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Regards croisés sur les Afro-Américains

Claude Julien

Fiction corner

Wideman’s Breadth

Brent Hayes Edwards

Note de l’auteur

Note: This essay was originally the basis of my introductory remarks at the “True Fictions” panel, which I chaired at the conference “John Edgar Wideman: A Callaloo Celebration” held at the University of Virginia on May 31, 2000. I would like to thank my co-panelists at the session, Stephen Casmier, James Coleman, Michel Feith, Roland Murray, and Fritz Gysin, as well as Wideman himself, who was in attendance. I am particularly grateful to Charles Rowell, who made the event — and the Callaloo special issue of recent criticism on Wideman — a special occasion for all of us.

Texte intégral

1I have decided here to retain the context-specific gestures and mode of address that bind this introduction to its moment, rather than to try and clean it into a more abstract essayistic form. I do so partly because it seems to me appropriate to discuss the historical imperative in Wideman in a form that strives for the rough-edged contingency and layered voices in much of his fiction. Moreover, it seems fitting to honor Michel Fabre, for me the dean of European Americanists, by evoking an occasion that brought a number of European scholars to the United States. I may be relatively exceptional among the many African American scholars who have been influenced by Michel’s work (and who have enjoyed his legendary hospitality in Paris) during the past decades, since — although I have learned a great deal from his groundbreaking studies and translations of Richard Wright, Chester Himes, and especially Claude McKay — our most impassioned conversations and exchanges have centered around a group of understudied Francophone writers who lived in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, such as Paulette Nardal and René Maran. What follows stays in the American grain, but even there I can’t help hearing echoes of Paris and of Michel.

2I’d like to discuss briefly a few of the ways that John Edgar Wideman’s practice as a fiction writer strives to “invent new nets” to capture the truths and insights it seeks (Coleman, 77). I hope I’ll be able to lay out some directions for our panel discussion this morning.

3Since the panel is titled “True Fictions”, it would make sense for us to discuss the place of the historical in Wideman’s oeuvre. One might argue that a historical imperative commences with the opening of The Lynchers, and then develops in much more complex forms in the later work — in Philadelphia Fire, The Cattle Killing, short stories such as “Fever” and “Newborn Thrown in Trash and Dies”. This imperative involves a stance towards evidence and the status of historical truth, and a concern with epistemological terror and enforced silencing. It also necessitates a sense of community memory, the intellectual work it involves — and so many emblematic intellectual or popular archivist figures (I’m thinking mainly of Cudjoe in Philadelphia Fire) who take on the task of finding new modes of “historical” discourse in the face of institutional and state effacement of so many stories.

4These issues come up in various ways throughout African American literature, from William Wells Brown’s Clotel to James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man to Toni Morrison’s Beloved. But it seems to me that Wideman’s work stakes out a quite unique stance on these questions, even in the way it so often marshals a discourse of historicization (dates, quotations, “factual” narrative) in the midst of a fictional architecture without quite using it as evidence. In some ways the later work might be read in a kind of conversation with a novel such as David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident — one also thinks of Charles Johnson’s The Oxherding Tale or Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose or Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, or a number of other novels with such concerns — but still, Wideman’s work isn’t as obsessed with producing an authoritative, alternative historical narrative as most of those other examples.

5The elaboration of this discourse of historicization in Wideman’s work is striking. Think of the numerous dates, epigraphs, and epistles cobbled into the fictional architecture, its predilection for etymologies (“plague” in The Cattle Killing, “aëdes aegypti” mosquitoes in Fever, “zoo” in Two Cities, “tempest” in Philadelphia Fire), its clinical descriptions (of melanin in Sent for You Yesterday, of yellow fever in Fever). The turn to fact and document we encounter so often in Wideman’s fiction serves above all to show up the inadequacy of quantification. Facts and figures are not enough, alone: they must be creatively pushed against, flipped through, read against the grain.

6There are many examples of this futility of efforts to measure and rationalize the experiential world, from Muybridge’s attempts to freeze motion photographically in Reuben to the autopsy fiends in Fever. The only access to truth in Wideman’s fiction, in the end, is through language, and more specifically, through story. In Fever: “The doctors believe they can find the secret of the fever in the victims’ dead bodies. They cut, saw, extract, weigh, measure. The dead are carved into smaller and smaller bits and the butchered parts studied but they do not speak. What I know of the fever I’ve learned from the words of those I’ve treated, from stories of living that are ignored by good doctors.” (Wideman, 1989, 145-46)

7I tend to read these devices, this apparatus of “fact”, as part of a paradigmatically African American concern with literary form (an attention to and extraordinary pressure on the frame of a text) that has developed in a highly complex response to the way the origins of African American literature in the slave narratives was predicated on the generic framing of black subjectivity through the documents (letters, photos, prefaces, attestations, appendices) so often affixed to the narratives in order to “authenticate” them. Since Frederick Douglass, the articulation of black subjectivity has hinged in part precisely on the ways African American texts so often undermine and undo and supplement such documentary authentication.

8But this does not mean that language in Wideman’s work allows an easy access to truth. Language is treacherous; its nets get tangled; it slips away from intention and can be turned against truth, as in the false prophecy of self-immolation that gives The Cattle Killing its title.

9In one interview, Wideman, commenting on the prevalence of tragedy and catastrophe in his work, says that

Like Antonin Artaud, I think that societies, in some metaphysical sense, create the diseases they need and that those diseases are metaphors for the basic problems of those societies... And I think that, maybe in the same sense that you can see the universe in a blade of grass, if we look at certain events long enough and hard enough through the lens of fiction, maybe we can learn more of what we need to know. (Rowell, 1998, 100)

10I would add that fiction itself creates the “diseases” it needs, in representing those problems of knowing. This would explain much of what some consider the “postmodernism” or “nagging difficulties” of Wideman’s work — it should come as no surprise that an oeuvre so intimately concerned with articulating diaspora, conditions of recurrent dispossession and dismemberment, loss and longing, would turn to scattered voices, nameless speakers, and temporal discontinuity. As one of the voices in Fever puts it:

We have bred the affliction within our breasts. Each solitary heart contains all the world’s tribes, and precarious dance echoes the drum’s thunder. We are our ancestors and our children, neighbors and strangers to ourselves. Fever descends when the waters that connect us are clogged with filth. (Wideman, 1989, 132)

11The reconnection, then, if it is to be realized, becomes the responsibility of the reader, whose clear sight, whose endurance of dis-ease, whose pilgrim’s progress through the novel’s waterways is demanded by the texts. As Wideman told Bonnie TuSmith in 1997,

I depend immensely on the reader to process the novel, to make sense of it. It’s not a kaleidoscope, although it has some features of a kaleidoscope. You turn it this way it looks one way, turn it that way it looks another way... But it’s not random. There are certain ways of getting through it that I try to push the reader into. There are paths. (TuSmith, 1998, 206)

12This aesthetic of dis-ease in the very joints of the fiction follows Ralph Ellison’s dictum that “the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived” (Ellison, 1989, 580). As Wideman himself puts it, the architectonics of his writing is geared to “unveil chaos within the patterns of certainty”, to enact a multiply-voiced stance of dissonance, of being “In it, but not of it. And that stance produces bodies of enabling legislation, a grammar of nuanced tensions, incompatibilities, doors and windows that not only dramatize the stance itself but implicate the medium” (Wideman, 1990, 45-6).

  • 1 See Yves-Charles Grandjeat,“‘These Strange Dizzy Pauses’: Silence as Common Ground in J. E. Wideman (...)

13Yves-Charles Grandjeat’s essay in the Callaloo special issue meditates on the constitutive role of silence in Wideman’s fiction. Wideman himself writes that his “impulse is to give voice to the dead, the unborn, to outlaws and outcasts whose voices have been stolen or muted by violence” (Wideman, 1999, 549)1. And yet he stresses the barriers and breakdowns inherent in any such coming to voice, as though silence and inarticulacy are a necessary component in the achievement of testimony. Wideman is also fascinated in so much of the fiction with what he terms “the body’s ingenuity” (Wideman, 1999, 549) in inventing alternative forms of speech — characters whose straining toward expression is ultimately translated (might one describe it as transcribed?) in a complexly prolix physicality. For Wideman, the places where the somatic exceeds the semantic — glossolalia, stuttering, scat, nonsense words, screams, convulsions — would seem to evidence feeling at the edges of expression that “bubbles up out of your body” (Berben-Masi, 1999, 578).

14Many critics have described the figures of this excess in Wideman’s fiction as part of the work’s emulation of black music. Think of Brother Tate’s scatting and compulsive drumming in Sent For You Yesterday, or the descent of the narrator at the end of The Cattle Killing into stammering. These are places Wideman’s language moves away from signification and towards the openness of the musical. Words “travel the road of sound without reaching it”, in the felicitous phrase of Alejo Carpentier (Carpentier, 1989, 200); they achieve what Nathaniel Mackey calls a “telling ‘inarticulacy’”—a slide away from explicit meaning that nonetheless communicates (Mackey, 1993,253).

15But the “body” of the novel itself stutters, too, hesitates, skips, trips away from linear narrative. It “saves space” for the reader. At the end of The Cattle Killing:

Aren’t we lovers first, spirits sharing an uncharted space, a space our stories tell, a space charted, written upon again and again, yet one story never quite erased by the next, each story saving the space, saving itself, saving us. If someone is listening. (Wideman, 1996, 208)

16On the one hand, these open spaces in the text are what Jay Wright would call “distributive forms of the sacred”— they make room for the unthought, the unexpressed, the spectral and the spiritual (Wright, 1986). But they also (or simultaneously) call out to entreat and entice the reader into intimacy and engagement, pleading for the rememberment of reading. “I pray you are not disappointed when I leave things out. Promise we can return together and sort out what’s missing. I can’t bear to think this single telling is my last chance, my only chance to be here with you” (Wideman, 1996, 264).

17Last night I was thinking about the daunting situation of discussing Wideman’s work in front of Wideman. Sweating that task, to tell the truth. It’s about the vulnerability of his own self-inscription in the writing, first of all. But also about the way the work calls for such a face-to-face encounter, demands we speak these difficult and sometimes disjointed truths in each other’s presence, like the storytelling couples in The Cattle Killing, like Muybridge and Reuben, like Kwansa and Toodles, like Carl and Lucy, like John French and Albert Wilkes. The preferred form of exchange is the apostrophe — address and invocation, sometimes imperative — and it’s unnerving to find yourself faced with that voice in the flesh.

18Apostrophe is inherently about loss, an intimacy longed for and beckoned from afar. The hope of Wideman’s fiction, though, and the joy of reading it, is that there can be something that opens in that limping moment of expression. As Wilson Harris has so long realized, a reinvigoration of the imagination might be possible precisely because of that very legacy of loss, if the possibility of the radically new indeed necessitates what Ernst Bloch calls “fissures of disintegration.” Or, in the words of Ralph Ellison’s Reverend Hickman in “Juneteenth”: “It was, as I understand it, a cruel calamity laced up with a blessing — or maybe a blessing laced up with a calamity...” (Ellison, 1965, 264).

19That lacing weaves a kind of fabric. That lacing spins a romance, a voiced romance, a speaking jostled out of notation into motion. A romance with the jagged voicing of the unspoken and the unimagined.

20This romance is danced thru, as Cecil Taylor would say, in that juggled, buoyant fabric. But in that musical weave (finally an oblique way of figuring a diasporic history where calamity is laced up with blessing, and blessing laced up with calamity) the way-out-of-no-way, the longed-for “cut”, is not at all a break in the fabric of time, not a tearing, not transcendence. It is a break in the pattern — a wrinkle in the smooth fabric — the unexpected gift of a new color, a new stitch. The chance opens that the pattern might shift, altered by the new. That wrinkle in time is the winking of Wideman’s words, the moment when light glints off the many facets of a jewel, and the echoing shimmer of the words we give back.


Works cited

Berben-Masi, Jacqueline, 1999. “From Brothers and Keepers to Two Cities: Social and Cultural Consciousness, Art and Imagination: An Interview with John Edgar Wideman”. Callaloo 22.3.

Carpentier, Alejo, 1989. The Lost Steps. Translated by Harriet de Onis. New York: Noonday.

Coleman, James W, 1998 (-1988). “Interview with John Edgar Wideman.” In Tu Smith, 1998.

Ellison, Ralph, 1965. “Juneteenth”. Quarterly Review of Literature, 8.3-4.

----, 1989 (–1952). Invisible Man. New York: Vintage.

Mackey, Nathaniel, 1993. “Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol”. In Discrepant Engagment: Dissonance, Cross-Cuturality, and Experimental Writing. New York: Cambridge.

Rowell, Charles H., 1998 (–1990). “An Interview with John Edgar Wideman”. In TuSmith, 1998.

TuSmith, Bonnie, 1998. Conversations with John Edgar Wideman. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Wideman, John Edgar, 1989. “Fever”. In Fever: Twelve Stories. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

Wideman, John Edgar, 1990. “The Architectonics of Fiction”. Callaloo 13.1.

-----, 1996. The Cattle Killing. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

-----, 1999. “In Praise of Silence”. Callaloo 22.3.

Wright, Jay, 1986. “Desire’s Design, Vision’s Resonance: Black Poetry’s Ritual and Historical Voice”. Callaloo 10.1.


1 See Yves-Charles Grandjeat,“‘These Strange Dizzy Pauses’: Silence as Common Ground in J. E. Wideman’s Texts,” Callaloo 22:3 (1999): 685-94.


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