Places: The Homewood Trilogy

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1985: Damballah, 1981; Hiding Place, 1981; Sent for You Yesterday, 1983

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Mid-nineteenth century to the 1980’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Homewood

*Homewood. Homewood Trilogy, TheLong-established black neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The three volumes brought together to form The Homewood Trilogy are set in, or circle around, this black section of Pittsburgh. As John Edgar Wideman writes in his preface to the volume, the trilogy offers an investigation from many angles, “not so much of a physical location, Homewood . . . but of a culture, a way of seeing and being seen. Homewood is an idea, a reflection of how its inhabitants act and think.”

The three volumes of The Homewood Trilogy–two novels and a collection of a dozen stories–depict the life and history of one black neighborhood, a district that has all the strengths and dangers of any inner city. It is a neighborhood of houses and yards, of gathering places (the barber shop, for example, or bars like the Brass Rail and the Velvet Slipper), and of other institutions like the Elks Club, the Homewood African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and the A&P supermarket on Homewood Avenue. It is the home of John French and his wife Freeda in the 1920’s, of their daughter Lizabeth and her husband Edgar Lawson twenty years later, and their grandsons John and Tommy Lawson forty years later. Cassina Way is the street on which these generations live, and where John French dies after a heart attack (wedged between bathtub and toilet). It is a neighborhood in which crime is common, drugs are taking over by the 1980’s, and characters may be killed.

Homewood is also an area with a history, even if that history is slipping away by the end of the twentieth century. The neighborhood dates all the way back to the middle of the nineteenth century (as related in the story “The Beginning of Homewood” in Damballah) and the escaped slave Sybela Owens fleeing north. Homewood provides myths and meanings that can be sustaining to its residents, especially the narrator (and Wideman persona), John Lawson, born here in 1941 and returning to Homewood after some years away, and just now beginning to understand its richness and meaning. This community–its history, music, and language–provides a cultural safety net for its residents in a hostile world. “Homewood wasn’t bricks and boards,” as Lucy Tate says of its residents in Sent for You Yesterday. “Homewood was them singing and loving and getting where they needed to get. They made these streets. That’s why Homewood was real once.”

The three volumes of the novel encapsulate this history and heritage, and describe the friendship, family, and community that are the antidotes to the isolation and alienation of so much of twentieth century urban life. The stories told by and about Lucy Tate, Mother Bess, Sybela Owens, John French, and the others are part of a living African American past that Wideman (like Toni Morrison, in novels such as Beloved, 1987) wants his readers to acknowledge and celebrate.

Bruston Hill

Bruston Hill. Neighborhood within and above Homewood. It is to Bruston Hill where Tommy (John Lawson’s brother) goes in Hiding Place when he is wanted for murder. He hides out in the shack of Mother Bess, the family’s matriarch and Sybela’s granddaughter, and a hermit whose family history comes out in this section of The Homewood Trilogy.

BibliographyBennion, John. “The Shape of Memory in John Edgar Wideman’s Sent for You Yesterday.” Black American Literature Forum 20 (Spring/Summer, 1986): 143-150. Observes that the nontraditional form of this concluding volume in the Homewood trilogy involves “a structuring of reality which balances past and present, consciousness and subconsciousness, memory and actuality, life and death.”Berben, Jacqueline. “Beyond Discourse: The Unspoken Versus Words in the Fiction of John Edgar Wideman.” Callaloo 8 (Fall, 1985): 525-534. Looks at the differences between the deliberately misleading dialogue in Hiding Place and the truer expressions of feeling in the characters’ nonverbal communications, dreams, and fantasies. An excellent analysis of Wideman’s technique.Birkerts, Sven. “The Art of Memory.” The New Republic 207 (July 13, 1992): 42-49. Argues that Wideman, on the basis of his short fiction and The Homewood Trilogy, is the preeminent male African American writer of his generation. Praises his skill in moving through time and in and out of memory, in order to chronicle the history of a family, a place, and a people.Coleman, James W. Blackness and Modernism: The Literary Career of John Edgar Wideman. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. A major book-length study that includes three chapters on The Homewood Trilogy, a good summary of Wideman’s literary career, a 1988 interview with the author, and a helpful bibliography.Coleman, James W. “Going Back Home: The Literary Development of John Edgar Wideman.” College Language Association Journal 28 (March, 1985): 326-343. Finds in the Homewood trilogy the creation of a myth of family history and the history of the community that Coleman believes will sustain both Wideman and his characters.Rowell, Charles H. “An Interview with John Edgar Wideman.” Callaloo 13 (Winter, 1990): 47-61. Focuses on Wideman’s perception of the influences that have shaped his literary development. Also contains revealing information about Wideman’s themes and about the central importance of the South in African American culture.Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. “Fraternal Blues: John Edgar Wideman’s Homewood Trilogy.” Contemporary Literature 32 (Fall, 1991): 312-345. A detailed analysis of the process by which Wideman’s narrator in the Homewood trilogy achieves a “blues voice” that allows him to depict the complex interconnections among community, family, and the individual, particularly between brothers.Saunders, James Robert. “Exorcising the Demons: John Edgar Wideman’s Literary Response.” The Hollins Critic 29 (December, 1992): 1-10. Contends that Wideman’s fiction reveals his growing understanding that, however fully he is accepted in the white world, a black intellectual must maintain his connection with his own people. Also comments sympathetically on how violence has affected Wideman’s life and influenced his thinking.
Categories: Places