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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

John Edgar†Wideman
(b. 1941)

John Edgar Wideman was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in the black Homewood section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Widemanís parents struggled financially, but managed a decent standard of living for their family. During Widemanís high school years, circumstances allowed the family to move out of Homewood to Shadyside, a more economically prosperous neighborhood; Wideman attended the integrated Peabody High School in Shadyside, starred on the basketball team, became senior class president, and earned the honor of valedictorian.

It was at Peabody High School that Widemanís remarkable intellectual and creative career started to emerge clearly. In these early years, Wideman began to immerse himself in white, Western intellectual influences and traditions, which caused some estrangement from black cultural traditions and psychological separation from black people. After high school, he went on to the University of Pennsylvania to major in English, study the traditional curriculum, and develop his creative writing skills. He also became an All-Ivy-League basketball player. These very impressive credentials earned Wideman a Rhodes Scholarship at his graduation in 1963. Wideman went to Oxford and was one of the first two black Rhodes Scholars to complete the term in over fifty years. After Oxford, Wideman returned to the University of Pennsylvania to become that schoolís first black tenured professor.

In order to raise their children in a different environment, Wideman and his wife, Judy, moved to Laramie, Wyoming and the University of Wyoming after he taught at the University of Pennsylvania. Widemanís distance from Homewood ironically drew him back to the African American experience. Listening to family stories while visiting Homewood for his grandmotherís funeral in 1973, Wideman began to incorporate influences from the black cultural tradition into his writing (his first novel had been published in 1967, when he was twenty-six), and to move psychologically closer to his family and to black people in his personal life. Wideman spent the years between 1973 and 1981, during which he published none of what he wrote, studying African American cultural influences. He read a wide range of books about the black experience, and also studied the culture firsthand, making his family in Homewood his main source. Wideman and his family left Laramie in the late 1980s; he now teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Widemanís first three novels, the third of which appeared in 1973, show strong influences from the mainstream modernist tradition that he studied and knew so thoroughly. These works have black settings and mostly black characters, but Wideman makes the bleak, pessimistic modernist voice dominant over a black cultural voice. These novels often show Wideman as a virtuoso craftsman and writer of great power; however, he did not feel satisfied with what he had done. His writing after 1981, when he refocused his fiction and himself toward blackness, displays very strong postmodernist influences, but postmodernism serves the needs of articulating African American racial concerns and African American cultural tradition, whose voice is dominant. Wideman has published eleven books since 1981. The quality and volume of his work place him in the first rank of contemporary American writers.

James W. Coleman
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

In the Heath Anthology
Valaida (1989)

Other Works
A Glance Away (1967)
Hurry Home (1970)
The Lynchers (1973)
Damballah (1981)
Hiding Place (1981)
Sent for You Yesterday (1983)
Brothers and Keepers (1984)
Reuben (1987)
Fever (1989)
Philadelphia Fire (1990)
The Stories of John Edgar Wideman (1992)
Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society (1994)
The Cattle Killing (1996)

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African American Literature Book Club
A biography and two reviews.

Featured Author: John Edgar Wideman
A compilation of all Wideman-related New York Times articles.

Identity Theory: John Edgar Wideman
A photograph taken by Robert Birnbaum.

The Black Collegian Online
A brief biography.

The Salon Interview
An interview with Wideman by Laura Miller.

Secondary Sources

Bernard W. Bell, The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition, 1987

James W. Coleman, Blackness and Modernism: The Literary Career of John Edgar Wideman, 1989

Michael G. Cooke, Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century: The Achievement of Intimacy, 1984

Kermit Frazier, "The Novels of John Edgar Wideman," Black World 24:3 (1975): 18-35

Trudier Harris, Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals, 1984

Claude Julien, guest editor, "John Edgar Wideman: The European Response", Callaloo special issue, Volume 22, number 3 (summer 1999)

John O'Brien, ed., Interviews with Black Writers, 1978

Wilfred D. Samuels, "Going Home" A Conversation with John Edgar Wideman," Callaloo 6 (February 1983): 49-59