Sent for You Yesterday
Without fanfare, novelist John Edgar Wideman has been building an impressive body of work. With his fourth novel, Hiding Place (1981), and its companion volume, Damballah (1981), a collection of linked short stories, both of which were published as paperback originals, Wideman began to construct the history of Homewood, the black community in Pittsburgh where he was reared. In Sent for You Yesterday (the title alludes to a Jimmy Rushing blues), also published as a paperback original, Wideman continues to make Homewood and its people palpable to his readers. Sent for You Yesterday was awarded the P.E.N. Faulkner Fiction Award in 1984, and both it and its predecessors in the Homewood cycle have been reissued in clothbound editions by Allison and Busby.
It is particularly appropriate that Wideman, a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University and a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, should receive the P.E.N. Faulkner Fiction Award as the first substantial recognition of his fiction. While Homewood, unlike Yoknapatawpha, is a real place, Wideman’s re-creation of this community over a period of generations clearly owes a debt to William Faulkner’s great cycle of novels and stories. Told through the lyrical, interwoven voices of multiple narrators, each of whom adds essential elements to the developing portrait of a culture in decline, Sent for You Yesterday obviously bears comparison to Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936), but at no point does it slip into mere imitation. Rather, Wideman utilizes Faulknerian methods, including a young narrator who—like Quentin Compson of Absalom, Absalom!—is trying to recover his own history before it is lost forever. The history of Homewood exists only in oral narratives about those now dead, almost legendary figures whose lives made the community special, and their stories—filtered through the memories of the survivors—are inextricably entangled in a seamless web of generations. As one character says, “Old cream-of-wheat Brother. I know I’m supposed to be telling you his story. But how Ima tell his without telling mine. And Lucy’s.” Reality itself, in Wideman’s Homewood, is finally less a matter of physical existence than of the sound and rhythms of the tales told. As the narrator says of himself, “I was born about six months before that evening in 1941. So already I was inside the weave of voices, a thought, an idea, a way things might be seen and be said.” As the individual histories weave their spell, they dramatize a world of “circles and circles and circles inside circles,” where past and present are like “a circle going round and round so you getting closer while you getting further away and further while you getting closer.”
Four generations are represented in the novel, each with its own story and meaning. The old ones, the Tates, are a childless couple whose destiny is to raise the children of others, including three of the principal characters whom the reader encounters in the story. Albert Wilkes and John French reached their maturity when Homewood was yet a vital and creative community made exceptional by men and women who were “solid.” “Homewood wasn’t bricks and boards,” Lucy Tate says, “Homewood was them singing and loving and getting where they needed to get. They made these streets.” Brother Tate was “one of them,” but his adopted sibling, Lucy, and his best friend, Carl French, are another generation, the “middle people” between the “real people” and the most recent generation, represented by Doot, who is the central consciousness of the novel.
The key episode in Sent for You Yesterday to which all the narrators return is the killing of Albert Wilkes by a white policeman when he returns to Homewood after an exile of seven years. Forced to flee when he killed a policeman, Albert has discovered that life beyond Homewood is sterile and empty, so he returns to the scene of his crime. As Carl’s mother says:It’s God’s will. Bring him back home so he can die in peace. Albert Wilkes a doomed man. Once another human being’s blood on your hands, ain’t nothing you can do but go in circles till you come back where you shed it. What goes round, comes round.
His head literally exploded by a policeman’s bullet, Albert Wilkes can hardly be said to have died peacefully, but there is an inevitability about his death that makes the reader feel that Albert did indeed come home to die. Wilkes’s killing becomes a recurrent motif binding narratives together, as little by little they reveal the meaning of his death.
The reason for Wilkes’s death is a little obscure, and the question of...
(The entire section is 1941 words.)