John Edgar Wideman (b. 1941)
Contributing Editor: James W. Coleman
Classroom Issues and Strategies
I usually start by discussing the students' typical responses to Wideman with them. Students, like most readers generally, want to read linear narratives that purport to relate directly to their lives, or that they can visualize in a clear real-world context, and the aspects of Wideman's works that challenge their notions about narratives and their approaches to reading put them off. I ask them to examine their very traditional assumptions about narratives, about how narratives should relate to them, and about how they should read and judge fiction. Another question that I eventually ask is whether Wideman might have a purpose (beyond the desire to be a difficult writer) for writing as he does. And what is one of the first things about Wideman's fiction that they should see before they try to determine his meaning and relate to his work in their usual fashion?
They should see that Wideman disrupts their normal narrative approach because as he questions and tests the process in which he engages as the writer, he wants readers to question what they do too. If students will think about it, they will see that words written on a page cannot replicate the concreteness, complexity, and convolution of their experience. The language of a narrative may pretend and appear to do so, but it cannot. This is one of the first things that Wideman reminds them of and that they must accept when they approach Wideman's work. This does not mean that they should no longer read narratives that give them what they expect. But might there be a place for Wideman's kind of writing, too?
Wideman shows students this, not to abdicate a social, political, and real-life responsibility in his fiction, but to indicate the difficulty of the writer's task and the truth of what narratives are and what they do. Some students, perhaps many, however, will not be convinced by this. But some will appreciate Wideman, and one can also generate a pretty good discussion based on the students' pure emotional response to fiction such as Wideman's that requires them to work so hard.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Wideman indeed portrays clear historical perspectives and intense personal issues; however, in the context of his postmodern approach, he also questions the ability of writing to do fully and successfully what he wants it to do. In the selection in The Heath Anthology, "Valaida," the Jewish experience of the Holocaust and the African-American historical experience of racism intersect, and Wideman also foregrounds the life and history of a black entertainer, Valaida Snow, whom few of us know. In a historical perspective, racism and oppression are pervasive themes in Wideman's work.
If we move beyond "Valaida" to examine Wideman's work since 1981, we see him focusing very directly on himself personally, on his family, and especially on the tragedies and tribulations of specific family members. Wideman's fiction often takes as a theme the very thing that he struggles with as a writer--the quest to be a black writer who writes about the black community and its experience and makes a difference through his writing. Wideman sometimes makes himself (or a surrogate writer figure) a character in his fiction, and shows himself as a character undergoing the struggle that he undergoes as a writer in real life. He writes intimately about people in his family and about a community of black people in this process.
The tragic stories of Wideman's brother and son have also become major aspects of his work since 1981. Starting in Hiding Place (1981) and Damballah (1981) and reaching a focus in the semifictional Brothers and Keepers (1984), Wideman deals with his relationship to his younger brother Robby, jailed for life for robbery and murder. And in Philadelphia Fire (1990) and some of the stories in The Stories of John Edgar Wideman (1992), he talks to his son, also locked away for murder.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
As I have been saying, Wideman will seem very unconventional to many student readers. He uses modernist techniques and creates dense modernist fictional forms in his early work, but the majority of his work since 1981 utilizes postmodernist approaches and techniques. However, this later work also draws increasingly on black cultural forms, on religious rituals and practices, black folk stories, and black street ways, for example. "Valaida" is a story that combines a postmodernist approach with the traditional African-American themes of racism and oppression.
Wideman has always enjoyed high praise from critics, intellectuals, and some academics, but he has never had a wide general audience. Few undergraduates have heard of Wideman, and fewer have read anything by him. Yet Wideman's books continue to win awards, and critics continue to praise him. Perhaps Wideman's work draws acclaim from critics, intellectuals, and academics for the same reason (its complexity and ingenuity) that it denies access to more general readers.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
On the one hand, Wideman provides a contrast to other black writers who do not make the writing itself an explicit theme, and this is the large majority of them, I think. This would include so difficult and complex a writer as Toni Morrison, who manages to keep her focus on the theme of black struggle without foregrounding the problems and difficulties of writing the narrative itself. But on the other hand, there are black writers such as Charles Johnson who share concerns about writing similar to Wideman's, and Wideman's thematic concern with racism and the black cultural tradition connects him strongly to the black literary tradition generally. I would also point out that Wideman's work separates itself from the radical textuality, the complete focus on language and the workings of the narrative, of such white writers as Raymond Federman and Ronald Sukenick. And the reality of Wideman's narratives is not the same detached reality of a writer such as Thomas Pynchon.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
The following study questions may be helpful for "Valaida": How do the story's style and form force you to approach it? What is the connection of the italicized section at the beginning to the rest of the story? What is the relationship between the story Mr. Cohen tells Mrs. Clara and the beginning section? What is Mr. Cohen trying to do by telling Mrs. Clara the story? How do style, form, and theme coalesce in the story? Students might start to approach writing about "Valaida" by looking at this convergence of style, form, and theme and the resulting tension between postmodernist treatment and social and political intention.
Although Wideman published his first book in 1967 and has published ten books since then, one still finds relatively few works about him. The most comprehensive source is James W. Coleman's Blackness and Modernism: The Literary Career of John Edgar Wideman (1989), which has an interview with Wideman as an appendix. Other helpful interviews are John O'Brien's in Interviews with Black Writers (1973) and Wilfred Samuel's "Going Home: A Conversation with John Edgar Wideman," Callallo 6 (February 1983): 40-59. Good analyses of Wideman's works also appear in Bernard W. Bell's The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition (1987); Michael G. Cooke's Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century: The Achievement of Intimacy (1981); and Trudier Harris's Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals (1984). Kermit Frazier's "The Novels of John Wideman," Black World, v. 24, 8 (1975): 18-35 is one of the very first pieces on Wideman and is still useful.