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American Literary History 14.4 (2002) 776-804
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The Fever Next Time:
The Race of Disease and the Disease of Racism in John Edgar Wideman
In 1800, the American novelist Charles Brockden Brown published Arthur Mervyn, a fictional account of a youth's adventures during the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic of 1793. The novel was praised by contemporary readers for its realistic depiction of the effects of the "evils of pestilence" on the nation's new capital during a catastrophic summer that Brown correctly predicted was to become "an aera in [the city's] history" (4). Brown narrates Philadelphia's descent into anarchy as yellow fever wipes out one-fifth of its population and sends city officials and wealthy citizens into temporary exile in the countryside. By the time young Mervyn arrives in Philadelphia, the city has become a ghost town, peopled mainly by the indigent, the ill, and the depraved—and by the occasional "faithful black" who cared for the stricken or carted them off to the hospital or morgue. As Arthur Mervyn twists and uncoils through a labyrinthine plot involving deception, betrayal, and ultimately unreliable suggestions of redemption, these "faithful blacks" remain at the margins of the text, voiceless and faceless, a feature of the nightmare landscape of the devastated metropolis. 1
Almost two centuries later, the African-American novelist John Edgar Wideman revisited the 1793 Philadelphia epidemic with two works of fiction, the short story "Fever" (1989) and the novel The Cattle Killing (1996), which cover the same terrain as Arthur Mervyn from an entirely different vantage point. Like Brown's novel, both "Fever" and The Cattle Killing narrate the adventures of young men in plague-torn Philadelphia; they are also tales of deception and betrayal. But Wideman's stories are told through the voice of the "faithful blacks" that exist at the margins of Brown's Arthur Mervyn, and their accounts of the Philadelphia [End Page 776] epidemic reveal a city in which blacks and whites are at once deeply interdependent and utterly divided. 2 "Fever" and The Cattle Killing are narrated primarily by black men who serve the city during the epidemic with the hope—at least in the beginning—that they might prove their worth as citizens to Philadelphia's white community. When these narrators conclude that their efforts have been futile, they fall prey to despair. Wideman suggests that this despair at the betrayal of the dream of equality has been passed down through succeeding generations and is fl in the despair endemic among some African Americans through the present day.
The eighteenth-century setting of "Fever" and The Cattle Killing sets them apart from most of Wideman's fiction. In works such as Philadelphia Fire (1991), the novels of The Homewood Trilogy (1992), and Two Cities (1998), Wideman has exhaustively mapped the African-American geographies of modern-day Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, chronicling the struggles of poor blacks as they try to survive in a hostile, sometimes hopeless environment. But a concern with writing African Americans into history informs all of Wideman's writing. In particular, Wideman has been preoccupied since the mid-1980s with retelling the events surrounding the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia. The MOVE bombing is the subject of Philadelphia Fire; it is integral to the plot of Two Cities, Wideman's latest novel, and The Cattle Killing and "Fever" allude to it as a betrayal of African Americans similar to the betrayal that occurred in Philadelphia in the summer of 1793.
What is most striking about all these efforts to reconstruct an obscured black history—both the history of the near past and of the distant past—is that even as Wideman suggests the urgency of his project, he consistently destabilizes his narrative structure in order to call into question this very process of historical reconstruction. For the most part, this narrative instability is signified through the lack of a central narrator. "Fever" and The Cattle Killing feature multiple narrators with multiple, frequently contradictory, perspectives. Often these...