In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section John Edgar Wideman

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Biography
  • Interviews
  • Journals
  • Correspondence
  • Wideman and Other Writers

American Literature John Edgar Wideman
Keith Byerman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0135


John Edgar Wideman was born 14 June 1941 in Washington, DC, to Edgar and Bette French Wideman. They soon moved back to the African American neighborhood of Homewood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where both the Widemans and the Frenches had established themselves after emigrating from the South. Wideman attended public schools there and earned an academic scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania and then was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. While in England, he married Judith Goldman. Upon returning to the States, he attended the Iowa Writers Workshop for a year before accepting a faculty position at the University of Pennsylvania. During his time at Iowa, he completed his first novel, A Glance Away (1967). In this work and the following two—Hurry Home (1970) and The Lynchers (1973)—he demonstrated a strong commitment to a modernist approach to writing, taking as his models T. S. Eliot and William Faulkner. After these pessimistic but critically acclaimed works about a community much like Homewood, Wideman took a break for several years. He spent the time listening to the voices, stories, and history of the neighborhood. Out of this new education came the Homewood trilogy: Damballah (1981), No Hiding Place (1981), and Sent for You Yesterday (1983). In these works, he retold many of the stories he had heard from family members and in many cases blurred the lines between fiction and autobiography. At this point, he turned both to fiction and nonfiction that engaged socially relevant issues, even when they made use of history or family experiences. In Reuben (1989), Philadelphia Fire (1990), and Two Cities (1996), he focused on the deterioration of the urban environment; in Brothers and Keepers (1984), he used his brother’s incarceration as a means of commenting on the prison system’s effect on black men; and in Fever (1989) and Cattle Killing (1996), he explored the notion of racism as a national disease. He has also written extensively on sports, especially basketball, as a key part of his own life and a way of understanding the lives of black men. He has made extensive use of the techniques of postmodernism, especially in his most recent novel, Fanon (2010), in which he talks more about writing a book about Frantz Fanon than actually telling Fanon’s story. He has been critically acclaimed, winning two PEN/Faulkner Awards and a MacArthur grant, as well as numerous local and regional recognitions, but he has never been an especially popular writer. Instead, he has spent his career teaching at major universities. Nonetheless, he is perhaps the most prolific of modern African American writers, having produced ten novels, six collections of short fiction, and four books of nonfiction, as well as numerous essays.

General Overviews

Coleman 1989, Coleman 2010, Mbalia 1995, and Ramsey 1997 establish the early critical position on Wideman’s fiction by arguing for the modernist nature of his early work. Eschborn 2011 accepts this position but gives more emphasis to the role of history in The Homewood Trilogy and other long fiction. Guzzio 2011 offers the first truly new approach by focusing on trauma and on the consistency of the entire body of writing. Severs 2016 hones in on trauma by pointing to horrific experiences in several Wideman works. Hoem 2000 presents the case for Wideman’s postmodernism, while Hume 2003 looks at narrative technique, especially the use of multiple senses and arts. Andrade 2006 counters Hoem 2000 by reading the work as employing a traditional black aesthetic rather than postmodernism. Guzzio 2006 (see Criticism) reinforces this notion by examining Wideman’s engagement with various versions of the past. In the same collection, TuSmith 2006 makes a similar point by pointing out the importance of vision and the creative role of the observer. Byerman 1998 (see Criticism: Short Fiction) offers the only extended examination of the short fiction, discussing the first three books of stories, as well as providing some examples of commentary from other critics. The latest overview is Miller 2018, which includes a discussion of Wideman’s latest book, Writing to Save a Life.

  • Andrade, Heather Russell. “Race, Representation, and Intersubjectivity in the Works of John Edgar Wideman.” In Critical Essays on John Edgar Wideman. Edited by Bonnie TuSmith and Keith E. Byerman, 43–56. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006.

    Contends that Wideman’s nonfiction is not postmodern but operates within a black cultural aesthetic.

  • Coleman, James W. Blackness and Modernism: The Literary Career of John Edgar Wideman. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.

    First full-length study of the fiction; contends that Wideman underwent a career-transforming shift from the modernist sensibility of the first three novels to a more Afro-centered perspective in The Homewood Trilogy.

  • Coleman, James W. Writing Blackness: John Edgar Wideman’s Art and Experimentation. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010.

    Undertakes to clarify many of the complexities of Wideman’s writing, by showing how he combines fiction with autobiography, history, and folklore. Considers virtually all the book-length fiction and nonfiction.

  • Eschborn, Ulrich. Stories of Survival: John Edgar Wideman’s Representations of History. Mosaic 42. Trier, Germany: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2011.

    Examines Wideman’s view of history in the novels through Cattle Killing. Defines the works as studies in survival. Follows the first Coleman book in seeing a clear division between the early works and The Homewood Trilogy.

  • Guzzio, Tracie Church. All Stories Are True: History, Myth, and Trauma in the Work of John Edgar Wideman. Margaret Walker Alexander Series in African American Studies. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011.

    DOI: 10.14325/mississippi/9781617030048.001.0001

    Challenges Coleman’s contention of the dramatic shift in Wideman’s perspective, by linking the works of his entire writing career. Makes use of a number of the essays as well as longer nonfiction and fiction.

  • Hoem, Sheri I. “‘Shifting Spirits’: Ancestral Constructs in the Postmodern Writing of John Edgar Wideman.” African American Review 34.2 (2000): 249–262.

    DOI: 10.2307/2901252

    Argues that Damballah and The Cattle Killing demonstrate their postmodern character in the ways they both pose an ancestral figure as a potential source of African American identity and subvert the idea that such a figure can be anything other than a construction, often textually based.

  • Hume, Kathryn. “‘Dimensions’ and John Edgar Wideman’s Mental Cosmology.” Contemporary Literature 44.4 (2003): 697–726.

    DOI: 10.2307/3250591

    Examines the layering technique that Wideman develops over the course of his career, from the early novels to Hoop Roots, as his way of adding complexity to the narratives. These include efforts to re-create sounds and smells as well as to employ aspects of other arts.

  • Mbalia, Doreatha Drummond. John Edgar Wideman: Reclaiming the African Personality. Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 1995.

    Argues that Wideman’s early work demonstrated his lack of commitment to an African sensibility in favor of privileging white European ideas and aesthetics.

  • Miller, D. Quentin. Understanding John Edgar Wideman. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2018.

    Explores the entirety of Wideman’s work, focusing on the use of folk material and incarceration. Includes an examination of Writing to Save a Life, Wideman’s recent work on the life and execution of Louis Till, the father of Emmett Till.

  • Ramsey, Priscilla R. “John Edgar Wideman’s First Fiction: Voice and the Modernist Narrative.” CLA Journal 41.1 (1997): 1–23.

    Traces the uses of modernist literary techniques in Wideman’s first three novels. Shows particular interest in the fracturing of consciousness in the major characters.

  • Severs, Jeffrey. “‘Playing Father Son and Holocaust’: The Imagination of Totalitarian Oppression in the Works of John Edgar Wideman.” MELUS 41.1 (2016): 72–92.

    DOI: 10.1093/melus/mlv082

    Uses the work of Hannah Ahrendt to show how Wideman links experiences of holocaust and trauma throughout history. “Holocaust” here refers to large-scale attacks on groups of people based on their difference from the dominant group.

  • TuSmith, Bonnie. “Optical Tricksterism: Dissolving and Shapeshifting in the Works of John Edgar Wideman.” In Critical Essays on John Edgar Wideman. Edited by Bonnie TuSmith and Keith E. Byerman, 243–258. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006.

    Reads several works as employing the folk tradition of the trickster rather than the techniques of postmodernism. In doing so, Wideman does not reject reality but defines it as complex and ever changing.

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