Ma Xiu Jia

Introduction

General Outline

In Europe, there is little known about John Edgar Wideman. Only few of his books are available in European book-stores, critical studies of his writings by Europeans are scarce, and translations of his works are practically non existing. Yet, in the United States, Wideman has a considerable readership, and, maybe more importantly, he is recognized, in academic circles, as one of America"s prime black authors.

Wideman has received many literary awards, and he is the only author ever to have won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award twice. His life has, in much the same way, been marked by extraordinary events. He was one of about ten African Americans to graduate from the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania in 1963. Directly afterwards, he left for Oxford in the United Kingdom as a Rhodes Scholar. He was only the second African American in the history of the Scholarship to receive this honour. After his return from Oxford, he became the first fully tenured African American professor at his alma mater, and the first director of a Department of African American Literature at that University.

There is an other side to this record of remarkable achievements. In 1975, his brother Robert was involved in an armed robbery in which a man was killed. For this crime, Robert was sentenced to life without parole. In 1986, an even more unimaginable tragedy struck Wideman. During a camping trip, his 16-year old son Jacob killed a fellow camper. Although Wideman, backed up by medical experts, asserted that his son was mentally ill, Jacob was tried as an adult in 1988 and sentenced to life in prison.

In this dissertation, it is firstly my aim to demonstrate in which ways John Edgar Wideman"s writing has been influenced by socio-economic aspects of American society, in particular the way in which that society has dealt with African Americans in the past century. Since Wideman published his first novel, A Glance Away, in 1967, he has evolved considerably on several levels. His first works disregarded almost entirely the social implications of being black. Instead, those early works focused on the psychological constitution of individuals in the modernist tradition. His later novels, however, are steeped in an often caustic social analysis. His most recent works, such as Philadelphia Fire (1990), The Cattle Killing (1996) and Two Cities (1998), are in part elaborated pieces of criticism, and show a deep influence of the postmodernist rhetoric.

As Wideman"s writing is intertwined, on many levels, with his being an African American, I have opted to include a chapter on the importance of race in his writings. I will focus on the socio-historical aspects of race as they appear in Wideman"s writing. In order to facilitate a good understanding of Wideman"s implicit criticism, I will first give some historical information on the most important events in African American history since slavery. In second instance, I will devote attention to an extended metaphor Wideman elaborated in the non-fictional work Fatheralong (1994). In that work, Wideman sees the general decline in African American community as a consequence of the loss of contact between generations. According to Wideman, the lives of African American males can be categorized into four types of searches for a lost father. The father is lost because of the oppressive regime of the white South. The alienation between African American fathers and sons is a key-concept in Wideman"s writing. Finally, with the help of some historical information on the 1960s, I will show how Wideman has synthesized many of the mentioned factors into an autobiographical memoir (Brothers and Keepers, 1984) accounting for the causes of his brother"s crime.

The aim of the third chapter is to look into the way in which Wideman has represented the decline of African American communal life in several of his writings. In order to do this, I will give a chronological account of the deterioration of Homewood, which, in Wideman"s writing, can be said to epitomize the entirety of African American community. The chapter makes clear that, in Wideman"s view, the overall condition of African Americans in the twentieth century has not improved: although many African Americans may have better jobs, more money and nicer houses than they did a century ago, they have not been able to prevent the death of communal life. African American communal life, constituted, in Wideman"s view, the strength of the African American.

In a last chapter, I will discuss in closer detail Wideman"s 1990 novel Philadelphia Fire. The novel is considered by some critics to be his best work so far. It is, in my view, his most gripping work. I will show how Wideman"s pessimistic outlook on contemporary society causes the modernistic rhetoric, used in the beginning of the novel, to dissolve into a postmodern explosion of images. Thematically, the novel is marked by its preoccupation with the faulty relationships between fathers and sons. The novel breathes a sense of nihilism. The world is depicted as nearing its apocalypse, since fathers have created a world where children no longer have the possibility to live. The crime Wideman"s son has committed lies at the basis of the novel.

Preceding the three main chapters, I have included a biography of Wideman. Wideman"s fictional works are literally "crammed" with characters revealing more than a coincidental similarity to one of his family members. In some cases, Wideman has even presented himself as a fictional character. The line between fiction and non-fiction in his work is very thin: "As a fiction writer I tend to react against the notion that I should provide a very clear distinction between fiction and nonfiction, because I don"t think the lines are hard and fast."(1) It is therefore my conviction that a basic familiarity with Wideman"s biographical background attributes to a good understanding of his work.

Sadly enough, some aspects of John Edgar Wideman"s writing had to be left out of this dissertation. This is especially the case for his use of language. Throughout his work, Wideman has demonstrated his mastery of Standard Received English and Black Oral Vernacular, and he has succeeded in uniting both as equivalents. He excels in evoking lively dialogues between African Americans. Particularly in the trilogy The Homewood Books (1992), set in the Pittsburgh neighbourhood of Homewood where he grew up, many neologisms and humoristic expressions, contrived by Homewood locals, are joined together to create a narrative that seems to be begging for someone to read it aloud:

You call this coffee, old woman?

Don"t call it nothing. I drinks it. And if you don"t like it don"t say nothing, don"t give it no name, just set it down.

I ain"t complaining. Just saying it"s strong, is all. And strong ain"t hardly the word. This coffee got four feet and all of em kicking.(2)

The concept of "race"

Before one can say anything about "race" and its importance in the writings of an author, as I intend to do with the work of John Edgar Wideman, it is important to ponder for a moment on the question: what is "race"? It is beyond the scope of this dissertation to scan meticulously the several opinions about race that have prevailed in certain historical periods, but I will attempt to touch upon some of the most basic conceptions made, and I will refer to Wideman"s own opinion.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. points out that "ideas of irresistible racial differences" had become commonly held by 1850.(3) These ideas did not arise coincidentally in the nineteenth century, which, after all, was marked by the rise of the several nationalisms and by an increased interest in ethnology and physical anthropology. The concept of race was used to divide people into several closed categories, such as Caucasian, Negroid and Mongoloid.(4) In defining those categories, anthropologists resorted to describing physical difference and geographic provenance. However, other characteristics came to be ascribed to the several categories. Distinct levels of intelligence, and differences in social and cultural interaction and manifestation were considered as determined by race. For members of the "Negroid"-race, this came down to being depicted as devoid of higher intelligence and as primitive in both social interaction and cultural manifestation. These theses helped to justify slavery. As Blacks were considered less "human" than whites on all levels, the exploitation of them was not deemed a crime. The fact that American whites regarded Blacks as not fully endowed individuals, is made clear for instance by the "three-fifths compromise". The compromise was issued as law by the original framers of the United States Constitution. It "stipulated that a slave could be counted as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of apportioning representation for a given district in the Congress."(5)

In the first half of the twentieth century, "racial superiority and social Darwinism put forward by writers such as Gobineau and Nietzsche reached their culmination in Nazi ideology of the 1930s."(6) Similar ideas of racial superiority were employed to justify and maintain several American laws regarding segregation. By the middle of the twentieth century, however, advances in genetic biology had demonstrated that the genetic variation between two members of different races could be smaller than the variation between two members of the same race. In general, the difference is very small:

The chances of two people who are both Caucasoid differing in genetic constitution at one site on a given chromosome are about 14.3 percent, while, for any two people taken at random from the human population, they are about 14.8 percent. The conclusion is obvious: given only a person"s race, it is hard to say what his or her biological characteristics will be, except in respect of the "grosser" features of color, hair, and bone (the genetics of which are, in any case, rather poorly understood).(7)

Biologic advances thus removed the basis on which individuals had been divided into categories that gave information about the individual"s presumed intelligence, social skills and cultural level. What did remain as a basis for dividing people are indeed the "grosser features". These features, however, became harder to determine as interbreeding became more widespread, and an increasing number of people exhibited the physical features of more than one racial group. This is especially the case in the Americas, which, from the beginning of their colonization, was a place where people from all over the world were joined together.

The concept of "race" remained, and it persists until this day. In order to divide individuals into several racial groups, geographical descent and ethnic history became important criteria. These criteria, however, have the same limited value as physical features when it comes to determining a person"s race. What, for example, is the geographical provenance and ethnic history of an individual whose parents were born on different continents?

It has become clear that race is a problematic concept. Wideman himself vocalizes this:

Chaos looms because race can mean everything or nothing. A denial of diversity. A claim of profound, unalterable difference between kinds of human beings. An empty word. A word bristling with the power of religious dogma and faith. A word obsolete, anachronistic, dysfunctional in vocabularies which attempt to model a rational, holistic version of humanity here at the dawn of the twenty-first century.(8)

The haziness, the much doubted scientific grounds and the nefariousness of the concept of race have led Henry Louis Gates to go so far as to claim "that "races," put simply, do not exist, and that to claim they do, for whatever misguided reason, is to stand on dangerous ground."(9)

It is clear though that the concept of race remains of major influence in contemporary society. This, in turn, has influenced the writing of Wideman. Hence, in dealing with Wideman"s writing, a comprehensive definition of race is necessary. It might be fair to claim ethnic history as the ultimate criterion. In that way, the fact that African Americans share a history of bondage comes in as one of the most important characteristics of the black American race. Yet, the most effective way of defining race with regards to Wideman"s writing might be a definition ab negativo. In such a definition, race would not be defined as much by characteristics inherent in the individual, as it would be by the way in which the individual is categorized by others, and by the consequences of that categorization. Of course, the definition leaves the main question unanswered: on the basis of what criterion will those "others" categorize an individual? In Wideman"s writing, however, and especially as it is presented in this dissertation, the consequences of being an African American prevail over the nature of being an African American and hence, the definition ab negativo seems to be the most efficient one.

Finally, I would like to devote some attention the different denominations by which African Americans have been described throughout history. The first term used to designate an African American was nigger, which was no more than a variation of the Spanish word "negro" and the French word "nègre", both meaning black. In the word nigger, hence, it becomes clear that physical difference constituted the first and foremost way by which African Americans were categorized.

Near the end of slavery, and especially after its abolition, the term nigger was replaced by Negro, as the heritage of cruelty and slavery weighed down heavily on nigger. The word Negro has the same ethymological roots as nigger. Negro became the most widely used denomination for Blacks for over a century. During the 1960s however, connotations attached to the word Negro incited a resentment. Linked to the rise of the Black Civil Rights movements, who viewed Negro as an epithet devised by the white oppressor, the new term African American was launched. The term African American clearly reveals the changed emphasis in defining races: instead of opting for physical features as the binding rule, people considered ethnic history and geographic provenance (African) as the most important factor. At the same time, however, the term Black arose, which is an extension of and replacement for the word Negro, which had become politically incorrect.


(1) Wideman, John Edgar. Interview. By Al Filreis and Lorene Cary. The Pennsylvania Gazette, July 2000. http://www.upenn.edu/gazette/0700/prendergast.html. January 14, 2001. n.p.

(2) Wideman, John Edgar. Hiding Place. (1981) In: The Homewood Books. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992. 264.

(3) Gates, Henry Louis Jr. "Writing "Race" and the Difference It Makes." In: Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. ed. "Race," Writing, and Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1986. 3.

(4) see: The Oxford English Reference Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996 (second edition).

(5) "The Literature of Slavery and Freedom: 1746—1865". In: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997. 131.

(6) The Oxford English Reference Dictionary.

(7) Appiah, Anthony. "The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race." In: "Race," Writing, and Difference. 31.

(8) Wideman, John Edgar. Fatheralong. (1994). London: Picador, 1996. xii.

(9) Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "Talkin" That Talk". In: "Race," Writing and Difference. 403.