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)
Philadelphia Fire, 1990
The Cattle Killing, 1996
Two Cities, 1998
Fever: Twelve Stories, 1989
All Stories Are True: The Stories of John Edgar Wideman, 1992
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
My Soul Has Grown Deep: Classics of Early African-American Literature, 2001
Twenty: The Best of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, 2001
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.
John Edgar Wideman
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.