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Feature: John Edgar Wideman Against the World

For Wideman, who spent much of his working life in places like Wyoming and Western Massachusetts and rural Maine, this solitude has been further compounded by cold mathematics. Not only is mainstream publishing overwhelmingly white, it is also nearly bereft of black writers like him: American men of letters descended from Southern slaves, who position themselves as part of a grand and omnivorous intellectual and artistic tradition. Though we live in the most racially fraught period in at least a generation, much of what we read on the subject comes from pundits, journalists and internet think-piece writers whose experiences and perspectives are rooted more in the language of critical theory than in anything resembling literary mastery.

“Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File,” about 10 years in the making, is a slim but powerful volume, an account of the brief and terrible life of Louis (Saint) Till, the largely forgotten father of Emmett Till, the Chicago boy whose horrific lynching in Mississippi in 1955 shamed the nation. It feels in many ways like an apotheosis, a project that combines and distills all the various obsessions of a brilliant half-century investigation into the existential predicament of, as Wideman once put it to The Paris Review, “a person who’s still scarred and outraged and mystified by the experience of Europe and Africa and slavery and the relationship between those continents.” It is the late-phase masterwork of a man still trying desperately to figure out how America works at a time when his perennial concerns — freedom and confinement, policing, fatherhood, the inheritance of trauma and ontological stigma — feel as pertinent as ever.

Yet, thus far at least, both black and white audiences engaged in the perpetual national conversation on race have mostly ignored it. (Critics less so: It was recently named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in general nonfiction). Perhaps this is because Wideman’s layered and sometimes contradictory insights resist abbreviation and easy dissemination in short bursts of epiphany on social media. His disposition is to bypass blunt polemic and make his case through description and story, which is by necessity inventive, conditional and ambiguous. Simplicity sells, but the truth is seldom simple.

And the truth, as Wideman put it to me at one point during lunch, his food an afterthought, his eyes locked on his hands as if he could somehow manipulate his words with his fingers, is that whatever existential pain separates black America from the world, “it ain’t nothing to do with our blood, it ain’t nothing to do with our history, it is essentially a recognition, the most profound and basic human recognition that you are alone. I am alone.”

Born in Washington in 1941, John Wideman was raised in Homewood, a black neighborhood in Pittsburgh said to have been founded by a runaway slave. In the world that shaped him, appearances were often deceptive. His father was dark-skinned, but his mother, Bette, was pale enough to pass for white if she wore a scarf over her hair. It was only in adulthood, he told me, that he discovered that her biological grandfather was actually a German butcher. (“Not a Nazi!” he clarified. “The other kind of German butcher.”) Bette’s father was a man named John French, who was, as Wideman describes in his recent book, “lighter than many of the Italian immigrants he worked beside plastering and hanging wallpaper.” Wideman saw early on that race, and by extension identity, were nebulous formations: collective fictional endeavors, albeit ones with real consequences.

When he was 12, Wideman’s family relocated to middle-class Shadyside, where he attended high school and became valedictorian and captain of the basketball team. The University of Pennsylvania came calling and offered an academic scholarship. He was an excellent student in college, and before he graduated in 1963, Gene Shalit wrote an article about him in Look magazine titled “The Astonishing John Wideman.” This was both an incredible individual honor and a damning acknowledgment of the scarcity of black faces at places like Penn. It could not have been easy, but Wideman evinced the polar opposite of a sense of victimization. “To me, being Negro is only a physical fact,” he told Shalit. “If there were something I wanted very badly that being Negro prevented me from doing, then I might have the confrontation of a racial problem, and I would be driven to do something about it. I’m sure I would. But so far, the things that I’ve wanted to do haven’t been held back from me because of my being a Negro.”


Wideman receives congratulations after he won a Rhodes Scholarship in 1962.

Bettman/Getty Images

After Penn, Wideman studied 18th-century narrative technique at Oxford, married a white Penn graduate named Judith Goldman and eventually became one of Penn’s first black tenured professors. He quickly wrote three well-received novels that failed to find large audiences and that he has since described as operating on the apprentice level. It was not until 1981, with the publication of his story collection “Damballah,” that Wideman grew into his mature style, a learned and distinctively black register that switches naturally between the sublime and the profane, an earthy vernacular and a high literary mode with which he spins tales both true and untrue that overlap and accumulate, like 3-D printing, into tangible landscapes and characters.

“Damballah,” along with the novels “Sent for You Yesterday“ and “Hiding Place,” formed what has since become known as the Homewood Trilogy and marked Wideman’s emergence as one of the premier novelists in the country. But even as Wideman’s career was on the rise, his family life back home had been ravaged.

His brother Robby was arrested in 1976 after participating in a botched robbery that ended with the victim dying of a gunshot wound to the shoulder. He was convicted and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Wideman spent years interviewing him during soul-crushing visits to Western Penitentiary. In the course of these conversations, he got to know his brother more intimately there than he ever had on the outside, and in 1984, he published “Brothers and Keepers,” a collaborative nonfiction attempt to come to grips with how their two life trajectories had parted so drastically: how he had become the friend of someone like Senator Bill Bradley, while his brother had developed “prison arms.” It was at once a book about Robby’s obvious guilt and grim history leading up to the crime and also about the extremity of his punishment. The victim, who was white, was himself a criminal, Wideman told me, but “nobody ever said anything about him having criminal genes.” What’s more, it was one of Robby’s accomplices who pulled the trigger.

In the summer of 1986, two years after the publication of “Brothers and Keepers” and 10 years after Robby’s arrest, Wideman’s middle child, Jacob, a tawny, blond-haired black boy who displayed serious developmental problems, accompanied a small group of teenagers on a tour across the West. At a stopover at the University Inn motel in Flagstaff, Ariz., inexplicably, he twice buried a six-inch blade in the chest of his sleeping white roommate, Eric Kane. It was a horrific crime — it took hours for Kane to bleed to death — and prosecutors routed Jacob into the adult system, though he was just a teenager. Like his uncle Robby, Jacob was sentenced to life in prison, but he was granted the possibility of parole. The salacious story of the great black writer’s homicidal son was quickly picked up in newspapers across the country and given lengthy treatment in respectively compassionate and vicious pieces that ran in Esquire and Vanity Fair.

Wideman himself has never written about Jacob, at least never directly. “My son doesn’t like me to talk about his situation,” he told The Paris Review, “so I don’t. Period.” This was very much on my mind as I prepared to ask Wideman about this aspect of his biography. A friend had alerted me in early November — on Election Day, actually — that Jacob, now almost 47, had been granted release from prison. Wideman confirmed that his son is currently living in a halfway house after serving 30 years in prison and having been denied parole on six previous occasions. This unexpected turn of events, he confided, has left him somehow optimistic. “It kind of put all the other news in perspective.” He recently recorded a segment on NPR and found himself tongue-tied, trying to make sense of the current political upheaval. “The idea that my son was out. …” he told me, his voice trailing off. “Hey, nothing else mattered.”

I asked Wideman whether, given the specificity of Jacob’s own personal demons, the level of his parents’ education and social capital and the sheer fact that he could pass for Caucasian, it made sense to think of his collision with the criminal-justice system in the same terms we keep for poor and more conventionally black men like Till or Robby Wideman. He replied that Jacob’s defense lawyers, with whom he has since become friends, came to believe that the state was looking to make an example of Jacob. In Arizona at the time, Wideman said, “there were more and more immigrants, black people, street crime, drugs,” and the lawyers told Wideman in confidence that they believed the state had plans to seek the death penalty.

The family instead accepted a plea deal. Wideman maintains that he has never argued for Jacob’s innocence — it was he and Judy who took him to the police station — though he does insist on pointing out an uncomfortable truth: Jacob was a natural and appropriate candidate for juvenile imprisonment, but he instead nearly became an opportunity to expand the reach of capital punishment, because, Wideman believes, his victim was white. This was “strange,” he told me, but it was not for lack of precedent. I both understood and sympathized with his point, but it was one of the few moments in speaking with him that I found myself questioning the accuracy of mapping a tragedy so specific onto one so universal.

Imani Perry, the Hughes-Rogers professor of African-American studies at Princeton University, works out of a spacious, book-lined office just inside the main gates. When I visited her in December to get a better sense of Wideman’s position in the black and wider American tradition, she compared him with Albert Murray, the unjustly overshadowed brother-in-arms of Ralph Ellison. As was the case with Murray, Wideman’s writing is, Perry said, “not really something you can designate as belonging to one or the other side of a political spectrum. It’s actually about your disposition toward life.” This is a hard-won quality she believes is found more often today among black male writers born before 1950. And that is why, in our current racial conversation, which can tend to be “too driven” by younger voices, she said, there’s “something particularly useful about hearing from someone who is in his 70s.”

But Wideman’s cerebral sensibility is one that resists easy consumption. Even his longtime friend and agent, Andrew Wylie, describes his work as probably destined for “a fairly select audience, as is the case with many of the best writers in the world.” He is, in other words, a writers’ writer. One of his many admirers is Mitchell S. Jackson, the author of “The Residue Years,” a 2013 semi-autobiographical account of his experience selling drugs in college and going to prison. One line of Wideman’s has stuck with Jackson for years: “The facts speak for themselves, but never speak for us.” If you were to look at the facts of Jackson’s own life, he says, you would see a guy who sold drugs, went to prison and made a success of himself writing about it. “But,” he said, “it’s what’s between that that’s who we are.”

“Writing to Save a Life” chronicles Wideman’s attempt to fill in some of those gaping blanks between the rock-hard facts of Louis Till’s life and the files relating to his court-martial, which seem to suggest the American military systematically railroaded the young soldier into a practically predetermined guilty verdict. Stationed in Civitavecchia, Italy, during the twilight of World War II. Till, along with two other black servicemen, was accused of the rape of two Italian women and the murder of another, on purely circumstantial evidence and despite enormous amounts of contradictory testimony. “No, all witnesses agree: Too dark to tell what color clothing the attackers wore,” Wideman writes. “Yes, all witnesses agree: We could see the color of the invaders’ skin.” A military court sentenced Till and one other man to death by hanging.

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