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Voix éthniques, ethnic voices. Volume 1

Jean-Paul Regis

Voice as Persona in John Wideman’s Current Fiction

Jacqueline Berben

Texte intégral

  • 1 Hugh Kenner elaborates the theory of "Uncle Charles principle" in Joyce's Voices, London: Faber, 1 (...)

1Novelist John Wideman's artistic evolution has thus far encompassed three cycles, which I cautiously label modern, post-modern, and post-postmodern. The most accurate barometer registering the passage from one to the next is the author's increasing virtuosity as a master of voice and voices, not only black, but red, yellow, brown, Jewish, female, and even academic. Early signs of the importance of voice appear in the diversified literary roles assigned particularly to African-American speech and folklore. Religious and mythic credence, too, became medium as much as message. Greater creative confidence is also evident in the degree to which he codes American popular culture into the different modes of narration and discourses: sports, brand names, advertising lingo, television and film allusions serve as metatextual communication cutting accross social, ethnic, and economic lines. Yet a fourth gauge of his maturation is his internalization of Joyce's "Uncle Charles principle": thus the actions and reactions of Aunt Bess in Hiding Place, for example, are partially reported in phrases typical of her speech, blending the character's voice with that of the implied author.1

  • 2 John Edgar Wideman, The Lynchers, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1973. All page references (...)

2In the novels of his first cycle, A Glance Away and Hurry Home, Wideman wrote in the academic register, reserving black English to sound a minor chord, essentially in direct discourse. Indications of a new departure came with the last work in the cycle, the transitional novel, The Lynchers.2 While still favoring a virtually classic narration to frame the more substantive passages of direct discourse in popular dialect, he began extending the technique to those in free indirect discourse. In narratological terms, Wideman utilized the "neutral" third person narrative as "shifter", acceeding to both the informal elliptic speech and thought patterns of free indirect discourse and the folk dialogue. An example of the contrast in level and the degree of semantic play in The Lynchers is the sequence beginning with Graham Rice's interrupted supper cooking. The passage from one mode to another startles the reader as much as the sound of the doorbell jolts the amateur cook, knife poised over his fowl: "Doorbell made him jump. It seemed a response to the sawing incision he began down the center of the breast" "Who you gonna cut"(p. 53). While "Doorbell" elides the determiner as in Rice's thought-speech, the two lines are indented, as is the quote The clinical terminology of the first turns the action into an elite, surgical procedure; the street slang of the second ironically deflates its conscious bombast. "Who you gonna cut" also escalates the gravity of the act to personal violence, a polysemic lead-in which sets the stage for a black ritual in language enrichment, rifling on the windfall banquet. It serves, too, as prolepse to the transposition of victim and agressor. The effect is heightened by the mode play as the changing perspective seems adapted to the hesitancy that continues to plague Rice in regard to the planned white cop lynching at the novel's crux. Avoiding slippage between modes may be a stylistic reflection of the lack of unity that dooms the plot to failure.

  • 3 John Edgar Wideman, Reuben, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1987.

3Just as each of the conspirators in The Lynchers remains locked in his private universe, so much of the thought and speech in Wideman's novels remains adult, male focalized. A milestone in his evolution is his sustained representation of the feminine viewpoint in the Homewood trilogy in Reuben.3

  • 4 John Edgar Wideman, Fever, Twelve Stories, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1989.

4The same is true of a few stories in Fever4 The female element allows him to explore new variables in sensitivity, identity, and countertext with depth and delicacy. It universalizes his message and sophisticates the communication paradigm. Still, Wideman never loses touch with his adult male consciousness behind the voice of a woman. Before he could begin toying with the double or triple voicing that accommodates these voices, however, he had to endow his reader with the "black ear," the ability to apprehend black voices, male and female, performing literary tasks Wideman had previously demanded only of the formal register. In his commandeering oral patterns as a vehicle to carry the eulogy for the vanishing "pioneer generation" of Homewood residents, Wideman grafts them onto medium. Down-home talk, black jokes, jive, the dozens, rap, or street slang, all catalyse the formation of the bonds of brotherhood and the preservation of unity, fragilized in the contemporary urban socio-economic context. In the Homewood trilogy, the author harnesses free indirect discourse to standardized ghetto vernacular, thereby transmitting the novel's essence in a language unfamiliar to some readers, though never incomprehensible. The authenticity of the sounds and structures recreates a moment and a space, a slot wherein the African-American writer can interface black and white culture and language. Wideman does so almost imperceptibly, shifting in and shifting out, shaping fictional experience through a chorus of witnesses testifying in a variety of speech patterns, now simulated, now suggested, charging the reader to sift out the silent from the spoken.

5Reuben relates the "trials and tribulations" of a self-educated black lawyer slipping through legal loopholes to offer the poor justice at discount rates. This second transitional work in Wideman's opus begins a series of allegories for the writer's struggle to harmonize and control universes, of close-ups of the fabulator caught in the creative act. It opens with a résumé of the words, feelings, and knowledge of the whole community in regard to the title figure. On page one, we are introduced to the "almost" hunchbacked dwarf in color-blind, class-neutral terms. By the end of that page, however, Wideman has begun modulating the voice of enunciation. Full sentences give way to ellipses and dependent clauses; the oral register takes over in the simple vocabulary, an occasional lexical or grammatical preference for popular speech. Repetition, generics like "the truth will out," and allusions to totems from the realm of fairy tale or from popular culture have a familiar ring that recalls a quality shared by the members of "the pioneer generation" in the Homewood trilogy, but none of those characters is here. This is free direct speech, intimate, humble, remote from the canons of a classic author-narrator persona and its authority-generating procedures which rely upon superiority of perception as revealed through privileged knowledge and formal language. Retrospectively, we recognize that none of the named characters in the novel exhibits this speaking style. Nor do the patterns of speech match the samples of author-speak in the interventions ostensibly tagged by a John Edgar Wideman presence. The filter does not conform to our expectations of character and author.

6Perhaps Wideman has refined an old technique: the omniscient author-narrator who speaks with two distinct voices, like Thomas Hardy with his alternating, urbane city voice and rustic country voice. Should this be true, however, the folksy variant of the author-narrator voice draws its power not from external omniscience, but neighborhood immersion, reflecting the concerns, values, and opinions of Homewood. The commanding narrative presence is that of the fictional community, as in James Ngügi's A Grain of Wheat. Despite deictics like "you" and "your," both A Grain of Wheat and Reuben hold the candid "we" in reserve for the final pages, confirmation of enunciative identity. Even then, the specific nature of that "we" is problematic. For among the rhetorical tricks Wideman performs is substituting an impersonal "you" for "I" that enhances the illusion of orality while minimizing interlocutive distance. Below, the "you" discreetly shifts referents to extend to the whole of the Homewood community, like ourselves, gathered around, listening to the tale. As intradiegetic narratee, they constitute a group portrait wherein the several narrators who temporarily step forward will again resume their places, once they've spoken their piece.

7As different narrative moods and situations evolve in Reuben, voices uniquely appropriate to them intervene. Thus, the transition from a tense, yet static moment to an action sequence, the passage from word to deed, elicits a different kind of authority in order to maintain the sensation of immediacy. The best example is the speech made by an anonymous customer in the Velvet Slipper revealing how Kwansa and her friend, Toodles, mete out frontier justice to Waddell in punishment for his snatching his illegitimate son from the child's mother (p. 212-213). Here, the voice comes to us in free direct speech and brings us the testimony of an eye-witness obsessed with establishing his reliability. His highlighting the blow-by-blow details in present progressives while keeping a preterite context for the attack and the turning tides of battle accentuates the immediacy of the scene while setting a rapid pace. Not only the speaking style, but the reporter himself intensifies the illusion of proximity. Firstly, what we have in this figure is an adaptation of the journalistic device of vox populi. Straight from a documentary, the spontaneous testimony enhances the sensation of direct experience and helps establish the veracity of the report by appealing to our sense of common background with the speaker.

8Notice that Wideman gives us no explicit, physical description of this witness. What matters is the objective, public scene, not the subjective, personal landscape. Less than a full character, the voice that takes command of the text is like that of a radio announcer reporting on location whose tenure is limited to the narrative moment. It fills our ears, but merely depicts the scene. The reporter was never intended to "stop your eyes," as Lucy says of ghostlike Brother in Sent for You Yesterday. Neither the Velvet Slipper narrator, nor any of the other representations of narrative voice in Reuben, demands to be dealt with in his or her specificity. Outside of establishing their credibility, these witnesses refrain from making self-observations that call as much attention to themselves as to the object of narration. Distinguishable by idiolect, the host of tellers in Reuben are greater as their sum than their parts.

9The group testimony responds, as it were, to the author's tacit call, "Can I get a witness?" Each one that comes forth carries a dual set of credentials, accruing the credit of both classic Western literature and black folk tradition. It testifies to the cultural autonomy of the African-American community, and demonstrates the values by which its members live, judge, are judged, and are ultimately either protected or left to their fates. From the literary viewpoint, it accomplishes other feats, too. For one thing, the voice hovers near the dividing line between fiction and reality, beckoning the extradiegetic reader to cross over and participate. Like the author-narrator, he is meant to imagine himself imagining the community, ergo, to join it on a metadiegetic level. Just as the characters Wally and Reuben often reflect writerly concerns about how to tell their stories, the reader necessarily creates the novel. Between the lines is a notice that the next voice we hear may be our own: we mirror the post-modernist, self-reflexive stance of the author.

10His own or ours, Wideman graduates the interventions by a communal narrative consciousness. For example, let us take the transition from Kwansa's thoughts as she sits in Reuben's trailer to a description of the trailer as seen by the people of Homewood. Stress is laid on the symbiosis between the man and his "place of business" effected in the community imagination (pp. 5-6). The scene in direct speech between Reuben and Kwansa yields to free indirect discourse with focalization on, then through Kwansa, then slips into free direct speech wherein is revealed a stout-hearted, mature consciousness inconsonant with the character and voice of the young woman. This confident strength overtakes the distraught weakness betrayed by Kwansa's fidgeting body and wandering attention to justify her recourse to Reuben in the first context of community practice, beliefs, and values.

11Society as narrating agent in Reuben allows Wideman to take the narration to a double extradiegetic level, in Genette's terms. Focalization is shared between character and narrator. The consciousness that now belongs to the characters, now to the narrating voices, repeatedly shifts perspective and surrounds the reader with the communal presence. Wideman is carrying on in the Joycean tradition of integrated stream-of-consciousness narrative, minimizing the obtrusiveness of narratorial discourse, in part through embedded focalization, in part through a pluralized, disembodied narrator whose changing focus gives the full circle of opinion in this fictional community. Voice becomes an object of limited scrutiny, commanding reader attention while frustrating attempts to trace its source beyond the group consciousness.

12Moving from Reuben to Fever, Wideman expands upon the experimental role of witness/implied author commenting upon or authenticating the text and consequently developing a more complex filter. He signals his intentions in an academic essay, "Surfiction," which, like surrealism, raises the amperage by adding layers to the fictional text, subverting intention, renewing ties with the proverbial "Change the joke and slip the yoke" With yet a new twist: instead of coding white language into black, Wideman stages a white-faced minstrel show that mocks WASP stereotypes. Ethnic language in the collection fades before this complex voicing. Only "Little Brother" offers all-black dialogue in a female version, neo-Amos n'Andy, slice-of-life comedy.

  • 5 See Franz K. Stanzel, A Theory of Narrative, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 1986, pp (...)

13In his post-postmodern cycle, Wideman concentrates on multiplying the masks his narrator persona can wear. Either thematically or structurally, every tale in Fever has at least one intervening critic/filter imposed between the narrative consciousness and the implied reader. The communication paradigm of transmitter-message-receiver is subject to mise-en-abyme consonant with the new self-reflective aesthetic. An extra narrative level in "The Statue of Liberty" and "Hostages," results from sleight-of-hand. In both texts, the apparent female consciousness veils a male construct, experimentation with sexual codeswitching. Wideman exposes his strategem, but his candor requires careful attention not to miss the explicit or implicit avowal that a black man is imagining himself to be a white woman telling the story. In "Statue," this imagining the other leads to voyeurism, direct, projected, and reflected. Former basketball star Wideman borrows sports strategy for his rhetoric, now drawing the critic deconstructing his style into a "foul" double entendre, now eluding analytic vigilance. As the essay voice extolls his sport, it feints towards one side, then attacks the other to shoot straight into the fabrication: "Another way jogging pleasures me is how it lets me turn myself into another person in another place. The city, for instance. I'm small and pale running at night in a section of town I've been warned never to enter alone"(pp. 15-16). Although the order of the original sentence is person, then place, the example of the city makes us anticipate a digression on the urban. By focusing upon the person instead, Wideman throws us off balance and rushes past our guard into an unanticipated development, the creation of a new persona and character: "a smallish, solitary white woman nearly naked on dangerous streets where she has no business being. She's crazy, they think. Or asking for it"(p. 16). Despite our knowing the original author/narrator is fantasizing a self-transformation, the brusque intrusion of the lady jogger diverts our attention. Wideman persuades us her feminine viewpoint is "real" thanks to the slick deviation, accompanied by a shift to free indirect thought. The double voicing in the repetitions of commonsense advice every woman has heard, internalization of outside opinion, also enhances her credibility.5 With the revelation of her burning secrets, a sensation of omnipotence akin to runner's high takes over. Wonder woman rhetoric dominates the voice and another mask is added. From this stance of superiority thanks to physical prowess, perhaps her male self, the dimension of competence in non-verbal communication is readily accessible. When the second-skin identity looks at her black male attacker and wordlessly invites him to take her, a Lacanian "I/not I" image is returned for the black male jogger we discover him to be both is and is not the original narrator. A double twinning has taken place and two faces look back in the mirror. Both the theme and the focalization present a striptease for the reader who is constantly kept guessing who/what he will hear/see next. A Nike-shod Pygmalion, the authornarrator on the point of succumbing to seduction by his own creations truculently uncovers the white woman's libidinous impulses towards the black man. "Change the joke and slip the yoke"

  • 6 Compare with J. M. Coetzee's paper, "The Spread of Racist Thinking: Metaphors of Metonymy," read a (...)

14The most intricate filtering in the collection appears in "Concert" and "Fever" where once again the orchestrating voice suggests Wideman himself. Inverted mirror images of the struggle for narrative control, the oneiric "Concert" relies on surrealistic imagery and musical metalanguage for psychological distancing of grief while the documentary "Fever" telescopes time for authorative presentation of history. Both stories keep the reader struggling for balance, following who and where the speaker is, deconstructing the metaphor for the truth it paradoxically hides to reveal. In the latter tale, fever, infection, and contagion are social and linguistic metaphor, programming racism into the language and logic of whites.6 Here, black English is reserved to signal a 200-year time warp, catapulting the reader forward into the present. As if eavesdropping on an unseen conversation, the reader must concentrate upon the speaking voices for clues to the identity of the filtering consciousness and to where the voice, spatially, temporally, and ideologically, speaks from. Aside from flashing a name like Allen or Abraham as a signpost in mid-conversation, Wideman offers only the context, the contemporary or archaic diction, and the deictics to guide us. This mediation upon specific, historical texts, half-essay, half-day-dream, shows the fiction writer listening in on, studying, interpreting, waxing lyric over his characters, trying on their faces, their voices as he lets his sensitivity shuttle between two real Philadelphia tragedies, the 1793 fever and the 1985 MOVE firebombing by the police.

  • 7 John Edgar Wideman, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1990.
  • 8 See Gérard Genette, Palimpsestes, La Littérature au second degré, Paris: Seuil, 1982, especially t (...)

15Philadelphia Fire has affinities with both of its immediate predecessors.7 Like Reuben, it is a self-reflective, writerly task, and like Fever, a meticulous blend of fiction and non-fiction with multiple voicing. In his familiar tripartite structure, the author grapples with the MOVE firebombing and collective guilt through the persona of his protagonist, Cudjoe; agonizes as author-narrator over his own powerlessness to change the inequalities of the system; and struggles with the creative act itself. This is mixed genre: novel, meditation upon the problems of novelistic creation, self-analysis, confession, polemic. It also interprets current history as a displaced reading of a literary masterpiece. Shakespeare's The Tempest serves as a palimpsest to Wideman's Philadelphia Fire8. The Elizabethan drama instructs our reading of the modern hypertext in the process of its transposing and transforming the historic hypotext. Not merely this prose narrative, but the real-life event that inspired it connects to Shakespeare's masterpiece: "The Tempest sits dead center, the storm in the eye of the storm, figure within a figure, play within play, it is the bounty and hub of all else written about the fire"(p. 132). Wideman links this disclosure to the insight-seeking questions it raises about his own creative activity: "Why this Cudjoe, then? This airy other floating into the shape of my story. Why am I him when I tell certain parts? [...] Is he mirror or black hole?"(p. 122)

16Is Cudjoe Ariel to Wideman's Prospero, releasing his literary powers by magic? Through focalization upon Cudjoe, a novelist and teacher fine-tuning his drama methodology for ten-year olds, Wideman exposes the strings that govern voice and the filtering consciousness of his own production, insisting on the overriding ludic nature. Paradoxically, the voice source is not crucial; "the play's the thing" (pp. 126-128). As Wideman and Cudjoe listen, black English bleeds into their educated style. This bleeding flows into the ethereal, parallel universe where it traces a watery portal, as in Damballah. Discourse style is yet another mirroring of author and alter-ego: both slip behind masks, both parody The Tempest. In Caliban's guise, for example, they play the "bad cat", one rehabilitated from dullard monster to intelligent victim with an insatiable appetite for justice. And "bad cat" Caliban, under Cudjoe's direction, becomes a new folk hero. The pastiche serves a pedagogical and narratological function. The primary audience of Cudjoe's schoolchildren is seconded by ourselves. Cudjoe uses street slang to motivate his class of juvenile actors from an inner city school to stage the play, The Tempest, in Shakespearean English. The goal for the children is to speak another "landwich," suggesting popular mispronunciation and positing the notion that whites gobble up land like a sandwich, just as Prospero stole the island from Caliban, its rightful heir. Just as the mayor of Philadelphia stole Osage Avenue from its rightful inhabitants and consumed it by fire.

17That Caliban should be the center of interest in this production of play is inescapable. On the one hand, his "heavy, heavy dreadlocks resembling chains" and that constitute his sole costume link him to the King of MOVE. On the other hand, he is the symbol of colonized peoples the world over, forced to adopt the white tongue. Although guided by the spelling, we are directed how to hear Caliban's part: "queerly accented, traces of the Bronx, Merry Ole England, rural Georgia, Jamaican calypso, West Coast Krio, etc"(p. 120) The polyglot accent universalizes Caliban as a black Everyman, a morality figure who plays mentor in a comic body.

  • 9 Amiri Baraka, The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, New York: Freundlich Books, p. 213.

18Caliban's apocryphal "epilogue" speech in polyglot accent is faithful to Shakespeare's theatrical practice and poetics. Topoi appear, like gaining audience attention or spelling out the moral, with the standard rhyming couplet to close the play. So also is setting the scene, summarizing preceding action. Not to forget the dialectic paraphrasing of actual lines from The Tempest, with vestiges of Elizabethan syntax. Illustrating the speech with commonplaces of ghetto life and updated endings draws the remote situations nearer for the implied audience of fifth graders, as does the black slang. "Bringing art to the people, black art to black people," much as LeRoi Jones/Amira Baraka was doing during the Kennedy years.9

19Aside from the play-acting, ethnic voices contrast with Wideman/Cudjoe's usual, neutral language to accomplish metalinguistic feats. The black English testimony of Margaret Jones, a direct witness and former disciple of the movement, guarantees her authenticity. The few exchanges with municipal cultural attaché Timbo, whose speech gives the lie to a title he can barely spell, proves the inescapable, corrupting nature of political life: even when Prospero is black, he will rob and enslave Caliban who must mourn his loss. The unspectacular language of the passages from a letter addressed to John Wideman by some alleged survivors of MOVE shows how close to mainstream, law-abiders they are, whatever their nonconformist ideology and mores. The "dark Vator" army of bad cats occupy the other end of the linguistic and behaviorial spectrum. Here, jive much like Robby's in Brothers and Keepers signs their genuine misdeeds, racism, and violence. They, too, have a rap epic; they, too, fight in a weedgrown jungle; they, too, appropriate the MOVE casualties as their own fallen comrades (pp. 158-159). Yet, the archetypal true victim is homeless, harmless, J. B., the black man-in-the-street, literally and journalistically speaking. J. B. is surrounded by rambling, hip radio rap that infiltrates his thoughts and constitutes a retelling of the firebombing, an iconoclastic report of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless (pp. 130-131). The combination of the "dark Vator" army with J. B.'s black speech and army fatigues exposes a parallel warfront, one echoed in the mirage-like prison camp sequence which transposes ghetto reality to a montage of jungle war film settings. The media invade our senses, the celluloid parallel to the radio rap intrudes upon our collective consciousness and sounds the alarm to awaken slumbering African deities.

20Reassuming authorial control and leading the reader out of the narrative enclosure, Wideman uses a kite as metonymy for his text, an oracle (pp. 166-167). The kite encapsulates the civil rights movement, from Martin Luther King's "free at last, free at last" to a parody of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Again the endless circle of time, "A film run backward to its conclusion, which is its beginning now and perfect end"(ibid.). Its oracular pronouncement is yet another travesty of The Tempest, a confession interwoven in Caliban's pathetic complaint about Prospero's mistreatment: "I am an informer. [...] Revealed all our good hiding places, secret springs of potable water, the edible roots and berries. Translated our secrets, stored in the sacred Book of Life, into the grunting, rooting, snarly pig tongue" (ibid.). Who is the traitor, the Judas who "betrayed our good mother Earth. Betrayed her anointed, dreadlocked King?" Might Wideman's narrative persona be the culprit, as in Jorge Luis Borges' "Moon" or Clarence Major's Reflex and Bone Structure? Why does the crowd at the memorial ceremony pursue alter ego, Cudjoe? Is black Orpheus' mourning too disruptive? Must we refrain from unraveling the rainbow chords of the ethnic voice?


1 Hugh Kenner elaborates the theory of "Uncle Charles principle" in Joyce's Voices, London: Faber, 1978, pp. 17-21.

2 John Edgar Wideman, The Lynchers, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1973. All page references to this novel and other Wideman works will be in parentheses in the body of the text.

3 John Edgar Wideman, Reuben, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1987.

4 John Edgar Wideman, Fever, Twelve Stories, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1989.

5 See Franz K. Stanzel, A Theory of Narrative, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 1986, pp. 218-224.

6 Compare with J. M. Coetzee's paper, "The Spread of Racist Thinking: Metaphors of Metonymy," read at June, 1991 International Conference on Narrative at the Université de Nice.

7 John Edgar Wideman, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1990.

8 See Gérard Genette, Palimpsestes, La Littérature au second degré, Paris: Seuil, 1982, especially the tables pp. 30, 34, 161.

9 Amiri Baraka, The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, New York: Freundlich Books, p. 213.


Université de Nice

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1992

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