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John Edgar Wideman is best known for his novels and short stories set in the town of Homewood, the working-class, predominantly black neighborhood near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he was raised. The overarching theme of his fiction is the individual’s quest for self-discovery. In his later works this general theme is expressed through an exploration of memory and a focus on more specifically African American issues. Kermit Frazier has commented that the ‘ ‘characters in Wide-man’s fiction can escape neither collective nor personal history and memory, so they are forced to deal with them in some way—be it successfully or ineffectually.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Wideman was born in 1946 in Washington, D.C., though he grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His youth was spent during a time of unrest and increased agitation for civil rights in America. During the 1950s and 1960s, the civil rights movement spurred reforms to end racial discrimination against African Americans in the United States. The turmoil of growing up in the inner city prompted Wideman to excel at school and in sports. After graduation from Peabody High School in Pittsburgh, Wideman attended the University of Pennsylvania on a basketball scholarship where he became an All-American forward for the team. In 1963, he was selected as the first black Rhodes scholar—since 1905, a highly prized international award for postgraduate study at the University of Oxford. In England, he attended Oxford and studied eighteenth-century European literature and the early development of the novel. In 1965 he was married to Judith Ann Goldman, an attorney, with whom he has three children. After graduating from Oxford in 1966, Wideman was awarded a fellowship to the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop for creative writing.
His first two novels, A Glance Away (1967) and Hurry Home (1969), reflect his formal training, as well as his own experiments with narrative technique. In A Glance Away, a rehabilitated drug addict returns to his home, where he renews family and social ties while trying to avoid relapse; in Hurry Home, a black law school graduate seeks cultural communion with white society by traveling to Europe, then reaffirms his black heritage in Africa. These characters find hope for the future only by confronting their personal and collective pasts. In The Lynchers (1973), four embittered African American men plan to kill a white policeman in hopes of sparking widespread racial conflict; they are defeated, however, by their own hatred and distrust of one another.
Wideman has attributed his shift toward black-oriented themes and increased use of myth and dialect in his later novels to his growing awareness of such prominent black authors as Richard Wright and Jean Toomer. In The Homewood Trilogy, which comprises the short story collection Damballah (1981) and the novels Hiding Place (1981) and Sent for You Yesterday (1983), Wideman uses deviating time frames, black dialect, and rhythmic language to transform Homewood into what Alan Cheuse described as ”a magical location infused with poetry and pathos.” Hiding Place, published simultaneously with Damballah, is about a boy’s strong ties to his family and his involvement in a petty robbery that results in an accidental killing. With Sent for You Yesterday, Wideman won the 1984 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. Through the characters of Doot, the primary narrator, and Albert Wilkes, an outspoken blues pianist, Wideman asserts that creativity and imagination are important means to transcend despair and strengthen the common bonds of race, culture, and class.
The year 1986 brought much upheaval to the Wide-man family when his eighteen-year-old son was involved in a camping trip murder in Arizona, for which he was later convicted. Perhaps reflecting this turmoil, Wideman’s novel Reuben (1987) deals with violence and the legal system. As the narrator, Reuben, an ambiguous figure who is a lawyer, provides inexpensive legal aid to the residents of Home-wood. Among his clients are Kwansa, a young black woman whose brutal ex-husband, a recovering drug addict, kidnaps
and seeks legal custody of their illegitimate child; and Wally, an assistant basketball coach at a local university who comes to Reuben because he fears he will be blamed for the illegal recruiting practices of his department. Wally, who may have actually murdered a white man, is possessed by an ingrained hatred of white society that leads him to fantasize about committing violence against middle-aged white males. As Madison Smartt Bell notes, ”[Reuben]is perhaps most importantly a detailed and sensitive portrait of the inner life of its characters.”
In the novel Philadelphia Fire (1990), Wideman combines fact and fiction to explore an actual incident involving MOVE—a militant, heavily-armed black commune that had repeatedly refused police orders to vacate its house in Philadelphia in 1985. With the approval of the mayor, police bombed the house from a helicopter, killing eleven commune members—including five children— and creating a fire that destroyed more than fifty houses. In juxtaposition to the novel’s narrative content, Wide-man includes in Philadelphia Fire an address to his imprisoned son.
Continued Focus on Race and Community
The Cattle Killing(1996) weaves together memories from the narrator’s childhood in Philadelphia with the plight of blacks in the city in the late eighteenth century, as well as the story of the South African Xhosa tribe. Wideman’s next novel, Two Cities (1998), incorporates elements from A Tale of Two Cities (1859), a historical novel by Charles Dickens that follows characters in Paris and London during the French Revolution. In Wideman’s novel—set in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh—the author tells the story of Kassima, a woman who is tentatively stepping back into a social life after the grief of losing two sons to gang-related crime and an imprisoned husband to AIDS.
In 2001, following the end of his first marriage, Wideman published the memoir Hoop Roots: Basketball, Race, and Love (2001). In an interview with Lisa Baker in the African American Review, Wideman describes this book as a study of race and culture. God’s Gym (2005), published the year after his marriage to journalist Catherine Nedonchelle, continues the exploration of race and community in a collection of short stories. The ten stories delve into topics spanning from family and basketball to illness and death, and are written in a style that weaves jazz rhythms with dreamlike, stream-of-consciousness style, wandering seemingly far from the original story, but eventually resolving back to the starting elements.
Wideman’s latest novel, Eanon (2008), mixes fiction, biography, and memoir to tell the story of Franz Fanon—a psychiatrist, philosopher, revolutionary, and author of Black Skin, White Masks (1952)—told through three narratives. Besides writing a string of novels and nonfiction works, he frequently pens commentaries for Harper’s. Novelist Charles Johnson called Wideman ”easily the most acclaimed black male writer of the last decade,” and the renowned critic, Robert Bone, author of The Negro Novel in America, designates Wideman as ”perhaps the most gifted black novelist of his generation.”
Works in Literary Context
According to Reggie Young, ”African American writers … are generally so well defined as social realists that few critics take them seriously as practitioners of what some call ‘extreme fiction’—that is, fiction that treads non-traditional formal territories.” In his innovative and modernist writing, Wideman offers modern prose that illustrates the alienation and loss resulting from conflicting demands that self and community make upon the individual in contemporary America, with special emphasis on his native African American community. This is especially evident in Wideman’s exploration of the relationship between the writer, his family, and the larger community.
Wideman’s writing exposes the tensions between the individual and the community. His characters negotiate the terrain between independence and the necessity of interdependence in familial and communal connections. In his writing, as in his life, Wideman deals with alienation from those with whom he has close ties. Yet, Brothers and Keepers, written during encounters with his imprisoned brother, exemplifies interdependence and connection, through the very act of writing. Contrasting his brotherly relationship with Robby coexisting with an estrangement, he writes in the book, ”So Robby and I faced each other in the prison visiting lounge as familiar strangers.” In another of his books, Philadelphia Fire, Wideman exposes the distance of his life as a successful academic, from that of his family and community, resolved when the protagonist returns from a Greek isle to rejoin his Philadelphia community that has been violated by a bomb.
African American Academic
Wideman’s compositions are frequently autobiographical, though they are fictionalized and thus semi-autobiographical. In Wide-man’s work, James Marcus contends that there has been a struggle with ”the question: What kind of fiction does a black man write from the predominantly white groves of academe?” Wideman has faced in his writing what he has acknowledged as the multiple traditions that ground his work, European and Afro-American, the Academy and the Street. His ability to mediate between these cultures in his writing lends uniqueness to his voice. Through his memoirs and other works of fiction, Wideman offers readers personal insight into minority culture and the way in which the harsh experience of racism transforms the members of those communities. While telling very personal stories that are particular to his cultural milieu, he strikes cords of universality that speak to a wide audience extending beyond the boundaries of culture.
Works in Critical Context
Critic Keith Byerman questions why Wideman’s writing ”has not received the attention given to other contemporary writers despite the quality and range of his work.” A response to that question may be as Bonnie TuSmith comments, ”No one claims that Wideman is an easy read. On the contrary, the writer challenges his readers on every level.” Christopher Weber writes of Wideman, ”He has brilliantly extended the long-running emphasis among African American writers on rendering black speech and rhythms. His prose can be scanned like poetry or, better, performed as a song or slam before a microphone.” No matter what genre he uses primarily in any given work, most of Wideman’s books are what James Olney has identified as metaphors of self through thinly veiled autobiographical fictional depictions, described as ”the mingling of fiction and nonfiction.”
Sent for You Yesterday
Wideman’s PEN/Faulkner winning novel Sent for You Yesterday (1983) is the last in his Homewood trilogy. Mbalia comments that it ”brings together into one whole all the pieces of Wideman’s family history to show the connection between and within generations” and the responsibilities of each generation. The African tradition, emphasizing continuity of family, is illustrated in Wideman’s novel with the question posed, ”How come you a family man?” In response to the question from his single friend, a father evokes, ”an image of a man’s love for his family that is profoundly moving in its simplicity and accuracy” according to TuSmith and Byerman. Wideman’s further uses music in Sent for You Yesterday to bridge the distance between generations of his family. With music and lyrical prose, he juggles bits of memories and emotions in search of understanding of and identity with his heritage.
Hoop Roots: Basketball, Race, and Love
Wide-man, in an interview with Lisa Baker in the African American Review, said of his book Hoop Roots: Basketball, Race, and Love that it is ”really a study of race and culture—using sport as a way of getting people’s attention.” Hoop Roots follows Wideman’s ”lifelong love affair with basketball,” comments David L. Ulin in the Atlantic Monthly, at times ”yielding to reflections on family, racial tension, memory, and the nebulous territory of storytelling itself.” A Publishers Weekly reviewer calls the book a ”brilliant tribute to basketball, survival and families linked by blood, joy, and tragedy.” Tracy Grant, a reviewer for Black Issues Book Review, finds the book a challenge to read because of Wideman’s free-flowing style, but comments that Hoop Roots demonstrates Wideman’s ”unique voice and his true gift for capturing a slice of black life from the past.”
- Byerman, Keith. John Edgar Wideman: A Study of Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1998.
- Mbalia, Doreatha. Drummond John Edgar Wideman: Reclaimingthe African Personality. Cranberry, N.Y.: Associated University Presses, 1995.
- TuSmith, Bonnie, and Keith E. Byerman Eds. Critical Essays on John Edgar Wideman. Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 2006.
- TuSmith, Bonnie. Ed. Conversations with John Edgar Wideman. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.
- Baker, Lisa. ”Storytelling and Democracy: A Conversation with John Edgar Wideman.” African American Review 34.2 (2000): 263-272.
- James, Marcus. ”The Homewood trilogy: Damballah. Hiding place. Sent for you yesterday.” The Nation 243 (October 4, 1986): 321-323.
- Law, Violet. ”John Edgar Wideman.” The Progressive 72.4 (April 2008): 33-36.
- Pearsall, Susan. ”Narratives of Selfand the Abdication of Authority in Wideman’s Philadelphia Fire.” MELUS 26.2 (2001): 15-46.
- Varsava, Jerry. ”The Quest for Community in American Postmodern Fiction.” International Fiction Review 243 (January 2003): 1-11.
- Basketball, Race, and Love. Retrieved December 5, 2008, from www.alternet.org/story/15704/?page=entire. Last updated on April 22, 2003.
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