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Writing Blackness

John Edgar Wideman’s Art and Experimentation

James W. Coleman

Publication Year: 2010

One of the most critically acclaimed yet least recognized contemporary writers, African American author John Edgar Wideman creates work often described as difficult, even unfathomable. In Writing Blackness, James Coleman examines Wideman’s prolific body of work with the goal of making his often elusive imagery and dense style more accessible and thus broadening his readership. More so than for most writers, Coleman shows, Wideman’s life has affected his writing. Born in 1941, Wideman grew up in a Pittsburgh suburb where he attended an integrated high school, starred on the basketball team, and was senior class president and valedictorian. At the University of Pennsylvania he studied creative writing and became an all–Ivy League basketball player. Winning a Rhodes scholarship, he studied at Oxford, after which he returned to Penn and became its first black tenured professor. Wideman published his first novel, A Glance Away, at age twenty-six and by 1973 had published two more works of fiction. But for all this success, something began to wear on him. In 1973, his grandmother died, and after listening to family stories when he traveled home for the funeral, Wideman began to change his world view. Between 1973 and 1981 Wideman published nothing and immersed himself in African American culture, reading widely and—even more important—moving much closer to his family. Since 1981, Wideman has refocused his life and writing on blackness and published twelve experimental works, all very different from his earlier books. Coleman examines nearly all of Wideman’s work, from A Glance Away (1967) to Fanon (2008). He shows how Wideman has developed a unique style that combines elements of fiction, biography, memoir, history, legend, folklore, waking life, and dream in innovative ways in an effort to grasp the meaning of blackness—an effort that makes his writing challenging but that holds more than ample rewards for the perceptive reader. In Writing Blackness, Coleman demonstrates why Wideman ranks among the best of contemporary American writers.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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Preface

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pp. ix-xii

One of the most shocking and frustrating things that I have ever heard in the classroom is the recent statement by a graduate student that John Edgar Wideman’s The Cattle Killing (1996) is “amateurish.” The student’s evaluation was apparently based on the overall difficulty of the densely structured...

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1. Brothers and Keepers, Fatheralong, Hoop Roots, and The Island: Martinique: THE FICTIONALIZED AUTO/BIOGRAPHIES

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pp. 1-41

The voice of the narrator, John Wideman, in Brothers and Keepers (1984) is personal and private as he portrays a cast of real-life characters from his family and community in the process of telling the tragic story of the incarceration of his brother Robert and their...

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2. A Glance Away, Hurry Home, and The Lynchers: MODERNIST EXPERIMENTATION AND THE EARLY NOVELS

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pp. 42-62

John Edgar Wideman’s first three novels, A Glance Away (1967), Hurry Home (1970), and The Lynchers (1973), are products of an apprenticeship period in his career. Wideman would not find the true focus of his writing, which would set the course of its development, until his...

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3. Hiding Place, Damballah, and Sent for You Yesterday: NEW DIMENSIONS OF POSTMODERN EXPERIMENTATION IN THE HOMEWOOD TRILOGY

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pp. 63-95

Hiding Place (1981), Damballah (1981), and Sent for You Yesterday (1983)—the three works that follow The Lynchers (1973)—are called the Homewood Trilogy because they tell stories about the life of Wideman’s family and the people in the Homewood community...

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4. Reuben and Philadelphia Fire: PROGRESSIVE EXPERIMENTATION AFTER THE HOMEWOOD TRILOGY

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pp. 96-118

Perhaps Wideman’s most esoteric novel, Reuben (1987) is a link between the Homewood Trilogy and Philadelphia Fire (1990). It reflects a different, new phase of the creative life apparent in Wideman’s writing after Doot becomes part of the community in Sent for You Yesterday....

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5. The Cattle Killing, Two Cities, and Fanon: EXTENDING EXPERIMENTAL WRITING, MAKING IT CLEAR AND EXTENDING IT FURTHER

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pp. 119-163

Like the “brothers” in Reuben and like Cudjoe, John, and the other writers in Philadelphia Fire, the writers in The Cattle Killing (1996) (re)write stories formally on the page and also through the imagination. The Cattle Killing is many stories told by many writers...

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Conclusion

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pp. 164-167

Experimentation with the treatment of blackness is the most common feature of Wideman’s writing. Central to both the later fiction and the later auto/biographies, which build on the first three novels, is Wideman’s evolving use of experimental fictional techniques and...

Notes

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pp. 169-180

Works Cited and Other Sources

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pp. 181-186

Index

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pp. 187-191


E-ISBN-13: 9780807138151
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807136447

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2010