Modern With a Human Face:
John Edgar Wideman Writes Home

In the long run, the tortured publishing course of John Edgar Wideman’s recent and best work may well have been the best thing for it. About four years ago, Wideman began to send around two books he’d completed after a lengthy fallow period: a novel called Hiding Place and a collection of interrelated stories, Damballah. His three earlier novels had given him a good critical track record. He’d been compared to Ralph Ellison, and though that probably said more about the color of Wideman’s skin than about the character of his work, it did indicate the size of his aspirations: this was a candidate not so much for New Black Writer as for Great Modern Novelist.

Which was problematic enough in itself. The great modern novel—formally ambitious, wholly original, sort of realistic, but with grandeur in there somewhere—has become an awkward proposition, something of an embarrassment to all concerned. It’s not a viable genre. It doesn’t sell. Maybe this is the reader’s fault for not caring enough to read something difficult, or maybe it’s the writer’s fault for not caring enough to write something easier. Or maybe it goes beyond that—maybe the idea of the great and the idea of modern cancel each other out (greatness has become a corrupt category; realism self-destructs; Ulysses was an impossible act to follow anyhow). In any case Wideman’s first three novels—A Glance Away, Hurry Home, and The Lynchers—sold modestly, accepted their critical applause, and went modestly out of print. The years that followed The Lynchers—most of the ‘70s—were not kind to the book industry and it had no intention of being kind to anyone else. Hiding Place, with Damballah thrown in as a bonus, got a single hardcover offer, humiliatingly low. In this case perhaps it was the publishers’ fault. Although the early novels had their artistic limitations (heavy on the alienated young men, weak on the endings), in the intervening years Wideman had undergone a transformation so stunning it seems almost of a spiritual order. He’d found his subject. He had produced work as important as anything being written in English today.

From here on, things began to look up. Given those bleak publishing prospects, Wideman chose a course that might be the rule, not the exception, if the prevailing hardcover-only review mentality weren’t so solidly entrenched: he made a paper-back original debut with Avon. That way the product could at least price itself down for a broader readership. And his gamble worked: Hiding Place, Damballah, and a third book, Sent for You Yesterday, all in handsome rack-sized editions, all sold perhaps 10 times as much as the earlier hardbacks. Wideman’s rep was such that the books did get reviewed, selectively. And this May, Sent for You Yesterday won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner award—just in time for the trilogy’s hardcover reissue in (curiouser and curiouser) an English edition from Alison & Busby that Schocken books is distributing here. With a new hardcover in the offing (the nonfiction Brothers and Keepers is due from Holt in October), the stage looks set for a happy ending, or middle. Still, it’s a little scary that such work had to go begging at all.

Perhaps Wideman’s change really was of the spiritual kind. He spent most of the ‘70s in Laramie, Wyoming, reading Afro-American literature in breadth and depth for the first time. When he came down from the mountains, it was to revisit his extended family, in Pittsburgh, during its worst crisis—the arrest, conviction, and life sentence of Wideman’s younger brother Robbie on charges of being an accessory to murder. This reconnection deeply affected Wideman’s work. He began to dip more freely into black usage; where he’d stuck T.S. Eliot into an earlier stream of consciousness, in the later books it was likely to be lines of gospel. Where he’d followed sensitive young men into the nightmare of their souls, he began to write about their families—his family—and to lace his language with theirs.

Not that language had been Wideman’s problem. His early writing was dense and a little sour, but the prose had a sensitivity to smell, to dampness, to the usedness of things that made it hold a human shape, the way a footprint does. He noticed, on a kitchen wall, “the grease streaks from the boys’ slicked down heads as they leaned back cockily on spindly legged chairs sneaking smokes and trading lies,” “the sagging cushions of a sway backed sofa,” “the scarred border of linoleum” “pee smell, . . . wine smell and sick smell,” or an old man’s feet “wrapped in layers of ragged wool socks [whose] unwashed fragrance made a palpable ring [a child] must enter to touch his grandfather.” Repetition made Wideman’s rhythms tenacious, grinding—sometimes nagging. Indeed, there was a strangled feel to those early books, with their irresolute conclusions and their heroes who walked in pain, dread, shame, and disgust. And though that was a plausible, perhaps even telling condition, it was never entirely free of literary convention—of Stephen Dedalus’s ghost.

In a way, what this Joyce disciple did up in the mountains was to invent his own postmodernism, for his own purposes, out of folkways. I mean something more sophisticated than using black English for formal purposes, for rhythmic motifs; I mean playing with the notion of the text. The Homewood of the Homewood trilogy is the real Pittsburgh community where Wideman’s maternal family still lives after more than a century; and it is this family that constitutes the cast of characters, sometimes under their real names. Wideman’s name in the novels in John, and it seems the homeliest thing in the world for our narrator to coarsen himself into existence to play straight man, provide commentary, or delivery a punch line. But at the same time his and other real-life incursions are pointedly disorienting. At the beginning of the Damballah

Wideman is interested in telling as a subject, but he locates that self-consciousness in its characters, who do much of his telling for him. In part, Damballah is about family stories as a palpably useful factor in his family’s survival. The collection starts with a story from the slave past that obliquely shows a new African slave teaching an acculturated one a trick of his tribe: catching fish with language. The African does this by repeating a single, forbidden word—“Damballah,” the name of the serpent god, signifying (among other things) that which doesn’t change. Then the time frame jumps to the start of this century, whereupon Wideman hauls out the family jewels—its stories, which make what happened matter. There’s Aunt May’s story of saving the life of Wideman’s mother, Lizabeth, by plunging her blue newborn body into a snowbank; and Lizabeth’s story of how her daddy, John French, to prove it wasn’t lethal, ate the other half of the caterpillar she’d nibbled; and Lizabeths’mother’s story about saving John French’s life by punching her fist through a window as a warning. John Wideman’s story, apparently, is the tale of Robbie, his there-but-for-the-grace-of-God convict brother.

Three stories in Damballah are about Robbie (fictional name Tommy)—his crime, his punishment. Hiding Place focuses on the days after the crime, when Tommy tries to hide out with an old great-aunt, Mother Bess, who lives in isolation on top of Bruston Hill, in the house once occupied by Sybela Owens, the family’s slave ancestor who ran away to freedom. Sent for You Yesterday drops the Tommy plot but brings in another wanted man, this one from Wideman’s grandfather’s generation—Albert Wilkes, a piano player who was, actually or symbolically, betrayed by Wideman’s father’s generation. But Wideman has still more ways to tell the same story. This season’s forthcoming Brothers and Keepers discusses Robbie’s crime and prison life, John’s visits, and his most candid reactions, this time in real nonfiction with help from Robbie himself.

Many of Wideman’s plots are set in the past, especially the ‘20s and ‘30s, but the ’40s and ’50s, even the early ’70s, also have a period feeling, peculiarly nostalgic. Wideman often takes the point of view of old people, who have a special place in these books. That smelly grandfather from A Glance Away, John French, becomes one of the most appealing family figures—a strong, humorous, and very sexual man. And the encounter between generations is an important theme. In Hiding Place, Old Bess finally comes down from her stronghold in the past to help—if not Tommy, then others in his generation. In Sent for You Yesterday, the present generation learns to forgive the previous one for its passivity, and in so doing learns something about itself. Messages from the past explain the present in Damballah, which begins and ends in bondage.

The detail is, like that in the earlier novels, immensely physical. We’re show damp walls, sticky fingers, sour breaths, worn clothes, and, especially, pain. There are walking infirmities—Bess with her arthritic hand “so pitiful it’s just pitiful and nothing to do with you, just a pitiful thing laying there beside a coffee cup, too swollen and crippled to raise up the cup”; one boy’s sinuses “like a bucket of soggy grits”; the “evil knot” of pain that is John French’s backache. There are enormous everyday physical struggles, like killing walks up long hills on old, bad feet; mental ones like waiting; and emotional ones like keeping the faith. Love, especially family love, and most especially the sexual kind, has life-and-death power here, like food or air. Lost loves are mourned for life: by Tommy, who dreams of his ex-wife with her breasts like two eyes; by old Bess, still hearing the sweet talk of a man dead for years; by Wideman’s grandmother Freeda, who stopped walking when her husband died. But family love, and especially the nonsexual kind, can also transform and rescue.

Although their prose is insistently physical, the structure of Wideman’s books is often delicate, sometimes startlingly focused. Hiding Place is built around the image of hard trips up a mountain to beseech a mountainously stubborn old woman for help, and her final decision to come down, to start over when she’s given up for years, is as lumberingly miraculous as the mountain’s coming to Mohammed. Sent for You Yesterday is constructed as a call-and-response with its own title, but we don’t learn that until Wideman has performed a long song-and-dance that brings in Albert Wilkes, Uncle Carl, and an odd fable about an albino child whose black siblings may have killed him. Only then, when Wideman has come to terms with Carl and his entire generation, do we find out that the title is the name of the song playing when he learned to dance from his Uncle Carl. Second line? “And here you come today.”

That albino child’s father appears in Wideman’s first novel, as a grotesque, and Wideman sometimes presents himself as a sort of spiritual albino. The rejected, freakishly white child, set in its intricate story of rejected blacks, creates a haunting image. In fact, Wideman’s images of black American life are subtle, often dual—which of course makes sense. One black baby found dead in the snow, another saved by it; a watermelon story about losing faith for good reason, another one about keeping in anyhow; and always, the two brothers, free and trapped in different ways. Wideman’s indirectness and delicacy give these images space to pair up or not. He keeps that pairing sstory, and that space, as he touches the story that is always mixed in with the other family ones: the part of black heritage (and white, for that matter, since it impacted us all) that is a question not of race or culture but of the Invisible Man’s forbidden souvenir, a piece of chain, the legacy of literal slavery. And it’s in his handling of this story that Wideman executes his most extraordinary feat. He slips it into his gift to Robbie, like a file in a pie. Damballah begins in slavery and then, having traveled a century, ends there, with an abrupt, stunning envoi invoking the ghost of the runaway slave ancestor, Sybela Owens. And in a sudden confusion of terms that’s like a reconstruction of Sydney Carton slipping into Darnay’s clothes at the guillotine, Wideman wonders: if he’d been a slave, would he have run or stayed? Who is Sybela Owens’s real heir? John writing this? Or Robbie reading it inside?

For all the love in these three powerful books, there’s also an underlying sense of deprivation, a feeling of bone-deep rage. Thinking about them, I find myself in a kind of rage, too. I care enough to read something difficult, but it has to give me something back. Nothing fancy, just some sense of why what happens matters. Otherwise, like many careful readers, I’ll settle for mysteries, which adhere to formal integrity while remaining humane, if only to readers, by providing something we actually want to finish. So when I find books as big-spirited and as formally ambitious as Wideman’s, instead of just being grateful, I realize how much I’ve been missing, and I feel hungry. Why is there so little of this kind of thing? How hard does it have to be? Please, could I have some more?

The Boston Phoenix, Aug. 28, 1984