Wideman, John Edgar 1941–

views updated May 29 2018

John Edgar Wideman 1941

Writer, educator

At a Glance

Life as a Symbol

The Evolution of an Artist

A Brother, a Son: Two Tragedies

Selected writings


John Edgar Wideman is one of the leading chroniclers of life in urban black America. An author who intertwines ghetto experiences with experimental fiction techniques, personal history with social events, Wideman is the only artist who has won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for literature twice. His provocative works depict the widening chasm between the urban poor and the white power structure in the United States, as well as the deep cultural conflicts engendered in African Americans who succeed in penetrating that power structure. Washington Post Book World reviewer Jonathan Yardley noted that Wideman makes clear in his books that moving out of the ghetto into the white world is a process that requires excruciating compromises, sacrifices and denials, that leaves the person who makes the journey truly at home in neither the world he has entered nor the world he has left.

Wideman is a prolific writer who has been publishing books since he was twenty-six. His body of work includes novels, short story collections, and nonfiction. Much of his fiction explores events and personalities from the Homewood section of Pittsburgh, the all-black neighborhood where he grew up. His stories reveal several generations of Homewood residents, including those who have left the area in triumph or tragedy. Indeed, suggests Wideman, the triumph of leaving home is hollow unless one retains the spirit and the culture of the community left behind. For Wideman, an Oxford-trained scholar, that process of absorbing a community and relating its history artistically has provided grist for complex revelations on family relationships, isolation, and the search for self.

Wideman told the Washington Post: My novels and the essays attempt to exploit the inherent tension between what is fictional and what is factual, and to illuminate how unsteady and unpredictable the relationship is. Im trying to remind people of what Ralph Ellison [famed black author best known for his novel Invisible Man] said about the uncertainties that lie within your certainties. This tension between fiction and fact is a hallmark of Widemans writing. It has helped him to address his own personal tragedies, including the life-term prison sentences of his son and his brother. In interviews the author says little about his brother, Robby, who is serving time in Pennsylvania as an accessory to murder, or about his son Jacob, convicted in 1988 in the stabbing death of another teenager. The dual tragedies loom large in Widemans art, however, as he seeks to understand lifes bitter twists of fate. Im not putting up my life as material to explain anything to anyone, the author told the Washington

At a Glance

Born June 14, 1941, In Washington, DC; son of Edgar and Betty (French) Wideman; married Judith Ann Goldman, 1965; children: Daniel Jerome, Jacob Edgar, Jamila Ann. Education: University of Pennsylvania, B.A., 1963; New College, Oxford, B. Phil., 1966.

Writer, 1966; professor of English and creative writing, 1967. University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1966-74, began as instructor, became professor of English, 1974, director of Afro-American studies program, 1972-73; University of Wyoming, Laramie, professor of English, 1974-86; University of Massachusetts at Amherst, professor of English, 1986. Visiting professor and lecturer at numerous colleges and universities; National Humanities Faculty consultant; member of Agenda for Black Power panel sponsored by Knopf Publishing Group, February 1993; guest on Frontline, LA. Is Burning, broadcast on PBS-TV, April 1993, examining the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

Selected awards: Rhodes Scholar, Oxford University, 1963; Kent fellow, University of Iowa, 1966; Young Humanist fellow, 1975; PEN/Faulkner awards for fiction, 1984, for Sent for You Yesterday, and 1991, for Philadelphia Fire; John Dos Passos Prize for Literature from Longwood College, 1986; honorary degree from University of Pennsylvania, 1986.

Addresses: OfficeDepartment of English, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Amherst, MA 01003.

Post. Ill put it this way. Its a formulation. My life is a closed book. My fiction is an open book. They may seem like the same bookbut I know the difference.

Life as a Symbol

Wideman, the oldest of five children, was born in Washington, D.C. in 1941. When he was not yet a year old, his family moved to Pittsburgh, where his great-great-great grandmother, a fugitive slave, had settled in the mid-nineteenth century. Widemans father, Edgar, worked hard at several jobs simultaneously but was unable to provide economic security for the growing family. As Chip Brown noted in Esquire magazine, Edgar earned a living as a paperhanger, a welder, a waiter in the cafeteria at Kauffmans department store; for all his doubling up on jobs, he was never able to break the barriers of class and race and economics, and his ambition to be a dentist fell by the wayside. His own perilous fortunes notwithstanding, Edgar Wideman encouraged his children to pursue excellence in everything they did. John became an honor student and an athlete, with dreams of playing professional basketball.

John Widemans youth was spent in the Homewood district of Pittsburgh, a neighborhood that included many members of his extended family. From a young age he delivered newspapers on upper class Negley Avenue, a lily white region where he felt like an intruder, according to a Wideman essay in the New York Times Book Review. If he was an intruder, he was determined to make his presence known. During his high school years, his family moved to a suburb called Shadyside so he could attend highly ranked Peabody High School. There he earned top grades and became class president and captain of the basketball team. He graduated first in his class in 1959.

When my family moved to Shadyside so I could attend better schools and we were one of only three or four black families in the neighborhood, I learned to laugh with the white guys when we hid in a stairwell outside Liberty School gym and passed around a nigarette, Wideman recalled in the New York Times Book Review. I hated it when a buddy took a greedy, wet puff, nigger-lipping a butt before he passed it on to me. Speaking out, identifying myself with the group being slurred by these expressions, was impossible. I had neither the words nor the heart. I talked the talk and walked the walk of the rest of my companions.

Wideman continued his conformist ways at the University of Pennsylvania, which he attended on scholarship from 1959 until 1963. One of only six black students at the Ivy League college, he became well-known for his basketball skill and for his exposition talents. Washington Post correspondent Paul Hendrickson pointed out that, as a Penn basketball star, Wideman made All-Ivy, he made Big Five Basketball Hall of Fame. He was among the last of the great 6-foot-2 forwards, before forwards became 7-footersa leaper who could mix it up underneath and take rebounds off players three and four inches bigger than he was. Wideman excelled off-court as well, winning the universitys creative writing prize and being elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

During his senior year at Penn, Wideman applied for and won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University. He was the first African American in more than a half-century to earn the important academic award. National recognition came from Look magazine, where a profile of Wideman ran in 1963. A professor quoted in the article warned that Wideman would have to be careful, that now he was a symbol. Many times over the ensuing years, John Edgar Wideman would ask himself just what it was he symbolized.

The Evolution of an Artist

In his 1984 memoir Brothers and Keepers, Wideman wrote of his student days: Just two choices as far as I could tell: either/or. Rich or poor. White or black. Win or lose. I figured which side I wanted to be on when the Saints came marching in. . . . To succeed in the white mans world you must become like the man and the man sure didnt claim no bunch of nigger relatives in Pittsburgh. As his familys circumstances forced them back into Homewood, Wideman persevered at Oxford. He studied English literature and philosophy and wrote a thesis on eighteenth-century narrative techniques. In 1966 he returned to America for a years fellowship study at the Iowa Writers Workshop, the nations best-known proving ground for would-be novelists. He also married Judith Goldman, a fellow Penn graduate.

While still in his twenties Wideman began publishing fiction. His first novel, A Glance Away, appeared in 1967, followed by Hurry Home in 1970 and The Lynchers in 1973. All three books deal with black protagonists who are confused and controlled by their pasts, and who are, at the very least, highly ambivalent about white society. As early as Hurry Home Wideman began to explore the importance of cultural history to self-awareness and the role that family ties and friendships serve in promoting peace of mind.

Throughout the period when his first three novels appeared, Wideman was teaching literature at the University of Pennsylvania. There he was asked to present a course on black writing, and he delved deeply into black literature for the first time. The experience was enlighteninga catalyst to his own workand eventually the course became the nucleus of the universitys Afro-American studies program, which Wideman chaired in 1972 and 1973. Another catalyst to Widemans work was the death of his grandmother, back in Homewood, in 1973. After the funeral, Wideman and his family reminisced about the history of the family in Homewood, going back many generations, almost to the founding of the neighborhood. From that conversation and others remembered from his childhood, Wideman fashioned his best-known work to date.

Wideman wrote most of his books and stories about Homewood while living in the prairie town of Laramie, Wyoming. He accepted a teaching position at the university there in late 1974. It was hard to admit to myself that Id just begun learning how to write, he commented in the Atlanta Constitution. I realized that the core of the language and culture that nurtured me had hardly been touched by my writing. A creative explosion occurred while he was in Laramie, and by the mid-1980s Wideman had released Damballah, Hiding Place, and Sent for You Yesterday, a series of interrelated stories and novels now known as the Homewood Trilogy. Ranging from the nineteenth century to the present, the Homewood Trilogy explores the various lives of descendants of Sybela Owens, a slave who ran North to Pittsburgh with her white husband.

Enthusiastic reviews followed the publication of each of the Homewood Trilogy installments. Mr. Wideman has used a narrative laced with myth, superstition and dream sequences to create an elaborate poetic portrait of the lives of ordinary black people, wrote Mel Watkins in the New York Times Book Review. He has written tales that can stand on their own, but that assume much greater impact collectively. The individual parts, or stories, as disparate as they may initially seem, form a vivid and coherent montage of black life over a period of five generations. These books once again demonstrate that John Wideman is one of Americas premier writers of fiction. In the American Book Review, Wilfred D. Samuels concluded: By going home to Homewood, Wideman has found a voice for his work and consequently a means of celebrating Afro-American culture and further validating the Afro-American experience in literature.

Sent for You Yesterday, the third part of the Homewood Trilogy, was awarded the PEN/Faulkner fiction prize in 1984. The work is yet another Wideman treatment on the themes of creativity, imagination, and cultural bonds as means to transcend despair and socially-sanctioned economic discrimination.

A Brother, a Son: Two Tragedies

The novel Hiding Place deals with a young boy on the run from a petty robbery that turned deadly. The situation is very similar to the circumstances surrounding the incarceration of Robby Wideman. Robby, the authors younger brother, was sentenced in 1976 to life in prison for his part in a larceny/murder case. Wideman sought to understand his brothers plight, publishing Brothers and Keepers, in 1984. The book, Widemans only major nonfiction piece to date, attempts to address the difficult questions of success and failure on white societys terms as well as the sense of guilt Wideman felt about his brothers fate. Nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Brothers and Keepers brought Wideman national notoriety. He was profiled on 60 Minutes and became a sought-after essayist and commentator on the particular dilemmas faced by black artists.

Tragedy struck again in 1986. Widemans second son, Jacob, fatally stabbed a fellow camper during an outing in Arizona. Both boys were sixteen. Facing the death penalty, Jacob Wideman agreed to plead guilty and was sentenced to life in prison. John Wideman has steadfastly refused to comment on the case in interviews. I dont like to talk about it, he said. On the advice of lawyers, I dont talk about it. Ive had all kinds of unpleasant experiences because, of course, the journalists smell the blood and feel it is their responsibility to go after it. I dont talk about it. Not surprisingly, however, the theme of an incarcerated or missing son has permeated Widemans fiction since the tragic events in 1986.

Wideman won his second PEN/Faulkner Award for the controversial novel Philadelphia Fire, an angry extrapolation on the 1985 bombing of a black religious cults Philadelphia headquarters. The actual bombing, ordered by W. Wilson Goode, then mayor of Philadelphia, killed a dozen people and incinerated several blocks of low-income housing. The incident occurred on Osage Avenue, where Wideman had lived while teaching at Penn. The author told the Washington Post that he wanted to pry the event loose from that collective amnesia thats settled on it. I want people to re-imagine it, rethink this goddam fire. Widemans imaginative re-telling of the fire includes direct references to Jacob in prison and an oblique, unfulfilled search for a child seen running from the blaze. A Washington Post reviewer called the book 199 pages of conflagration, a lyric and confusing and riveting and ragged work of fiction that does and does not concern the 1985 disaster, in which a bomb from a state police helicopter was dropped on a back-to-nature cult. In the Bloomsbury Review, Mark Hummel concluded of Philadelphia Fire: Despite the tough questions and the deep-rooted pain, the novel is about survival. While hope is distant, Wideman asks us to hold on. And while his own words seemto himheavy, even cumbersome, all he has left, they bring meaning to events apparently beyond meaning.

Currently a professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Wideman at mid-life has wrestled with more dilemmasartistic, personal, and socialthan most people encounter in a lifetime. Hendrickson wrote: You keep wondering how he can even function in this unspoken, surreal, Kafka walking dream, let alone get the garbage out on Tuesdays and compose beautiful sentences. In fact, Widemans prolific career has continued in recent years with two new story collections and a number of essays for mainstream periodicals like Esquire. His pieces in the 1990s offer a pessimistic view of race relations and a warning that the widening gap between white society and the minority underclass may result in serious social disruption. In an interview with the Washington Post the author said he hopes to wage a little war against. . . a little war to beat back the direction the culture is going.

Concerning his fiction writing, Wideman concluded in the New York Times Book Review: When I write I want to show how simple acts, simple words can be transformed to release their spiritual force. This is less a conscious esthetic to be argued or analyzed than a determination to draw from the unique voices of Homewoods people the means for documenting the reality of their attitudes and emotions. I want to trace the comings and goings of my people on the invisible plane of existence where so much of the substance of black life resides.

Selected writings

A Glance Away (novel), Harcourt, 1967, reprinted, H. Holt, 1985.

Hurry Home (novel), Harcourt, 1970, reprinted, H. Holt, 1986.

The Lynchers (novel), Harcourt, 1973.

Damballah (short stories), Avon, 1981.

Hiding Place (novel), Avon, 1981.

Sent for You Yesterday (novel), Avon, 1983.

Brothers and Keepers (nonfiction), H. Holt, 1984.

The Homewood Trilogy (includes Damballah, Hiding Place, and Sent for You Yesterday), Avon, 1985.

Reuben (novel), H. Holt, 1987.

Fever (short stories), H. Holt, 1989.

Philadelphia Fire (novel), H. Holt, 1990.

The Stories of John Edgar Wideman, Pantheon, 1992. (With others) Malcolm X: In Our Own Image (essays), edited by Joe Wood, St. Martins, 1992.



Bell, Bernard W., The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition, University of Massachusetts Press, 1987, pp. 281-338.

Black Literature Criticism, Gale, 1992.

OBrien, John, editor, Interviews with Black Writers, Liveright, 1973, pp. 213-23.


American Book Review, July-August 1982, pp. 12-13.

Atlanta Constitution, December 3, 1989, p. L1.

Atlanta Journal, June 7, 1992, p. N8.

Bloomsbury Review, March 1991, p. 1.

Boston Globe, June 14, 1992, p. B40.

Chicago Tribune, July 9, 1992, p. TEMPO-1.

Esquire, August 1989, pp. 122-32; September 1992, pp. 149-56.

Nation, October 4, 1986, pp. 321-22.

New York Times, July 21, 1992, p. C15.

New York Times Book Review, April 11, 1982, pp. 6, 21; May 15, 1983, pp. 13, 41; January 13, 1985, p. 1.

North American Review, June 1988, p. 60-61.

People, February 11, 1985, p. 121.

Publishers Weekly, November 17, 1989, pp. 37-38.

Washington Post, May 12, 1984, p. C1; October 15, 1990, p. B1; May 3, 1991, p. B1; August 9, 1992, p. 15.

Washington Post Book World, July 3, 1983, pp. 1-2; October 21, 1984; November 15, 1987, p. 7; October 7, 1990, pp. 6, 12.

Anne Janette Johnson

Wideman, John Edgar

views updated May 23 2018

WIDEMAN, John Edgar

Nationality: American. Born: Washington, D.C., 14 June 1941. Education: Schools in Pittsburgh; University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (Franklin scholar), B.A. 1963 (Phi Beta Kappa); New College, Oxford (Rhodes scholar, 1963; Thouron fellow, 1963-66), B. Phil. 1966; University of Iowa, Iowa City (Kent fellow), 1966-67.Family: Married Judith Ann Goldman in 1965; two sons and one daughter. Career: Member of the Department of English, Howard University, Washington, D.C., 1965; instructor to associate professor of English, 1966-74, assistant basketball coach, 1968-72, and director of the Afro-American Studies Program, 1971-73, University of Pennsylvania; professor of English, University of Wyoming, Laramie, 1974-85. Since 1986 professor of English, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Phi Beta Kappa Lecturer, 1976. Awards: PEN/Faulkner award, 1984, 1991; Lannan award, 1991; MacArthur fellowship, 1993; Rea prize, 1998. D. Litt.: University of Pennsylvania, 1985. Agent: Wylie Aitken and Stone Inc., 250 West 57th Street, Suite 2106, New York, New York 10107. Address: Department of English, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts 01003, U.S.A.



A Glance Away. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1967; London, Allison and Busby, 1986.

Hurry Home. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1970.

The Lynchers. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1973.

Damballah. New York, Avon, 1981; London, Allison and Busby, 1984.

Hiding Place. New York, Avon, 1981; London, Allison and Busby, 1984.

Sent for You Yesterday. New York, Avon, 1983; London, Allison andBusby, 1984.

Reuben. New York, Holt, 1987; London, Viking, 1988.

Philadelphia Fire. New York, Holt, 1990; London, Viking, 1991.

The Homewood Books. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992.

Identities: Three Novels. New York, H. Holt, 1994.

Two Cities. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Short Stories

Fever: Twelve Stories. New York, Holt, 1989.

The Stories of John Edgar Wideman. New York, Pantheon, 1992; as All Stories Are True, London, Picador, and New York, Vintage, 1993.

Uncollected Short Story

"Concert," in Georgia Review (Athens), Fall 1989.


Brothers and Keepers (memoirs). New York, Holt Rinehart, 1984;London, Allison and Busby, 1985.

Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society. New York, Pantheon, 1994.


Critical Studies:

Blackness and Modernism: The Literary Career of John Edgar Wideman by James W. Coleman, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1989; John Edgar Wideman: Reclaiming the African Personality by Doreatha Drummond Mbalia, Selinsgrove, Susquehanna University Press, and London, Associated University Presses, 1995; Stories of Resilience in Childhood: The Narratives of Maya Angelou, Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Rodrigues, John Edgar Wideman, and Tobias Wolff by Daniel D. Challener, New York, Garland, 1997; Conversations with John Edgar Wideman, edited by Bonnie Tu Smith, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1998; John Edgar Wideman: A Study of the Short Fiction by Keith E. Byerman, New York, Twayne Publishers, 1998.

* * *

Following the publication of the Homewood trilogy, the New York Times proclaimed John Edgar Wideman, "one of America's premier writers of fiction." The winner of two PEN/Faulkner awards, Wideman is also one of the most prolific writers of his generation. Though he has published nine novels, several short story collections (including Fever and All Stories Are True ), two works of nonfiction (Brothers and Keepers and Fatheralong ), and numerous essays, Wideman's work still receives very little critical attention.

Most available criticism surrounds the Homewood trilogy: Damballah, Hiding Place, and Sent for You Yesterday. The works are set in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh where Wideman was raised. Often compared to William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha, the Homewood stories center on the Lawson family, past and present, and the community. Throughout Wideman's work, he examines the connections between family and history. Committed to making certain that "all the stories" are told, Wideman infuses his writing with the style of jazz. His novels are polyphonic and improvisational; genres and discourses blend; and stories and characters are repeated, but played a different way each time. Wideman's riffing style illuminates the diversity of African-American experience, and the inadequacies of traditional narrative in capturing that experience. The necessity of sharing known and unknown stories in order to combat the marginalized portrait of African Americans in history and in the popular imagination is one of Wideman's most important thematic concerns.

These themes and techniques can be found in the first novel, A Glance Away. Eddie Lawson has returned home from a southern rehabilitation clinic. His home is an unidentified northern city, and the inversion of the historical migration of African Americans to the "promised land" is a trope for the writer's journey to his roots. Another character in the novel is Robert Thurley, a white professor who tries to connect with Lawson but is unable. Wideman has said that the character of Thurley was influenced by T.S. Eliot. Thurley's inability to communicate to others in the work represents the failure of the dominant ideology to sustain African-American life. Another voice in the novel is Brother, an albino African American. Brother is a storyteller; he can remember the stories of the Lawson family, even when Eddie cannot. Eddie has "glanced away" from his family and community, and the result is alienation.

The theme of the alienated African-American intellectual is further examined in Wideman's second novel, Hurry Home. The main character is Cecil Braithwaite, a lawyer who abandons his wife and travels to Europe and Africa. The reader is uncertain whether or not Braithwaite actually takes his journey or if it occurs only in his mind. The novel opens with the epigraph, the "pain of being two." Braithwaite's journey (real or imagined) is a reflection of a deeply embedded double-consciousness. He finds that he cannot connect to the history of Europe, and when he travels to Africa (an inverted image of the Middle Passage), Braithwaite discovers that he's alienated there as well.

The Lynchers also examines the weight of African-American history. The opening pages of the novel document the history of lynching in America. The novel begins with four men planning to subvert this history by killing a white policeman. The act, a "lynching in black face," will, according to the group's leader bring the community together. Wideman often suggests that symbolic ritual can be a healthy way to combat racism. But here the inversion of lynching is portrayed as a self-destructive act. In order to lynch the policeman, the conspirators must kill his African-American girlfriend. It is even suggested that her child may have to die. These acts against the community, and the inability of the conspirators to re-imagine their lives using their own stories and rituals, doom the plan to failure. Only one of the conspirators, Thomas Wilkerson, sees that the men are merely mimicking the hatred and violence that is illustrated in the preface. Wilkerson, a history teacher, finally realizes that the only way to remedy the disease of racism is through family and the sharing of stories.

The importance of family stories is at the heart of the three works that make up the Homewood trilogy. Damballah, a short story cycle, offers past and present vignettes about the Lawson family as well as those of the neighborhood of Homewood. The family is connected through space and time through the stories. The titular tale is set in the early days of American slavery. Its central character, Orion, is an African who will not give up his traditions. Orion could be a Lawson ancestor or any African-American family's, suggesting that "family" extends to race. Wideman opens the work with a description of the god, Damballah (a symbol of family and history), a begat chart of the Lawson family, and a letter to his brother, Robby. The stories are "letters" to Robby; their purpose is to keep him connected to the family while he is in jail.

Robby's fictional counterpart, Tommy, appears not only in Damballah, but also in Hiding Place. The novel follows Tommy while he is on the run from the law. He flees to Bruston Hill, the place where Homewood and the family began. The only family living there now is Mother Bess, who has run away from the world, isolating herself in a cabin. Tommy's brother, a writer, has also "run away" from Homewood to Wyoming. The theme of flight permeates the novel, inverting the image of fugitive slaves. These characters are not running to anything; they are "hiding." It is not until Tommy decides to turn himself in that Mother Bess sees that she must go back down the hill to her family and reconnect.

Sent for You Yesterday follows three generations of Homewood: John French and Albert Wilkes; Carl Lawson, Lucy, and Brother Tate; and Carl's nephew, John. We see again the character of Brother, the albino who appeared in A Glance Away. While not a continuation of that character, this Brother is a variation on a theme. Wilkes, a musician, is a catalyst for most of the novel's action. His death haunts the community, particularly Carl, Lucy, and Brother. Wilkes's blues music had been a sustaining force for Homewood, and after he is gone the neighborhood forgets their music and their past. The last pages of the novel offer hope that stories will be remembered and shared again as John begins to dance to a song he once knew as a child.

The novel Reuben is also set in Homewood. Reuben, the title character, is a lawyer in the neighborhood. He is a revision of the alienated intellectual figure that appears in many of Wideman's other novels. Unlike those characters, Reuben refuses to flee from his suffering. His office is a trailer in the middle of Homewood, from which he advises the community. Reuben's search for a twin brother who may be in jail is reminiscent of Wideman's nonfiction work, Brothers and Keepers. However, it is never clear if the brother even exists; the brother may be another version of Reuben.

Philadelphia Fire is based on the MOVE house bombing in Philadelphia. The novel intertwines the voices of Cudjoe, a writer, and Wideman, as the author and as a character. This virtuoso novel blends multiple texts and discourses from history to The Tempest. These are the voices that the African-American writer must confront and revise. In many ways, the novel is about writing and history, but it is also the story of lost children: Simba, a survivor of the bombing, and Wideman's son.

The Cattle Killing also revises texts. The novel revisits Wideman's short story, "Fever," about the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793. A neo-slave narrative, the novel is set in eighteenth century and contemporary Philadelphia, as well as Africa and England. Episodes in the novel are filtered through the central character, an unnamed African-American preacher who wanders the diseased city. The preacher tells stories to an ailing woman, who is possibly an African spirit, to soothe her fever and his rage. The stories are a lifeline to the past and to the African-American community. The "fever" is also the symbolic epidemic of racism that has plagued this country since its inception.

Wideman's latest work, Two Cities, connects its characters through shared suffering. Three characters voice the text: Kassima, Robert, and Mr. Mallory, a photographer. It is Mallory who links the two cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, together. He uses his "double-exposed" photographs to express the lives of people who the world has silenced. Like all of Wideman's work, the novel embraces the necessity to address the silences of the African-American community, to let all the voices be heard. The repeated image of lost children in each of the novels stands as a warning of a future that could be lost if the past is not remembered.

Tracie Church Guzzio

Wideman, John Edgar

views updated May 21 2018

WIDEMAN, John Edgar

Nationality: American. Born: Washington, D.C., 14 June 1941. Education: Schools in Pittsburgh; University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (Franklin scholar), B.A. 1963 (Phi Beta Kappa); New College, Oxford (Rhodes scholar, 1963; Thouron fellow, 1963-66), B.Phil. 1966; University of Iowa, Iowa City (Kent fellow), 1966-67. Family: Married Judith Ann Goldman in 1965; two sons and one daughter. Career: Member of the Department of English, Howard University, Washington, D.C., 1965; instructor to associate professor of English, 1966-74, assistant basketball coach, 1968-72, and director of the Afro-American Studies Program, 1971-73, University of Pennsylvania; professor of English, University of Wyoming, Laramie, 1974-85; professor of English, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, since 1986. Phi Beta Kappa Lecturer, 1976. Awards: PEN Faulkner award, 1984; MacArthur fellowship, 1993. D.Litt.: University of Pennsylvania, 1985.


Short Stories

Fever: Twelve Stories. 1989.

The Stories of John Edgar Wideman. 1992; as All Stories Are True, 1993.

Uncollected Short Story

"Concert," in Georgia Review (Athens), Fall 1989.


A Glance Away. 1967.

Hurry Home. 1970.

The Lynchers. 1973.

Reuben. 1987.

Philadelphia Fire. 1990.

The Homewood Books. 1992.

Damballah. 1981.

Hiding Place. 1981.

Sent for You Yesterday. 1983.

Identities: Three Novels. 1994.

The Cattle Killing. 1996.


Brothers and Keepers (memoirs). 1984.

Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society.1994.

Conversations with John Edgar Wideman. 1998.


Critical Study:

Blackness and Modernism: The Literary Career of John Edgar Wideman by James W. Coleman, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1989; John Edgar Wideman: Reclaiming the African Personality by Doreatha D. Mbalia, 1995; Damballah: Voice as Ground in John Wideman's Fiction by Thomas W. Banks, 1996; The Black Nationalist Aesthetic and the Early Fiction of John Edgar Wideman by Raymond E. Janifer, 1997; Stories of Resilience in Childhood: The Narrative Strategies of Maya Angelou, Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Rodriguez, John Edgar Wideman, and Tobias Wolff by Daniel D. Challener, 1997; John Edgar Wideman: A Study of the Short Fiction by Keith Eldon Byerman, 1998.

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John Edgar Wideman's short stories display a range of fictional styles and subjects, but many of his best stories center on life in Homewood, a black neighborhood in Pittsburgh where Wideman grew up, and the history that lives just behind its decaying housefronts. Wideman's postmodernist style can often be difficult, and it certainly presents a contrast to the gritty social reality it portrays, but the fictional lives it conveys are as rich and complex as any in contemporary fiction. In some ways Wideman's stories resemble pieces of a novel, for many of them portray the same setting and characters over several generations. This may explain why Wideman has not been anthologized as often as many of his contemporaries, for to collect a Wideman story is often to pull it from the fertile autobiographical soil in which it has grown.

Of the almost three dozen stories Wideman has written and published in three collections, at least half center on the same locale, from "The Beginning of Homewood," which appeared in Wideman's first collection, Damballah (1981), and which concerns "Great-great-great-grandmother Sybela Owens" running north from slavery in Cumberland, Maryland, to Pittsburgh and freedom. "Lizabeth" in the same collection introduces John French, one of the recurring Homewood characters, who, as her mother tells Lizabeth, once ate the caterpillar his daughter had bitten: "He swallowed all the rest of that nasty bug so if you died, he'd die too and then there I'd be with both you gone." "Little Brother," in his second collection, Fever (1989), is the story of a famed family dog in Homewood, while the title story of All Stories Are True (1992) relates a visit Wideman has just paid to his mother in Homewood in 1991. Damballah, in fact, begins with "a begat chart" that traces Wideman's family from Sybela Owens in the 1840s through half a dozen generations to the 1960s and John French's grandchildren, including John and his brother Tommy. This genealogical chart, which is reprinted in The Stories of John Edgar Wideman, the 1992 volume that brings together all three earlier collections, can help readers place characters in their respective branches of the family tree.

For someone who focuses so much of his fictional energy on one neighborhood, the scope of Wideman's fictional subjects is great. Fever, for example, contains "Doc's Story," about a legendary blind basketball player, two stories ("Valaida" and "Hostages") exploring Jewish-African American relations, "Surfiction," a metafictional story set in Wyoming, and the title story, a "meditation on history" set in a yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793 and including actual figures like Dr. Benjamin Rush. Even out of Homewood, however, Wideman's fiction almost always touches on black subjects: slavery, jazz, South Africa. In many ways Wideman's stories may remind readers of the fiction of Toni Morrison, both in their ability to evoke black history so powerfully and in their musical style—-staccato and rifflike. The best story in Fever, for example, "When It's Time to Go," is a tale of a black piano player that captures twentieth-century black life in all the richness of its history and its language. "Signs," from Wideman's last collection, is another poignant story, this time of a black woman college teacher confronting the racism on a mainly white campus. As in so many Wideman stories, Kendra Crawley draws strength and sustenance from her family or from her memories of them. Many of Wideman's stories thus have three fictional coordinates: a distinctly autobiographical foundation, deeper relations to African American life and folklife, and a communicative function as "letters" to family, friends, and, finally, readers.

Wideman's best stories may, in fact, be his earliest, those collected in Damballah and nearly all set in Homewood. In "Daddy Garbage," for example, Lemuel Strayhorn, a local push-cart peddler, finds a dead baby in a Homewood alley and enlists John French to help him bury it one freezing winter night. "The Watermelon Story" is another powerful evocation of the dangers and tragedies of urban life rendered in rich black language and folklore, from its opening line ("The first time he saw somebody get their arm chopped off was in front of the A&P on Homewood Avenue") to the concluding incident of the old slave couple who find a baby in a watermelon, only to have it taken away and leave a "hole in their lives even bigger than the wound they had suffered before the child came." "Across the Wide Missouri" is the story of a young man who meets his father in the Pittsburgh restaurant where the father works as a waiter. "Rashad" tells a story of Vietnam, drugs, and urban blacks, and "Tommy" gives another version of the violent city with some of the same characters. In all three the past makes the present into a labyrinth of deeper meanings.

Read chronologically, the stories of John Edgar Wideman show a writer experimenting with different styles and subjects but always returning to the place he knows and the family he loves. In fact, he sometimes repeats the same incidents in different stories. For example, the story of John French's death, wedged between the toilet and the tub "when his heart stopped," is told in "The Chinaman" and again in "Back Seat" several years later. Reading Wideman, in other words, is sometimes like reading a novel that can be picked up and set down over several months. Individual incidents may be forgotten, but the feelings for the characters and their geography remain with the reader.

Wideman is not always an easy writer. In any one story he may mix several points of view or several different narrative voices. Like Morrison and William Faulkner before her, the focus is on interior life, on the thoughts and feelings of characters struggling just to get through life. Action and incident are almost incidental to the interior experiences of the characters caught up in them. Similarly, there are often jumps between incidents and ideas that are not easy to follow, a narrative mix that readers may find difficult. Wideman's stories are never linear or stationary. The present is embedded in the past, and generations overlap and interact. Like the jazz that Wideman so often writes of, his prose seems improvisational, and yet it can become a rich blend of stream of consciousness and of street language. As James W. Coleman has written, Wideman "maintains a tension between writing as a self-reflexive art and writing as a social and political enterprise." Like the best contemporary short story writers—Richard Ford or Joy Williams, for example—the difficulties are their own reward, for Wideman renders American life in all of its fullness and tragedy. However difficult he may be, "his writing never succumbs to postmodernist disruption and dislocation; it always struggles for meaning and tries to make a difference in the world."

—David Peck

Wideman, John Edgar

views updated May 08 2018

Wideman, John Edgar

June 14, 1941

Born in Washington, D.C., novelist John Edgar Wideman spent much of his early life first in Homewood, Pennsylvania, and then in Shadyside, an upper-middle-class area of Pittsburgh. In 1960 he received a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, where he proved himself equally outstanding in his undergraduate studies and on the basketball court. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1963, and his athletic achievements led to his induction into the Big Five Basketball Hall of Fame. Upon graduation, Wideman became only the second African American to be awarded a Rhodes Scholarship (Alain Locke had received one almost fifty-five years earlier), an honor that allowed him to study for three years at Oxford University in England, where he earned a degree in eighteenth-century literature.

After returning to the United States in 1966 and attending the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of Iowa as a Kent Fellow, Wideman returned to the University of Pennsylvania, where he served as an instructor (and later, professor) of English. In 1967, at the age of twenty-six, he published his first novel, A Glance Away. The novel was well-received by critics, and two years after its appearance Wideman published Hurry Home (1969), a novel that chronicled its protagonist's struggle to reconcile the past and the present. After publishing a third novel in 1973, a dense and technically complex work titled The Lynchers, Wideman found his name increasingly associated with a diverse set of literary forebears including James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Ralph Ellison.

During this period Wideman served as the assistant basketball coach (19681972) at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as director of the Afro-American Studies Program (19711973). In 1975 he left Philadelphia to teach at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Six years later he ended a long literary silence with the publication of two books: a collection of stories, Damballah, and Hiding Place, a novel. Both books focus on Wideman's Home-wood neighborhood. And with the publication in 1983 of the third book in the trilogy, Wideman's reputation as a major literary talent was assured. Sent for You Yesterday won the 1984 P.E.N./Faulkner Award, winning over several more established writers.

At this point, Wideman was drawn (by circumstance rather than choice) into the world of nonfiction after his brother, Robbie, was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to life imprisonment. At times angry, at others deeply introspective and brooding, Brothers and Keepers (1984) relates the paradoxical circumstances of two brothers: one a successful college professor and author, the other a drug addict struggling to establish an identity apart from his famous older brother. Nominated for the 1985 National Book Award, the memoir set the stage for what arguably might be called Wideman's "next phase."

In 1986, after seeing his son, Jake, tried and convicted for the murder of a camping companion, Wideman moved back east to teach at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he was named Distinguished Professor in 2001. The following year saw the publication of his less than successful but nonetheless intriguing novel Reuben. Two years later, Wideman published a collection of stories, Fever (1989), and followed that in 1990 with a novel, Philadelphia Fire. Both of these works reflect Wide-man's ability to interrogate his own experiences, even as his fiction takes up pertinent social issues. In the short stories and the novel, Wideman weaves fiction into the fabric of historical events (the former involves an outbreak of yellow fever in eighteenth-century Philadelphia, and the latter the aftermath of the confrontation with and subsequent bombing by Philadelphia police of the radical group MOVE). In 1992 Wideman brought out The Stories of John Edgar Wideman (1992), which contains ten new stories written especially for the collection, themselves titled All Stories Are True. What distinguishes these ten stories is their extraordinary repositioning of the reader's attention, away from the source of the stories and toward the human issues they depict. He returned to nonfiction in 1994 with Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society and in 2001 with the memoir Hoop Roots: Basketball, Race, and Love. Later works of fiction include The Cattle Killing (1996) and Two Cities (1998). As he works to make sense of his own assets and losses, one finds in Wideman's fiction a continuing engagement with the complexity of history as layered narrative and an ability to articulate the inner essence of events that often elude us.

See also Caribbean/North American Writers (Contemporary); Literature of the United States


Coleman, James W. "Going Back Home: The Literary Development of John Edgar Wideman." CLA Journal 28, no. 3 (March 1985): 326343.

"The Novels of John Wideman." Black World (June 1975): 1838.

O'Brien, John. Interviews with Black Writers. New York: Live-right, 1973.

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