Authors: John Edgar Wideman

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and short-story writer

Identity: African American

Author Works

Long Fiction:

A Glance Away, 1967

Hurry Home, 1970

The Lynchers, 1973

Hiding Place, 1981

Sent for You Yesterday, 1983

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

Reuben, 1987

Philadelphia Fire, 1990

The Cattle Killing, 1996

Two Cities, 1998

Short Fiction:

Damballah, 1981

Fever: Twelve Stories, 1989

All Stories Are True: The Stories of John Edgar Wideman, 1992

Nonfiction:

Brothers and Keepers, 1984

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

Conversations with John Edgar Wideman, 1998 (Bonnie TuSmith, editor)

Hoop Roots, 2001

The Island: Martinique, 2003

Edited Texts:

My Soul Has Grown Deep: Classics of Early African-American Literature, 2001

Twenty: The Best of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, 2001

Biography

John Edgar Wideman’s literary achievements since the publication of his first novel, A Glance Away, provide compelling evidence of the diverse cultural and creative influences operating upon the imagination. Having grown up in the black community of Homewood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Wideman began his odyssey away from those roots–a central theme of his early writing–when in 1959 he was awarded a Benjamin Franklin scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, where he became a Phi Beta Kappa scholar and distinguished himself in both creative writing and intercollegiate basketball. His assimilation into the world of academe continued when, as a Rhodes Scholar, he attended New College, Oxford, from 1963 to 1966 and studied British literature, particularly the eighteenth century novel, which fed his interest in the possibilities of contemporary narrative form.{$I[AN]9810000753}{$I[A]Wideman, John Edgar}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Wideman, John Edgar}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Wideman, John Edgar}{$I[tim]1941;Wideman, John Edgar}

John Edgar Wideman

(University of Wyoming)

Wideman received a Kent Fellowship to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1966. After 1967 he served on the faculties of several universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Wyoming, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he was named Distinguished Professor in 2001. As a novice teacher of African American studies at the University of Pennsylvania, he immersed himself for the first time in the literary tradition of black American writers, an experience he claims “absolutely transformed” his subsequent creative endeavors.

Wideman’s prose experiments over the course of his career serve as a primer of modern aesthetic concerns. His early works, A Glance Away, Hurry Home, and The Lynchers, reveal modernist preoccupations with myth and ritual, fractured narrative, surrealism, and polyphonic voicings. Like James Joyce and William Faulkner before him, he mapped the landscape of familial history along with his own memories, translating their literal specificity into universal dramas of the human condition in the late twentieth century. Yet Wideman also demonstrates a postmodern skepticism about narrative’s traditional promises of coherence and truth, his work increasingly collapsing distinctions between autobiography and fiction to produce self-conscious linguistic meditations on the ways in which the creative impulse impersonates and interrogates lived experience, efforts as likely to fail as to succeed in the quest for illumination. Postmodernism’s embrace of incoherence and its assault on the fictions of selfhood enable Wideman to convey the jarringly irreconcilable paradoxes of racism as they most tellingly surface in the fractured psyches of contemporary black males.

Many of Wideman’s fictional techniques express his belief in the accessibility of a collective racial memory transcending temporal and spatial divisions through the sustaining energies provided by family, community, or culture. He exposes the inner dynamics propelling his characters’ lives and articulates that mystery through the creation of a chorus of distinct but overlapping voices energetically capturing the immediacies of vernacular speech. Wideman’s efforts to fuse a novelistic whole from seemingly disparate narrative strands in such works as the PEN/Faulkner Award-winning Sent for You Yesterday or Reuben rest in part upon a similar theoretical supposition that from fragmentation the imagination can generate potentially healing linkages and echoes, an activity always bathed in postmodernist suspicion that the cloudiness of human vision isolates one completely from real communion with others.

Wideman achieved tremendous critical acclaim for The Homewood Trilogy, which consists of Damballah and two novels, Hiding Place and Sent for You Yesterday. Set in the Homewood of his youth, Wideman’s imaginative return to his cultural past is a journey through which he explores the intricate and mysterious interweavings of history, memory, and tradition. Damballah and Hiding Place, published concurrently, offer fictive meditations on the multigenerational past of a black family as it recapitulates the social history of Homewood itself. Sent for You Yesterday, the culminating work in the series, draws its title from a blues song and itself becomes a “blues” rendering of Homewood’s history as it has been mythically sustained in the collective memory of the community and particularized in the integrative imagination of the narrator.

With the publication of Brothers and Keepers Wideman made explicit the links between his biography and the fictional plottings of his previous work, particularly The Homewood Trilogy. In Brothers and Keepers Wideman steps out from behind the mask of fiction to write a painfully analytic and introspective first-person account of his relationship with Robby (his brother, Robert Wideman), a former drug addict and petty criminal then serving a life sentence in prison. Although nonfiction, the book employs a familiar array of Wideman’s literary devices: a sophisticated alternation of voices shifting between formal English and street colloquialism, a dislocated chronology and colliding narrative forms, metafictional foregrounding, and a dissection of the creative process itself. The themes that dominate Wideman’s fiction also operate in this text, particularly his meditations on the power of family and community to support the individual, and the countervailing pressures working to erode the cultural health of the black community and the faith of even its most resilient members.

In Fatheralong, a second memoir published a decade later, Wideman continues that meditation. In the course of his attempt to invoke a new relationship with his father, Edgar, the text becomes a study of his own paternal grief over his son, serving a life sentence in Arizona following the 1988 murder of another teenager. Wideman uses the rupture of family to further disrupt orthodox distinctions between the worlds within and without his texts. In the PEN/Faulkner Award-winning Philadelphia Fire, for example, the narrative moves between two independent frames of reference, one belonging to a disaffected writer determined to locate a child seen running from the catastrophic 1985 police siege of the MOVE community in Philadelphia, the other belonging to a writerly consciousness identified as Mr. Wideman, who is trying to break through the literal and figurative walls closing him off from his prison inmate son. The urgency in Wideman’s work after the early 1980’s reflects the haunting personal dimension of his investigations into the mysteries of human character and his hunger for the restorative possibilities of imagination and art. In 1993 his extraordinary talents led to his being awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant.

BibliographyAuger, 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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