evil that turns into Hollywood myth. The point is not so much that this topical reference presumably goes unnoticed by today's audience, but that the original viewers had to have repressed the terrible violence of the reference to enjoy the film. This repression has in turn become effaced for today's audience. It is perhaps fitting that Rushdie himself misses this particular connection between the movie and Guernica (at least on a conscious level), writing in his study of the film that the winged monkeys “remain ciphers throughout” (Wizard 55).

  15. In some ways, this situation has already occurred. Daniel Pearl reports that the Anne Frank house recently “shamed a Spanish company into dropping plans for Anne Frank jeans” (C16).

  16. That the televisual is instrumental in Rushdie's dystopia is readily apparent. Richard Dienst's remarks concerning televised news clarify Rushdie's treatment of the spectacle's dispersal of images: this “mode of presentation can perhaps best be grasped as the inverse of the theoretical language called ‘overdetermination’: instead of combining and multiplying relations between images, television news disconnects and abandons them” (164).

  17. Margaret Anne Doody contends that representations of eating contravene ekphrastic abstraction: “Food, though itself entering a work of rhetoric necessarily always as image, has the job of standing up for being (das Sein) against spectacle or sight (der Anblick)” (431). From Doody's perspective, the tramps, who devour the hors d'oeuvres, would need to be evicted from the auction because they represent the carnal.

  18. Showing fleeing refugees, The Tragedy of Spain: A Mother and Her Children Set Out on Foot (Picture Post 4 Feb. 1939) carries a caption that reads in part, “One little girl carries her doll” (rpt. in Brothers 146).

  19. In Camera Lucida, Barthes distinguishes between the studium and the punctum. Photographs manifest an incommensurate hermeneutic, according to Barthes, since they intimate both a studium—a culturally encoded semiotic—and a punctum, that accidental “‘detail’” whose “texture” allows the viewer to “perceive the referent” (45).

  20. Kim believes that the desire to take photographs has a positive political dimension. Responding to an interviewer's question about feeling frightened when shooting pictures during outbreaks of violence, she says: “You're just thinking, one, you need to survive; two there's a possible picture here. And you don't think of a motive. I know a lot of people believe that what photojournalists do in places like Somalia is exploitive. … But think about it: the world paid attention to the famine because of the photographs” (Crager 44).

  21. This paragraph is indebted to Caroline Brothers's clear discussion of the photograph as a “constant dialogue between image and society” (23).

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Wideman, John Edgar (Contemporary Literary Criticism)