- "To Democratize the Elements of the Historical Record"An Interview with John Edgar Wideman About History in His Work
John Edgar Wideman's literary work, already spanning more than four decades, comprises ten novels, three collections of stories, one collection of microstories, four nonfiction books including his bestselling autobiographical work Brothers and Keepers (1984), and many essays, articles, and reviews. In the course of his career, Wideman, professor at Brown University where he teaches creative writing, has been awarded the Pen/Faulkner Award (1984, 1991), the American Book Award, a MacArthur Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, the James Fenimore Cooper Prize of the Society of American Historians for the novel The Cattle Killing (1996), and, for his short stories, the O. Henry and the Rea Awards. He self-published his latest book, a collection of microstories entitled Briefs: Stories for the Palm of the Mind (2010).
Professor Wideman kindly gave me the opportunity to interview him in Brittany on August 12, 2008. This conversation differs from other interviews with Wideman because it focuses on one specific, crucial aspect of his work: history. After Wideman's first two novels, history became a central issue in the third novel The Lynchers (1973), the Homewood trilogy (1981–83), Philadelphia Fire (1990), and the historical novel The Cattle Killing (1996) as well as in the nonfiction books Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society (1994), Hoop Roots: Basketball, Race, and Love (2001), and The Island: Martinique (2003). His complex approach to history engages concepts like mind and imagination, Great Time (a notion derived from African thought), survival, storytelling and oral history, family, and community. The interview addresses these aspects and reveals that Wideman's concept of history runs counter to the Western idea of linear time and the idea of history as the sum of historiographic texts describing "great leaders" and "great events." In accordance with the notion of Great Time, Wideman represents time and history as nonlinear. He believes that stories about African American families and communities such as Homewood, the African American Pittsburgh neighborhood in which he lived until the age of twelve, are as important as the so-called great events such as the Second World War. As Wideman puts it in the interview, he tries to "democratize [the elements of the historical record] in the sense of reshuffling the hierarchies or getting rid of hierarchy."
At the end of the conversation before the 2008 United States presidential election, Wideman answers a question about history-in-the-making, namely his hopes with regard to a possible presidency of Barack Obama. His closing words are: "We'll meet again after the election and have another talk [Laughter]—if we're allowed." In fact, I was fortunate [End Page 982] enough to have another meeting with John Edgar Wideman in New York City three days after Obama's election victory on November 4, 2008. The author was glad about the election result, which he had predicted early on.
I would like to start with three definitions of history that you give in your writing. The first one is from your memoir Fatheralong in which you define history as a "collective enterprise of the mind" (102). Could you read this passage?
History is not something given, a fixed, chronological, linear outline with blank spots waiting to be filled with newly unearthed facts. It's the activity over time of all the minds comprising it, the sum of these parts that produces a greater ecological whole. History, the past, is what you're thinking, what you've thought. You, the individual, you the enabler and product of the collective enterprise of the mind. History is mind, is driven by mind.…(101–2)
Thank you. In an interview with John O'Brien in 1972, you give a definition of history which goes in the same direction: "To go back into one's past is in fact dreaming. What is history except people's imaginary recreation?" (10). These statements about history underline that each person is involved in a mental process of creating history. One could call this a democratic concept of history. However, you also claim: "History...