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Approches critiques de la fiction afro-américaine

Michel Fabre
Claude Julien
Trevor Harris

Mother Goose and Brother Loon: The Fairy-Tale-in-the-Tale as Vehicle of Displacement

Jacqueline Berben-Masi

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1Mobility as the essence of the American experience has been a staple in historical theory since Frederick Jackson Turner. It finds expression in a spectrum ranging from the concrete to the abstract, from the road and the train to the reinterpretation of simple forms in art, music, film, and literature. From the commercial to the cultural realm, life and literature are both in a state of "perpetual transfusion" of ideas and influences that continuously alter the patterns of perceiving knowledge and events. As the civilization moves, its language and culture move alongside it. Thus, human displacement is reflected back in the spiraling chain of meanings read into the signs and symbols encountered from the mundane level to the ethereal. Yet the past is not entirely abandoned. The image that best captures the notion is the palimpsest, originally a parchment overwritten with layers of text covering an imperfectly removed earlier script. Gérard Genette has appropriated the term as sovereign to the vast territory of intertextuality that he explores in Western literature. His discoveries nourish my methodology as I examine how John Wideman transposes and transforms the fragments of his experience, lived and learned, reinvesting the whole into a coherent literary universe.

2Wideman's entire opus is a palimpsest: thematically, the past lives on in the present; structurally, time sequences often defy chronological order; linguistically, different levels of language rival for dominance; stylistically, intertextual references embed his writing in multiple cultural and literary traditions. Among the latter, the fairy tale in its broad sense of folk myth offers the author ideal material for grounding his fictional and non-fictional works alike, providing the reader with ample opportunity to measure the gap between the orthodox version and the eccentric, between the experience of standard American society and that of its black component. By framing the reality of the African-American condition in the Mother Goose tradition, Wideman casts a long, discomforting shadow over mainstream values and expectations. Indeed, for protest literature, Mother Goose lays the proverbial golden egg. Firstly, as a popular form, its roots are hundreds, even thousands of years old while it has undergone continuous adaptation to the tastes and values of innumerable "contemporary" societies. Secondly, these stories brim over with deceptively innocent optimism, a psychoanalyst's wonderland. Thirdly, they harbor an element of cruelty and danger. My study will briefly review Wideman's works from the perspective of his handling of borrowings and references to folklore that falls within the general category of fairy tale or Mother Goose stories. Beginning with the three novels that constitute Wideman's first creative cycle, I will show how his artistry evolved through the Homewood period, and into his recent writings. Finally, I will home in on these latest works through a close reading of the short story, "Loonman". As Wideman's style has matured, his handling of fairy tale elements has gone from figurative to abstract, from early fidelity to the source to more recent subversion of the familiar plots and characters, with the ever-present threat of disintegration.

3Turning to the novels of the first cycle, it looks as if the author was trapped in a Pandora's Box syndrome, having raised the lid of his imagination and let all but hope escape. The standard American-dream solutions proposed by establishment society in A Glance Away and Hurry Home, when applied to non-standard figures, prove inoperative. Wideman exposes the underlying threat, lets it loom and ultimately explode, dashing dreams, and compromising survival. His third novel, The Lynchers, proposes a more drastic formula, but to no avail: for a Black man to try and invert an established design, undo a white man's conjuring with white methods, was doomed to self-destruction. Pessimism in the novel was echoed by its counterpart in life, the subsequent eight-year silence of the author. On the creative level, Wideman had "painted himself into a corner" by negating any prospect for escape into new patterns. Finding an antidote to this paralysis was achieved by a pilgrimage back to the family sources where he reclaimed the inheritance of his youth in oral story-telling. While literary critics were deconstructing the entire body of literature, Wideman as author began the process of "re-membering" fragments of myriad stories. Subsequently, he applied regulation academic techniques and Black cultural instruments to his family saga, interfacing it with universal forms, including the fairy tale or folk tale.

4It was an inspired choice for a writer whose political commitment was and remains inseparable from his art. Indeed, in this genre, as Bruno Bettleheim has illustrated (1976), displaced conflict is the common denominator in both Occidental and Oriental tale, from Mother Goose to the Thousand and One Nights, from Charles Perrault to the Grimm brothers. The earliest versions of these stories manifest the Œdipal nature of children's fantasies, on the one hand, and the rivalry among the components of the psyche, the Ego, the Id, and the Superego, on the other. Contrary to contemporary demands made upon children's entertainment today, the tension built up in the fairy tale is not always ultimately resolved either in the acceptance of the proper familial role or in the successful integration of the personality. The satisfaction derived from the story may differ according to the age and condition of the reader/listener. Moreover, having evolved from centuries of oral tradition, the form offers a viable opening for fresh motivation and a new departure, precisely the uses to which Wideman puts it. I offer the present paper as an exercise in testing the validity of a thesis I began defending a decade ago, namely that with artistic maturity, Wideman would deconstruct and ever more subtly reassemble the building blocks of world culture.

5Rapidly reviewing the forerunners to the period that I want to scrutinize, I would like to skim over the author's use of intertextuality in his early stories and novels. Not surprisingly, he begins with the least sophisticated of the five phases of transtextual relationship retraced by Gérard Genette in a progressive process toward the abstract, the implicit, and the global (Genette, 1982, 8). To wit, there is a copresence between one or several texts. Effectively, quotes from literary giants like T.S. Eliot and Paul Verlaine dominate these sequences; refrains from popular music weave in and out; more germane to the question at hand, snatches of children's story, song, and rhyme punctuate longer sequences. Although by no means "tacked on", these citations feel rather mechanical as devices go. At times, they seem more like footnotes, a scholarly reflection on the internal battles devouring the characters, or an essayist's obsession for noting distinguished precedents. Where used most effectively, they are shifters. In A Glance Away, for example, three separate narratives told in stream-of-consciousness mode overlap and intertwine, playing memories of the past against the present condition and the prognosis for a future. The novel's prologue offers Wideman an opportunity to evoke the past through the cultural baggage common to his characters and readers alike. At a poignant moment, he emblazons his text with the first and last lines of the nursery rhyme, "Tom, Tom the piper's son", substituting "Gene, Gene", the name of the beloved grandfather who had just died (Wideman, 1975, 5). While the choice may initially appear incongruous, the element of surprise helps set off in brackets, as it were, a eulogy worthy of Eliot's Sweeney poems. Moreover, Tom-Gene, the misfortunate thief introduces the "ba-ad man" motif, doing justice to the grandfather's street reputation. Lastly, Wideman echoes Beatrix Potter's version of Tom's misadventure, one that offers the final line, "Over the hills and far away!" In the context, it neatly wraps up the sequence, reiterating the notion of distance put between the living and the dead.

6Still, both the nursery rhyme and the Eliot-inspired passage are merely juxtaposed: i.e., they are associated, but not amalgamated with one another. In the same prologue, Wideman turns to the folksong, "Froggy-went-a-courtin"' to frame verbal snapshots of the grandchildren bouncing on the old man's knee (6, 7, 13). "Froggy", thereafter, evokes comforting memories of good times shared with a stabilizing male role model. Later in the novel, the hand-clapping game, "Paddy Cake, Paddy Cake", [sic] trips another memory and heralds the transition from childhood to adulthood relationships spanning the stages of hand-jive, gender initiation, and emerging sexuality (180). The changing perspective on "buns" that follows puberty evokes the schoolboy humor Wideman revels in when waxing nostalgic. Here there is more of an attempt to internalize the borrowed material, but its implementation nonetheless maintains an extraneous quality. It is referential rather than structural, decorative rather than substantive. It grounds the stories in a period, serves as shifter or tag, draws a simple parallel, or exploits play on sounds and rhythms.

7The next stage, allusion, was reached by Wideman during his Homewood Trilogy period. Here, he begins to tamper with major features of the traditional fairy tale, giving the whole a unique cant that assimilates the original into his prose. The established piece seems to stand guarantor for the new, supporting the authenticity of the hauntingly bleak picture of the African-American condition in white society that Wideman paints. One such effective episode in Homewood is that of Samantha, the beautiful, tall, prolific, black Earth Mother of Sent for You Yesterday. "Crazy Sam", a female neo-Noah, builder of an ark which she stocks with her own brood, aspires to save the Black race from the destruction of World War II that rages without. Like the Biblical patriarch, Sam feels called to issue in a new beginning when the earth will be purged of all its (white) corruption. No direct reference to Noah is made, however. Allusion as technique of transreferentiality continues in Sam's story. Ultimately defeated — betrayed by her own — she is the inconsolable mother who loses her albino son Junebug in a fire, perhaps a fratricide. Wideman bonds fragments of dream and reality to the tale of Rapunzel, already rife with points of similarity: long, "good" hair, symbolizing fertility and power; a beautiful princess guarded by jealous keepers; a towering phallic image for a prison. With a wink toward his former mentor, Wideman's prince is a sailor. This is The Waste Land. The horror of Sam s lost dreams is ritualized by the recurring nightmare of this twisted tale. As heroine, she lets down her single golden braid for her lover to climb the tower, only to watch flames singe her tresses and transform them into "black, nappy wool plaited into a hundred pigtails", the kind that make little black girls feel ugly, inferior, and helpless (128-130). Together with the emblematic loss of fertility and power, Sam's narrative attests to the futility of Black America's struggle for a decent life. There is an echo of the impossibility of attaining the imperialistic standards of Aryan beauty that American mainstream culture has set for all, regardless of race. Perhaps, too, the image of this "towering inferno" of destruction is meant to recall the tarot card reading done by Madame Sosostris for the Phoenician Sailor, even if he should fear death by water, rather than fire. In résumé, what we see is one allusion becoming embedded in another and tailored to fit the sequence, enhance the detail, and play a riff on it, enriching the story. Classic tale and Wideman's reembroidered tapestry become a working whole, a literary symbiosis in which each original unit will carry the marks of the graft, but bear unique fruit. A "paratext" has emerged, one that depends upon the reader's perceiving the implicit relationship between a work and its precursors. As Michael Riffaterre points out, this is what makes literature literary.

8In his post-Homewood pieces, Wideman has stretched the possibilities of his borrowings further, attaining the level of "metatext" in Genette's terms (Genette, 1982, 10). No longer a mere memory fetish nor a photographic negative, Mother Goose material offers the writer an opportunity to tie its homely moral values directly to hypocritical, corrupt, capitalistic white society. Now, sounding the refrains of classic children's literature in an adult context enables the writer to replace the nostalgic links to childhood with sad adult wisdom about human nature, a critical commentary upon the text without directly naming it. Thus in the documentary Fatheralong, the writer's personal, ambivalent response to a nude dance show leads first to a psychoanalysis of his own inconsistent attitudes toward race, then to the question of sex and color in America in general. Like a cinematographic parable, a self-playing scenario emerges:

A group of men, white men, bobbed along in a lifeboat stranded in the middle of the ocean. They are caricatures, really. Hog-sleek, middle-aged, sunburned CEO types. The hospital gowns they wore could have been togas or expensive business suits and sometimes were. They crowded each other in the tiny rubber raft, yet the raft had once contained tons of booty from a sinking ship they'd destroyed, pillaged, and deserted. In order to survive in the lifeboat, the men had been forced to jettison their misbegotten hoard. They were arguing now about what should go next. The choice was either tossing out their women and children or giving up the illusion they were still in control…. They voted and decided the illusion of being in charge worth whatever it cost. Women and children overboard.
Plop. Plop. Plop…
Rub-a-dub-dub. Image of sad, drowning white men in an empty tub. Each one wearing his captain's hat. (Wideman, 1994, 163-164)

9Notice only the last lines point to the Mother Goose text, which, as cloture to the allegory, suggests that finding a solution to the problem posed is at once child's play and a Sisyphean task. Sexism and racism are the children of the economic powers-that-be, monopolized by rich white men whose greed has led them to foul and destroy their own nests. They may have regrets, but no scruples. "Plop. Plop. Plop", the onomatopoeia evoking the jettisoned human cargo lures us into a more scatological reading, surely intentional here and perfectly in keeping with eighteenth-century Mother Goose. Might Wideman have had in mind an alternate version of the familiar nursery rhyme, one that goes:

Hey! rub-a-dub, ho! rub-a-dub, three maids in a tub,
And who do you think were there?
The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker,
And all of them gone to the fair.

10According to the editors of The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, the three tradesmen had "apparently… been found in a place where no respectable townsfolk should be, watching a dubious sideshow at the local fair" (Baring-Gould, 1972, 106). Precisely where the writer has ensconced his persona, mulling over the wisdom of sharing this experience with his father by introducing him into the predominantly white milieu of the Mardi Gras bar. The title Fatheralong, a take-off on the hymn that resonates in the minds of his characters, "Farther along", here seeks the filial bonds in a macho ritual that cynically plays upon the promise of hope the ancestors had clung to. Father and son not gone to a spiritual heaven and its sacred pleasures, but to a worldly one, more like a den of iniquity whose main attraction consists in crossing over into formerly alien territory and sampling forbidden fruits. The guilt elicited is ambivalent, half Puritan, half sado-masochistic. "Wrestling with the naked blond" in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, for all its potency, reserved this dimension for the white spectators.

11Having introduced the invisibility motif, I would like to exploit it as transition to a recent story at Genette's fourth level of transtextuality (Genette, 1982, 11-12). Here reigns de-motivation, a change in the motif that prepares the way for re-motivation, yielding a transmotivation from a hypotext or theoretical original to a hypertext, its "remake" (383). Wideman thus pens an ecological fairy tale wherein ethnic protest joins forces with environmental concerns. "Looming", from the collection All Stories Are True, is set in the north woods, the promised land for the runaway slave fleeing the peculiar Southern institution. Alas, the North, too, has its institutions. Traditional Black double-talk prepares a literary technique of duality. Thus, a binary reality structures the sequences and conveys the basic theme of a struggle between rivaling personalities, identities, and interpretations. "Now you see me, now you don't!" or invisibility on command, the refrain fits the modulations in narrative voice that have become Wideman's trademark. Constantly struggling to locate the point of enunciation, the reader grapples with competing truths, as does the main character, Foster, the schizophrenic narrator through whom the tale is focused. Foster is apparently the archetypal "dummy" or slightly retarded adult, like Clement in Hiding Place. His superego dictates the words and ideas he reiterates. Having internalized the lessons inculcated at the country home allows him to live a marginal existence as a black mental outpatient working and living much like a plantation "house nigger" for a white farm owner. Witness the advice he reviews on how the new man taken on should get along:

We're a family. Very lucky to be here. Fortunate there are people like this generous lady who will accept us into their homes, treat us like family members. That's it. That's why you must be grateful and show respect at all times. Obey. Do exactly as you're told. A privilege to be welcomed into someone's house….
You are lucky to be part of a family, I wanted to tell him. The living and the dead. You must learn to be a ghost and one day if you master the secrets, the patience and skills of a ghost, after you've learned to hold your breath, stifle your noises, wipe every trace of yourself so there is no animal trail of you on pieces of furniture, walls, counters, no hairs, no rings in the sink, no footprints in the soil, none of your blood on the roots, no fingerprints because you've remembered the handyman gloves every time, when you hear speak nor see any evil and can dangle for hours on end motionless, invisible from the monkey tail of your unraveled brain, then perhaps she'll touch your forehead with her sword and you'll be free. (Wideman, 1981, 55)

12The frames of reference run the gamut from paternalism to fairy tale, from hoodoo to mythology, from magic to Medieval romance. The principles and language he mouths are displaced from white mouths as part of Foster has become brainwashed into portraying himself fortunate, part of the family, a post-Emancipation Uncle Tom who draws solace and security from reading his own story into "Goldilocks and the Three Bears". Gone is the blond, naked or otherwise, and idem Papa Bear. The ruling matriarch is Mama Bear, and Foster is either a new or a surrogate Baby Bear, a replacement part to fit into the mechanical gloves intended to chain him to the role until a more interesting substitute appears.

13As for the feminine element, whether a figment of Foster's imagination or narrative reality, the analysis of her role remains constant. Like the cruel step-mother in Snow White and Cinderella, during the working day, the "bad-mother" figure of the boss lady changes at night first into the caring, "good-mother" figure of Mama Bear. Even as the metamorphosis continues on one plane, however, the malevolent spirit retains overall control. After manifesting her power to mutate into the little mouse who erotically nibbles at Foster's body until he becomes sexually aroused, she reverts to her polar bear form: dominant, white, and inured to the cold. No chance that she will be gobbled up in her vulnerable state, as happens to some powerful animals in the Uncle Remus tales when they are goaded into changing form.

14Foster as scared rabbit highlights the trickster facet: feigning sleep until there is no turning back, he savors the pleasures incumbent upon Papa Bear. Though we are assured Papa Bear and the other Baby Bears all sleep permanently, great care is exercised to save appearances. Phantasm or fact, seduction or sex abuse, Uncle Remus or Father Divine, the passage invites speculation. It is tempting to assume that the underlying Oedipus prophecy of the fairy tale is fulfilled with the white woman consecrating Foster's black manhood. The secrecy of the act, however, suggests instead that he is forever condemned to his puerile status. The "man boy person whatever" has made little gain in the battle for equality in the white man's world. Just as Goldilocks must fail in her attempt to slip into the parental roles while trespassing at the bears' house, Foster ultimately must accept his own arrested development and incapacity to assume a significant role in the social structure. His sense of self-preservation results in the emergence of the Loon Man, part vigilante, part revenging angel, part man, part fish or fowl demanding a reckoning from an egotistical and domineering society. African religious beliefs resurface in the union between the Black man and nature, joined in a common cause: their mutual survival in a hostile environment aggravated by capitalistic ignorance. Loon Man the monster, the ogre who feeds on the love/hate schism in parental love redresses the balance by leading the children into the reeds of the lake wherein nest the loons. Pied Piper? Child-devouring beast? Folklore supplies multiple sources for this purveyor of poetic justice.

15On the psychoanalytic level, Foster's exclusion from meaningful membership in the adult world is exacerbated by the challenge to his monopoly on the Baby Bear role. First there are Silas and Walter who, despite their muteness and transient standing, are perceived by Foster as perturbing elements, upsetting the harmony of the house on the days they are present: "Sundays… used to be the best day of the week. A long silence their silence didn't disturb" (57). Second, there appears another Intruder, the one Foster dubs "Loonman" because he tells the Loon Man stories. The virtual identity of names reveals an obsessive pairing as every character in this short story has his or her counterpart: Walter and Silas, Silas and Walter, the new man and Foster, represent sibling rivalries; Foster and the Grinning Groom hitching post reflect each other's blackness; Foster and the Crooked-Man-who-walked-acrooked-mile are interchangeable as handymen. The meticulous side of his abnormal psyche obliges Foster to eliminate intruders that came before him as well as after. "Goldilocks" in the fairy tale incarnates the child's feared rival, a sibling, disrupting the established familial order. Foster's alter egos excite his jealousy, but only one of these can free him from himself.

16In sum, all these twinnings underline the schizophrenic aspect of the filtering persona. Foster and the Loon Man, the bear and the mouse, the bear and the rabbit, imply a Freudian duality between Superego and Ego, Ego and Id. There is a rapprochement to be made with the African-American double-vision that W.E.B. Du Bois described and which still accurately portrays the cultural fracture of modern America. Perhaps it will ultimately spawn monsters to prey upon our ill-loved children, a critique of the social order and its inherent discomfort before the growing phenomenon of the homeless. Deprived of any permanent point of reference, Foster has nowhere else to go — unless, as Loonman surmises, he and the Loon Man can sneak back into the "loony bin" to rest up for a while. Limbo, as it were, nonetheless raises the subliminal theme of the perpetually frustrated quest for a hearth. In Foster's eyes, the one they find matches the description of the mistress of the house herself: "Three heads stacked one on the other. The first a face so mean you quickly look away, look up and find the other two — helmet, crown" (53). Is this simply another schizophrenic vision? Or is this an allusion to the woman with the ice-cream cone in Hurry Home, the Statue of Liberty that towers in Wideman's imagination?

17Whichever, this is the garden, if no longer the forest primeval choked by deeply entrenched roots struggling for life. By jumping back and forth from one sense of the word root to another, Foster engages in childlike wordplay, but with mature intent. The roots in the garden, the root of the brain, the root of the phallus, the empty tunnels from which the roots were extracted, the black holes for the fingers in the handyman gloves all assimilate the man to the plants in the garden, those roots he must pull out, driven by instinct rather than sense. Booker T. Washington casts a long shadow over the struggling man, keeping Foster in his place, vainly "trying to raise [him]self by these ropy bootstrap roots" (51). Foster's coaxing the protesting roots from the soil in the daytime endangers his own link with the earth which nourishes his roots, his race, his reason. In addition, there is no protection to be gained from wearing the imposed gloves that he sees as his predecessor's lost appendages: "Hard skin of a pair of hands run over years ago by a bus, mashed and scorched and tanned till they're tough as leather" (51). The gloves are a costume, like the livery of the hitching post figure. They are bonds, tying the man to his fate, not the beneficial agency cut off hands connote in voodoo magic (Hyatt, 1970, 545).

18At night-time, the root-pulling roles of handyman and boss lady are inverted. Then she tries to eradicate him, to castrate him, to eliminate him for eternity with her "curved needle of a finger stabbing" at him (Wideman, 1981, 56). The root recalls the brain of a dead Egyptian unraveled with a hooked needle, leaving the skull intact, but hollow like Foster himself. "Not very bright", "a man-boy person" (50). Foster's own brain becomes the rope from which his body dangles, a metaphoric effigy of a lynch victim. The night, however, empowers the Black protagonist, even if we can only speculate on the rootwork or conjuring that Foster/Loon Man engages in when the dark (or is it the bright) side of the character comes out and plays the avenger for the loons, be they birds or persons. Ultimately, Loon Man will achieve the supreme aim of mankind as formulated by the Greek philosophers: freeing himself from his bonds.

19In brief, Wideman has produced an ecological fairy tale of universal impact by embedding characters and motifs taken from multicultural origins and operating upon them a Genettian transvalorization, defined as a double movement of devalorization and counter valorization (Genette, 1982, 418). Structurally, the author dismembers the body of his borrowings in a stylistic reenactment of the African-American tragedy. There is a decomposition of the art form itself, and a diverting of its attributes, techniques, artistic effects, motifs, and themes to new uses. He displaces the violence and horror of his universe into the fairy tale realm, itself riven with violence, yet where, mysteriously, we accept it, perhaps because as adults, we can now read its more profound lessons. Fairy tale, in conclusion, offers Wideman an ideal forum to expose ugly truths by planting the seed of morality in a marvelous story whose lesson will blossom and bear fruit when its season comes. Nature will be the ultimate victor, and with it the Natural Man who understands its sweep and synchronizes his life with its cycles. Is that not the didactic function fairy tale has been assuming for centuries?



Baring-Gould, William S. and Ceil, 1972. The Annotated Mother Goose, Nursery Rhymes Old and New Arranged and Explained. New York: Bramhall House.

Bettelhéim, Bruno, 1976. Psychanalyse des contes de fées. Paris: Editions Robert Laffont.

Genette, Gérard, 1982. Palimpsestes. La littérature au second degré. Paris: Seuil, collection Poétique.

Hyatt, Harry Middleton, 1970. Hoodoo – Conjuration – Witchcraft - Rootwork. Washington, D.C.: American University Bookshop.

Wideman, John Edgar, 1967. A Glance Away. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Inc. New Jersey: The Chatham Bookseller, 1975.

---1970. Hurry Home. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.

---1973. The Lynchers. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Inc.

---1981. Hiding Place. New York: Avon Books.

---1983. Sent for You Yesterday. New York: Avon Books.

---1987. Reuben. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

---1992. All Stories Are True. New York: Vintage-Random.

---1994. Fatheralong. New York: Pantheon-Random.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1998

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