John Edgar Wideman

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Discussion Topics

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How do familial and cross-generational relationships provide a counterforce to the impacts of racism on the minds and souls of John Edgar Wideman’s protagonists? How redemptive do they prove to be, and why?

Wideman evokes Northern inner-city landscapes and the existential struggles faced by their inhabitants. What driving forces shape the characters’ lives and choices? What personal struggles do they undergo? How does Wideman fuse the personal and sociological as factors in the conditions of their lives?

In what ways does Wideman illuminate the relationships between and among African American men—as fathers and sons, siblings, team members, musicians, and homeboys? What defines these varied bonds, and what threatens or even dissolves them? What stance does he seem to take on the argument concerning the crisis of fatherlessness in the African American community? How does orphanhood emerge as a recurrent trope in his writing, and why is this such a loaded concept within African American history?

For Wideman, the ties between mother and son keep young African American males functioning in a hostile world. Where does that pattern emerge among his characters? Where does it break down?

The sexual and emotional dynamics between men and women engage Wideman’s imaginative scrutiny. What obstacles stand between them? What role does race play in their capacity for partnership?

Montage represents one of Wideman’s signature literary techniques. How does it work to bring different historical frameworks or narrative threads together in specific works? He uses it in both his fiction and nonfiction?

In Brothers and Keepers, prison serves as an arena of personal existential struggle for Rob Wideman. How much does John attempt to stay true to that struggle and avoid easy platitudes about his brother’s situation? In Philadelphia Fire and Fatheralong, how have his meditations on prison deepened, given his son Jake’s incarceration?

How does Philadelphia emerge as a quintessential landscape for Wideman of the American Dream and its betrayal, both in terms of the ideals of the republic born there and in relation to the African American experience particularly?

Wideman invites consideration of the parallels between the racist persecutions of Jews and Africans across the globe and over the course of history. What does that analogy suggest about the nature of racism itself and its various manifestations?

Other Literary Forms

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John Edgar Wideman’s career began officially in 1967 with the appearance of his first novel, A Glance Away. Since this first publication, he has repeatedly returned to the novelistic form in works such as Hurry Home (1970); The Lynchers (1973); Hiding Place (1981), intended as the middle volume of the Homewood Trilogy; Sent for You Yesterday (1983), the final volume in the trilogy; Reuben (1987); Philadelphia Fire (1990); The Cattle Killing (1996); and Two Cities (1998). In addition, Wideman has written works of autobiographical nonfiction, Brothers and Keepers (1984), in which he compares his own life to that of his troubled younger brother, serving a lifetime jail sentence, and Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race, and Society (1994). Wideman has also written regularly on African American topics for The New York Times Book Review and has published scholarly work on African American predecessors such as Charles Waddell Chesnutt and W. E. B. Du Bois.

Achievements

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John Edgar Wideman has distinguished himself both as a strong contemporary voice within the African American literary tradition and as a serious scholar examining the legacy of his predecessors in that tradition. His early fictional technique reflects his aesthetic debt to Anglo-American narrative experimentation, ranging from the originators of the English novel in the eighteenth century to the great modernists of the twentieth century; racial concerns, while evident, did not predominate in his first...

(This entire section contains 259 words.)

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works. With the 1980’s, however, Wideman deliberately began exploring African American literary forms in accordance with his growing desire to reengage his own racial identity and reach out more directly to an African American readership. Accordingly, he published the three works that constitute the Homewood Trilogy as trade paperbacks rather than in initial hardcover, so as to increase their accessibility. The trilogy’s third volume,Sent for You Yesterday, received the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for its innovative fusion of subject matter and novelistic technique. The traumatic experience of a brother’s crime and punishment, which was an important source for the 1983 novel, also prompted the nonfictional Brothers and Keepers, in which Wideman’s quest for forms adequate to the polyphonic character of the African American experience takes on great personal urgency; the autobiography was nominated for the National Book Award. Wideman has also been awarded the John Dos Passos Award, the Lannan Literary Award, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (“genius”) Award, the Rea Award, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. He edited The Best American Short Stories 1996.

Other literary forms

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An intensely lyrical novelist, John Edgar Wideman has also published numerous short stories based on family members, friends, and neighbors from his childhood community of Homewood, a long-standing all-black subdivision of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Twelve of these pieces are presented as letters in his critically acclaimed collection Damballah (1981), which has also been published with two of his novels as The Homewood Trilogy. Wideman’s autobiographical Brothers and Keepers (1984) blends facts with fictionalized characters and incidents as the author scrutinizes his own relationship to his brother, Robert Wideman, imprisoned for life in Pennsylvania’s Western State Penitentiary. Fever (1989), a collection of twelve stories, combines themes of family and community with those of displacement, estrangement, and cultural loss. Uncollected poetry, reviews, and essays on black American literature by Wideman abound in the foremost scholarly journals and literary digests.

Achievements

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When he emerged upon the literary scene in the late 1960’s, John Edgar Wideman stood out from his peers as a black American writer who did not address exclusively themes of racial conflict and militant nationalism. He concentrated instead on individual psychological struggles that transcend color lines. His earliest novels having been enthusiastically received; he was lauded as a successor to William Faulkner.

After being asked to teach African American literature and essentially having to “teach himself” the field, Wideman began to centralize racial themes overtly in his writing, most radically with the publication of The Lynchers, which begins with a chronology of more than one hundred historically documented lynchings. His primary critical acclaim, however, came with the publications of the Homewood series, engendered by the death of his grandmother, Freeda French, in 1973. Sent for You Yesterday, the final work of the Homewood Trilogy, received the 1984 Faulkner Award for Fiction from PEN, the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists. Wideman was the first author ever to receive two PEN/Faulkner Awards; he was honored with the second for Philadelphia Fire. In addition, he was awarded the Lannan Literary Fellowship for Fiction in 1991 and a MacArthur Foundation Award (a “genius grant”) in 1993.

In spite of favorable reviews of his fiction, some critics have accused Wideman of indulging in an unconventional style at the expense of theme. More often than not, however, his experimentation extends meaning by illustrating the impact of the past in addition to the inextricable bonds among generations. His autobiographical Brothers and Keepers, which displays some of his innovative techniques, earned a National Book Critics Circle Award nomination. In 1998, Wideman won the prestigious Rea Award, sponsored by the Dungannon Foundation and established to honor a short-story author “for literary power, originality, and influence on the genre.” Wideman’s critical accolades have been profuse, but it is his range of style, continual formalistic innovation, and his powerful prose that warrant his consideration as one of the best American writers of his generation.

Bibliography

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Auger, Philip. Native Sons in No Man’s Land: Rewriting Afro-American Manhood in the Novels of Baldwin, Walker, Wideman, and Gaines. New York: Garland, 2000. Analyzes the representation of masculinity in Wideman’s works.

Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. Bell provides a short but incisive overview of Wideman’s evolving concerns as an African American as well as a postmodernist innovator. He also notes Wideman’s evocative uses of history as an imaginative paradigm and identifies as his major theme “the conflict between [his protagonists’] ascribed and achieved identities as black men.”

Bennion, John. “The Shape of Memory in John Edgar Wideman’s Sent for You Yesterday.” Black American Literature Forum 20 (1985): 143-150. While the sole analytic emphasis of this essay is the novel that closes the Homewood Trilogy, it nevertheless offers a useful introduction to major themes in Wideman’s fiction.

Berben, Jacqueline. “Beyond Discourse: The Unspoken Versus Words in the Fiction of John Edgar Wideman.” Callaloo 8 (1985): 525-534. Although this essay is primarily a study of the novel Hiding Place, the second volume in the Homewood Trilogy, Berben also discusses the mythic character of Homewood as it unfolds in Damballah. Berben’s argument that Wideman regularly evaluates his characters according to their ability to deal with truth and break free from self-delusion offers useful insight into all Wideman’s writing.

Byerman, Keith Eldon. John Edgar Wideman: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1998. A critical look at Wideman’s short fiction, including interview material. Includes a bibliography and an index.

Coleman, James W. Blackness and Modernism: The Literary Career of John Edgar Wideman. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990. Coleman regards the personal pattern of Wideman’s alienation from and return to Homewood as reiterated in his aesthetic movement “from an uncritical acceptance of the forms and themes of mainstream modernism to a black voicing of modernism and postmodernism that is consistent with Afro-American perspectives.” The book deals with all Wideman’s work through 1989, includes a later interview with him, and appends a brief bibliography of critical sources.

Coleman, James W. “Going Back Home: The Literary Development of John Edgar Wideman.” CLA Journal 27 (March, 1985): 326-343. Coleman considers how Wideman transforms his childhood neighborhood into myth that unifies and directs The Homewood Trilogy. Once they can connect to their ancestors’ lives, alienated and isolated characters in the books can revitalize themselves and rejoin their communities. Important is Wideman’s use of gospel music, scat songs, dreams, oral stories, blues, the numbers game, street vernacular, and other aspects of black American folk culture.

Dubey, Madhu. “Literature and Urban Crisis: John Edgar Wideman’s Philadelphia Fire.” African American Review 32 (Winter, 1998): 579-595. Dubey examines Philadelphia Fire in relation to its implicit critique of urban renewal and its attenuating glorification of consumption and excess, legitimation of law and order, and the resulting dispossession, displacement, and segregation of the city’s inhabitants.

Gysin, Fritz. “John Edgar Wideman: ‘Fever.’” In The African-American Short Story: 1970 to 1990, edited by Wolfgang Karrer and Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz. Trier, Germany: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 1993. A detailed discussion of the title story of Wideman’s 1989 collection. Provides historical background for the 1793 Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic and the part African American citizens played in fighting the epidemic. Analyzes the collage structure of the story and Wideman’s use of formal narrative devices of compression, repetition, and telescoping of experiences.

Mbalia, Doreatha D. John Edgar Wideman: Reclaiming the African Personality. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 1995. Discusses, among other topics, Wideman’s narrative technique. Includes a bibliography and an index.

O’Brien, John, ed. Interviews with Black Writers. New York: Liveright, 1973. In this early interview, Wideman sets forth his interest in aesthetic experimentation at the expense of fictional realism, his penchant for fabulation, and the relationship between his racial subjects and his artistic choices in rendering them.

Rushdy, Ashraf. “Fraternal Blues: John Edgar Wideman’s Homewood Trilogy.” Contemporary Literature 32, no. 3 (Fall, 1991): 312-345. Rushdy begins by suggesting that the narrator of the trilogy utilizes three modes of narrating which are depicted in the three texts, respectively: letters, stories, and “the blues.” He argues that the narrative voice gains an understanding of self when it finds a “blues voice.”

Samuels, Wilfred D. “Going Home: A Conversation with John Edgar Wideman.” Callaloo 6 (1983): 40-59. Samuels asks Wideman to discuss his movement from a Eurocentric literary aesthetic to one grounded in African American culture, language, and art forms. Central to that shift has been his imaginative “return to Homewood” and his increasing preoccupation with the emotional complexity of growing up black and male in the United States.

TuSmith, Bonnie, ed. Conversations with John Edgar Wideman. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998. Includes nineteen interviews with Wideman, from 1963 to 1997; covers a wide range of topics about the sources of Wideman’s fiction, his perspectives on race in America, his philosophic thought, and his writing technique.

Wideman, John Edgar. Hoop Roots. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. Wideman’s reflection on his enduring relationship to the game of basketball. Basketball frequently appears in the author’s fiction and has played a pivotal role in Wideman’s personal life. Still playing at nearly sixty, Wideman uses the game to explore issues of aging, love, race, and even music.

Wideman, John Edgar. “John Edgar Wideman.” In Conversations with American Novelists, edited by Kay Bonetti, Greg Michaelson, Speer Morgan, Jo Sapp, and Sam Stowers. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997. In this interview by Kay Bonetti, Wideman discusses the oral tales told to him by his aunt, which he developed into the stories in the Homewood Trilogy. Talks about the politics of writing in America, the risks writers have to take to write truthfully about themselves and those they love, and his fiction’s concern with brotherhood and sisterhood.

Wilson, Matthew. “The Circles of History in John Edgar Wideman’s The Homewood Trilogy.” CLA Journal 33 (March, 1990): 239-259. Examines interconnections among individual family histories, events from American enslavement, and the histories of the Fon and Kongo cultures. A central theme of the trilogy is that black Americans resist annihilation and vanquish the oppressive acts of whites by telling their own stories and exposing their authentic histories.

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