Prof. John Edgar Wideman

Summer Semester 2009

John Edgar Wideman is Asa Messer Professor and Professor of Africana Studies and English at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. Wideman is the recipient of many awards and honors, including the O. Henry Award, the American Book Award for Fiction, the Lannan Literary Fellowship for Fiction, and a MacArthur Fellowship. He was the first American to win the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction twice. His articles on Malcolm X, Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, Michael Jordan, Emmett Till, and Thelonius Monk have appeared in The New Yorker, Vogue, Esquire, Emerge, and the New York Times Magazine. Wideman is also subject of the text, Conversations with John Edgar Wideman, a collection of nineteen interviews spanning three decades.

John Edgar Wideman will read from “The Louis Till Project” at the University of Mainz on July 21, 2009 and have a discussion with the audience afterwards. He will give a lecture about “Defining the Black Voice in Fiction” on July 23, 2009.

John Edgar Wideman, born in 1941, is both an important contemporary American author and a successful and experienced professor of English. He spent his childhood in a poor African-American family in a black neighborhood of Pittsburgh called Homewood and in a white Pittsburgh neighborhood called Shadyside where he attended a very good, almost all-white high school. Homewood and its inhabitants including his own family were to become the most important subject of his literary work. Sponsored by a Benjamin Franklin scholarship, he studied English at an Ivy League school, the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and achieved outstanding results in his studies and in basketball. Together with another African-American student, he was only the second black winner of the Rhodes scholarship after Alain Locke which gave him the opportunity to study at Oxford University in England for three years where he devoted his studies to 18th-century English literature. From 1966 to 1967, he attended the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop and completed his first novel, A Glance Away (1967), which he already published at the age of 25.
He was professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania from 1967 to 1974 where he taught his first course in African-American literature at the request of a group of black students, chaired the first African-American Studies program and supported the inclusion of black American authors in the canon. Later, he held teaching positions at the University of Wyoming, Laramie, and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Today, he is a teacher of creative writing at Brown University and can pride himself of the fact that a good number of his writing students have also published books.
Wideman received numerous literary and academic awards during his career. He was the first writer to win the PEN/Faulkner Award twice (for the novel Sent for You Yesterday in 1984 and for the novel Philadelphia Fire in 1990). Furthermore, he received the American Book Award, the MacArthur Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship and—for his short stories—the O. Henry Award and the Rea Award.
Wideman’s literary work which already spans more than four decades comprises ten novels including Hiding Place (1981) and Sent for You Yesterday (1983), which are part of the Homewood trilogy (1981–83), Philadelphia Fire (1990), The Cattle Killing (1996) and Fanon (2008), four collections of stories and four non-fiction books including his most successful work to date, Brothers and Keepers (1984), in which he reflects upon his relationship with his youngest brother Robert who has been serving a life sentence in prison since 1978. Wideman has also published scholarly articles, has edited books and often contributes articles to magazines, for example Harper’s Magazine and Callaloo.
Characteristic topics of his demanding literature are family, history, and troubled African-American communities in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Furthermore, storytelling, often in black dialect and within the family, appears as an essential cultural means of defending and preserving African-American identity and historical tradition in his work. Wideman’s writing offers a double perspective on these issues: Although his academic career in a predominantly white environment has created a certain distance to his family origin, he tries to overcome that distance in his imagination—he wrote the Homewood trilogy in Wyoming, for example—and continues to regard himself as part of the family and the urban community he comes from. In the eight-year period between his first three novels and the Homewood trilogy, Wideman came to realize that literature dealing with so-called marginal people in Homewood could also claim universality.
Even though Wideman mostly writes about the northern cities Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the South, the topic of this year’s Summer School at the University of Mainz, also appears in his writing. It plays an important role in his memoir Fatheralong (1994) in which he describes a trip with his father to Promised Land in South Carolina where his father and he try to find out more about the origin of the paternal family. Wideman depicts his ambivalence about the South, a mixture of fear and fascination: the awareness of a long history of racism, especially lynchings, contrasts with the warm welcome by white Southerners which his father and he receive. Wideman’s current manuscript called “The Louis Till Project” is also related to the South because it deals with the African American Louis Till who came to Chicago from Missouri. He is the forgotten father of Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old boy, who was brutally murdered by two white men in Mississippi in 1955 for his alleged lack of respect for a white woman. Louis Till’s death ten years earlier was also violent: he was accused of rape and murder of an Italian woman during the Second World War and executed by the US Army in 1945.