9 minute read

John Edgar Wideman Biography

Nationality: American. Born: Washington, D.C., 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. 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.



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

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Carlos Watson Biography - Was a Student Journalist to Stefan Zweig (1881–1942) Biography