In an address at the Library of Congress in 1964, Ralph Waldo Ellison mused upon his relationship with his father, who had bestowed on his son a somewhat curious literary forename. “Why,” Ellison wondered, “hadn’t he named me after a hero such as Jack Johnson…an educator like Booker T. Washington, or a great orator and abolitionist like Frederick Douglass?… Instead, he named me after someone called Ralph Waldo Emerson, and then, when I was three, he died.”
Ellison’s question connected the perennial anxieties that have haunted African-American artists for generations—questions of inheritance, tradition, and belonging—with a more personal and painful one about fatherhood: What was the meaning of a father’s legacy, in particular one who died early in one’s life? And what did it mean to be stamped by a name so intimately connected to his ideals?
Ellison’s experience was not every child’s. But the mark of sudden and premature loss, the haunting ambiguities created by an uncertain past, has constituted an overwhelming theme in African-American literature. From the struggle over literary parentage between Richard Wright and James Baldwin, to the unclear family histories and patrimonial legacies in Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father and the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s In My Father’s House, to the letter from father to son in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, one can sketch out a veritable subgenre of literary work devoted to the struggle between black fathers and sons to give some kind of meaning to their shared fate and common past.
This fraught inheritance, the missed recognitions and ambiguities between family members, in particular fathers and sons, is one of the deep chords animating the life and writings of John Edgar Wideman, whose latest book, Writing to Save a Life, is perhaps his most desperate and bracing endeavor yet to “make some sense out of the American darkness that disconnects colored fathers from sons, a darkness in which sons and fathers lose track of one another.”
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John Edgar Wideman, now 75, is a towering figure in American literature. His prolific career, spanning half a century, is widely recognized for achievements in the novel, but Wideman is also a brilliant short-story writer, essayist, critic, and memoirist. He was twice the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction and a recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant. He is also known for his love of basketball, a passion that reverberates throughout his works. A standout athlete at the University of Pennsylvania, Wideman was an All-Ivy League star on the basketball team, which allowed him to become, in 1963, the first black American to win a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford since Alain Locke in 1907. Wideman returned to Penn in 1967 to teach English, and in 1971 he founded and chaired the Afro-American Studies Program, now part of the university’s renowned Center for Africana Studies.
Despite these accolades, Wideman has never achieved the kind of name recognition of writers like Toni Morrison and Amiri Baraka. Nor is he a touchstone in the way that W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes were for earlier generations and James Baldwin appears to be for ours. Instead, he has long had the unenviable reputation of being a “writers’ writer,” which was very much how I was introduced to his work. This might be partly because of his long career teaching at MFA programs, including his current post at Brown. But there is something more. For nerdy, bookish black writers, especially dudes, his books have long constituted something of a pass code. The books’ jackets seemed to offer a protective cover, an imagined hardness and coolness that one yearned for, and that could be carried like a shield. The author’s photo said it all: Wideman out on the streets staring down the camera, six-foot-plus, with a leather-fleece bomber jacket and inscrutable frown, can’t-touch-this arms crossed like he’s done with you already— a literary Bobby Seale.
Riffing on the alienation of the black writer, Thomas Sayers Ellis once observed that “a minority of black people calling themselves writers (in America) is a UFO to some and a mothership to others.” For some years now, Wideman has been the latter, exerting a considerable influence on younger writers through his teaching and association with the influential journal Callaloo. This is especially true of black writers interested in experimental fiction, like Gayl Jones and John Keene, but also of writers deeply attached to place, like Edward P. Jones, whose magnificent story cycles are set in Washington, DC.
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Born in Pittsburgh in 1941 to working-class parents, Wideman was raised in and around the neighborhood of Homewood, the section of the city where waves of African Americans fleeing the South during the Great Migration settled and put down new roots. There they found work in Pittsburgh’s burgeoning steel and manufacturing sectors and built new communities. Wideman’s father served in World War II and then worked as a waiter in Kaufmann’s department store. Later in life, he became a sanitation worker for the city; as Wideman relates in his memoir Fatheralong, he was “nicknamed ‘Sweetman’ by his fellow garbage-men.” Wideman’s father clearly cast a long shadow in his life, but the figure who most impressed the young writer-to-be was his maternal grandfather, John French, a tall, light-skinned, hard-drinking teller of tall tales, an almost larger-than-life character who constantly appears under the same name in Wideman’s books, and who appears to play the role of a surrogate paterfamilias.
The intergenerational saga of black working-class folk, of “people who hope and cope,” as Wideman once put it, became his great subject. This panorama of migration and settlement, of old patterns of life persisting and adapting to new conditions, of a people buffeted by history, saturates almost all of his fiction, even when he veers far away from his native Homewood.
In this, Wideman shares ground with a remarkable group of local talents: most prominently the playwright August Wilson, whose “Pittsburgh Cycle” is in many ways the theatrical analogue of Wideman’s project; Charles “Teenie” Harris, the photographer of black midcentury life; and also the many jazz musicians and composers of Pittsburgh, including Art Blakey, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Strayhorn, and one of the last living giants of the jazz piano, Ahmad Jamal, who wrote an album dedicated to the city.
The stories of Homewood offered Wideman a way to transform social history into art, to manifest through the microcosm of one working-class neighborhood the black experience over the last century. It may sound bold to state this, but it is true: No other American writer since William Faulkner, and perhaps Philip Roth (in chronicling the fate of Newark, New Jersey), has made such a determined effort to create a universe out of a community, to transform everyday biographies into epic history.
And yet when Wideman began writing in the late 1960s, he appeared to be forging a very different and somewhat unlikely path. At Oxford, he had studied 18th-century literature and became fascinated with the origins and experimental possibilities of the novelistic form. Like Ellison, he was attracted to T.S. Eliot and to the modernist emphasis on dislocation. He was also drawn, as Ellison and many in his generation were, to James Joyce’s use of stream of consciousness. Wideman’s first three novels—A Glance Away (1967), Hurry Home (1970), and The Lynchers (1973)—were studies in alienation and experiments in style and expression. Their protagonists were variations on the kind of figures who haunted late 19th- and early 20th-century literature: the uprooted intellectual seeking, but never quite achieving, reconciliation with his community.
From a distance, these early modernist forays appear to have been something of apprentice works, and Wideman has been content to let that notion stand in interviews over the years, comparing them at one point to “woodshedding,” the jazz- slang term for the period when a musician is still honing his skills. It is hard to deny that the books are stilted; a love of wordplay and musicality cannot make up for a missing plot line. And yet there is something refreshing in Wideman’s daring allusiveness, especially when set against the narrow, pop-saturated lanes demanded of contemporary prose.
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Wideman’s early work often seems to have a lot in common with those lost experimentalists—figures like Leon Forrest and William Melvin Kelley—who came up too late for modernism, but also too early to trim their sails to the slick, brat-pack confessional postmodernism that was then becoming the new commercial norm.
One suspects that Wideman might well have shared their fate, if his work hadn’t pivoted in the late ’70s and early ’80s toward a sustaining, and arguably Afrocentric, belief in the role of the writer as the conscience of a community. A number of changes in his outlook and life seem to have converged in this period. The African-American literature courses he was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania brought a renewed appreciation for works in that tradition. He was particularly drawn to Zora Neale Hurston’s folk-story collecting and auto-ethnographic writings, which were then being recovered by feminist writers and scholars like Alice Walker. Another influence came from African writers, especially Chinua Achebe, from whom he learned the Igbo saying “All stories are true,” which Wideman adopted as a kind of vocational credo. But the most significant turn was his brother Robby’s 1975 involvement in a robbery and murder, his flight from justice, and his subsequent incarceration on a sentence of life without parole.
The process of reckoning with Robby’s crime, his surprise visit to Wideman’s home in Wyoming (where he was teaching at the time) while on the lam, and the struggle to piece together what had gone differently in his brother’s life eventually led Wideman to a broader meditation on the meaning and consequences of mass incarceration that became his most celebrated (and probably most widely read) book, Brothers and Keepers.
Published in 1984, Brothers and Keepers again weaves together the layers of personal biography and public history, literature and sociology. It was framed as a memoir but was ultimately a threnody, a blues testimonial for a generation headed into the maw of mass incarceration. It is rare for a book to so immediately and vividly make clear the old truth that there is a special humanistic work that can only be achieved in great writing. Brothers and Keepers does it by grappling with a personally painful case without sentimentality.
If there’s one book by Wideman that young black men tend to know, it’s this one—sometimes provided by a parent or uncle, sometimes by a teacher or counselor, and sometimes discovered while doing time. For many, Wideman’s use of the letters he exchanged with Robby will not only evoke literary antecedents like George Jackson’s Soledad Brother and Angela Davis’s An Autobiography; it will also remind them of the way Nas binds friendships fractured by prison on his classic “One Love,” or of Kendrick Lamar’s deservedly praised storytelling on tracks like “Sing About Me.”
The effect of his brother’s incarceration and of his grandmother’s passing brought Wideman back home, inspiring him to press his ear to the Homewood streets and use his gifts to quilt together the story of his family. The story collection Damballah (1981) and two novels, Hiding Place (1981) and Sent for You Yesterday (1983), find Wideman hitting his stride and achieving a distinctive voice that is more confident and vernacular than in his early work, as well as more penetrating in his study of character.
Published together as The Homewood Trilogy in 1985, all three novels interweave tales of Homewood and its cast of interrelated family members. Damballah interjects lyrical stories of ancestral origin and historical resistance with stories of contemporary disarray and dissolution, suggesting both the deep resourcefulness of one’s past and the brutality and despair of the present. Hiding Place and Sent for You Yesterday are more closely concerned with the reconciliation and forgiveness afforded by family, especially for men who are running from their past.
The terrible strain and countervailing desire for redemption in family bonds had another important echo in Wideman’s life. In 1986, his younger son Jacob, then 16 and suffering from mental illness, murdered another boy while away at a summer camp in Arizona. After a brief flight, Jacob was arrested and attempted suicide while in jail. His parents fought to have him tried as a minor so that Jacob could be held in a mental-health facility, but the court refused. After Jacob pleaded guilty at his trial in 1988, he was sentenced as an adult to 25 years to life. In 2011, his first opportunity for parole was denied, and he remains in prison today.
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“The sign of silence presides over my work,” Wideman declared in a 1999 essay for Callaloo. “Silence marks time, saturates and shapes African-American art. Silences structure our music, fill the spaces—point, counterpoint—of rhythm, cadence, phrasing. Think of the eloquent silences of Thelonious Monk, sometimes comic, sometimes manic and threatening.” The novels that Wideman produced in the wake of his personal tragedy and loss are filled with these silences and absences. Philadelphia Fire (1990) and The Cattle Killing (1996) are riddled with fragmentation, shards of confession, and prophetic rage.
In the Homewood books, Wideman had attempted to bind black social and family histories together through narrative. In these later novels, metaphor and allegory serve to grapple with the fear of cultural collapse, of a nation locked in a pattern of self-destructive violence.
In recent years, Wideman has taken this mandate even further. His novels not only seek to recover a lost past but also take on a certain archival quality. His last novel, Fanon (2008), adopts a playful, almost Brechtian approach, centered around an aging writer who attempts to write the life of Frantz Fanon, the revolutionary theorist and hero of the Algerian Revolution. But while Wideman gets some mileage out of arch set pieces like a visit by Jean-Luc Godard to Homewood to discuss the working script for a Fanon biopic, there’s also a sense of impending exhaustion and frustration in the novel. As Wideman eased into the “late” phase of his career, the pain and disappointments of life and artistic expression seemed almost to have turned him against the novel.
“Writing fiction marginalized me as much as I was marginalized by the so-called fact of my race,” writes Thomas, the novel’s narrator, in a letter to Fanon. “Fiction writing and art in general are scorned, stripped of relevance to people’s daily lives, dependent on charity, mere playthings of power, privilege, buying and selling.”
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The many different strands of Wideman’s work are all present in his new book, Writing to Save a Life. There is the alienated, brooding intellectual from his modernist phase; the vernacular storytelling from his Homewood books; and the sense of marginalization and futility from his later years. But looming above all of them is Wideman’s own exhaustion and moral pessimism, his desire to write but perhaps no longer to write fiction.
A book about a novelist not writing a novel, Writing to Save a Life appears to set foot in numerous genres—history, memoir, biography, literature, etc.—but it is framed as an investigation into the life and death of Louis Till, the father of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy whose 1955 lynching shocked the nation when photographs of his mutilated face and body, made at his mother Mamie Till’s insistence, were published in Jet magazine. Wideman’s long-standing preoccupation with the Emmett Till case goes back at least to 1997, when he published an essay in Essence, “The Killing of Black Boys,” in which he revealed that he suffered from recurring nightmares about Till’s murder. But the new book isn’t exactly about the infamous lynching of the son; rather, it discusses the murky circumstances surrounding the life and death of his father, who was tried and executed by the US Army in 1945 after being charged with a rape and murder committed in Italy, near Civitavecchia, some 10 years before the gruesome murder of Emmett.
One of the many disquieting things about Writing to Save a Life is its indulgence in misdirection. Initially, we get the impression that Wideman is setting out to write a novel about Louis Till and, along the way, perhaps to right a historical wrong. In books by Alice Kaplan, a professor of French at Yale, Wideman learns of the railroading of dozens of black GIs accused of capital offenses during World War II. (Of the 69 soldiers executed for rape and/or murder in the European theater, 55 were black, despite the fact that black men made up less than 10 percent of all soldiers.) But it quickly becomes apparent that Wideman is up to something else as well.
Wideman’s motto “All stories are true,” which served him so well in the past, becomes a kind of fog machine in Writing to Save a Life. His faith that every story—even the fabricated ones—contains some truth causes him to spin out hypotheticals, deliberately blurring the lines between the facts of this case and his freely fictionalized re-creations and annotations of it. Wideman celebrates his own interventions into the textual evidence: He tells of excursions and digressions, interweaving re-creations of Louis Till’s early life with his own visit to the American Cemetery and Memorial in northern France, where Till lies buried among the dishonorably discharged, or to coastal Brittany, where Wideman walks the beaches ruminating as he writes. Personal vignettes spark into life, like cigarettes lit in a dark room: a boy’s fear at his father’s brooding presence, the warmth of a family Thanksgiving dinner, roses outside his grandmother’s home in Pittsburgh.
“I assume the risk of allowing my fiction to enter other people’s true stories. And to be fair, I let other people’s stories trespass the truth of mine,” Wideman writes. His method is to turn the trial report into a palimpsest. “The file writes fiction,” Wideman asserts. “To mimic reality, the Till file writes fiction.”
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The result of these efforts, with respect to uncovering some sense of Louis Till the man and of his guilt or innocence based on the file, is mixed at best. By the end of the book, we’re left with a scumbled portrait of a man who is unlikable: Till abused his wife Mamie, who took out a restraining order against him, and if he didn’t exactly do the things recorded in the trial report, he certainly seems to have been involved in some way in some pretty horrific events on the night of June 27, 1944.
It’s not clear at times whether Wideman is arranging his presentation of the facts for literary effect, or if he is genuinely wrestling with the murky results of a trial record full of ambiguous information. But what is clear is that he believes the official report is full of lies. Till may have been guilty, but it seems quite likely that he did not—indeed, could not—receive a fair trial because of the racial prejudice in the Army at the time. When Wideman says that “lying is a weapon nobody in the Till file can afford to surrender,” it is the rare example of an assertion we know to be true.
The point of foregrounding the inconsistencies and selective witness accounts in the military’s report is to unveil a systemic corruption and indifference to justice in the very people who are supposed to deliver it. It’s a tactic famously used by the dashing French lawyer Jacques Vergès, who defended Nazis like Klaus Barbie and Algerian militants like Djamila Bouhired: He did not seek to justify their actions, but instead reminded the court of the French state’s complicity, of Vichy’s collaboration, of the country’s colonial brutalities and exploitation.
Wideman’s book certainly gives us a striking procedural look into the racism in America’s Jim Crow military. Because of this, it is frustrating that the book misses an opportunity to show how Till’s trial offers us insight into the broader landscape of racist politics in America at midcentury. Wideman could have emphasized, for example, the disgusting attempt by Mississippi senators James Eastland and John C. Stennis to leak Till’s military records to smear his murdered son, an act of racism impressive for its ugliness and depravity even for these stalwarts of white supremacy. In the end, though, Wideman seems to realize that his book about the inability to write a novel about an unsolvable case has little to do with Louis Till per se, and much more to do with his own fears, a sense of impending mortality and of business left unfinished:
Louis Till not stuck like a bone in the country’s throat. America’s forgotten Louis Till, no sweat. It’s me. I’m the one who can’t forget. My wars. My loves. My fear of violent death. I’m afraid Louis Till might be inside me. Afraid that someone looking for Louis Till is coming to pry me apart.
There is a terrible pathos in Writing to Save a Life. Its naked confessions and disjointed attempts to recall and restore a past that is dark with ambiguity, brutality, and violence have a stormy Lear-on-the-heath quality about them. At times, it is also unclear whose life Wideman is writing to save: Louis Till’s? Emmett Till’s? His own? And one comes to realize by the end of the book that the answer might well be: all of the above. “The Louis Till project,” Wideman admits, “is about saving a son and brother, about saving myself.”
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Writing to Save a Life appears at a moment of renewed despair over the senseless and seemingly unstoppable deaths, more often than not of young black men, at the hands of police or through gun violence on the streets. While the bleakness of this slim book only obliquely addresses our contemporary moment, one cannot help hearing the ricochets in its pages. At some points, it feels like Wideman is reminding us of how often we have been here before.
In this way, Wideman’s book—and perhaps much of his later career—offers us yet another indication of the powerful current of pessimism that has paradoxically swelled in black intellectual circles over the course of the nation’s first black presidency. There is an ashen, bitter taste in this new work, which sometimes reads like an autopsy report for the murdered hopes of an entire generation.
In all of Wideman’s work, there’s a sense that much more might have been said. Couldn’t the harrowing gulf between black fathers and sons have been paired with the often astonishing resilience and joy that one can also find in great abundance among black families? (I think of Fraser Robinson III, who worked as a pump operator in Chicago’s water department while raising a hardworking daughter on the South Side; she would later earn a law degree from Harvard and become the current first lady.) There’s a lot of evidence to suggest, in fact, that many black fathers struggle but persist mightily in raising children against the odds.
Indeed, as a study by the Centers for Disease Control in 2013 confirms, not only do black fathers spend as much time caring for their children as those in any other demographic, but by some metrics even more so. I think inevitably, too, of my special relationship with my own father, who struggled with drug and alcohol addictions in the late ’80s. I met him for the first time when I was 11, and we’ve been making up for lost time ever since.
But despite the many pockets of hope and resilience in black life today, one cannot deny the force of Wideman’s vision and the measure of his grief and moral concern. The great body of work that he has gifted us carries voices and memories from the past into our present. And they have, even in their unhappiest moments, the ability to cause us to remember the extraordinary vitality, humor, grace, and courage of ordinary folks up against terrible odds. Homewood is a place in the mind, a down-home (whatever down-home is for you) bastion of resilience and hope, joy and pain and all sorts of other human feelings that we carry like a tortoise shell as we make our way in the world. In its living web of stories, there is a kind of safety—but there are warnings, too.
There’s a price to be paid for every evasion of our past, Wideman’s work seems to tell us. Every fib we peddle, every political cop-out, has its costs on our emotional and moral lives, and Wideman places these stakes before us without hesitation. Here is how he ends his essay on Emmett Till, written 15 years before the murder of Trayvon Martin:
I cannot wish away Emmett Till’s face. The horrific death mask of his erased features marks a site I ignore at my peril. The site of a grievous wound. A wound unhealed because untended. Beneath our nation’s pieties, our self-delusions, our denials and distortions of history, our professed black-and-white certainties about race, lies chaos. The whirlwind that swept Emmett Till away and brings him back.
For eight years now, our country has clung to the rhetoric of hope; we’ve repeatedly been told that it is our aspirations that define us, that our best days are still to come. But it is just as true today that we are the sum of all that we continue to ignore, all that we’ve buried, all the skeletons we refuse to name out of fear, anger, and shame. Writers can remind a society that these ghosts are alive, that they never pass into the past, and that when they cease to be remembered, the whirlwind that Wideman speaks of can grow, sometimes suddenly, into a howl capable of tearing our living bonds apart.